Joe Biden was in New Orleans Tuesday. Just for a little while. He was scheduled to drop by the Youth Empowerment Project, which is what it sounds like it is, for a photo op at 2:30. YEP is located in a big, two story building on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City, just a block off MLK. The building still has “CANAL-COMMERCIAL TRUST AND SAVINGS BANK” in large letters across the top. An hour before Biden’s schedule arrival, men in blue politico power suits strode purposefully in and out of the building’s front doors. Every ten minutes or so, a group of Empowered Youths would stream out of a smaller office across the street into the headquarters, building a human backdrop. Kids and staffers alike wore black t-shirts that said “YEP” in successive red, yellow, and blue letters. It was nice. Floating in a sea of human affirmation.
This particular stretch of town had the feel of a house that has been all tidied up for guest that have not yet arrived. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum was empty, and the Museum of the American Cocktail was empty, and Cafe Reconcile was empty, and the Church of God in Christ was empty, all victims of the summer doldrums. The spruced up buildings along Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard felt like a Hollywood back lot after hours. There were only The Youth, and the youth’s professional empowerers, and then the knots of campaign functionaries, well-scrubbed 20-something guys in white shirts and lanyards who look like the models you see in ads for new apps, and then the press—the TV reporters, who have perfect makeup and look pissed, and the camera people, who wear vests with a lot of pockets and look completely unfazed when they are working anything less dangerous than a deadly wildfire. We all just sat out there feeling the breeze blow down the empty street, waiting for Joe Biden. At 1:40, a staffer whispered to another that Joe’s plane hadn’t landed yet. He was scheduled to take his tour here in 20 minutes.
I decided to leave. I was hot and bored and I could not in good conscience say that I was learning anything useful that I might be able to communicate about the American political system. I saw enough to get the idea. All of these sorts of campaign events make up a months-long mobile theater production that tours the country producing absolutely no drama. It is an anti-show, a tightly scripted production that endeavors to draw from reviewers the conclusion: “This is a normal person.” Not all that compelling to participate in, really. This is not Joe Biden’s fault; it’s the fault of all of us who play along. We’re the struggling actors hoping to land a bigger role, and the American people are the unfortunate audience, subjected to the same shit on every channel.
I left just as the YEP drum line began warming up, the beat echoing crazily between the buildings, so you couldn’t tell where it was coming from. Later, I looked at the press pool report for the event: “‘It’s rather hot!’ he told one young drummer, no longer wearing his sport jacket. ‘I’m Joe Biden,’ he greeted another young drummer. ‘Hey big guy,’ he said to a third. ‘What’s your name?’” Sounds about right.
Five blocks down the boulevard is the overpass of the Ponchartrain Expressway. Underneath the expressway, from Treme all the way down to the river, are tent encampments where hundreds of New Orleans’ homeless people live. Sitting on the corner of Calliope Street next to the expressway, panhandling the passing cars, was a man named Gregory. He just turned 62. He’s been homeless for a year and three months. You have to be homeless for at least a year before they’ll even consider letting you get on the list for housing, he says. Now he’s doing all his paperwork and he’s hopeful of getting housing soon. But until then, he’s out there on Calliope Street. I asked him what he would say to Joe Biden, who would be appearing right down the road in a few minutes.
“I would say, good luck to you. Because you were vice president and you wasn’t a bad one,” he said. “I heard what happened to his son. But he’s gotta move on, if he’s gonna run a nation. I believe he’s the best one there to do that, to me. He already been there. He knows what it takes.”
Gregory would like the government to dedicate more money to homeless shelters. But come what may, he is a Biden voter. And he didn’t even have to hear a speech. If Joe Biden would like to thank him, he is living in Central City, right under the expressway, in a tent.