When I was six, I began to notice my brothers’ and sisters’ daddies come around on Fridays and Saturdays and give them money. I ask my mama, “Where my daddy at?”
She say, “I don’t know. He might be in his bird house.”
I ask, “What is this bird house?”
She say, “Jail, where he always at.”
My mama had eight kids and I had one strong will. We were five boys and three girls with three or four different daddies.
The New Orleans neighborhood I came up in, you can see the ladies, the players, the hustlers, the dogfights, the stolen cars. It be right there. You sit on the porch, and it like watchin’ a wrassling match. Some action gonna go on all the time. If there ain’t men doing violence, women be fighting about card game or about men.
My oldest brother used to say he gonna break my arm if I don’t go to school. The more I aware what he gonna do, the more I got in trouble. My brother would pick me up, hold me to the ceiling and drop me. Boom! One hour later I go right back and disobey him.
After a while nothin’ hurt you. It like a bee sting, it hurt for a minute and go away.
One day another brother send me out for Ritz crackers and beef jerky. All he say, “Don’t pay for it.” He tell me the only way he let me go outside is if I don’t pay for it. He make me promise not to let my mama know. That’s how I got started. I was seven years old.
When I was 15, to get into the clubhouse with my friends you hadda bring food. So I stole sardines. I got caught and got sent to juvenile detention.
In juvie, I learned from other inmates how to smoke weed and snort cocaine, which visitors smuggled to them inside potato chip bags.
Ten years later I met up with my daddy in Louisiana State Penitentiary. He arranged to have me moved to the section where he at.
He said, “Man, let me tell you somethin’. I love you, but I had to do what I had to. I just don’t wanna see you die here beside me.”
So I know that mean my daddy got a little care about me. That make me want to stay out. I told him, “We all make mistakes.”
I made plenty of mistakes too, but I believe in second chance. I didn’t give people time to communicate with me. I was on drugs, and all I could think was one thing: find a way to get high.
Three weeks before Katrina hit, I got released from prison after serving 18 months for burglary. During the days I went to the projects and hung out with old friends. I was back on the street but staying out of trouble.
Then the rain began, and I heard a broadcast about a big storm comin’. My ears perked up. Whenever there was bad weather on the way, my criminal mind turned to negative thoughts.
While people were talking about the hurricane, I was thinkin’ how I could go out and do some hustling—break into cars, stores, homes. I wasn’t hoping for a hurricane, just enough of a pourdown for the power to go off, so I could go out and get things I couldn’t afford to buy, like clothes, shoes, and televisions. And, of course, drugs.
When I did crime, I didn’t think about gettin’ locked up. That like jinx to me. I always expected to get away with it, even though I always got caught. It was the only life I knew.
With all the hurricane talk, friends was sayin’ things like, “You got the whole of New Orleans in your pocket.”
But it got dangerous, and I had to think how to survive. For that, I be glad I got some skills I learned in prison.
For Gerald Anderson, a brewing storm meant an opportunity to break into cars, stores, and homes. From age 15 to 37, a cycle of drugs, burglary, and prison was all he knew. Then, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees
broke, Anderson's focus shifted, and he called upon skills he had learned in prison to help rescue many who were trapped. In his new memoir he masterfully weaves in his life story, described in bullets below.
Gerald Anderson’s inspiring story is filled with hot button issues: prison, homelessness, drug addiction and recovery, as well as one man's resilience and determination to turn his life around. It's also about an unusual friendship and writing partnership between a poor 47-year-old African-American man and a financially comfortable 69-year-old white lady.
Grew up in poverty in New Orleans.
Dropped out of school in seventh grade.
Lived with his father for the first time at age 25, in prison.
Spent his life, from age 15, in and out of prison, mostly in.
Was released from prison three weeks before Hurricane Katrina at age 37.
Rescued victims of the flooding, including an elderly woman having a seizure, a man without legs, a woman in labor.
Looked after nearly 300 elderly, children, and others in the projects with the help of his homeboys.
Evacuated to Washington, D.C. where he experienced drug addiction, prison, homelessness.
Began to turn his life around in 2013, selling and writing for Street Sense, D.C.’s street newspaper.
Wrote stories beloved by his customers, who pooled airline miles to send him back to his beloved New Orleans in 2013 for the first time since his 2005 evacuation.
Met Street Sense editor Susan Orlins and for 18 months met with her weekly to tell his Katrina story while she typed.
Sentenced to a drug treatment program in May 2014.
Moved into a recovery home three months later, where he has been living substance-free ever since.
Published his memoir, told in his New Orleans African-American dialect, on August 1, 2015.
Copyright ©2015 Susan Orlins and Gerald Anderson.
"Still Standing" photo and Gerald's headshot by Lily Thneah. Video of Gerald and Susan by Bonnie Rich.