New Orleans evacuee Veronica Lewis bundles up with a donated shawl at the Veterans' Memorial Coliseum evacuation center in Phoenix.
New Orleans evacuee Veronica Lewis bundles up with a donated shawl at the Veterans' Memorial Coliseum evacuation center in Phoenix.
AP/Wide World Photos

Frank, Speaking

It's nearly as difficult to get an interview with one of the 500-plus New Orleans evacuees housed at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum as it is to get timely rescue assistance from FEMA. A dozen phone calls to flacks from various agencies in search of an audience with someone -- anyone -- who's taken refuge in the improvised housing at the Coliseum got me nowhere, in good part, I'm told, because the media reps were swamped with similar requests. But also because none of these agencies -- not the Red Cross, nor St. Vincent de Paul, nor the Arizona Department of Housing -- is set up to navigate media relations between reporters and a representative homeless person, especially when the well-being of these homeless people is their main concern. I know, because I tried.

And after a while, I began to wonder: Are these agencies trying to keep our New Orleans guests away from the media? Are they worried that the recipients of our city's deep generosity -- temporary housing and jobs and the necessities of life -- will express their justified anger and despair over having lost everything while their president vacationed in San Diego?

Hanging out at the Coliseum, waiting for a turn to go inside and chat with one of the Katrina evacuees, was a waste of time, and worthless to anyone looking for a scoop of any kind, since reporters who were eventually granted entry were expected to share their notes with fellow journalists once they returned to the makeshift media camp. After days of failing to meet someone who'd lost everything to Hurricane Katrina, I took to driving through the neighborhoods that border the Coliseum, chatting with displaced folks through my car window and offering them lifts to and from the Circle K at 15th Avenue and McDowell, which has become a haven for the fine citizens of New Orleans who are lately calling Phoenix home. Which is how I came to know David Frank Sr., a 52-year-old African-American man who two weeks ago was still living in his native New Orleans. He agreed to talk to me about losing his home and about his former life back in the Big Easy, but refused to have his picture taken. "You see," he told me, "this isn't what I actually in truth look like. You come to New Orleans this time next year, and you'll take my picture as I really am. I can't be that man today."

New Times: What's your story, David Frank?

David Frank Sr.: Well, now, I was staying in an apartment complex in New Orleans, up there on the third floor. So I thought I was all right. Then the lights went out, and then it was all the stores and everything was closed. Then the water started to rise. It was chest-high [on the street]. If you stepped off that curb right there, you'd be drowned. And I was looking at the sky thinking, "What am I gonna do?" And the next thing, this boat came, and these guys said, "If you're gonna leave, you have to leave now. And if you stay, it's on you."

NT: Why did you stay?

Frank: I didn't figure it was going to be all that bad. You see? I been through [Hurricane] Betsy, and a couple other [hurricanes], and Betsy was bad but she wasn't that bad. But this one made Betsy look like a bitty little girl. You know what I'm saying?

NT: I've seen the footage on TV.

Frank: Uh-huh. That's a picture. A picture on a TV is bad, but not until you live it do you know what it is. The smell. The sound. They're not showing that on the TV, I can tell you that. It's bad. I been in New Orleans my whole life, other than when I went through the Air Force for five years.

NT: And what did you do for a living there?

Frank: I cut grass. I worked for the Parks Commission. I would still work for them, if they're still there.

NT: So you're planning to return to New Orleans?

Frank: Well, you see, it's a day-by-day thing, really. We'll see what happens down there; we'll see what happens up here. And then it depends if my family, my brothers and everyone, if they're gonna be around there.

NT: I've been thinking lately about what I would have grabbed from my home to take with me, if I were in a similar situation.

Frank: Well, that's real funny. Because, let me tell you what you would take: Nothing. There wasn't no chance for none of that. The guys who was coming to get us, I said to them, "Let me grab a few of my clothes." They said, "Ain't no time for that." So I came here from New Orleans to Phoenix with what I had on. And that was me wearing those clothes on a bus ride to the airport, and a plane ride from New Orleans to here.

NT: What's happened since you got here?

Frank: When we got here, aw, they treated us great. Phoenix people? Y'all are beautiful. Y'all are god-sent to this world. I mean, they gave us underwear, lodging, food.

NT: And do you think President Bush and our various assistance agencies would have acted more quickly, more efficiently, if this were a disaster affecting mostly white people?

Frank: You mean your president? He's your president. He's not ours. And when I say ours, I don't mean skin color or race issues. I mean he isn't the president of the 100 percent Americans. When I say "ours," I don't mean he let down one race or one city. I mean everybody. He's your president. You can have him.

NT: If I were President Bush, what would you say to me?

Frank: I'd say plenty. For the first thing, I'd say, "Mr. President, you should have been a little bit more concerned. I know you've got many things on your mind about the mistake you made in Iraq. I know you're all busy getting all those people over there killed, and so you can't take care of your people over here. I know you have to spend all that money in Iraq, killing people, and so there's not enough for the brothers over here who don't know where their next meal is coming from. And that's a damn shame."

And the next thing I'd say to him? "If the election was tomorrow, you wouldn't hear from me. No sir."

NT: Well, he can't run for office again, anyway, because --

Frank: I'm just predicating.

NT: I see. Now, what do you say to people who ask, "What were you doing, living in a city below sea level?"

Frank: Sixteen feet below the sea! Hey, I was born in New Orleans, I grew up in New Orleans, we got friends there, we got family, we know which way to turn right, which way to turn left, who to talk to, who not to talk to, the places to go, the people to see. It's home. That's all I have to say to that. It's home.

NT: So you won't be staying in the Valley, then.

Frank: I'm 52 years old. All I know about Phoenix is from the Coliseum to this Circle K. And I'm not saying nothing bad about Phoenix. I'm just saying, "Hey. In New Orleans, we're beer drinkers." We drink 24/7. New Orleans is open 24/7. If you want to wake up two, three o'clock in the morning and go to the corner store to get you a beer, no matter what day it is, you can do it! That's our culture.

NT: Well, it's a beautiful city.

Frank: Was. It was a beautiful city. Long as you don't bother or hurt nobody -- no robbing, no maiming or nothing like that -- you're fine. You're fine! Mind your business, that's the best thing to do in New Orleans. Get what you need before you go to bed, and you be fine. But I have to be honest: The crime rate is terrible. Terrible. And I'm talking before the flood. I'd say there was 260 murders so far this year. And I'm being conservative!

NT: What do you think you'll find once you return?

Frank: A lot of heartache. Misery, disgust. We're gonna have to rebuild. I don't know. Fact of it is, we've just been here five days. Sunday it'll be a week. And really, people at the Coliseum, a lot of us, it hasn't even hit home with us yet. You know what I mean? You think about what you left, you think about what you have now, you think about what you got to go back to. I don't think it's hit home with us yet that it's nothing, nothing to go back to.


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