On the day I met Helen and Paul, we had just made the long train trip from Montreal to Halifax and I was trying to decide between showering and eating before my book launch — I figured it might be hard to find vegan food in a new city and I didn’t have time for both. Paul, who’d picked us up, ushered us into a cosy kitchen to meet Helen. She offered me some stew, and regretfully — both because I was hungry and because I always felt bad rejecting people’s hospitality — I told her that I was hard to feed: I was vegan.
“We’re vegan too!” Helen exclaimed.
This was a lovely introduction to the delightful paradox of Helen and Paul. They looked and acted like folksy people from a simpler era, but were profoundly political. Not just in what they ate, but where they chose to live: they moved from their poor neighbourhood in Halifax where I met them to poorer neighbourhoods in New Orleans.
I visited them twice in New Orleans, which was a city that seemed as charming and magical as the couple themselves. The first time we were so in love with how they lived I asked Susan to walk through their bright yellow house with a camera.
The last time I visited it was around Hallowe’en, and they explained to me that some of the kids were so poor they trick or treated without a costume. So they’d bought plastic masquerade masks as well as candy. “And what are you, young man?” I remember Paul asking one kid who didn’t have a costume. The kid mumbled that he was just a boy. Paul handed him a mask and said, “Well, now you’re Super Just-A-Boy!” The kid put it on and went away happy.
The neighbourhood was pretty dangerous, though. They knew it. Paul told me that people had been shot nearby, and being a doctor he couldn’t be blind to the violence. It seemed to me that what Paul and Helen did was expect the best from people, give them the benefit of the doubt, and most times their goodwill and love was echoed back to them. But not all the time.
I’d emailed them after Katrina to see if they were all right. I got a postcard in response, saying that they and their 1 year old Francis Pop had left one day before the storm, and that they were now thinking of going back to New Orleans. “Are we crazy?” Paul asked.
They did move back, and a few days ago, someone came into their house at night and shot them both. Helen died, and Paul and Francis Pop survived.
Helen and Paul willfully and consciously lived in a dangerous neighbourhood, in a neighbourhood where they stood out as the only white family. Part of me wishes they hadn’t, of course, but part of me admires them greatly. To challenge race and poverty injustices they bravely put themselves in harm’s way, and if people can honour soldiers or cops for being willing to die for their beliefs I certainly can honour Helen.
John Porter has put together a beautiful page of photos of Helen, and other friends have put together helenhill.org. I have two videos that Susan shot on our 2001 visit, one is the walk through of their old house (Paul is the musician in the hat and Helen is the lady in the kitchen), and the other is of her at Zeitgeist Gallery launching her “cookbook” of low budget filmmaking, Recipes For Disaster.