Thursday, October 22, 2009

The USS New York Sails Past New Orleans

On October 13, 2009, the USS New York left its birthplace in Avondale, Louisiana, to sail down the Mississippi River on its way to New York, where it will be commissioned before it moves to its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia.

The USS New York is a 684-foot-long amphibious transport dock ship with a crew of 360. Constructed by Northrop Grumman, the New York incorporates steel salvaged from the wreckage of the World Trade Center.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune posted several stories asking residents to get up early and line the bank of the levees to show support for the ship as it passed. They estimated that it would pass sometime between 7:30 and 8 a.m. By 7 a.m. I was waiting for the streetcar to take me to the Quarter. By 7:40 I had arrived and joined the crowd along the Riverwalk to wait in the muggy morning air.

For those waiting, visibility was a disappointing challenge, as the morning fog had not yet lifted, and the other side of the river was almost completely hidden. Barges traveled upriver and the Algiers Point ferry chugged back and forth, and some of us began to wonder if we would even see it pass.

Spectators around me began to hear from sources farther upriver that the launching had been delayed due to the fog.

At 9:45 the fog had still not lifted, but out of the mist appeared the shape of a ship. We waved our American flags and whooped and hollered and hoped that they might see us or hear us. Through the fog we could see that the deck of the ship was lined with sailors waving.

Just as soon as it had appeared, it disappeared into the fog and was gone.

It was a brief moment, but one for which I am entirely glad I dragged my often-too-lazy self out of bed. I felt it was something that I had to do.

In mid-2001, I left Philadelphia for my first job in New York City with a consulting firm on Madison Avenue. On September 11, 2001, we discovered one window in the southwest corner of the building that had a clear view all the way downtown to one of the Towers. We watched it as the flames engulfed it, then watched in horror as it fell.

We were soon evacuated from our building and took refuge with a coworker who lived nearby. At the time I lived in Brooklyn, so taking a subway home was out of the question. We watched the news all day while panicked friends and family tried to reach us. Some people walked over the bridges through the ash to try to get out of the city, inhaling the dust of the dead and the destroyed.

Later that evening my subway line was reopened and I was finally able to get home. Two days later, back at work, a bomb scare and evacuation sent us home again.

Leaving New York was never an option for me afterward, though some friends begged me to return to Pennsylvania. I loved New York and would never give up on it like that. I refused to leave on anyone’s schedule but my own. I still love New York, to visit, but I’m continuing my adventures in other places now.

I’ve on occasion taken visitors to New York to Ground Zero, but it’s a hard thing to see. I still get a lump in my throat, the same one I get from listening to “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.

I’ve never written about September 11. While I’ve written copious amounts of poetry and blogs about Katrina and its lingering effects on not only me, but also the city of New Orleans, I’ve never been able to put pen to paper to adequately express how much that day in New York affected me.

But I am certain that—though I may never have found the right words—9/11 made an indelible mark in shaping who I am as a writer, as an American, and as a human being.

A letter to the editor appeared on on October 18, 2009, from the commanding officer of the USS New York, Curt Jones, thanking Louisiana residents for lining the levees and showing their support. They could indeed hear and see the people who came to see them.

Personally, I’d like to thank each and every member of that crew for the work they’ve done and for the work they’ll be doing, tirelessly defending our country and protecting its citizens.

Thank you, USS New York.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Voodoo Rue's PA-cation, Part 2

Someone asked me—after reading my Facebook updates about my road trip home—where home is. Is it New Orleans? Or is it Pennsylvania? Am I leaving home or going home?

I had finally arrived at Lake Winola, Pennsylvania, after an adventurous road trip with (drunken) stops in Nashville and Roanoke. The weather was surprisingly cool, especially compared to the torturous heat we had just endured throughout June in New Orleans, with heat indexes of 110.

It was a nice change to relax and not drive, to stare at a TV instead of the road, and to annoy my mother by constantly complaining about everything she watched on TV.

It had been an unusually cool summer in PA, and I was surprised and pleased. The days were beautiful, and the nights cooler than expected—I even had to pull out my flannel pajamas. The mountains around the lake looked beautiful. One of the reasons I love road-tripping home so much is that I don’t realize how much I miss the mountains until I start seeing them again, somewhere in Georgia or Alabama or Tennessee. I lose track.

I didn’t spend much time at home relaxing, as every trip home is always hectic with trying to see everyone at once. I spent a day jumping up and down on a trampoline with my friend’s two little boys. I spent a night catching up with old friends at the Dalton Carnival, partaking of deep-fried pierogies and cheap beer-tent libations. I’ve learned since migrating south that Southerners are unfamiliar with the joy that is pierogies, and this little Polish girl from Pennsylvania misses them.

The occasion for this trip home was my 20-year high school reunion. I know. It’s scary. I can’t believe it’s been that long. The Lackawanna Trail High School Class of 1989 reunion was held at Keystone College, yet another of my alma maters.

While the idea of a 20-year reunion might be intimidating, it seems that Facebook was able to alleviate much of the stress for a lot of people. We knew a great deal about each other’s whereabouts, spouses, children, careers, hobbies, and just about everything else. I had even joked that since we talk so much on Facebook that we were going to wind up in a room with nothing left to talk about.

The opposite was true. Thanks to Facebook, the ice was already broken for most people, I think, and I had a great time. I have to say, the people in my class look amazing, and some haven’t changed at all since high school. (You know who you are, Michelle.) Some are just louder and full of cheesy Chuck Norris jokes. (That would be me.)

The reunion ended too early for us at the hall and continued at the closest bar, where it did not end until the bar closed.

The experience was totally worth the road trip home, and I’m looking forward to the next reunion, whenever that may be and wherever I may be at the time. (Paris, perhaps?)

My trip also included a weekend trip back to New York City, to traipse around my old stomping ground. I spent most of the time in Hell’s Kitchen, my favorite neighborhood, and made sure to visit Central Park. I do love Central Park and wish I could pick it up and move it to New Orleans. I love the hills and the rambles of Central Park, but I love the Spanish moss, live oaks, and the rogue alligator on the loose in Audubon Park. It doesn’t get any cooler than having and alligator running around free in the park, does it?

My friend Matt and I paid a visit to my favorite restaurant, the Delta Grill, a Louisiana-inspired restaurant. I also made sure to spend some quality time at my two favorite places, the world-famous Don’t Tell Mama piano bar, and Kennedy’s Irish Restaurant. At Don’t Tell Mama, the staff is mostly the same since I left, though they have lost some wonderful entertainers who have passed way, moved away, or left for personal reasons. It’s still the best entertainment anywhere in the city for a Broadway fanatic like me.

At Kennedy’s, on any given afternoon I can still find the old regulars at the bar, telling the same jokes. The bartenders are still the same cute Irish lads who greet me with a kiss on the cheek and still remember what I drink, even after all these months.

It was a quick trip. I miss New York sometimes but am happy to ride streetcars instead of subways now, to wear shorts in the winter instead of coats and scarves, to sit on balconies and not fire escapes, and to enjoy parades with abandon instead of just watching from behind a barricade.

I left two days later to begin my journey back to New Orleans, with the flu. I felt like crap but still loved being on the road. I stopped only once, outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, to rest my weary, mucus-addled brain, and arrived home the following afternoon.

So which is home? New Orleans or Pennsylvania? Both. I have spent almost 30 of my 38 years in Pennsylvania, and I still have many good friends there. It will always be home. I spent more than five years total in New York City, so even still I feel at home there. But more than anything I have forged a deep relationship with New Orleans since coming here prior to Katrina, and this is definitely my home.

It seems no matter which way I’m traveling, I’m always headed home.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Voodoo Rue’s PA-cation: Part 1

Though I love New Orleans, every now and then it’s nice to get away…from the crime, from the heat, from how easy it is to start off every morning with a drink, if one chooses. While I’m overdue for a real vacation (like say…to Paris), I did manage yet another road trip home in early July. The reason…my 20-year high school reunion.

It would have been much easier to fly, but I love driving. I especially love driving in the summer, when, unlike my trip home for Christmas, I know I’m not going to hit a major snowstorm on the way up north.

My co-pilot for this trip was Miss Pat, another New Orleans resident and PA native who happened to want to go home for a visit as well. While the drive is usually about 19 hours in total, we decided to break it up into a couple days and see a few sights along the way.

Fist stop, the Dickel Distillery in Cascade Hollow, Tennessee. While not quite as well-known as Jack Daniels, this distiller of Tennessee whisky has nonetheless been around since 1870. I’m not a whisky drinker myself, but I have to admit the tour was fascinating. Also interesting is that most of these counties in Tennessee where such famous liquors are created are dry counties. So while one might buy a bottle as a souvenir or gift, there are no tastings. Sucks for you whisky drinkers.

We soon hit the highway for our next destination, Nashville, where we checked into the Renaissance Hotel, napped, and prepared for a night out. After dinner at some restaurant whose food was clearly not memorable enough for me to remember the name, we strolled along Broadway and some of the side streets, stopping occasionally at random bars. This part of Nashville is fun and busy, yet somehow still quaint. Eventually we landed at Wanna B’s, a karaoke bar on Broadway. I don’t think we intended to stay until damn near 3 a.m., but we were having a good time, doing shots and enjoying the singers. While karaoke bars have the potential to be uber-cheesy and horrible, we were impressed with some of the talent we heard in this one. This is Nashville, after all, home of many aspiring country music singers. My personal favorite was the guy who sang “Come Sail Away”…as Cartman. A brilliant tribute to South Park.

We stumbled back to the hotel quite late, past the darkened back entrance of the Ryman Auditorium. Our hotel had beautiful glass elevators that looked out over the city on the way up to our 20-something-floor room. That’s just bad news for any hotel when an unstoppable mooner like me is about. Hope you enjoyed the pasty white full moon that night, Nashville.

Day two: Onward to Roanoke, Virginia, where my good friend Jen Bath has been living for a few years now. We arrived in the evening, tired and hungry. Jen drove us around downtown Roanoke, which definitely has its lovely spots, before taking us to dinner at Macado’s, a nice little pub with an impressive sandwich menu. The food was good, the weather beautiful, the service nice (our server even gave Pat and I free shot glasses in honor of our first visit there).

Afterward, Jen drove us up to see the Roanoke Star, also known as the Mill Mountain Star. According to Wikipedia, it’s the “world's largest freestanding illuminated man-made star,” clocking in at 88.5 feet tall. The star can be seen from all over Roanoke, including from Jen’s front yard. The top of the mountain near the star also boasts a lovely scenic overlook from which you can see all of Roanoke lit up in the dark.

Exhausted after our long day, we went back to Jen’s to retire for the night and get ready for the next leg of the trip…home to PA. In the morning, we avoided the highways by going through some of the more rural parts of PA, like Lancaster and Gettysburg. We arrived near Philly near late afternoon, and once Miss Pat was settled in at her folks’ home, I hit the PA turnpike north. I expected heavy traffic and delays, but while there was construction and heavy traffic, it moved at an impressive clip for most of the way. I pulled into my mother’s driveway just before dark.

It’s good to be home.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Voodoo Rue's PA-cation.

Friday, June 26, 2009

My letter of complaint to the Travel Channel

(Sadly, I had to shorten it to get it to fit in their comment box, as they provide no e-mail address for contacting them.)

To whom it may concern,

I’m writing to express my displeasure with a recent comment made on Samantha Brown’s “Passport to Europe.”

I enjoy most of the shows on the Travel Channel and think Ms. Brown does an excellent job with her shows. However, I do take offense to this.

On a recent trip to Nice, France (I’m not sure how old the episode is…I watch a lot of reruns), Ms. Brown celebrated Carnival with a bystander. She asked the gentleman if he had ever been to Mardi Gras, and he replied that he had. She responded by saying: “I wouldn’t take my kids to Mardi Gras!”

This statement shows that Ms. Brown has clearly never attended a Mardi Gras outside of the beads-for-breasts mayhem that goes on in the Quarter, on Bourbon Street. Those cheesy “activities” have nothing to do with Mardi Gras and go on year-round. No truck-pulled parades have rolled through the Quarter since around 1975. Those parades, in fact, come for miles down St. Charles Avenue, starting at Napoleon, and the streets are lined with families during the Mardi Gras season. Only in New Orleans do hardware stores sell ladders with seats already attached to the top of them, for the kids. Take a look at pictures of St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras day, and you’ll see just how family-oriented it is.

Nearer to the madness of the Quarter, the police set up barricades to keep the crowds away from the floats. Farther uptown in the route, there are no such barricades, and adults and children alike are free to run up to a float for good “throws,” and I can attest that the riders do give the best throws to the children.

Please understand that I am not some offended parent…I don’t even like kids…but I do live close to the parade route and have been here for two Mardi Gras (or would that be Mardis Gras?). Yes, it’s very crowded, but so was Nice, from what I could see on television. But the police are out in force, and they don’t tolerate any inappropriate shenanigans along the parade route, nor do parade-goers who have brought their children.

I realize that in many ways New Orleans an anti-paradise. Our crime is sky high, our city officials are corrupt and incompetent, and the summer heat could fry an egg on the sidewalk. However, please realize that this is a city that relies on tourism for its survival (not to mention levees), and a blanket statement as such about a celebration that is VERY family-friendly away from Bourbon Street is damaging…for all of us.

Thank you for your time and attention.


Melissa Lewis

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


In April of this year, my family came down to New Orleans to visit. It was the first time here for most of them. Sometimes it’s easy to take the things in your own backyard for granted, until someone opens your eyes.

We did all the predictable tourist stuff…toured the French Quarter, rode the streetcar, went to Audubon Park, walked on the Moon Walk and looked over the Mississippi, took a swamp tour at Honey Island, drank like fish. I dragged them all over New Orleans. They had no plans and no intentions and were happy following my lead.

The only thing my brother Mike asked is that we visit the National World War II Museum. Since Mike generally asks for very little (at least from me…his wife and kids might disagree), I was happy to oblige. It’s not generally my subject matter of choice, even knowing that my own grandfather had died in World War II. I don’t watch many war movies or documentaries, nor do I read much on the subject.

The National WWII Museum opened in New Orleans on June 6, 2000, 56 years after the invasion of Normandy, thanks to the efforts of author and historian, Dr. Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers). That being said, it is truly one of the best and most fascinating museums I’ve ever been to, and I think as a family we spent somewhere between three and four hours perusing the exhibits. I appreciated the small theaters scattered throughout the museum, showing short films that documented the progression of the war. Seeing articles that actually belonged to soldiers fighting the war—rations, weapons, letters, etc.—made it seem more real.

Visiting the museum piqued my interest in World War II, and I soon found myself on Netflix renting the series Band of Brothers, mostly because of my new-found interest in the subject matter, and only a little because I’m recently crushing on Frank John Hughes, one of the stars of the movie. Out of five stars, I’d give the series six. It’s fantastic, overwhelming, enlightening, and heartbreaking.

Soon I was asking my mother for more information on my grandfather, and she pointed me toward the Indiana Military site. My grandfather, a native New Yorker, was a 1st Lieutenant in the 106th Infantry Division, 422nd Regiment, DHQ. His division was activated in 1943 in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and then transferred to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for advanced training before leaving for Europe. According to the 106th Infantry Division Web site created by Carl Wouters, “The 106th was the last of 66 US Infantry Divisions to be activated during WWII. Being one of the more unfortunate higher numbered divisions, the 106th were repeatedly stripped of manpower that was needed elsewhere.”

My mother was able to glean some information from diaries left by my grandfather and from survivors of his regiment, at least one of whom STILL keeps in touch with her to this day.

She wrote on the Web site:

They arrived at the front on December 11-all green troops. Since officers were allowed to ship an additional father did. His men thought it wasn't like him to do that. When he got to the front lines, he opened it up. It was filled with long johns and dry socks for his men. That's the kind of man he was.

Around Dec 16, he was on his way (to or from) headquarters when he and other soldiers were captured and taken prisoner. One man escaped-got back to his lines-and told them Lt Krol had been taken prisoner. A rescue party was formed. (with many volunteers).

From his men we heard............There was a group of 11 to 16 GI's being guarded by a Nazi soldier. The soldiers were in the open-forced to lie down in the snow. As the rescue party drew father saw them and ran in the opposite direction to draw the attention of the Nazi guard. He succeeded. He was killed, the rescue party saved the others. He earned a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.”

The Indiana Military Web site also includes a scan of the obituary from the New York Times and of the official notification my grandmother received telling her that her husband was killed in action at the Battle of the Bulge.

While the Allies eventually triumphed, the Battle of the Bulge resulted in approximately 81,000 American casualties, many of those fatalities, one of which left my mother without a father when she was little more than a year old.

I wish I would have known my grandfather. My mother tells me that he had a degree in English, and I think he and I would have had a lot to talk about.

My father served in the military as well. He was in the U.S. Navy in the 1960s, stationed on the USS Saratoga. Fortunately, my father left the Navy long before the Saratoga was deployed to Vietnam in the 70s.

My father was a quiet man a rarely spoke of his time in the service. My knowledge comes from what I learned from my mother, what I’ve seen in several books, and the very little he told me, mostly only when plied with a few beers. He traveled to many different places, but I think he preferred home. The only souvenir I have from his travels is a decorative wall hanging that says “Souvenir of Malta — Island of Sunshine and History.”

He may not have spoken much about his time in the service, but he was most certainly proud of it, and often sported a U.S. Navy hat.

Today I am still learning about the wars this country has fought, about my grandfather, about my father, and about the hardships endured by all. It’s a humbling experience, and it has made me feel both grateful and ungrateful at the same time for all the things in this life that I don’t appreciate.