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"I know what she's talking about," he said. Then he opened a box, pulled out an iron letter B and held it up. "You mean a B like this?"
This was the Berlau Paper building; the B's stood for Berlau. A bulk distributor, Berlau takes care of much of the city's paper needs, ranging from the toilet paper used by area schoolchildren to rolls of butcher paper to custom napkins for Fric & Frac and cups for Broadway Café. The iron B's had been hung on the building during a midcentury renovation. In the early '90s, someone stole a few of them, so the current owner, Dennis Manning (who bought the building from the third generation of Berlaus), had the remaining ones taken down for safekeeping.
And speaking of that: Along the wall was an old safe -- an ornate model from which loose diamonds were once sold. It's the kind of safe you'd see in an old gangster movie. Everything about the Berlau Paper building begs to be in a movie -- including the photos a homeless man wandered in to sell, photos of the building apparently taken in the 1970s. How the homeless man came upon the photos remains a movie-worthy mystery.
That calls to mind a story about the night just before Mardi Gras this year, when members of the vigilante brass band known as the Dirty Force -- a bunch of musicians who stage raucous musical interruptions of shows at which they have not been invited to perform -- had just been kicked out of the Dixie Belle and onto the streets of an "abandoned" downtown. A slew of cop cars came driving toward them, sirens blaring. At first, the musicians feared that the police had been called to put an end to their instrumental intrusion. Still, they continued playing their New Orleans funeral march.
"Just then," recalls Dirty Force member Heather ScorchaMinga, "I realized they were chasing a car I didn't notice, smelling of a clutch gone out and driving only about 15 miles per hour."
As the lawbreaker drove by, he stared at them in apparent disbelief. Of all times to see a brass band playing a funeral march on an otherwise empty street, right? He must have felt like he was getting arrested to a soundtrack.
"It did feel like a scene from a film," ScorchaMinga says. "So surreal and abandoned but energetic at the same time. We went on our merry way, busting into bars and restaurants like we owned the place. With downtown the way it is now, we kind of do."
She's not the only one who has experienced the vacancies downtown as freedom instead of limitation. The man who goes by the name Mott-ley, who runs the East 18th Street gallery called MoMo, remembers the day back in early May when tornados blew through the area, just missing downtown. He was working in his studio, waiting around in case anyone stopped by wanting to see the art he was showing at the time: quirky paintings by a young woman named Lad who, like most of the talented people who show work in this space, is still getting her start. But nobody was out driving, much less walking. He went outside and watched debris blowing around, the sky changing to a noxious yellow. He didn't have to worry about how his wheelchair would fare in oncoming city traffic.