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New York City Plus
The Chicago Tribune
November 6, 2005 Feature on Arizona, Sunday, Travel Section. See archives at www.chicagotribune.com
San Antonio AT HOME
Country Lifestyle Getaway and Food Features
Getaway to Bandera, Texas
Tea with Shakespeare - Food Feature (Cover Story)
Metro San Antonio In Focus Magazine
Gardening, Neighborhood, and City Features
New Orleans travel feature - Winner of GO SEE DO feature-writing contest
RANCH AND COUNTRY MAGAZINE
Return to Lonesome Dove (Travel Feature on the High Lonesome Ranch Lonesome Dove Village)
Day in the Life of a Cowboy (A day with the Cook Family, cattle ranchers in Gonzales, Texas)
ORLEANS PERISH? Never.
New York and New Orleans Have a Lot More in Common Than You Ever Thought.
By Janis Turk
Mardi Gras in New Orleans this year was eerily reminiscent of a classic scene in Gone with the Wind – the famous one in which Scarlett O’Hara takes the green velvet curtains of Tara and turns them into a dress. She needs to look good when she goes after Rhett, for she hopes to entice him into giving her money for back taxes on Tara, which has fallen into ruin since the Civil War. Scarlett crafts an elaborate frock and hat from the musty drapes and trots off after the money. Of course her calloused, “cotton-picking” hands give her away, and Rhett isn’t fooled. Still, she is a vision in emerald green.
Six months to the day after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the South and left its gulf-shore cities looking like a war zone, New Orleans picked itself up from its swampy squalor, just like the desperate Scarlett, and draped itself in green, purple, and gold for Mardi Gras. Spiffing itself up with the brightest bon vivance it could muster, New Orleans donned her Mardi Gras mask and put on a gay front for the Rhetts of the world in hopes that tourists might come back with money to spend.
Hungry for crawfish etouffée, beignets, and jambalaya, and eager to put Anderson Cooper’s tiresome, soggy news reports behind them, the tourists poured in like Lake Ponchartrain over the levees, wearing beads and drinking from plastic “go” cups, bringing with them the hope that the South will rise again. Some stopped to take bus tours of destroyed neighborhoods, snapped pictures, and went home.
Mardi Gras was a good plan, and it worked – just don’t look behind the curtain. Venture a block or two off the parade route and you’ll see the open wounds of a suffering city where Carnival isn’t king. Yet, for one Fat and happy Tuesday, the “city that care forgot” sought to forget its cares and allowed splendid parades to sweep us into a colorful caravan of hope.
It may not seem so at a glance, but New York and New Orleans have a lot in common.
Both cities have suffered a great tragedy from which they may never fully recover. Sure, you can rebuild on the site of the Twin Towers and set up grand memorials, but the emotional scars left on New Yorkers can never be fully understood or appreciated by the outside world. When a community endures a shared trauma, suffers a horrific loss, carries a collective grief, it alters the physical and emotional landscape of that place in a manner more intense and personal than outsiders can ever know. There’s no doubt that shock waves from 9/11 and Katrina were felt throughout the nation and the world, but while people everywhere may sympathize, they can never fully comprehend the magnitude of these losses.
The impact extends beyond loss of life; as if that weren’t enough; it is a violation of our collective being. With it comes a loss of hope, a loss of innocence, and most bitterly a loss of the false sense of security which cradled us to sleep at night and waved like a red, white, and blue magic wand over our nation for so long. While terrorists and torrents are hardly the same, both places were changed forever by an instantaneous calamity that left their citizens reeling.
Like New York, New Orleans is also a walking city. In many parts of town, having a car is more of a hindrance than a help, and people in New Orleans rely heavily on taxis, buses, and streetcars (which are not just for tourists). Jumping in an SUV and racing down the turnpike may be fine in New Jersey, but it isn’t an option for most residents of Manhattan or New Orleans. Just as it does in New York, getting beyond the central part of New Orleans involves crossing bridges, causeways, canals, and waterways. Even if you have a car, everyone leaving en masse would be a nightmare.
Contrary to what many people heard, the poor were not the only ones who couldn’t get out of the city during Katrina; many of the city’s elderly had nowhere to go and no way to get there.
“The one group that was disproportionately affected by the storm appears to have been older adults,” says the Knight Ridder News Source. “People 60 and older account for only about 15 percent of the population in the New Orleans area, but the Knight Ridder database found that 74 percent of the dead were 60 or older. Nearly half were older than 75. Many of those were at nursing homes and hospitals, where nearly 20 percent of the victims were recovered.”
Just as in New York, many of New Orleans elderly live alone in old apartments with only a pet and their neighbors as family. They live on fixed incomes and wait for the Social Security checks. Some live simple, even lonely lives, their routines predictable and quiet – a walk to Matassa’s corner market for milk or a streetcar ride to Angelo Brocotto’s for ice cream. But when water fills the house to the rafters and neighbors axe their way through their roof, what are an elderly woman and her cat to do?
Another way in which the two cities are alike is that both are comprised of many little boroughs, neighborhoods, or “fauborgs.” New York has the Bronx, Queens, Battery Park, Gramercy Park, Uptown, Downtown, SoHo, Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, and so on. New Orleans has Uptown, Downtown, the “CBD” (Central Business District), Garden District, Mid-City, French Quarter, Fauborg Marigny, Treme, the 9th Ward, the Lower 9th Ward, Bywater, Lakeside, the West Bank, Algiers, Kenner, Metarie, and more. Perhaps the most frustrating thing for evacuees who watched CNN from the kitchens and living rooms of kind strangers or Houston hotel rooms was that nobody on TV would say exactly where the flooding had occurred.
Reporters would stand waist-deep in water with debris floating by and not know the name of the area where they were. Sure, after a few weeks they figured out the name of the Lower 9th Ward, but not once did anyone mention Treme, Lakeside, or Mid-City. One reporter standing on an Interstate 10 overpass and pointing to the vague distance said: “There is a fire there behind me in that neighborhood and there’s no way to put it out.” If he were pointing west, it could have been my street in the French Quarter. If he were pointing east, it might be Mid-City. I had no way of knowing where he was standing. Helplessness and fear surged in me like floodwaters.
Naming is important. Human beings have to have an identity, and for New Orleanians like New Yorkers, identity has much to do with place. The literature and tradition of the Crescent City is all wrapped up in a mystical, overblown sense of place – an identity refined by writers like Tennessee Williams, John Kennedy O’Toole, Truman Capote, and William Faulkner. It’s the same in Manhattan, though; like the Big Apple, the Big Easy is as much a city of myth as of mortar. We are known by our names, by our music – our jazz – by our words, but most of all by our places. We become where we are.
That is what happened to me.
The moment I first set eyes on the French Quarter as an adult, I fell in love with New Orleans the way I used to fall in love with men – madly, truly, deeply. I loved her without explanation, judgment, or condemnation, blindly and without good sense. It was all over the minute I saw her slender streets and quirky architecture. I knew I belonged to this city. Even though I must work in Texas and I can’t live in New Orleans full time, I quickly found a “Slave Quarter” pied-à-terre behind a 180-year-old house on St. Peter Street and made it my second home. Before long, I was solidly part of the vibrant community of writers and artists who live there, and I found a second family among friends in the Vieux Carré, my adopted village. New Orleans is far more than Bourbon Street madness and the Superdome hell you saw on TV: It’s a place of beauty, tradition, culture, history, Southern refinement, music, memory, and dreams.
After about eight years, I moved from St. Peter to another “Slave Quarter” apartment on a quiet street near a dog park and a small used-book store a block off Esplanade Avenue. Now, 11 years after I came to New Orleans, I sit in the courtyard and contemplate how, long before Katrina was spawned, New Orleans became the name for that thing in me I always knew but never really felt I had – home.
“God, but I was ignorant when I came here! This place has been a — I ought to pay you – tuition!” – Tennessee Williams.
That’s my favorite line from Tennessee’s Vieux Carré, a play set in the French Quarter; I know just what he means.
These are the things I have learned from New Orleans: Mondays are laundry day so you make red beans and rice. Shopping is “making groceries.” Chicory takes the bitterness out of strong coffee, and (according to New Orleanian and poet James Nolan) it takes three days to make gumbo and it takes a year-and-a-day to mourn the dead.
A half-year and a day after Katrina, as I sat in my courtyard basking in my morning-after memories of the best Mardi Gras ever, I thought about how my time of mourning should be halfway over.
I’m not altogether sure it works that way with hurricanes, though.
Just as seasoned New Yorkers know the ropes for living in the naked city, older New Orleanians know what to do when a hurricane hits – or so they thought. They’ve been raised on it like religion. They know how to fill the bathtubs with water, stock up on candles, defrost the refrigerator, hoard jugs of water and canned goods. They know how to put a whole roll of masking tape up on the windows so they wouldn’t shatter and how to sandbag the doorways and put plywood on everything. They know about having an axe in the attic, extra flashlights and batteries, a hurricane box with birth certificates and bank papers, an escape route and a plan. They know to throw a party, drink a hurricane, and fear the fickle gulf storms with women’s names. They’ve been through the destruction of Betsy and Camille. (Telling people I’d lived through Hurricane Camille in 1969 in Mississippi garnered me the same respect in New Orleans as for any decorated war veteran.)
Another thing I’d learned about New Orleanians was that people there are not easily scared. They know about crying wolf, too – about all the silly little storms like Georges that taunted them and turned away. They know about 24-hour traffic jams that leave you exposed to the elements if you try to get out of town, and how from here to Houma to Houston and beyond there’d be no place to stay even if you tried to get the hell out of high water.
My friend, writer James Nolan (who was born on the eve of a hurricane), escaped the city with his neighbor on a stolen yellow school bus almost a week after the levees broke. The neighbor hadn’t been able to get kidney dialysis and was bloating like a beignet by the time they got him to Baton Rouge. Neither owned a car.
There are hundreds of sensational stories I could tell: Of dog rescues that didn’t work, and nursing homes where all the residents drowned. But it is the smaller moments – told and retold in whispers as if they aren’t important enough to mention beside the larger-scale tragedies – that keep me awake at night.
Like the lovely elderly woman I know whose socialite daughter took her in after the levees broke and then treated her like a tiresome houseguest. Worse, the socialite didn’t want her mother to touch anything in the house, as if the rotting moldy film of New Orleans might somehow stain her pretty Lafayette life.
There’s Larry Gonzales, the dapper 70-something gentleman who stayed in the French Quarter during the storm and for months afterward, even after near-martial law took over because kids were running around with guns and stolen televisions. In 100-degree humid days, for a month he bathed in the courtyard fountain and slept outside eating MREs (meals ready to eat from FEMA) – venturing beyond his immediate surroundings only to look for cigarettes and save his neighbor’s dog.
And then there’s “Mr. Eddie,” Eldridge Gabriel, a true New Orleans icon. For nearly 70 years he worked at Pat O’Brien’s famous bar, where Eddie entertained crowds by wearing thimbles on his fingers and tapping them on the bottom of a silver tray along with the music of piano players in the bar.
Mr. Eddie drowned in the 9th Ward.
It took months to identify his body; his jazz funeral was finally held this past Thursday in the streets of the French Quarter. A second line funeral — a jazz procession of musicians and mourners dancing with ribbon-covered parasols in the street — proceeded up St. Peter toward the bar where Eddie spent the better part of a century.
Another good friend, Joshua Clark, a writer/editor who lives off Jackson Square, holed up in a bar called Johnny White’s in the French Quarter for the duration of the storm and several months afterward. On the night the hurricane came ashore, Josh had the name “Katrina” tattooed across his chest. There was no electricity in the city, so he used a car battery to power the tattoo artist’s pen.
Josh never left New Orleans during the storm and its aftermath, though someday I’m sure he’ll go and make his life in other cities. But even on that first night before the levees broke, he sensed that New Orleans wouldn’t ever leave him and that Katrina would leave her indelible mark on our lives.
We can put on our shirts and cover up the inky blue stains on our hearts and skins; we can rebuild our devastated city. We can shroud ourselves in costumes and parade down the streets, masked to the world. Come to our Carnival, watch us float down Canal Street – we’ll rely on the kindness of strangers once more. But we’ll never be the same.
By the way, Rhett Butler didn’t give Scarlett the money, but she found a way to keep Tara after all.
You can be sure of one thing: New Orleans didn’t “put on the drapes” for Mardi Gras this year just because we needed tourists – although we do. I doubt even Scarlet put on the green dress just for Rhett. We did this for ourselves. We needed to cloak ourselves in the beauty of our graceful past, to bring back a time and place that, in a way, really is gone with the wind, even though New Orleans, like Tara, is still (more or less) standing. Carnival is an integral part of New Orleans culture and its hope; it is also a way of saying we will live through this.
And we will.
Ever since Mardi Gras, hope has returned to our city, and we brought it back all by ourselves. Like the second-line parades at jazz funerals, we grieved while wearing beads and carrying pretty umbrellas, dancing in the streets.
Yes, we knew Lent was coming – the long, hard part is still ahead – so we celebrate until midnight and then go home to start another day of work.
If anyone can understand, I’m sure New Yorkers do. After 9/11, they cut the curtains, put on a mask for the cameras, and held their pain back like a tenuous levee.
They’ve been to the Mardi Gras too.
Janis Turk is a freelance writer who has appeared in Southwest Airlines Spirit, Chicago Tribune, Country Lifestyle, Ranch and Country, Texas Hills, and other magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. Her French Quarter flat was spared the flooding that occurred in New Orleans after the levees broke following hurricane Katrina.
New York City Plus Magazine
VOLUME 1, ISSUE 6 | October 1 -31 2005
Photograph by Brett C Vermilyea
Harry Benson at home in Manhattan
‘I Get the Picture’
By Janis Turk
Harry Benson’s work, clockwise from far left: Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow show up for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966; on the cover of Benson’s new book, Donny and Marie Osmond in their kitchen.
For the past 50-odd years, as one of the world’s most prolific photojournalists, Benson has gathered photographs and memories in the most remarkable places. He was there when the Berlin Wall went up and when it came down. He was with the Beatles in a Paris hotel room when their first hit record “I Want to Hold Your Hand” went to No. 1.
President John F. Kennedy in Paris, 1961.
Benson is a veritable “Forrest Gump” or “Zelig,” but only in the sense that, with chameleon-like facility, he always seems to be where history is being made. And at the zenith moment, he’s already poised to go in for the kill with his camera. This plucky 75-year-old professional voyeur blends in effortlessly everywhere, easing his way into places and situations others would never imagine. And Harry does it with a confidence and a charm that is utterly disarming. Benson has documented our nation and our world in a way that has sharpened our perspective of history, and, as he is quick to tell you, he had “ a hell of a lot fun doing it.”
“I started in this business a long time go, and I intend to keep working,” says Harry, “You know, it’s just like in a photo shoot: The first and last pictures you take are often the key pictures of a story. I haven’t taken my last one yet. I’m out there looking for my story. I still get the picture.”
Janis Turk is a freelance writer who has appeared in Southwest Airlines Spirit, Country Lifestyle, Tinta Latina, Ranch and Country, Texas Hills, and numerous other magazines, newspapers, and literary journals.
Interview with award winning photographer Harry Benson