Brooch: Ralph and Robin – photo brooch made from a photo Tom took of Ralph from his studio window one day when Ralph, a long time subcontractor of TMD, came to pick up his "list". Ralph was driving his motorcycle that day, as he was many times when he came to get his list.
Brooch Materials: Bronze, anodized aluminum, acrylic, brass, stainless steel, photo
Panel Materials: Wood, acrylic, stainless steel, objects found on the slab of Ralph’s house post-Katrina.
"Ralph & Robin"
I miss Ralph. I am always going to miss him.
I don’t know how Ralph found us initially. Maybe it was a flyer on a local coffee house bulletin board, or an ad in the paper or word of mouth that we had an opening for an “apprentice” level job makingjewelry, but his appearance and involvement with me and our studio was one of the more delightful periods in our history.
Ralph was enthusiastic, hard working, dedicated and responsible. He was working three jobs because he had a dream. That dream was to build his own house for his family, his wife Robin and a little boy Ralph Jr. So, he worked for us, did his own leather making work at home, and had two large paper routes that he got up every day at 4am to do before he did everything else. He worked and saved and eventually had enough money saved to buy a lot, right next to his mom’s house in an area of New Orleans known as Gentilly Woods. The lot was immediately adjacent to the London Avenue Canal, so this meant there was a big wall at the back of his lot that ran from way down by Dillard University out to Lake Pontchartrain.
Several years later he was ready to start on the house. He designed the house, contracted the project, did a lot of the grunt work himself and built a beautiful two story brick home with a two car garage and a studio workshop for his many projects and hobbies (he was big into radio controlled model boats). During a visit with him we walked the property and went out to see his fishing boat on a trailer at the back of the yard. I noticed puddles of water here and there near the base of the flood wall and wondered aloud to him about what they indicated…”Oh,” Ralph said, “They come and go, I guess there’s a little seepage from the canal comin’ through there. He wasn’t worried about them.
After working in-house with us for a number of years, and, having moved on quickly from the apprentice to artisan level, Ralph requested a move to become a sub-contractor for us. He had his home studio fully functional, was making some of his own jewelry and wanted to be around more for his son as Robin was working full-time as well in hospital administration. So, after that, we didn’t see much of him except when he delivered his work to us on his motorcycle (really a crotch rocket, we called him Mad Max) and at our annual company holiday party at the infamous Rock’N’ Bowl.
Ralph was into his hobbies to say the least — Especially his motorcycles. He actually installed a very large steel U ring with a huge hardened steel chain as they poured the slab for his house in what would be the garage where he would chain up his very valuable and expensive bike. That’s planning ahead! He was a member of a local motorcycle club and he and his pals would ride big circuits out on the highways around southern Louisiana on the weekends. At some point, they encountered another club with whom they, apparently, had a contentious rivalry with. In November of 2004, a member of that rival club escalated that rivalry to murder. On a Sunday morning, Ralph had gone out to get the morning papers. For whatever unknown reason, this rival club member decided to settle some unknown grudge by stalking Ralph, sneaking up behind him at as he exited the store and shot him twice in the back of the head.
I can hardly write this…I can hardly think it. There are murders all the time in New Orleans….always have been…probably always will be. And while most are rooted in the contemporary insanity of the disadvantaged drug-gang-teenager urban American gestalt, every now and again, one of these assaults strikes close to home, it penetrates the emotional perimeter of friends and family. This was, most assuredly…one of those. Senseless loss over a senseless slight or insult. Mind-numbing senselessness.
I made little silver "R" pins for all of his family members and our staff and we all went to his funeral. I had to make a lot more of those pins when everyone there got a look at them and I still get requests for more 6 years later.
Robin and Ralph Jr. evacuated "the house that Ralph built" and New Orleans to Houston just days ahead of Hurricane Katrina in late August. Katrina came in on the 29th. The same storm surge that came down the Mr. Go (MRGO) and devastated the Lower 9th Ward pushed into lake Ponchartrain through the Rigolets outlet to the Gulf of Mexico and forced its way down the outfall canals one of which was the London Avenue canal right behind Ralph & Robin’s house. On the Tuesday morning after the storm passed, the floodwalls of the London Ave. Canal failed in two places on either side of the canal about 1/2 mile apart. One of them was on their side of the canal and only five houses down.
The reason the walls failed is a long sad story but simply put it was under engineered. The depth that the shear wall was driven into the berm of the wall system was not enough relative to the soil type that the canal was dug into. It was a sandy, clay-like, loamy concoction — basically alluvial. As a result, the additional water level pushed down the canals from the lake overcame the design parameters of the structure. It percolated down and under the shear wall and put the whole system into what is known as a suspension…it was floating!. The wall surrendered in what is called a pressure break….it was pushed back and then fell backwards releasing the flood.
The flood rushed into the neighborhood and as it did it carried the suspended soil with it in a classic mudslide effect. It flowed into the entire district, surrounded all of the homes, penetrated them, encased them in what appeared like a snow drift.
Imagine coming home to that situation. You’ve recently lost one of the most remarkable people in your life, then the home that they built. What would you do? Robin, like many New Orleans residents post-Katrina had to move on. She found work, housing and educational opportunities for her and Ralph Jr. in Houston. She got settled and like many in what we call the New Diaspora established a position away from which they would decide and direct their return HOME. Many would find the desire to return to be a daunting undertaking and in some cases the emotional challenge would inform their decisions.
Robin decided not to return, not to rebuild and eventually, several years later, to clear the lot.
I would visit the house frequently. I’d take photographs, climb into his ruined studio, gather some artifacts from his workbench and think about what this all meant.
I witnessed the recovery crews completely remove the sand berms from around the houses and from throughout the Gentilly Woods neighborhood. It was truly amazing. They removed every last handful of it. I watched the Army Corps’ reconstruction of the floodwall. They removed all of the poor soil down to 20′ below the water level in the canal, trucked it out to Mississippi and then trucked in the right kind of soil and rebuilt the wall. Amazing. Of, course the remaining stretches of wall are still in their original under engineered condition, but the Corps also built gates and pumping stations at the mouth of the outfall canals that should prevent situations like this in the future…but they have yet to be tested under fire.
Despite the fact that all that is left of "the house that Ralph built" is a bare slab, I continue to visit this site like visiting an old friend. As time moves on Ralph’s presence there has gradually faded…but on every visit I still look for some bit of Ralph. I found tools, the oxygen regulator from his torch, and one day I was completely shocked to find, in plain sight, one of the brass heart forms he’d been working on for us. It was lying next to drain outlet, patina green, like it was waiting for me. But the one remaining item that will be there until they demo the slab is the embedded ring and heavy-duty chain and lock where he secured his motorcycle inside his garage. That rusting pile of metal is, for me, his lasting legacy….a grave marker of the most poignant sort.