A few years ago I had the privilege of being a mentor for couple kids at Cafe Reconcile. Reconcile is a place that was started by a Jesuit priest in the heart of the Central City in New Orleans. Central City is one of the worst places to live in the city because it is just rampant with crime. Most of the murders in the city happen here.
On Being a Mentor at Cafe Reconcile and Key to the Violent Crime Problem in New Orleans
So people figure that heck if you just stay away from that area you’ll be OK. And except for random killings that occasionally happen elsewhere in the Crescent City it pretty much holds true. The original vision of the cafe was to provide a place for underprivileged kids to get experience and education in the restaurant business and culinary arts so that when they finish their 6 week intensive program they are pretty much ready to start working in a restaurant.
Some might start a job as mere dishwashers but at least they get their foot in the door and the education they get from Cafe Reconcile helps them move up rather quickly. Most of the kids are black but there are occasionally some white kids and hispanics that enter the program.
Entrance requirements are rigorous and not everyone who applies gets in. They have to show a willingness and commitment to want to improve themselves and there is a lot expected of them. Unfortunately they come from a community and school system where expectations are low and there is even some social pressure that encourages kids to not want to excel.
The thinking is if you excel then you are trying to be ‘better than us.’ And kids can actually get shunned if they get good grades and try to improve themselves. How the black culture ever got to to be this way is a tragedy of national proportions. That attitude encourages crime and so many people are not allowed to dream big dreams because they have been conditioned to think that not only can’t they achieve it but they are not worth it.
So in comes Cafe Reconcile to change all that. Admittedly the problem is more massive than one cafe can hope to change, but at least it does provide some kids with the opportunity to get out of a disempowering community and sometimes terrible family situations.
Many of the kids that are working in the cafe program have been in jail for one thing or another, some have been into drugs. Some are even unwed mothers. The program looks past all that and sees that if a kid comes forward and wants to be part of the program they show that they have taken their first steps to wanting to improve their lives. And the folks at the cafe will do everything they can to help them.
What the cafe program requires of them is being on time for all classes and meetings, staying off drugs, a willingness to learn and be coached and being responsible for taking care of their hygiene. Many of them have never had this type of rigor in their lives and those that get through it are the better for it and helps to spread the message of the cafe and the possibility that with love and attention people can reform and be given a real great start in their lives.
Many have gone on to getting great jobs in the best restaurants in town. Some want to open their own places someday. That never would have happened had it not been for Cafe Reconcile.
I had eaten at the place several times and loved the cooking and the down-home funkiness of the place with original art work on the walls, funky murals and the kids all eager to want to do their best. And for some of them their best is not always good enough. So they have to learn how to be better.
In the program they all get a chance to work at all the jobs that it takes to run a restaurant from maitre’d to waiter, bus boy, dish washer, food preparer and general clean up. Sometimes you may get one of them as a waiter. It’s new to them, and well, they just don’t get it always. They don’t get the whole deal of what it means to serve and to be on their toes. So they may forget something you ordered, or give it to the wrong person, or not be very communicative in the way a waiter needs to be. Learning about these things is all part of the training.
A friend of mine took on creating the mentorship program and I was asked to be part of the first group of mentors. My first day of going in as a mentor was challenging for me. Having no idea who I was being assigned to made me a little nervous.
The idea was for me to go in about once a week, have lunch with the kid assigned to me and engage in conversation. Then I was to check-in by phone at least once a week. I worried and wondered what the heck we would talk about.
Our life experience was so different, from different parts of town, almost like worlds away. The only thing really connecting us was the fact that we were both born and raised New Orleans. That was pretty significant in itself owing to our love for the place.
So on my first day as a mentor I’m down at the cafe and here comes this skinny kid with cornrow hair cascading to his shoulders with tattoos on his neck and some on his arms. His black skin showed them as only outlines, not like the bright colorful tattoos on whites.
Somehow I had to get past all of these differences and get past my judgements to be able to sit and be with him and regard him in some ways as equal, otherwise my role of mentor would come off as false and patronizing.
So after asking him a little about his life and family we found common ground in that both of us were artists. My being a musician and writer and him doing drawing and sketching. At our next meeting he brought in his sketchbook to show me what he’d done. I could see that he was really talented and he told me he wanted to do tee-shirts. That was pretty cool. He already seemed to have the entrepreneurial spirit. As the weeks went on and I got to know him I really liked him and admired him for what he was committing himself to.
So I only had 6 weeks to make some kind of impact on Larry. But as it turned out he seemed to have his head screwed on pretty straight and there was not really much I could do or say to have any impact really. Perhaps I was the first white guy he’d really gotten to know from the other side of town.
So it was mainly just taking the time to meet with him and see where he was at and what he needed. It turned out not much. We had good conversations and he was always very well-mannered and courteous, he had been raised pretty well by what seemed to be a loving family.
He told me he had ambitions of starting his own restaurant some day away from New Orleans. I asked him what he wanted to do that for and I informed him that I know in his young life that he has not done much traveling and seen a lot of the world as I have. But I said that of all the places I’ve seen in Europe, the middle east and all states on the North American continent there was no place like New Orleans.
Our scheduled mentoring time of six weeks was coming to a close and I determined that I wanted to continue our meetings perhaps over an occasional lunch. So I called him one day and he suggested we meet at the IHOP on Canal Street. I got there early to find that the AC had broken down that day. Although it was not real hot in the place it was stuffy and uncomfortable.
Larry finally showed up and we sat and chatted, tolerated the stuffy warmth of the place, and had a little something to eat. I found out that he had to take the bus and streetcar to get to the restaurant. I didn’t realize that he lived in Central City. We had a good conversation but it was all pretty much surface stuff, me asking him questions, imparting him wisdom and not getting too deep. I gave him a book of poems The Way of Life by Lao Tzu.
Several weeks passed and I called him to set up another time for a lunch this time close to where he lived. I brought another inspirational book with me that I thought he might like. This time I decided to really go deeper in our conversation and I asked asked him about his situation and his life.
He told me that he’d been in jail, picked up for driving in a car that contained a few marijuana cigarettes and was working on getting his record cleared by the courts. One funny but sad discovery he made while incarcerated was some uncles and cousins who had suddenly disappeared he encountered in the few days he was in prison. “Oh, so this is what happened to you all,” he told them. “Everyone in the family was wondering where you all had gone to.”
Then he revealed that he had recently seen a guy get shot through the head and killed outside his home, a guy on a bicycle. His mother had been terrified when she heard the shot thinking that it might be him. He said when he saw what happened he did not stick around, he quickly disappeared because he did not want the shooter to see who he was for fear that he might be next. And in that moment I understood why folks who’ve seen these crimes don’t come forward. It’s simple survival.
Then I decided to go deeper in our conversation. I asked him, “Why is that all of these black kids are shooting each other?” He said very simply, “Because they don’t have fathers.” I was taken aback by his honesty and candor. And also what seems like the simplicity of the solution of the whole terrible violence problem we have in this city. And from the mouth and heart and soul of someone who knows, who lives amidst the violence.
He went on to say that they don’t have anyone to look up to, no one to guide them, show them what’s right and wrong and they get mixed up with the wrong people who give them some sense of belonging and mentoring except that it is of the destructive kind.
I was also amazed that he was aware of and willing to admit a major challenge in the city’s black population: the ongoing and destructive effect of fatherless homes. Had I not been willing to do this mentoring gig for Cafe Reconcile I would never had had the opportunity to be face to face with someone who is living amidst the violence and lost lives and opportunity that is our city’s shame and embarrassment.
You know we see and hear about it in the papers and TV and radio but it’s really just news and stories we hear at arm’s length, it’s really hard to “get” until you actually know a member of the community it’s affecting, where you can sit down and actually talk with someone and get to know them on a friendship basis as I had the opportunity to do.
For months I did not hear from Larry. The phone number I had for him no longer worked. When I would hear about a shooting in Central City I wondered if somehow he had gotten in the crossfire or been targeted for some reason or other.
I had last heard that he had been working down at the restaurant Sylvain on Chartres Street in the French Quarter, a job that he had gotten soon after his graduation from the Cafe Reconcile program. One evening I was in the Quarter with my friend who had been in charge of the mentorship program. She suggested we pass by the restaurant to see if Larry was there.
We walked down the alley way toward the inner patio and to the kitchen. I peeked in the door and there was Larry. He looked at me blankly for half a second and then his face lit up when he realized who it was. He came up to me and threw his arms around me and we hugged for a good bit. We were both so glad and excited to see one another.
I was glad to see he was doing so well and he apologized for not sending me his new number. We took a photo with our arms around each other. It was really good to see him. Here was someone who made it out and was already making something good of his life.