Archive for the ‘GutterPunks’ Category

“World On Fire” Finalist for The PEN Literary Non-Fiction Award

August 27th, 2013 No Comments



The morning after the fire

As the sun rose, there was little left of the warehouse


My story “A World On Fire” was a finalist the PEN literary non-fiction award for 2013, but alas it didn’t win.

The story is about eight young travelers who died in a squat fire in New Orleans 9th Ward just before New Years 2012.  I went to New Orleans two weeks after the fire and two more times after that.  I interviewed at length six of the families of those who died  as well as many of their friends in New Orleans and wherever I could snag them on the road. The story expanded from the night of the fire to the reasons young people choose this dangerous life and what keeps them there, as well as the agony of the parents who worry that they may never see their children again.

When the story was published in Boston Review’s January/February issue, it got a lot of attention.  I’m attaching here a link to my appearance on “Talk of the Nation” the NPR weekday morning show that was cancelled recently.  Neal Conan asked if any of the parents of the dead would consent to be interviewed and I immediately thought of Marty Goslee Jaramillo, the mother of Katie Simianer, one of the young women who died in the fire.  The piece starts with her beautiful sentiment of peace and acceptance told in her  angelic voice.  The comments on the piece are pretty good too.

I am honored to be a finalist.  PenUSA only nominated three stories in the literary non-fiction category, which makes my story one  of a very select few.

I spent a year working on this story which, as you will see if you read it, is very close to my heart. I am so pleased that the traveling community let me in and gave me a chance to honor their friends and the families who have suffered greatly for this tragedy. I am also grateful to PEN for seeing this as a story of value.

A Piece Of The Fire – – Notebooks Rescued From The Warehouse Fire Arrive In My House

March 5th, 2012 1 Comment

For more than a week the box sat propped up against my dresser. I didn’t want to open it because I didn’t think I was strong enough to face what I expected was inside.The box contained some items rescued from the New Orleans squat fire that took place 12/28/10, which I wrote about for The Boston Review.


Today I spread a towel out on my bed and opened the box carefully, with reverence for the dead. As the scissors cut through the thick tape, I thought about how whatever I found inside, I knew these items were the most important things in the world to the person who died, the things he or she clung to even when they clung to little else in the world.


The first layer of the box was the notebooks, some of which had fallen to pieces, their pages curled by the water that extinguished the fire and their edges singed. There also was a bunch of pages that had been ripped from a spiral bound notebook. The ink on those was blurred by the water, making much of the writing illegible.

The first small notebook opened to this poem

I’ll tell you all my secrets
Just like I told you then
They say it will get better
But never where or when

I’ve got a brick in my hand
And an eye on your new man
Now tell me what I shouldn’t do
Now tell why I should listen to you.

In another battered notebook that had no cover I found:

“Dear Mom,

“Please be gentle with me. I’m half stoned on whiskey and pain pills (the poor man’s health insurance). I hurt my neck helping Elise move her gear. Anyway I’m sorry . . .”

Elise, I thought. Did I interview anyone named Elise?

I looked through my notes and couldn’t find anyone by that name, but then I found the definitive clue: the cover of a notebook that had the slogan of the Omaha, Nebraska bar Bones, where Justin Lutz hung out. “BONES: The Drinks Are Stiffer Than Rigor Mortis.”

I called his former wife, Kat Wise, to describe some of the things in the box. I’m going to send her the box and she can disperse to the people who would cherish these poems and the things he reveals about his life in his journal.

I opened the journal and read a few pages, then suddenly felt as if I had no business intruding on these private writings. There was a unique melancholy to Justin’s writing, resignation and sadness eloquently expressed. There were so many poems in these pages, some by Edgar Allen Poe and verses from Shakespeare, as well as by Justin.

Justin had a way of pulling you into his world, his cousin Jamie Hogshooter said, and of making it a world built for two. I can feel this in my struggle with myself not to read any more of his private writing. Sitting here, with the smell of smoke from the warehouse fire on my hands makes me tear up for all that was lost in the fire that night as well as the battered bits of beauty that remain.

Talk Of The Nation features “A World On Fire”

February 28th, 2012 No Comments


Of the three radio interviews I did for my story in The Boston Review “A World On Fire: Life and Death in a New Orleans Squat” this one is my favorite. First off because it features the beautiful voice and memories of Marty Goslee Jaramillo, the mother of Katie Simianer, one of the eight who died in the New Orleans warehouse fire that is at the center of my story.

The love for Katie in Marty’s voice is pure and strong, particularly when Neal Conan asks her if she thought Katie was happy living the life of a hobo, “Oh, I know she was,” Marty says. I knew this of my daughter too and, like Marty, I could hear it in Marissa’s voice every time we spoke on the phone.

In addition to Marty’s loving response, I enjoyed hearing the stories of the many people who called the show, some of whom had been or were traveling the country by rail, and the parents who were concerned about their children, or concerned that their children might choose to hop trains. One caller said he was relieved to hear this program because he had been so worried, so angry, when his daughter disappeared. This father, named Forest, was soothed by knowing that his daughter had joined a culture, not just fallen  into degradation and danger.  Forest said that at Christmas his family, furious with the girl,  had decided none of them would  send his daughter money as an expression of disapproval. I offered my unasked-for opinion that he should send her money anyway.

The immediacy of my feeling about this surprised me. When my daughter left town to hop trains, I had the same feeling as Forest. I said that I wouldn’t send her a dime, and I was furious when her father sent her some money. I had believed then that if I was stern and tough, communicating nothing but disapproval,  my daughter would feel shame and return home to please me. If I sent her money, wasn’t I in some way endorsing this terrifying way of life? So she should get nothing, which would hasten her return because she’d see just how rough it was out there.

After my year in and out of New Orleans I see this completely differently, as I said in “World On Fire.” Parents have very little control over children when they are young adults. I could be stern, or I could be accepting, but the journey my daughter was on was her own, and it really had very little to do with my opinions. In the end what would bring her back, I realized, was that she knew she was loved and that home was a safer place than the road. If all I communicated was scorn, why would she ever want to come home? Home in many ways might feel as dangerous to her as a treacherous train yard.

The advice I gave Forest was to send his daughter, who rarely asked him for anything, a few dollars. If he sent her $50, she’d eat that night and so would her friends. Or maybe they’d use that money to rent a motel and get shelter from a storm. When she was ready to come home, she would find her way back.

It is humbling for a parent to understand how little influence he or she has, so my message  was one that expressed not my sense of my power, but my sense of how deep my love for my daughter was, and how realizing that took me down a peg or three.

I’ve often wondered since this radio program aired if Forest sent his daughter money, and if he talked it over with his family members who said he should not. I hope for all of their sakes that he did. Fifty bucks is just fifty bucks, but it can mean the world to someone who is down on their luck enough to call home.

The interview is half an hour in length so I must post it here in two parts.


talk of the nation travelers 1:25:12 part 1

talk of the nation travelers 1:25:12 Part 2