He worked on the Confederate Bikes and has his own design studio in New Orleans called Bienville
Aftermath of Katrina by JT Nesbitt
Aftermath of Katrina (according to JT Nesbitt)
This is personal to JT and to me. It affected alot of poeple in different ways, this is just one...
Two hours after I had finally moved all of my things into my new French Quarter apartment, I found myself at a bar enjoying a cold beer after a hard day of lugging boxes down an impossibly narrow hallway to the hidden courtyard. The quiet and secret inner sanctum contained within all of the buildings in the Quarter, accessed by a dark corridor with high ceilings encrusted with plumbing, and electrical conduit, some newer and functional, most long sense bypassed and left in situ. This building was two hundred years old, and yet seemed unashamed to bear the fact that she wore her vital organs and circulatory system on the outside. For this leviathan, my presence and the exposed mechanicals were just another transient remora.
"You know that when the big one hits, we're all fucked." said my barstool neighbor. Within the first two hours of calling myself a resident of this mystical place, I was let in on the secret. A secret that every man woman and child in New Orleans has been privy to for the last two hundred and eighty six years. Any local who tells you that he was surprised by the storm is a liar, we all knew the risks, it added to the tension, amped up the party, and made life more precious. The associated risk of merely living here is part of the culture, for some leading to depression and alcoholism, for others an inspirational cattle prod. It's almost like the terminal cancer patient, determined to make the last days on earth count. This love of sensual life in the face of impending death manifests itself in food, jazz, and for me, motorcycles.
On Saturday night August the 28th, 2005, I found myself in the Persian gulf. My Company had always struggled to make ends meet, and now we were in trouble. It was yet another back against the wall financial crisis for our little factory in New Orleans. Matt and I had come as guests of Royalty. That night, in our gracious Hosts surprisingly modest living room, we shook hands on a deal that our Host had proposed to eliminate our financial burden. He laid out a very simple plan, where authority and oversight would be shared by Matt, The Board of Directors, and I. His investment would change everything. The years of struggle and difficult decisions were now behind us. All of the hard work had paid off; the stress was gone for the first time in memory. When I got back to my room, and was alone, I wept. I laughed out loud; I thanked everyone; my parents, my teachers, fate, fellow employees, friends, perhaps even God. I had been rescued by an angel, and I loved him for believing in our small team, our family that had sacrificed everything to be a part of a dream. The little company that was built from the love of our region, the love of our place in the world. The exhaustion of jetlag could not overcome my smile as I slept. I was truly happy, my emotions soared, I was radiating pride and love. I was crying for the lack of pain. They were not the last tears I would shed in our Hosts home, for the lesson had just begun.
Twelve hours later, I was back in the living room watching the monster on CNN. The angry sphincter moved with almost peaceful silence on the radar. I couldnt move. I was watching a train wreck in slow motion from thousands of miles away. Oh no, no, not, dont, please, no, stop, hook to the right! Hook to the right! You must hook to the right! You are supposed to hook to the right! You cant do this now! You Bitch! I command you to hook to the I was speaking aloud without willing speech, the tears came also without awareness. I was two people, one crying for joy, one crying for grief. Past present and future colliding within me, a small silent implosion as I ran the complete scale of human emotion like an entire symphony compressed into only a few seconds of recording tape. Then nothing but the dark, honest internal voice came. People are going to die, your people, and its going to be bad. Matt seemed to be arguing with himself, trying to sell the idea that the media always blows these kinds of things out of proportion for ratings. The truth is that he was losing it, same as me, but didnt want to blow the deal from last night. I had completely lost the ability to think tactically, and this was making him nervous, adding to his already overloaded circuits.
In the foyer of his home, our Host embraced me. Our deal was struck before the storm. I am a man of my word. Our deal stands. Go take care of your people. I was stunned. I thought that the emotion bank was depleted, and I could become a human robot for awhile, and then this! This man, this savior, was throwing me yet another lifeline.
This lifeline was different. This was not the tangible gift of money, and the comfort that it provides; this was leading by example. I returned to Louisiana with a new understanding of honor, I vowed that it would be the rock that I would cling to in the coming difficult days, a new reference point for my moral compass. One simple statement and my reaction to it- A decision that would change my life in unexpected ways.
I was able to re-direct my flight from New Orleans to Shreveport. Matt decided to wait in Philadelphia, thinking that the New Orleans airport would be opened in a day or so. He was still in denial about what had happened. That was the moment that we parted. I knew that our relationship was over. We had accomplished great things together, but I could feel a change in him. There was something wrong, he was keeping a secret. The money; it was the money that was causing him to think too much. To plan things; things that he knew that I would not agree with. I knew it, he knew it.
My first priority was finding our people. The base of operations became the beautiful house in the country that my parents built. My mother and Father built the house on family land south of Shreveport in the northwest corner of Louisiana, well clear of the devastation. They had built it themselves, every nail, every board, by hand. They had also built two smaller bunk houses in preparation for summer camp for the children of the extended family. My parents, Mary and Tom, opened their home, their hearts, and helped coordinate a search for the lost employees and their families. The refugees began trickling in from scattered motel rooms across the southeast. Those who stayed in the city for the storm and fled the subsequent violence and chaos brought with them the firsthand account of our factory. It was gone. Harrowing tales of looting, desperation and the evils of man seemed anathemate to this quiet retreat. Dragonflies danced across the pond, a breeze rustled the pine trees and loosed needles to slowly drift to the surface where they were impacted by bream. People were shooting at rescue helicopters. The horses wandered lazily on the other side of the pond, the wavy reflection hypnotic. Real horses, and upside-down unreal ones. People were killing each other for food in New Orleans.
Each time a new set arrived it was a celebration, another name scratched off the list. They were all alive. All accounted for. When we gathered for that first meal together, served by my parents, on picnic tables that my Father built, we said grace, and for the first time I understood its meaning. This was the third time that I wept.
The weeks that followed brought about what I viewed as inexcusable lapses in leadership from Matt. Paranoia compelled him to accuse my parents of inciting an insurrection amongst our people against his authority. He used the word mutiny to describe the situation at my parents house. He was very sick from the trip and wildly traveling about the country in search of a new factory location. He was not communicating with us. I realized that he was not going to honor the agreement with our Host.
I made it back into the city on September the 28th. I was able to get through the police barricade by dropping the name of a cop that I knew. Driving through the wasteland that had been neighborhoods, the only thing I could do is stare wide eyed, mouth open. Consciously inhaling, exhaling, and forcing myself to breathe. Slowly driving around obstacles; cars, boats, and baby cribs in the middle of Claiborne. This looks like Hiroshima. I said aloud, surprised by the sound of my own voice. It was the only noise to be heard, utter silence. I felt like the only person on earth, a lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Sadness and despair were superseded by the wonder of an alien landscape. I was on the surface of the moon.
A cautious elation filled me as I came into the Quarter, she had been spared! Yes there was wind damage, but she was dry, buildings intact. I parked in front of my apartment building. Casey, one of the French Quarter eccentric street performers and inventor of the portable one man band with a bicycle had set up a fortification in the courtyard. He had been guarding our building, camped out in the coolest spot. Wow did he stink, and wow did I ever hug him hard! He was the first person that I met after arriving home, appropriate.
Everything that followed seemed to be a gift from above. When one wrights off all worldly possessions, then finds them intact, its Christmas. My tangible presents were the majority of a sparsely furnished apartment, two mildly damaged yet serviceable personal motorcycles that I managed to dig out of the rubble of the factory, and my tool chest. This was all that I had in the world and felt incredibly blessed to have these things. The true blessing, however, would come over the course of the next couple of months.
My first night back and there was no power, no gas. The cold shower contrasted abruptly with the intense summer heat, and after the shower I sat on the balcony of my third floor apartment, enjoying a glass of hot vodka. I was totally satisfied by the inverse temperatures, content and elated by the mere labels my balcony, my shower, and my vodka. Then came the stars. For the first time I was seeing the stars in the Quarter. The buildings were dark and empty, streets totally silent. I think that I had peace at that moment. I had no plans, no ambition; I was home, and allowing myself to experience the rare beauty of the Quarter as she must have looked two hundred years ago.
Never have I experienced a sense of community like those first precious few weeks back. Everyone was talking to each other. People that I had formerly given a polite nod to on the street were now my friends. When did you make it back? Where did you evac to?, Have you heard from so and so? At night the curfew was enforced by the Army. They drove by in hummers with searchlights and m16s. The game was to scamper from one dark doorway to another without being detected. In this game, knowledge of the terrain was the decisive factor. Luckily, I never got caught, because at the time I was always carrying a pocket pistol.
The pistol was unnecessary, however, as the crime rate had plunged to zero, my little game of hide and seek was probably the most illegal activity occurring during this period. There were millions of flies, big red eyed, blue bodied flies, swarming about the barbeque grilles that had become the citys kitchens. The Quarter had alternating smells of grilling meat, and rotting corpses. It was a wonderful time of reunion for the Quarter and also a time of intense thought about the future, politically, economically, and socially. We all turned into pundits, analyzers, and crackpot James Carvilles. We were talking, we were thinking. I was thinking about my compass.
Matt moved the Company to Alabama, loosing all of its employees in the process. The only purpose in my life up to that point was to build the Company, to support it, to help. Its fair to say that I had been a big part of the resurrection of the Company from a former bankrupt and dead shell. I was now faced with a terrible decision- Do I prioritize my career, or my community? For me the thought of moving the company out of Louisiana was never even a consideration. In my mind the two were linked, a symbiotic relationship, whose ties could not be broken, almost a part of the corporate charter. The lifeblood of the Company was the blood that the mother pelican feeds her brood on the State Seal of Louisiana.
Career or Community. The Company or the Quarter. I resigned. I felt that I was needed in New Orleans. I could not abandon the oldest bohemia in America; it was a test of honor. There were so few here who knew the secrets of manufacturing and industrial design, skills critical to economic restructuring. Like me, many others were faced with the same decision; most have left in the face of overwhelming odds.
I made the commitment to stay. I took the first job that I could find. I was slinging drinks in the roughest gay bar in New Orleans. This was not stemware and sparkling conversation, this was the Budweiser and a blowjob crowd. So there I was- motorcycle magazine covers in one hand, dirty used condoms off the bathroom floor in the other. I cleaned the bathrooms, scrubbed the toilets, watched as people destroyed themselves with alcohol and meaningless sex.
There was, however, a plan formulating within me. All of the talk surrounding the question of economic rebuilding was centered on attracting tourism. It hit me like a freight train. For the past eighty years the local economy has been dependent on either oil or tourism; the two most fickle forms of income. Healthy economies require diversity. We need to export things, tangible manufactured goods. For the last thirty years our exports have been cultural, music, food, bringing almost no pecuniary reward home. It wasnt category 5 strength levees that we needed; it was category 5 economic systems!
Healthy local economies can afford to pay for good levees, good schools, and most importantly, eliminate corruption. Of all of the things that we import into New Orleans, by far the worst- is that we import our millionaires. We have lost the ability to create our own, and in so doing created a political system ripe for theft. I believe that the wealthy and successful businessman is less corruptible than the career politician. The independently wealthy man has more to lose and the self made man inherently smarter and more moral than a populist.
I began writing a business plan, the culmination of all of my experience in the motorcycle industry. It was with the help of believers in the city, namely Dave (a fellow Company orphan) Karen (likewise) and Jan (graphics, former independent contractor), and it was beautiful. My first stop with it was Louisiana Economic Development. The man in charge met with me a week later. Wow, this is incredible! I think that you could actually raise money with this in Alabama! I wondered who he was working for. Here was the Regional Coordinator for the State, advising one of the few industrialists in the city to move out! It was then that I decided that I would never accept Federal or State money for the project. The thought of that man getting any money from the eventual success of the plan was repellent.
As the regular rhythms of the Quarter began to return, and the garbage piles and rotten refrigerators began to disappear, the camaraderie began to evaporate. Politicians were squabbling over Federal money that they were sure would arrive any day now.
And then the worst happened. In the city that has historically been the most tolerant, and most racially integrated in America, the mayor played the race card. During a thinly veiled campaign speech, he declared that New Orleans was, and always will be, a black controlled city. A Chocolate City. He had divided the races, carving out and blocking the black vote, not based on plans for recovery, or competency. The only thing more shameful for New Orleans is the fact that it worked.
It was a low point in my life never to be forgotten. The winter of 2005, when it seemed that I had made all of the wrong decisions for all of the right reasons; my plan was received with derision by locals. We cant make things here! Nobody has the skill to manufacture goods in New Orleans!! This being said at a bar, while the bartender was efficiently mixing the most complex cocktails from memory, with a level of precision and accuracy unmatched anywhere in the world.
The fourth and last time that I cried was at the opening night of the art show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The Art of Rebellion was supposed to open Halloween night as a launching platform for a new motorcycle from the Company. The bike was my opus, the greatest project that I was ever to be a part of. The sum of everything that I believed in- the sole reason for my existence for the past four years. The storm changed that plan. The January show was scaled back to say the least. There wasnt even a motorcycle present, and yet something special happened. The walls bore the drawings, the pages of sketchbooks, the notes, the Process of design. These things also bore a contextual significance for the former employees. They remembered where and when I did a drawing, the people that came in to help engineer it, the determination to make the first one, the effort of the team to make it happen. Everyone sacrificed, and against all odds, internal and external, it did happen. Then, with the raw painful memory of recent loss, but also a stronger memory of the heights of accomplishment and teamwork, I embraced Karen. We leaned against each other as we always had metaphorically. She was there at the beginning, with me, and now we were at the end together. I have never loved anyone the way I loved her for those few eternal minuets. We cried for our broken family, we cried for each other. We burst into unabashed wails of pain and love, oblivious to the crowd in the gallery. I think that they understood. Matt did not come to the opening. I had not had contact with him since my decision to leave.
Back to the bar and the grinding reality of the City That Care Forgot, I was depressed, the business plan was stalled out, and the Ogden show was over. And I was back in the gutter, doomed to be the guy who tells the same stories to the same people. I could have been a star.
Then the phone rang. It was a man with an accent that I couldnt quite place. I sent the business plan to an address in Hong Kong. Alan Cathcart (world renowned motojournalist) had recommended me to Mr. V, who was in search of design talent to introduce Chinese motorcycles to the American market. I was elated! I told Dave about the opportunity and the timing could not have been better for either of us. Mr. V flew to New Orleans and we struck a deal. The money would just cover expenses, and would be allocated on a quarterly basis. Salaries for Dave and I were modest but adequate, and we located the perfect studio space for the work in the Quarter. Dave and Liz (yet another Company orphan) were having a baby any day now, and were facing an eviction from their house. I was buried in debt, and needed financial relief desperately. The timing could not have been better.
Incredibly, Dorothy Evangeline was born on February 10th, and the eviction notice was narrowly thwarted by a bank wire transfer on the 13th. Mr. V had come through!
Mardi Gras came and I was wild. I marched in the Krewe De Noir (goth parade), the Zombie parade in search of brains (never trust a town with skinny zombies), and played my bagpipes in the Noise Parade. It was a needed release. I got exceedingly drunk, but was able to avoid any kind of indulgent pity or overly self destructive behavior; I was back in the motorcycle business! I had a reason to go on living. I will always remember the theme for Crewe Du Vieux, Chirac, Buy Us Back!
We spent the first couple of weeks cleaning out the studio space, constructing furniture, painting, and adding plumbing. I liked the property manager from the first moment that we met. Marc was one of those aristocratic retired gentlemen that one finds only in the Quarter. A handsome retired bachelor, a man of intellect and leisure, Marc was all cufflinks, hair wax and cocktail parties in Tunisia.
Things were never better. I was working harder than Dave thought I should, but I was nervous about getting that next critical round of funding just two short months away.
On March the 8th, I departed on a round the world trip. Eleven planes in twelve days, circumnavigating the globe the hard way- east to west. First stop was the inaugural 2006 Formula One race in the Persian Gulf. I had been invited to attend five months ago by our Host, and true to his word, the invitation stood in spite of all the trouble at the Company. It was an incredible event, anyone who has witnessed a Formula One race knows what excitement the sounds, sights, and smells evoke. I had an all access pass, I was even allowed on the grid to experience the shrieking engine of an F1 car up close. The party after the race found me dancing to Dont Stop Till You Get Enough by Michael Jackson; with Michael Jackson! Also got to hang out with Michael Shumacher (the top F1 driver in the world)! The hospitality was beyond anything that I had yet experienced, the accommodations were four stars, and yet I couldnt help but feel like I had let my gracious Host down. He was not angry, but I carried with me the guilt of not being able to fulfill my commitment made that fateful night of August 28th. I had not taken any of the money, but I had also not been able to return it to him. The only thing that I could do is to give him the most precious thing that I owned. My Grandfather had died a short time before the storm, and I had inherited my Great, Great Grandfathers Winchester rifle. It now hangs in my Hosts dining hall.
Next stop was Singapore for a layover. I had twelve hours, and spent the majority of that time in a cab with a crazy driver named Ronald. His English was pretty good, and he told me the deregur stories of Singapore. Cane is ah stingray tail, soak in ah horse urine, very painful, very painful. They have doctor there for in case heart attack! said Ronald when I asked him about the governments policy on corporeal punishment.
In Melbourne, I met up with Mr. V at the shop of an Australian who was developing the engine for one of the projects that I had been assigned. It was not a very productive meeting, and trouble for the fledgling studio was on the horizon. Mr. V did not have a clue about the motorcycle business, and was contradicting himself every second sentence. I decided to give as much effort as humanly possible, providing him with as many choices for direction for the project as I could. This was a bad decision as it only confused him more.
French Polynesia turned out to be a waste of time and money. My layover there was punctuated by rude service industry personnel, and expensive everything. I just wanted to get home, and back to work. I also needed to get back to vote in the Mayoral election which, as it turned out, was a farce. I voted for the guy who lost.
My best was not good enough for Mr. V. On May15th, the one year contract we had agreed on was broken. The worst case scenario happened, I was now stuck with an employee (whose new family was totally dependant on his salary), a high overhead studio space, and no income.
Then the phone rang. Alan Cathcart was in Italy and had another potential contract lined up for me. The Italian company was interested in coming to America and needed product and PR help. I exchanged email with my new potential clients, and sent them a plan. After a tense couple of weeks, they sent me a plane ticket; I was off to the factory in Italy!
I did very well in the interview, and got to know the people involved with this company. This was a project that I could really get into! The principals involved were the top people in the industry, seasoned professionals. In the final interview with them I got a verbal commitment to move forward with a branded studio in New Orleans. It was structured basically the same as the deal with Mr. V, different in that they knew exactly what they wanted, and my role in accomplishing that goal. I flew back to New Orleans. I was very happy to be home again, sure that it would only be a couple of days before the bank wire transfer came through. Days turned into weeks, into months. My emails and phone calls went unanswered. Panic set in as the debt piled up. A total creative seizure. What was happening in Italy? Why werent they communicating with me?
Suddenly, the Mayor of New Orleans called in the National Guard. Headline news around the world, Italy included. Now the thought of locating a design studio in New Orleans probably has the same appeal as locating a studio in Baghdad. The Mayor made it a point to advertise the fact that the local police were not able to contain the escalating crime situation, and he was going to be the proactive politician. With images of homeboys toting AKs dancing in their heads, all potential outside investment in the city came to a grinding halt.
I have begun to feel as though local government is monitoring my email, and countering my every move! I dont know how much more I can endure.
Life in the City is so hard now. One of the most interesting post storm phenomena is how we measure time. We do not use dates, months, even days; its only before the storm or after the storm.
The issue of how and where to rebuild has become a source of intense debate, a political rhubarb. One critical item that people seem to overlook is the viability of neighborhoods in areas of obvious peril. The concept of scumbag land developers is not new; if one were to overlay a map of the city circa 1860 upon the map of the areas that seriously flooded during the Storm, the similarities are striking. People back then were smart enough to cling to the high ground for their permanent structures. The 1870s saw a period of intense growth in the size of the metro New Orleans area, based on the draining of buffering swamp land. The quick buck back then was to buy swampland cheap, build a makeshift levee, drain it, and sell lots for development. These residential developments now bear the title of historical properties which makes the decision to abandon them all the more difficult. The Army Corps of Engineers has been the sacrificial lamb. They were supposed to keep the levees structurally sound with oversight from a shadowy local bureaucracy known as the Levee Board- Pretty sketchy stuff. People cannot seem to be satisfied with the reality of a natural disaster. They are looking for someone to blame, and blaming God, or 19th century land developers, just isnt going to pay the bills. The reality is that the size of New Orleans should be dictated by nature. As hard as it is for mans ego to accept, sometimes we should be the servant of topography, not its master. When it comes to hurricanes, hubris is not an option. These kinds of reality based policies, however, have proved to be unpopular with the electorate, and as is typical, truth does not an election win. The silver lining is that the core of New Orleans, the Quarter; is architecturally, historically, and culturally, been proven to be sustainable. It now becomes a question of economic sustainability, which is where I come into the picture. The Old Buildings of the Quarter are patiently awaiting the return of economic diversity which is truly their historical legacy.
I have gambled everything on a gut instinct that New Orleans is the right place at the right time. Now its me wearing my vital organs on the outside. My storm was Katrina. My company was Confederate. I have no idea whats going to happen next.