I called the number.
“Hello?” It was a low, thick smoker’s voice.
“Hi, is this Chris?”
“Hi, I’m a friend of Billy’s, and I’ve got a roof that needs to be tarped. He suggested I give you a call.”
“Where is it?”
I gave him the address.
“Alright, I’ll meet you there tomorrow morning. Bring tarps, a box of three-inch drywall screws, contractors bags, and a shovel.”
“Hey, man, you need a place to crash? I got room. I got a whole bunch of people staying over here.”
“Oh, I’m all set. Thank you though.”
Chris leaned against his truck—a red fifties Dodge pickup—smoking as I pulled up to the house. His face was tan and deeply lined. He wore a panama hat and a loose print shirt haphazardly cut off above the belly.
After introducing his sidekick, a younger punk-ish guy with short bleached hair, he got down to business. “Alright, we’re looking at a crew of four guys at seventy-five bucks an hour…” As he talked, he gestured emphatically with his nicotine-stained fingers.
“Yeah, each. It’s about a three hour job. You supply the materials.”
My mind raced to a quick and alarming tally. “Uh…” I said. “Holy shit!” I thought.
“Look, I know it’s a lot of money, but I gotta house and feed these guys. You know…”
“Uh… Okay,” I reluctantly agreed. In truth, it wasn’t the shelter and sustenance of his crew that moved me, but the gaping hole in my roof, the urgent need to fix it, and my complete lack of options. (This was the first of many price-shocks in the repair and restoration of our home. Later, any amount measured in the hundreds instead of the many thousands came to seem like chump-change, hardly worth a second thought. But it was a hard lesson to learn.)
“Alright, the guys’ll be by this afternoon.”
We each went on our way. He no doubt had a busy day ahead of him, purchasing champagne and filets for his crew and fluffing their feather pillows. I had to make lots of staticky, panicked phone calls to spouses and insurance companies and drive the long drive back out of the city to find a functioning ATM from which to withdraw lots and lots of cash.
That afternoon I waited. The large wad of money sat awkwardly in my pocket. They didn’t show.* Finally they called, “Meet us in the morning.”
In the morning they did show. By the time I arrived,** a crew was clambering up and down ladders and swarming over my roof. They weren’t quite what I’d expected (though perhaps I should have).
Chris and his sidekick were back, and they were accompanied by two more guys, one gal, and a nasty looking pit bull tied under the truck with a large rope. They were a motley bunch with various strange configurations of too much or too little hair, weird clothes, weird shoes, weird hats, weird tattoos, and weird piercings.
The motley-est of the bunch was Claire, no mere eccentric, no casual dabbler in the niceties of body-alteration, but a straight up poster child of modern-primitivism, a full on carnie-freakedy-freak.
She had many notable traits. I directly observed the following:
- She had tattoos all over her body, including extensive facial tattoos. Her eyebrows were shaven and replaced by ornate curlicues. An elaborate filigree traced the perimeter of her lips.
- She had dozens of piercings, the most notable being through the flesh at her Adams apple.
- Her hair was shaved in a strange, irregular pattern.
- Her attire consisted of a spangled, rainbow-colored, sequined top and cargo pants (the latter was apparently a concession to her roofing work—normally, she informed me, she wore hot pants).
- Her tongue was forked. (The tip had been sliced down the middle about three-quarters of an inch deep.)
- She was drinking bourbon from the bottle at ten o'clock in the morning.
- She was an emotional train wreck. Within the first minute of my arrival, she was in tears, complaining that there was nothing for her to do because there weren't enough safety lines, and that Chris wouldn't let her on the roof. (I silently commended him on his good judgment.)
- She was the weakest link. If this had been an episode of Survivor: Carnie Roofers in Paradise, she would have been the first one voted off the island. Clearly, the crew had been hastily improvised, and as best as I could figure out, she had been recruited because she was the sort-of-girlfriend of one of the guys. She appeared to have no roofing skills whatsoever. This eventually led to a whispered conversation between Chris and myself in which I made clear that I was not paying his obscene hourly rate for someone to cry on my porch. His response was, "Yeah, she's not working out. I gotta lose that chick."
- After her initial breakdown, she was actually quite good company. (She was kind enough to share her bourbon, and I accepted. I don’t normally drink bourbon at ten o’clock in the morning with carnie-freaks, but these were not normal times—and I figured the booze was strong enough to kill any carnie-cooties.)
- She had run away from the circus several months earlier. (I mean “carnie” quite literally.)
- She had been at Burning Man when Katrina struck.
- While there, she had raised $30,000 for Katrina victims: "Man, I was right there with the best art and the best drugs in the whole world, and I didn't get drunk. I didn't get high. I didn't fuck anyone. All I did was raise money!"
- In addition to being a "roofer", she was a stripper, working at Big Daddy's in the evening. (I confess, I had a hard time imagining anyone paying money to see her naked, but perhaps, during the Katrina-induced stripper shortage, clubs had to take what they could get—and maybe horny FEMA contractors weren't that picky.)
- She was going to be in Hustler. (Again, I found this a little hard to believe, but…) "Yeah, I got a friend—a journalist—who's working down here for them right now. You got to promote yourself, you know. Of course, it doesn't hurt that I'm fucking him. Ha!"
- In her free time, she operated as a "one woman welcoming committee for the city", getting drunk in the Quarter, parading around with a tinfoil parasol, being the life of every party.
- As a part of her "welcoming committee" activities, she convinced groups of drunken National Guardsmen to form human pyramids with her on top and had them take pictures of the spectacle. Apparently, they never picked up on the political satire. (Sadly, she didn’t have any of these photos herself—they had all been taken with the Guardsmen’s cameras—but they’re supposedly out there somewhere.)
“I’m also a graffiti artist,” Chris told me. “I tagged my own building. This fucker—call’s himself the ‘Gray Ghost’—he’s got some sort of problem—think’s he’s cleaning up the city and goes around painting over other people’s art—this fucker paints over my tag on my fucking building. I chased that fucker down the block with a hammer…”
I tried to pet the dog but withdrew when he tried to eat my hand. When we ran out of tarps, I trekked across the river to the Westbank for more. (Chris slipped me a twenty to pick up cigarettes. The predicament of the nicotine-addict was much like that of the caffeine-addict.)
In time, they were done. As the carnies loaded up the truck, I counted the thick stack of twenties into Chris’ calloused hand. He scrawled a near-illegible receipt on a piece of dirty paper, and we parted ways.
I was happy to have my roof tarped. I was equally happy to be done with them.
* But the Rock Stars of the Mold Intelligentsia did show up, looking to do a bit of sampling. They went through the house swabbing little patches of fuzz. (“Could that be [long string of Latin]?” “I think it is [long string of Latin]!”) Their grad-student minion toted the air-sampler from room to room. (They later sent me a formal letter on university stationary listing our astronomically high spore-counts, enumerated by species.) I noted—with relief and a touch of bitterness—that they certainly weren’t following their own previously prescribed and impossibly baroque safety protocols; they wore street clothes and disposable masks, nary a shower cap to be seen. Then they were off to another house, eager to try the next selection in our city’s cornucopia of moldy wonders.
** I was waylaid by the glorious appearance of free coffee, served from folding tables on the sidewalk in front of a nearby coffee shop. The owners had driven all the fixings (including potable water) down from Baton Rouge in a rental truck, and almost instantly a large, happy crowd of gabbing neighbors had gathered in the middle of the previously hushed neighborhood.