Friday, July 6, 2007

Finding Fats' house

Fats Domino's house as it looks now

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Fats Domino. At age 79, Fats is one of America’s few living rock and roll legends— and he lives here, in New Orleans.

Despite his fame and fortune, Fats has always chosen to live where he was raised, in the Lower Ninth ward of the city, a traditionally low-income, working-class neighborhood. Devoted to his house and his city, and concerned about his ailing wife, Fats and family decided to stay in their one-of-a-kind shotgun mansion during hurricane Katrina. They were rescued from their rooftop by a rescue boat as the floodwaters rapidly rose.

Since the storm, Fats has lived on the West bank of the Mississippi, outside of city limits. Until recently, it looked like Fats may never return to his own home, which, like most homes in the devastated Lower Ninth, was in need of a costly total renovation.

Haz and I were recently driving through the Lower Ninth ward on our way to St. Bernard Parish, another hurricane devastated area where several of his sisters, cousins, and their families have recently returned to their rebuilt homes. We crossed the Industrial Canal bridge and were driving down one of the Ninth ward’s main thoroughfares, North Claiborne Ave.. In order to connect to St. Bernard Highway, we needed to get to St. Claude Ave., the other main road which runs parallel to Claiborne. We turned right off of Claiborne, down an unmarked street, past many overgrown lawns and abandoned homes still marked by graffiti left by Katrina search and rescue teams. As St. Claude emerged perpendicular to us, all of a sudden a burst of yellow appeared in my passenger window.

“Fats’ house! It’s Fats Domino’s house! Oh my God! Turn around!” I yell at Haz.
“Oh! Wow! Ok!”

Haz turns onto St. Claude, does a U-turn, and turns right onto Caffin Avenue, which just so happens to be the street that Fats Domino once lived on.

News articles later tell us he will soon reside there again soon.

We slow down and look out the window. A large sign tells us that the house is being repaired by the Tipitina’s Foundation. We already know this because Haz and I were fortune enough to see Fats sing and play piano at Tipitina’s in May, a performance rumored to be his last. Despite his age and lifelong stage fright, Fats grinned ear-to-ear while singing lyrics we all know; his fingers jumped all over the piano keys as if automatically programmed to do so.

I have been an even greater fan of Fats Domino since seeing that show, where we were told that some of the proceeds from Fats’ new CD and historic last show would go towards the rebuilding of his home.

Fat’s house is yellow and black, labeled by large black “F D” initials and a neon sign that reads “Fats Domino publishing.” A painted black and yellow iron fence stands in front of the large shotgun home that extends back like a shoebox. The house is, quite literally, a sudden burst of bright light on a vacant, flood-ravaged street.

I have been trying to figure out where Fats lives ever since we saw him perform his probable last live show at Tipitina’s in May. I searched on the Internet, looked on maps, but couldn’t find an address for Fats anywhere. The only thing I knew was that he lived in the Lower Ninth ward.

I was able to find pictures of his house, however, so when it suddenly burst into view that Sunday afternoon, I knew exactly where we were. Like Fats, his house just doesn’t seem real— it looks like it belongs on a movie set or in a museum. Instead, it’s smack in the middle of Katrina ground zero, a simple turn down St. Claude or Claiborne. The house is incredibly unassuming (it’s no Graceland), makes no exceptions for what it is (you know that no aristocrat or scholar lives here), and visions of it just stick in your mind with happy, brilliant energy— just like the man who calls it home.

Renovations on Fats’ house include restoring the back end of a 1959 pink Cadillac (see photo) that once served as a couch in the living area of the home; Fats shared the stage with this restored couch when he performed at Tipitina’s in May. The room where the couch used to lie may be painted its original pink in order to match the Cadillac couch.

As we drive down St. Claude, which quickly turns into St. Bernard Highway, I am filled with awe and a huge, unabashed love for this city of New Orleans, a city where the people raise funds so that musicians can return to their colorful homes filled with quirky furniture and a million unforgettable, non-floodable memories. New Orleanians sure can’t count on the State and Federal government to help them out, but they sure can help each other. The Tipitina’s Foundation, with its projects to restore Fats’ house, build a musician’s village, and start a fund to bring musical instruments to city public schools, is doing just that.