Singer’s Maplewood Gig Conjures Up Memories of His Family's Brentwood Refuge From Katrina
Spencer Bohren's concert at Focal Point on Friday will be a homecoming of sorts, not just because he’s played there many times but because the Bohrens were temporary Brentwood residents after Hurricane Katrina plucked them from their home five years ago.
In August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, Spencer Bohren, like many New Orleans residents, didn’t want to leave his home. Bohren, an “American roots” musician who spends about 150 days a year on the road, had just returned from an out-of-town gig.
“I had just gotten home, and I did not want to go,” he said. In fact, Bohren hadn’t looked at a weather report until his son’s girlfriend was “literally coming unglued,” he said.
Reluctantly, on Aug. 28, the last day of the evacuation, Bohren consulted a weather report. Bohren, his wife Marilyn, and Tucker, the only child of the couple’s still living at home, hurriedly packed a few things into the family car before leaving.
Marilyn wanted to take along the brand new computer she had just loaded with data. It would turn out to be a “brilliant” move.
Like others, the Bohrens left New Orleans thinking they would return in a few days. Instead, they kept going north, trying to escape the storm and its aftermath. Watching television reports in Hot Springs, AR, they realized they weren’t going home for a while.
The family traveled to St. Louis for Bohren’s next scheduled gig. As always, when he performs here, Bohren stayed with longtime friends Dr. Mike and Carrie Vlastos of Millstadt, IL. This time, his wife and son stayed too.
In a stroke of luck, the Vlastos’ friends—Dr. Vito and Mary Mantese—had just moved to Illinois from Brentwood and had not yet sold their house. They told the Bohrens to use the house for as long as they needed it.
After learning of the devastation in New Orleans, Mantese spoke with her husband who said they weren’t in a rush to sell the Brentwood home.
“We didn’t know them very well, but we thought we could help them out because they didn’t have a place to stay,” she said.
She invited the Brentwood neighbors over to meet the Bohrens before the family moved in. Everyone was excited to help someone from New Orleans, she said.
Mantese and her husband were happy to help too. “It was really fun having them. They’re such nice people,” she said.
Tucker immediately fell in with the neighborhood kids who decided he should go to their school, St. Louis University High, which he did.
The neighbors became quick friends. “Julie and Todd Merrill were very helpful. They made Tucker feel welcome, which was important because he was a teenager, and he had just lost all his friends,” Bohren said. “He just kind of dropped into this other world, this new high school. It was great.”
Bohren returned some of the kindness sent his way. Angie and Steve Potter's teenage son, Jeff, was a budding pianist so Bohren gave him insider tips on the profession.
"It was extremely nice of Spencer to take such an interest in Jeff," Angie Potter said. Bohren even arranged for Jeff to play an event in Florida.
Bohren said he felt fortunate because so many evacuees, including those stuck in the Houston Astrodome, faced perilous times.
“That had to be awful, and we had this fabulous house with groceries from the Whole Food store on the shelf and lovely people all over the neighborhood,” he said.
One night, the Bohrens came home to a mailbox full of gift certificates that the neighbors had pooled together to purchase, Bohren said. “We were able to go and buy what we needed. It was just ever so generous.”
That computer Marilyn Bohren insisted on packing came in handy once the family settled into its Brentwood digs as they engaged in what Bohren called 24-hour-a-day networking with people all over the country. Using lists of people they knew, the Bohrens put donors in contact with people in need.
“We had houses and jobs and cars and a lot of donations. We were kind of a clearinghouse for a lot of things,” he said.
Maplewood’s Focal Point and its community of musicians and patrons also came to the Bohrens’ aid.
In addition to hosting a benefit for them, Focal Point offered Bohren a two-night weekend gig so he could make some money, because his schedule was destroyed.
Work offers came from other places as well, and Bohren was soon on the road making a living.
Although they enjoyed Brentwood, there’s no place like home, so the Bohrens were back in New Orleans for Christmas, living in one room of their badly damaged home. The older portion of their house, built in the 1860s, remained, but the rest of it was destroyed.
“We lost a lot of possessions, instruments and mementos and furniture, but we didn’t lose any family members, and we didn’t lose our heart,” he said.
Spencer Bohren will play a show at 8 p.m. on Friday at Focal Point. Tickets cost $20.