NORCO TO KENNER
It was a stormy day. We started our run at the Corps of Engineers station at the Bonnet Carré Spillway. It was dark when we started and seemed to keep getting darker during Tom’s run. I stopped for a bathroom break as I drove ahead and found that the power was out at the gas station. I knocked on the door and they let me in—navigating my way by cell phone flashlight.
As we ran, the school busses were out in full force on the River Road. Their bright white flashing lights looked like lightning, but fortunately all we saw was rain. Tom handed off to me just after the I-310 bridge—7.4 miles south of Norco. I took off down the levee, splashing through puddles. As I closed in on Kenner, Louisiana, the river became more visible as the forests along the Mississippi River shoreline thinned out.
This stretch of our journey is very industrial with refineries, tanks, pipelines, docks, barges and ocean-going ships being loaded for their journey overseas. We ran the top of the levee on a nice paved trail that runs from Bonnet Carre to Audubon Park in New Orleans. I ran the last 7.2 miles into LaSalle Landing where I was greeted by Mark Glorioso (General Services), Heidi Glorioso (Economic Development), Robin Dallafior (Kenner Television-KTV), Carolyn Barrett (Visit Kenner), and Kelly Hand (Economic Development). Thankfully the rain had just about stopped, and Tom and I gave a quick interview with Kenner TV with a nice backdrop of boats on the river behind us. As we descended the levee, Mark offered us a cold drink from the cooler of sodas and waters he had brought and lodged under a tent in the plaza.
Still soaking wet, it was time for a quick change of clothes then across the River Road to Heritage Hall to scope out the venue for tomorrow’s performance. We did a bit of visiting, then headed up the street to meet Nick Congemi, former police chief at the Gendusa’s restaurant. We tucked into a side room of Gendusa’s to settle in with Nick. Apparently Congemi is actually “Cancemi” in Sicily, he tells us, as he couldn’t find any of his relatives when he went back there searching with his American spelling. His brother who is former councilman and mayor here in Kenner was going to join us but he has a myopathy and is having difficulty getting around, especially in the rainy weather like this.
However, Nick didn’t need any help telling a story. We started out from the beginning—his dad came here at 2 years old. Most Sicilians came through New Orleans, not Staten Island, he said. His dad came across the river to work on the cane farms. Italian immigrants were a substitute for slave labor as times changed. His father became a shoe repairman and had a shop in Metairie eventually, but they were still very poor to where his mother also went to work. They had no indoor plumbing, lived in a home with a cistern, an icebox, kerosene stoves. There were 6 kids in a bedroom.
Nick’s dad had a 3rd grade education, but he knew how to put it to work. Nick, however, didn’t want to be a shoe repairman. There were grocery stores in every neighborhood, so Nick started delivering groceries at a young age. He also collected bottles for deposit money—two cents a bottle, and he delivered newspapers. He dropped out of high school so he could work more stocking shelves and delivering groceries.
Life changed for Nick one night over a poker game, or was it the morning after? It was 1965 and he went to sit in on a big game, one way to big for him. He remembers playing “down the river,” and he went all in on three 7’s, but someone pulled a flush on the last card. He lost it all. The next morning he woke up and his mom handed him a letter that had come from the government. Nick says Vietnam wasn’t a big deal in 1965, so he wasn’t too worried, but he didn’t want to leave home. He doesn’t like cold weather at all.
First they sent him to Fort Polk, and then he thought maybe Germany or Korea, but no, Hawaii! You think, oh, a paradise! But no again, 20 mile marches on a small island, he was going around in circles. They operated the jungle guerrilla warfare training center there. Once they got on a plane and thought they were going to the big island, but hours and hours went by, and they ended up landing in Vietnam.
Once back from Vietnam, Nick got a job loading planes at the airport, eventually moving up to the ticket counter. He also married his sweetheart Linda in 1967 (still married to this day). Linda’s not Italian, but apparently her father thought better of Nick after he’d fought in the war. Nick’s work at the airline, Pan Am at the time, was tentative early on due to a strike where he was off work for an extended time. With nothing to do, Nick got involved with a fellow coworker Larry Hooper’s campaign for City Council. That means he also got involved with the whole “ticket”—that is, the accompanying campaigns for mayor and chief of police as well.
In the end, his friend and the ticket won, landing him an offer to join the police force. And since Nick had nothing else to do, with the strike still going, he became a policeman, just like that! He borrowed a gun and actually still worked at the airport—his first assignment was airport security! Later, though, things got real for Nick. His first encounter in the field was when his partner left for lunch and he had to respond to a call. Nick had to use a cheat sheet to decode the call, a printed sheet he was carrying with him, and horrifyingly the code read out “attempted suicide.”
He got to the residence and the husband and wife were standing there, still alive. Nick told them that if she’s talking about it, she’s not going to do it, not knowing what else to say. He then drove away, and he got the call again! Oh no, he thought, she did it this time! He got there, and she had shot herself in the leg.
In those days you were a coward if you called for a backup, Nick says. There were no SWAT teams back then—you did it alone. Six months later they came off the strike, and he hung onto both jobs. Two full time jobs? He would try it. He did it for 14 years. He was police chief for 16 years. Then went on to police the Causeway as well.
Nick joined us over in the main section of Gendusa’s for lunch with Mark and Heidi and Carolyn. We were hoping to meet up with the Mayor and his team as well, but they couldn’t make it due to a long council meeting. Little did we know that we’d catch up with him later in the day at the Mexican restaurant up the road.
After a great lunch of ravioli special and classic muffuletta sandwich, we were off to get our margarita fix… and talk with the mayor of course. A long table of staffers was organized around Mayor Ben Zahn, but before they could get their food (but not before we could get our margaritas), both Mayor Zahn and Cultural Diversity Coordinator Rafael Saddy came over to join us at a smaller set up. Rafael suggested the mango margarita and Tom wasn’t disappointed. I stuck with the classic.
On to business, though—Mayor Ben Zahn has been in office for 2.5 years now. He’s not originally from Kenner, but his family has a business that has been operating in Kenner for years, so now he’s put down roots there. Kenner has five districts, and Mayor Zahn wants to make sure that districts 1 and 2 are involved. These are historically districts of color, and this is why he’s created the position for Rafael.
Raphael’s family is from Nicaragua—his mother came in 1968 to New Orleans and brought him here. He says Kenner was similar to his home in Nicaragua. The hispanic community in Kenner is growing with the Honduran population the largest and a small amount of Guatemalans. Rafael served in the US Navy and then has worked in city government for over 35 years now. His children have lived in Kenner and other places, but they keep coming home so he cannot downsize.
Just as we were starting to get into a conversation about Mayor Zahn’s family, he and Rafael’s food showed up at the other table. It was clear the rest of the staffers over there were waiting on their leader. We decided it was best to leave the mayor to his lunch and catch up with him another time.
From there, Tom and I drove out to Lake Ponchartrain (Laketown) in the heavy rain to see a bit of Kenner’s north side. Circling back to the Planetarium to meet Mark and Heidi. They gave us a tour of the impressive facility before bringing us over to our lodging at the Emergency Operations Center bunks in the city building in Rivertown. We finished the night off with a nice dinner at the Porch and Patio where we ran into Mark and had an impromptu conversation about the city. The storm was blowing in, so we climbed into the bunks at the shelter and all was quiet until morning.