in memorium: how much for this?

Dec 5, 2008 by

It was twelve years ago this week that three young people were murdered in cold blood at the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen in the French Quarter, right along the edge of the French Flea Market.

(Green Sign. Photo taken on 1/7/2007, ten years after the LPK incident)

On the morning it happened, I was working as a vendor at the French Market. Because of the upcoming Christmas season and my rookie status at the Market, prime spots in or near the market structure were hard to come by — so I had to set up my stand on the outer edge of the parking lot about 20 yards from the Pizza Kitchen. One of my first customers that morning was a young man named Santana Meaux.

This time of year is about family, friends and giving – but for me it will always be about that day, too.

Not long after the incident, I wrote down my account of what happened and sent it to the Times-Picayune — who published it as a guest editorial. They changed the title (as they tend to do), and so it went to print as, “The Fate of a Young Man With a Medal.”

I still think they should have kept the original title, which asks a question that strikes at the heart of the problem. It was originally called, “How Much For This?”

It’s a question I’d still like an answer to.

I am reprinting the piece below, because these things are important to remember.

Their names were Cara LoPiccolo, Santana Meaux and Michael Witkoskie. Damien Vincent was also shot, but survived. 

*

How Much For This?

The young man with the black Louisiana Pizza Kitchen T-shirt was hurriedly shopping the market for Christmas gifts – he had already scanned my table once, eying a necklace or two rather closely, then darting over to a neighbor’s table. These Pizza Kitchen guys never buy anything, I thought absently. But almost as soon as the kid disappeared, he reappeared, snatching up a necklace from my table and holding it up to me with a grin. Dangling from the stainless steel chain was a small pendant bearing the likeness of St. Bernadette; a young woman in chains, engulfed in flames, staring defiantly upwards.

“How much for this?” he said.

“Ten dollars,” I replied, thinking maybe the price was a little high, prepared to haggle a little.

“Great,” he said with a big smile, reaching into his pocket. No haggling.

“Wanna bag?” I said cooly – we market vendors tend to turn a bit chilly once the sale’s been made.

“Yes, if you don’t mind, it’s for a present.” He grinned some more, probably thinking about the expression on the recipient’s face when he or she opened it Christmas morning.

I cracked a smile too. The kid’s good vibe was infectious.

“Thanks a lot, now,” I said. “Have a good one.”

“Thank you”, he shot back, still grinning. He walked quickly to the Pizza Kitchen, maybe thinking up something to say to the manager about why he was a little late.

It was a few minutes past ten a.m.

About forty minutes later, a few of the vendors were making comments about the fact that there was a guy with a video camera sort of lurking about the restaurant thirty feet away. It was the big kind – not the kind that tourists carry. This was a news camera. Can’t be anything bad, I thought to myself ; there’s no police.

Then the ambulance arrived. And a few minutes later there were police.

A rumor was born and began to evolve. By about three o’clock it went something like this:

There was a robbery last night. Four people were shot and left to die in the freezer. Two had died, two survived. They discovered the victims this morning.

This was horrifying to all of us, but there’s still a certain comfort that we take in knowing that heinous crimes happen at night in the city. That bit of knowledge comforts us somehow, insulates us. There are rules even in the criminal world we tell ourselves. Travel in groups. Be careful where you walk at night. Exercise common sense. Follow these rules and you’ll be okay; bad stuff happens to those who are careless.

At this point it had not even occurred to me that the fellow who had bought St. Bernadette that morning might be involved. It did not occur to me because in my mind it was not possible – the one aspect of the rumor that I didn’t doubt was that the shooting had occurred at night, during those insulated, cautious hours.

It wasn’t until nightfall that I got a version of the rumor that was closest to the truth. This version included one startling fallacy; that all four victims had died (when in truth one had survived), and one startling accuracy; that the shooting had occurred not last night but this morning. In broad daylight. While hundreds of people milled about outside getting ready for the day.

The shooting happened this morning?

With a chill I remembered the boy I’d sold St Bernadette to. And it became very important to me what time the murders had occurred: I had sold the necklace to him just a little after ten. If the shooting happened before ten then he was alive. If it happened after ten then he was dead. It was that simple.

I could not get an answer, even from the trusty rumor mill.

My own concern felt strange and somehow inappropriate. I had just met this fellow, didn’t even get his name – and my contact with him lasted maybe three minutes. He was still a stranger, so why did it matter to me whether he was the victim or some other stranger? But it did matter. Because maybe my terse attitude was part of the last
conversation not involving a gun that he ever had. His last conversation should not have been with a surly bastard of a market vendor like myself, should have been with a friend, a parent. Maybe, had I been in a better, more talkative mood I would have kept him standing around at my table a bit longer, made him late for work – at least late enough. I know these kinds of thoughts are unfair to my own conscience, but I can’t help
thinking them.

I confided with one of the vendors about the boy and St. Bernadette, about my fears – she remembered him too. She furrowed her brow a bit then said she didn’t think he was one of victims. After a moment she added that if he was, then at least his last act was a kind one; buying a present for a loved one. I choked up a little at that thought. And maybe St Bernadette helped him, she said.

Another vendor who was listening in said sadly, “If he was in that place this morning, St Bernadette can’t help him now.”

*

Two years ago, I moved to New Orleans from Baltimore, so I’m certainly no stranger to the concept of people getting shot in the streets for stupid reasons, no stranger to the fear of walking in your own neighborhood at night. When I came to New Orleans I had the attitude of acceptance: I’m moving into another high crime area, I told myself, better be ready for trouble. But since I arrived, it’s gradually – actually, not so gradually – gotten worse. And somehow I’ve been okay with that; I’ve been okay with the horrendous problems within the police force, the relatively small improvements that have been implemented while the criminal element slowly take over the streets. Shamefully, I’ve been okay with it all.

Violent crime has become such a fundamental part of our lives that we are essentially numbed by it. We still carry some emotion about it; mostly fear and sorrow, but we are lacking in the one area that should be a knee-jerk. Outrage.

There is a sickening lack of outrage in the general community regarding the murder rate. At times we are almost tongue in cheek about it. We should be ashamed. Why did these children need to die before we felt genuine outrage? The answer to that is really simple.

It’s all about proximity.

The projects may be close to the Quarter, but they seem a world away. When Hoda Kotbe informs us of the latest killing at the Iberville housing project we stare glassy-eyed at the tube not really sure where that is, a little saddened by the news but not incensed by it. It is not our neighborhood, we did not know the victims. Why the people of Iberville do not march on City Hall demanding police protection I do not know. Maybe the feeling of hopelessness there is so ingrained that they accept the murders in their neighborhood the same way that we in the Marigny have learned to accept armed robbery as an everyday
occurrence.

The truth is that these killings were simply too close to home for a community that thought itself immune to such things.

The outrage of the French Quarter community regarding these killings is not about black and white, as some very well intentioned people insist – it’s about proximity.

It’s about blood on the sidewalk instead of inside the TV.

Monday night there was a community meeting at the Royal Street police station regarding the killings. Most people had come to voice their anger and fears, I had come for a more personal reason.

The only new revelation that came up at the police meeting was from the homicide detective in charge of the case who filled us in on some of the details of the case. The killers had used potatoes as silencers, he said – that type of thing, forensic stuff. To me, the one important detail was the exact time of the shootings; I simply had to know.
Finally, the homicide detective provided the answer: between 10:20AM and 10:40 AM.

And then I knew that the kid I had sold St Bernadette to was dead.

The next morning’s paper would run a picture of the victims, confirming what I now knew. The boy’s name was Santana.

*

The next night, following a march on City Hall and an emotionally charged City Counsel meeting, there was a candle light vigil at Jackson Square. The event was so clouded with emotion for me and my small family that there is very little specifically that I can recall about it. I remember singing Amazing Grace. I remember a lot of tear dampened faces of strangers and friends. I remember our baby’s reaction to the sight of all the lit candles in the dark. She, with the innocent profundity that two year olds miraculously possess, began singing “Happy Birthday To You.”

I remember feeling a little better.

– Louis Maistros

(orignally published December 1996)

http://louismaistros.com

For more info about the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen murders, please go here.  

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