Before the fall.
A story about a musician.
I’m not even sure how to tell this story. It’s a story of greed. It’s a story of stupidity. It’s a story of loss. It’s the story of Ervin Mayfield.
Trumpet playing Mayfield was one of the pillars of the New Orleans jazz community. He is a Grammy winner. He is one of about five top trumpet players in a city that has a trumpet player on every corner.
In my picture, he is talking to his audience in Central City. He’s holding his instrument in one hand, and knowing him, he’s smiling as he talks to his musical fans. He is an outgoing guy.
Later, the roof fell in.
As it stands today, he has been indicted by the grand jury of 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. It seems that he and his partner Ronald Markham, steered about $1.4 million from the New Orleans Public Library’s Foundation Board to themselves between 2011 and 2013. He also spent thousands of dollars in donations on travel expenses that were not connected to library business. He spent money on items like a 24 carat gold-plated trumpet that cost $15,000. Or, $2,000 at Harrah’s Casino, $23,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue. He spent thousands of dollars at big New York City hotels including a breakfast bill for over $1,300 for two people. That’s a lot of food. trust me. We like “hot cooked breakfasts.” We could never spend that much money in a hotel dining room.
This whole thing is sort of an old story, but the trial is coming up after many delays, so I thought I’d tell it to you. I’m sorry to do it.
It’s a New Orleans thing. Corruption and the city go hand in hand. Congressman Bill Jefferson was found to have $90,000 in cash in his freezer. He had no idea how it got there. He’s in prison. Mayor C. Ray Nagin — the mayor who went nuts on television in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — is in prison for fraud and a couple of other charges.
Corruption appears at every level. Once, when I first arrived in New Orleans, I needed a city business license. I was told it would take at least six weeks to process. But, the clerk said, if I needed it quicker it could be processed in one day with a fifty dollar cash payment to him. When I complained to his boss, he shrugged his shoulders and called it an “expediting fee.” Indeed. I expedited it right out of the city. I registered my business in Jefferson Parish, where it still lives today.
New Orleans has always been a rough port city. If you are “from here” you know the stories. You also know that many of those little illegal side businesses are coming to an end. If you read what I had to say about all the newcomers to the city you would think it is all bad.
There’s a flip side to that. They come from places where the city government actually works without bribes. Where potholes are repaired before they can swallow a car. Where the water company is actually efficient. Where people don’t worry about crime taking place in your front yard.
So, the very people who are tearing at the fabric of New Orleans culture are also demanding government transparency. There’s two sides to every coin, isn’t there?
On one hand, I want to protect our culture. The Mardi Gras Indians, the Baby Dolls, and every social and benevolent society matters to me. So do the street musicians, the brass bands and the kids who hope to follow them. It’s one of the reasons I moved to New Orleans, and one of the reasons I came back after Hurricane Katrina. But, I’d be willing to trade a little of that for a fully functioning city government. For safe streets. For solid infrastructure.
It must be my age. I probably didn’t think twice about most of this when I first arrived. Now, I do. I’d like to see our street repaired and repaired before I die. Of old age. At ninety. That’s 25 years. Is that too much to ask?