Harold Toussaint is in his 60s, but he won’t tell me his exact age. He has Morgan Freeman freckles on his cheeks and tufts of gray and brown curls, mainly on the back and sides of his head. When he sits down across from me, he pulls out a small hairbrush and combs them. It’s […]
Harold Toussaint is in his 60s, but he won’t tell me his exact age. He has Morgan Freeman freckles on his cheeks and tufts of gray and brown curls, mainly on the back and sides of his head. When he sits down across from me, he pulls out a small hairbrush and combs them. It’s such an old-fashioned and adorable gesture, I’m momentarily taken aback. He wears a muddy-colored Cosby sweater, which he seems to remember he got as a donation while waiting in Tennessee after Hurricane Katrina.
Harold is spiritual. We walk past an East Village bar with a statue of the Virgin Mary in it and he full-on stops, peering inside and shaking his head in actual displeasure. “They shouldn’t do that,” he mumbles, more to himself than to me.
The church to which Harold belongs is called “God Teach Us Your Way Ministries.” It was founded in the New Orleans home of a woman named Janice Wilson-Monroe, whom Harold describes as wearing “blue robes with swirls like the Milky Way and a blue hat with a white star” that he first saw in a dream. Bishop Monroe was a healer and a spiritual leader. Harold says he once saw her place her hands on an AIDS patient and cure him.
“What do you mean ‘she cured him?’” I ask, not even being polite about how incredulous I am. My disbeliever’s tone doesn’t phase Harold at all.
“She put her hands on him and he wasn’t sick anymore,” he says like it’s not even a big deal.
“But how is that possible?” I ask, wanting a scientific answer. I ask this multiple times. Each time, Harold doesn’t get upset and repeats simply, “She had healing hands.”
Harold was born and raised in New Orleans. He spent his young life working in restaurants, picking up the unusually high class talent for wine tasting. In fact, Harold is an award-winning sommelier (fancy speak for “wine taster”) who has worked at Creole and French restaurants in big food cities like Boston and San Francisco.
In 1977, he left New Orleans for the first time to help open a restaurant called Lulu’s in Boston’s upscale South End neighborhood. He took recipes from his mother and hired a Louisiana band to play inside, striving to make it as authentic as possible – to bring some Cajun flavor to the north. In the early 1980s, he went to California for eight years to work as a hotel wine captain and teach part-time at the California Culinary Academy.
At the time, he was separated from his later ex-wife, with whom he says he was always good friends. In the summers, his daughter would come stay with him.
Though Harold knew he was good with wines, he gained some press and notoriety when he won a regional wine-tasting competition three consecutive years in a row, the first year, as a walk-on contestant who decided to compete the night before. Later, he learned he’d scored the highest on wine-tasting in the country. Even today, Googling Harold’s name brings up accolades for his wine stewardship and tasting abilities, as well as his work with Hurricane Katrina outreach.
“That’s unusual, isn’t it?” I ask and he nods. (“Very unusual.”) “I mean, that’s sort of a fancy skill. Did you come from a family with a wine-tasting history?”
Harold says he did not.
“My uncle said, ‘Papa used to drink wine but all he got out of it was 17 children,’” Harold laughs softly. “It came out of tradition. One of the few good job blacks could get were as waiters or cooks or chefs. We worked in restaurants.”
“So it wasn’t seen as glamorous yet to be a sommelier?” I ask and Harold nods.
Nothing about Harold suggests arrogance, but he is confident. He tells me at the height of his sommelier work, he wouldn’t go to a city if he wasn’t going to be working in one of its top three restaurants.
“I felt that’s what I was worth,” he says. He explains that the segregation of the black and white communities in New Orleans contributed to this attitude. The primarily black community where Harold grew up had its own professionals – black doctors, black lawyers, black teachers.
“We had the insulation of being the majority,” he says of the black community in New Orleans. “There were role models. There were black leaders. It was a cultural inheritance.”
In 2000, after traveling for work most of his life, Harold settled back in Louisiana to be near his family still living there. That was when he found Bishop Monroe’s church.
His sister wanted to attend to see if Monroe could do something for her son, who was ill. Harold went with her, skeptical of a church run out of house. He wanted to make sure they weren’t practicing the devil’s voodoo.
“I went to check her out and I got checked in,” he laughs. “I saw her pouring her heart out for God. The church didn’t have any men in leadership positions and I thought they could use me. I joined and she made me her deacon. I followed her, as she followed Christ.”
“What was different about her church that she had to start a new one?” I ask.
“Well, she was a prophetess,” he says in the same simple tone he used to talk about the cured AIDS patient. “She was called to the spirit. When God calls you, you don’t need another man’s approval.”
After Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, the church was relocated to Liberty, Mississippi (Bishop Monroe’s hometown). Two years later, its founder passed away from heart failure. I find it interesting that Monroe died of an illness when she could so easily heal others, but I say nothing of this to Harold. He talks about her with such reverence in not just his voice, but his eyes. They shine a bit and his smile is, for lack of a more descriptive word, pure. I ask him how many members the church currently has.
“King David was ordered not to number the people,” he says, being as dodgy here as he was with his age. “God doesn’t count the people, he weighs them. The number doesn’t matter. In a performance, you can have 16 drummers and it’s a lot of noise or you can have three drummers and it sounds wonderful.”
It wasn’t long before the church took over Harold’s life. He stopped working as a sommelier because Monroe’s church banned drinking alcohol.
“Were you religious before this church?”
“Hardly,” he replies. “As a child, my parents brought me and I’m grateful because it laid the foundation but I remember, as a child, I stood outside a big church and I noticed that people went in sick and didn’t come out healed. I thought I didn’t ever want to be a member of a church that doesn’t heal.”
Bishop Monroe, at the time, was going on and on about impending rains. “I’m like Noah,” she’d say, referring to the biblical ark-builder. “It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain.”
So when Katrina was about to hit, Harold says he wasn’t surprised. The church held services until the day before the storm. Those who could leave New Orleans, were encouraged to do so but many older people didn’t want to go.
“They don’t want to die on foreign soil,” Harold says. “There’s a saying, ‘Once you pass Baton Rouge, you need a passport.’”
At the time, Harold lived in the infamous Ninth Ward, hit hardest by the hurricane. He lived in a duplex with an 80-year-old woman he calls Ms. Bernice on the other side of the house. Harold had taken to caring for her, carrying shopping bags and doing little fix-it jobs. His church taught the utmost respect for senior citizens; older women are called “mother” as terms of endearment.
Harold knew staying in New Orleans during Katrina was dangerous but he saw that many of the older people in the community, including Ms. Bernice, weren’t leaving. He decided to stay.
His next door neighbor, an 84-year-old man he calls Mr. Alberto, was an ex-merchant marine. He told Harold he wasn’t afraid to die at sea, even as Harold begged him to take shelter elsewhere.
“He fell in the water and died,” Harold says, growing somber. “The sea took him.”
In a two-block radius of Harold’s house, six senior citizens passed away in Katrina.
Harold’s own mother was taken by his siblings to Atlanta. Harold holed up all the family dogs, three in total, in his house and left them food and water. Then, he went to his sister Carolyn’s apartment complex because he knew there were at least 100 senior citizens remaining there.
“You weren’t scared?” I ask.
“I had to stay. What would it look like if the storm of the century came and the men of God ran to save themselves?” he says. Harold tells me Bishop Monroe told him because of his selfless decision to stay in New Orleans and help, no harm would come to him.
Here, I interrupt to tell him a parable I learned at Jewish summer camp. A man is on his roof during a flood and as the water rises, a boat comes by to rescue him. “God will save me,” he says and the boat moves on. The water rises more and a helicopter comes, throwing down a ladder. The man refuses to move. “God will save me,” he says. The man drowns. When he gets to heaven, he asks God why he didn’t save him. God says, “What do you mean? I sent you a boat and a helicopter!”
Harold laughs hard at that. He seems to enjoy my use of a Biblical parable.
“I was the helicopter,” he says. “God uses people. God sent me [to the older people].”
Once at his sister’s apartment complex, Harold says he put his hotel and restaurant experience to practical use – he immediately organized the people, assigned floor captains and took inventory. He wrote down who was in what apartment, their age, their health condition, their need for water and food, their backgrounds in security, policing, medicine and ministries of various faiths. Because of Harold’s lists, when the rescue helicopters arrived on the fourth day, the most frail and sick people were able to be evacuated first.
Harold left last, on the fifth day. He was taken to Tennessee on former Vice President Al Gore’s plane, something he’s extremely proud of. It was six months before Harold could go back to his house, which had 3 feet of water on the floor and was already 4 feet off the ground (a total of 7 feet of water). The smallest of his family’s dogs had drowned and Harold says he “scraped” her off the floor and buried her in the backyard.
That same day he learned of Mr. Alberto’s death and went out looking for his body, to no avail.
“I felt his spirit around me when I buried that dog,” he says, acknowledging finally that this might be taken strangely. “I felt like I wanted to give the dog a proper funeral because Mr. Alberto didn’t get one. I think it helped me.”
Personally, I’ve been to New Orleans twice. My college roommate is doing Teach for America down there and post-Katrina, I met up with her and some other friends to see what neighborhoods she’d want to live in.
One day, we decided to hop in our rented Prius, put on some of NOLA’s finest (Lil’ Wayne) and drive around the Ninth Ward. We wanted to see the damage for ourselves. As Wayne told us to “let the beat build,” we saw stairs leading nowhere, that once led to family homes and spray painted numbers on beaten-down front doors indicating the number dead inside. We were silent as we came upon a dilapidated double-decker emblazoned with a spray painted, “Home. This used to be home.”
Turning a corner, we saw members of a rebuilding team working on a house. In the back seat of the car, we had water bottles, cold from the AC, meant for us. Opening the window, we called out to the workers and handed them the case of water. They thanked us, sweaty from labor.
Mixed feelings pervaded.
“The government wounded us,” Harold says. “Not the storm.”
Both Harold’s voice and attitude change when I ask about what happened after Katrina.
“They took away our dignity,” he says. “We hate them with a passion. We don’t have much patriotism left.”
“What do you think the reason was?” I ask.
“They were racist. They had a distinct disdain for us,” he says. “It was an opportunity to eliminate the black population.” (I hear echos of Kanye West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Harold says he agrees with West, “He never should have apologized for saying that.”)
“The misconception was that we were a waste of taxpayer money. That we weren’t workers,” he says. “But one of the reasons we pay taxes is for emergencies like that. We should be able to reap the benefits of that contingency plan but we were treated like panhandlers or looters. That’s no way for a citizen to be treated.”
After a year and a half of technical homelessness, Harold moved up to New York, where his daughter lives. Before that, he and his elderly neighbor Ms. Bernice lived in the shell of their old house – covered in toxic mold, no electricity, no heat and no assistance from the government. Ms. Bernice eventually went into the hospital and Harold left.
Now, he serves as the community and media liaison for the New York Katrina and Rita Survivors Group. He says the group helps but talking too much about the hurricane gives him “secondary traumatization.” He has pressure behind his eyes and high blood pressure, symptoms consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but no health care. Harold wrote about his hurricane experiences in a highly-regarded chapter of the book “Overcoming Katrina.”
“How has the community changed since?” I ask.
“The old bonds are broken and frayed badly,” he says. “Twenty-five percent of the population is still displaced. They can’t go back. Certain bus lines don’t run anymore so people can’t get to work. Whole neighborhoods are gone. The infrastructure is gone.”
Often, I’ll leave interviews thinking that I liked the interviewee as a person, that I’d totally hang out with them again, that they were a friend I was meant to find. And most of my interviewees have been young and the ones that were older were my father’s friends or my friend’s father. The ones I’m now friendly with beyond the interviews, I could have met at a bar if circumstances had shifted.
Harold is unlike me in almost every way imaginable and yet as we say “goodbye” outside the 2nd Avenue F train stop, for the first time ever after an interview, for a reason I don’t think I can explain, I actually think the sentence: “I’ve made a friend.”