Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy


Tim Murphy is a reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. Last summer he logged 22,000 miles while blogging about his cross-country road trip for Mother Jones. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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New Orleans' Weirdest Katrina Kitsch

| Thu Aug. 5, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

New Orleans, Louisiana—When I meet Dave Fountain, he's sprawled across the couch of his house on Bartholomew Street, decked out in a dirty white tank top and black trousers, barefoot. I've stumbled into his home to ask him about what's outside of it: Snare drums and trombones dangle from the front gate, casting shadows on a lawn display built from old Halloween decorations. On the front walk, two mannequins, equipped with a rowboat and life preservers, are navigating imaginary flood waters, beckoning for help. There's a coffin stuck halfway through one door. A headless zombie (that's a side of Katrina you never saw on CNN, I guess) is sitting on his front porch, next to a stuffed Siberian tiger, and directly beneath a painting of the Voodoo queen of New Orleans. I'd asked a neighbor whether it'd be a wise choice to knock, and got the all-systems-go: "Tell him Smokey sent ya."

Katrina didn’t hit the Bywater, where Dave lives, as bad as it hit the Lower Ninth Ward across the canal, but it didn't exactly spare it, either. When the flood waters rose to 5 feet and 5 inches (the measurement comes from the still-visible watermark on his window), Dave camped out on his roof. Spending three days and three nights on an island, baking in the sun and blacked-out at night, does real wonders for your peace of mind; the museum he's putting together is his way of rebuilding, in every sense of the word:

"I ain't got nothing else to do," Dave explains. "The way I see it, people come from all over the world to see nothin'—so I give 'em something to look at."

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Proposition 8 Overturned; Lockport, La. Reacts

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 6:12 PM EDT

READ ALSO: MoJo's Josh Harkinson on San Francisco's family night and Celia Perry on why she's been waiting for this ruling since the third grade. Plus: Does Judge Walker's personal life matter?

Outside Lockport, Louisiana—As you've probably heard, a federal court in California just overturned the state's ban on gay marriage. It's a pretty big win for progressives and human decency (read MoJo's Celia Perry's personal take here), but how is the news being received in the more conservative parts of the country? I spent an hour today outside a grocery store in Lockport, an hour southwest of New Orleans on Bayou Lafourche, talking to everyone who came in and out to get their take on Prop 8 and gay marriage: Do they know any gay people? How do they feel about gay marriage? Is it really the government's role to ban marriage?

"They need to make up their minds and leave people to live their lives," says Darlene Verdin of Lockport. "If it's alright with your religion and everything—this is America! Leave 'em alone. It's not something I would choose, but it's a choice."

Darlene's is a common refrain. "I think if gay people want to get married, they should get married," says Sandra Moore of Lockport. "The world's changed a lot, and I think you should change with the world. I've had a gay friend since I was in high school. I have nothing against gay people. They're normal people like anyone." And here's Kissie Landry of nearby Gaines: "I guess it should be allowed. It doesn't really matter to me. People can do what they wanna do."

Gary Benoit of Lockport (he's moving to Thibodaux, though) pays the bills by capturing live reptiles and amphibians—snakes, alligators, you name it—and sells them to zoos and pet stores. "It's not as exotic as it sounds," he says. "I don't think the government should be involved," he says of gay marriage. He knows a few gay people, a lesbian couple—"and they're extremely dysfunctional. This pair is very dysfunctional." But then again, he notes, aren't a lot of couples? "I've stayed pretty open-minded."

Only one man I speak with, in a "United We Stand" t-shirt and a "Speak the Language" straw hat (the language in question is Cajun French, I think), seems adamantly opposed, but even then there's some nuance. I ask him if he's been following the case, and he says "No, I ain't been paying to attention anything." His friend Earl seconds this: "He doesn't even know if he's alive or dead!" "I'm just like you, Earl. Just like you." Here's how he explains his position: "I just can't see that. There are too many women on the street, bro! Any man can get a woman; it ain't that hard." 

Clearly, he's never listened to any country music. But does he know any gays? "My brother-in-law is gay." So do you think he should be able to get married? "I don't care what he does. Like I said, I don't deal with him, he don't deal with me, man. Alright, I gotta go now."

And so he does. He's the exception, though, although nearly everyone else I talk to seems to think they're nonetheless in the minority ("There are a lot of old-timers here," as one woman, herself something of an old-timer, explains to me). Either way, it's encouraging to drop into a rural, conservative town on the bayou and find a tacit endorsement of San Francisco values.

The View From My Windshield: Green Shoots

| Wed Aug. 4, 2010 12:44 AM EDT

Test-Tube City: Five years after Katrina, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is still largely uninhabited. But there are signs of change: Here's one of 150 ultra-sustainable houses being constructed at the behest of Brad Pitt (Photo: Tim Murphy).Test-Tube City: Five years after Katrina, New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward is largely uninhabited. The roads are filled with craters, 12-foot-tall grasses obscure stop signs and intersections, and you have to drive to St. Bernard Parish to buy groceries. But there's still plenty of activity: The area has become a hub for architectural students and philanthropists, who see the Lower Nine as a blank canvas for building a 21st century city. Brad Pitt and his organization, Make it Right, have pledged to build 150 ultra-sustainable houses just like these two (Photo: Tim Murphy).

This is America, Speak Cajun

| Tue Aug. 3, 2010 6:00 PM EDT

Lafayette, Louisiana—One of the larger themes behind this trip has always been, amorphous as it might sound, to make some sense of the map. Part of that is geographical: Do these towns with the funny names on the map really exist? Did Vermont quietly leave the Union without anyone noticing? But it's cultural, too. You develop an odd sense of what a particular region is like if you spend your entire life reading about it without ever once walking its streets and talking to its people. For most of my childhood, for instance, my mental image of Atlanta came exclusively from old photos from Civil War anthologies: black-and-white, bustling with horse-drawn carriages, and prone to periodic outbreaks of cholera. Think of it as cultural autodidacticism.

So on that note, it was kind of awesome to arrive in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana and discover that, in the heart of a region possessed by a "This is America, Speak English!" nativism, you can go to a gas station, or a convenience store, or a diner, or anywhere else locals tend to gather, and with a little bit of luck, hear people speaking an Old World tongue passed down from their exiled Canadian ancestors and kept intact over three centuries. For lack of a better analogy, it felt a bit like Samwise Gamgee's first encounter with the elves.

Whether Cajun will surivive a fourth century is unclear; the handful of aging fluent speakers I talked to all had the same complaint: The younger generations just don't feel the need to keep the tradition alive. And that's probably true. But if Cajun  fades away as a spoken dialect, it's at least sticking around a little while longer in musical form. In Lafayette, at the epicenter of Acadiana, we caught a twinbill show at a local bar featuring two popular Cajun bands, the Pine Leaf Boys and Feufollet (which translates to something like "Will-o-the-Wisp," I think). Both groups were young—twentysomethings, mostly—but the crowd covered a much wider range, all there to hear the distinctive accordion- and tambourine-flavored Old World rhythms.

Anyway, this was really just an excuse to post some cool (and pretty unique) music, so here are the Pine Leaf Boys:

And here's Feufollet, below the jump:

Heavy Artillery and the Wisdom of Strangers

| Mon Aug. 2, 2010 9:10 AM EDT

Ferriday, Louisiana—Ever since we jettisoned our trebuchet somewhere outside Murfreesboro, we've been traveling a little light in the way of high-powered weaponry. If pressed, our first line of defense would probably be a bag of fried pig skins (impulse buy), but even at their most potent, those would take a few decades to kill you. We're toast, basically—as strangers we've met have been quick to point. Here's some sage advice we received—entirely unsolicited—from the two employees of a one-room diner in Natchez, the first a thirtysomething male named (I think) Marsaw, and the second a woman a few decades his senior.

"You're going through Texas!," says Marsaw. "What kinda gun you got?"

"Just our fists."

"You mean you're not carrying a gun?" Marsaw's incredulous.

"We like to think we're pretty intimidating people."

The woman laughs, which I'll just assume is her defense mechanism. We get that a lot.

"My dad always said, 'Always have a flashlight and a gun wherever you go,'" says Marsaw. "'That way if you need to stop and fight you won't get shot in the back.' You can pull out the .22. Protect yourself."

The flashlight seems kind of superfluous in that scenario, but okay.

The woman jumps in: "Well you can just use the tire iron [she makes a violent thwacking gesture]. You know, it's legal to put the tire iron in the glove compartment in Mississippi, from the trunk. You can just do that."

"Well they should get the .22, too."

"Yeah, but if they don't have a .22 they gotta use the tire iron."

"Yeah, .22 and a tire iron."

Done and done. Of course, if you buy a .22, you'll probably want a concealed-carry permit to go with it. Utah, anyone?

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