Monday, May 31, 2010

RSfMS(wC)R: Big Lollipop

Our (silly little) series continues:


I'm not sure what's up with the giant lollipop, but I'm pretty sure it's ripe for psychoanalysis. (Did you ever have one of those giant swirly lollipops? You're revolted by it long before you're done. And trying to save it for later typically results in sticky lint-covered disappointment.)

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Babies!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Random Stuff from My Sketchbook (with Commentary) Redux

Recently some of my digi-devices weren't been on speaking terms, making it irksomely difficult to scan things, and as a consequence, very few illustrations graced these pages (er, screens) of late. But now I have a new scanner, and it's once again easy-peasy lemon-squeezy to whisk doodles from the page into the digi-ether. So let's celebrate by kicking off a new series, "Random Stuff from My Sketchbook (with Commentary) Redux".*

First up, this guy:


That's the random stuff from my sketchbook. Now for the commentary: I don't remember drawing this guy though he's a fairly recent creation (that happens some time), but presumably he was a harbinger of the onset of swimsuit season. He doesn't look very happy about it. (Really, does anybody. Swimming? Great. Publicly parading around in something resembling underwear? A fraught business.) His plaid trunks are kind of rad, though. Maybe the water's cold.

* Which the more astute amongst you may have deduced is a sequel to our original series, "Random Stuff from My Sketchbook (with Commentary)" plain and simple.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Perdido Bay (and Environs*), Alabama

Where I was while I wasn't here:




































* And minutiae in those environs that I'm inexplicably compelled to photograph and post here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Potty Talk

Let's run down a very brief enumeration of some of the port o' potty companies I see around this-a-way:
Disgusting? Usually. Corny? Always. Funny? Yeah, I think they're pretty funny. (Though I haven't decided if they're straight-funny or meta-funny. I think mostly meta-.) I guess if you're in the business of collecting and transporting human excrement, you need a sense of humor (meta- or otherwise).

What port-o-humor do you have up your way?

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I'd like to a national map of stores that prominently advertise that they sell gizzards. I suspect we have more within a ten block radius than can be found in some entire states. (This, for what it's worth, is the gas station a block over from us.)

Post-Post-Diluvian Follies

Whoop, there it was. Our Follies are finally finished. Misery? Plenty. Funny? I like to think so.

Of course, the story didn't end there. We spent several more weeks in our Texan exile, returning to New Orleans in early November. The house had been gutted in our absence, the consequence of an incredibly complicated series of phone calls and remote orchestrations with contractors and demolition crews. (Sarah and the girls never actually saw it in its moldy state.) We moved into the small back apartment of a friend's unflooded house where we lived for the next-year-and-change as our home was (very slowly) restored. But we did finally come home. And the house looked pretty sprucey. And with the help of our family and the heroic efforts of some ace woodworkers, some of the old antiques were revived. (Some, not all. Solid wood pieces fared better. Anything with veneers bit it.) And the neighborhood slowly came back, as did most of the rest of the city. And then the Saints won the Super Bowl!

And now, well now I guess I get to write a new series about the hilarity that ensues when an oil rig blows up and gushes oil into the Gulf for weeks/months/etc. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha....heh... ugh.*

Onward and upward


* See, this get's to the root of our misery/time/humor conundrum. Nearly puking into one's respirator: frakkin' awful at the time but comedy gold later (or at least I think so). Gushing oil into the Gulf and ruining an ecosystem: frakkin' awful at the time and really never ever funny.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Jiggety Jog

My final morning came. I stashed my mucky gear in the trunk of Annou’s thoroughly trashed little car; crammed the backseat with salvaged clothes, toiletries, and valuables; thanked Fay and Jeff and said good-bye to the kids; filled my coffee thermos one last time; and went on my way.

On Jefferson Avenue, a pile of flooded trash covered the neutral ground. Above it in a tree, someone had hung a water-stained poster of the Beatles spray-painted with the words “Let it be...”

I passed by my neighborhood one last time, past the gray cars and wavering water line, past the billboard (“…HOU SHALT NOT KILL”), then onto the highway among the debris-hauling trucks, west towards Texas. The battered buildings of downtown receded. I drove across the parish line, through the suburbs, back into the swamps, through the Monday morning traffic of Baton Rouge, further west through more swamps, through the still-battered wake of Rita, past the endless exits of Houston.
I reached the outskirts of Austin in the late afternoon, tracing the distantly remembered suburban streets. It seemed like ages. Everything was strange—very clean and very crowded with a curious absence of Humvees. Finally, I turned through the gate of the apartment complex and parked the little white car. The girls rushed out (they were on the mend) and eagerly hugged my legs. I had never been away so long—two weeks—and barely had a chance until that moment chance to realize how much I missed them. Sarah came out smiling and hugged me too, then stood back and gave me a funny look.

“What?”

She hesitated.

“What?”

“Well...... you smell.”


A final shower removed the lingering stench of the city. The passage of several days soothed my jangled nerves. The better part of two years restored our home. And perhaps, with many more years, the city may once again be made whole.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Street flooding

Post-Diluvian Follies: Homeward Bound. I Wish I Was...

My hosts had graciously tolerated me for a week—guzzling their coffee each morning, returning each afternoon reeking like hell, eating their dinners, drinking their wine and potable water. As a small thank you, I took them to dinner at the pseudo-swanky (newly reopened) sushi restaurant. Midway through the meal, my phone rang. It was Sarah, and she was desperate.

“Louise and June both have the stomach flu! They’re throwing up constantly! All the sheets are covered in vomit! I can’t leave the apartment to do laundry! I can’t walk the dog! I can’t get groceries! I need help!”

“Um...”


The next morning I hustled, hoping to finish and be on the road by afternoon.

By late morning I was wheeling furniture on a hastily acquired dolly down the narrow hallway to the lone undamaged bedroom for storage. By mid-afternoon, I was lugging plates and glasses upstairs, gently filling a garbage bag with demitasses (a.k.a. “teacups”) and storing them in the bathtub (not a recommended method, but such were the times), rescuing old portraits from above the flood line, and stowing our befouled CDs for later restoration. (They were stolen before we had the chance.)

By late afternoon I was hosing down scattered asbestos tiles (it reduces the dust) and stacking them full to the rim in a large trash can next to two other large trashcans full of various domestic toxins (which I thoughtfully labeled for the patrolling EPA crews).

As the sky turned pink, I made one last survey and slammed shut the still swollen front door. Austin would have to wait until tomorrow.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Used tires

Post-Diluvian Follies: The End of Days

At the end of the week, the weather changed overnight from sweltering, noxious summer to clear, crisp fall. The sky turned from a gauzy, whitish haze to clear, radiant blue. With cooler temperatures, the pervasive stench lessened, and the inside of my house was actually tolerable.

The ground floor was now largely empty; only the sad antiques remained. They were in varying states of flooded disrepair, some stained and disjointed but clearly salvageable, others crumbling into hopeless shambles.

I couldn’t abandon any of them yet—even the lost causes (though I consoled myself that a catastrophic flood was an appropriate way for old New Orleans furniture to go). They’d traversed generations of family before coming into my care, and I wasn’t ready to haul them to the curb. For now, just stash them. Do the hard reckoning later.

A friend had an empty storeroom. John had the truck. I prepped the antiques for the move, dragging Victorian armchairs and settees one by one out to the porch, cutting out their upholstery, pulling out fistfuls of moldy horsehair and padding. Plumes of fine white flour-like spores billowed over me. (I wore my Desert Storm mask.) I puzzled sideboards and secretaries together, hunting down missing pieces from across the room, stashing them in garbage bags and duct taping them to their item-of-origin.



John’s loaded-up truck resembled something from the opening credits of Sanford and Son. Our formerly grand old furniture now looked like a trash picker’s haul on an off day. I eyed them nervously as we drove the few short blocks to the storeroom, fearing a modest pothole might deliver the final blow, turning the still marginally intact pieces into kindling.

We discovered the storeroom keys didn’t fit, and we couldn’t get the right ones until the afternoon. But hauling the frail things back to the house was not an option. After pondering the issue, we made our decision: stash them in the bushes until later. Leaving my family legacy in a pile among the weeds of an empty lot made me nervous. (My nerves were bad. Far smaller matters jangled them severely.)

John looked at the sad heap, “I think they’ll be okay.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Oops

In serializing my floodish-follies, I somehow neglected to post this installment, which should have rolled out a few days ago. Oops. Well, it's there now.

Post-Diluvian Follies: Sodom and Gomorrah

Late into my slop-week, we decided recreation was required. I had made serious headway, and my days in town were approaching an end. We all wanted to blow off steam. Calls were made. Kids were pawned off on grandmothers. And away we went.

We wove through the streets downtown, past the Love Boat, past the make-shift hospital where Jeff worked. (And where he had contracted a weird—though apparently harmless—rash on his forehead. It had been going around. None of the doctors could identify it, so they simply dubbed it “K-pox”).

Parking was easy. Canal Street, though crowded compared to the rest of the city, was a hushed shadow of its former bustle. Lights shone in vacant stores, illuminating their looted interiors. Clothing racks stood empty. Rejected castoffs littered the floors.

As we rounded onto Bourbon Street, the crowds thickened with drunk, horny men a long way from home.* We murmured to ourselves, “It’s almost like normal.” Then a squad of Feds in full body armor strolled by.

We found ourselves in a garish bar—fake palm trees and tropical tchatchkes cluttering every corner—famed for its glowing-green signature drink. I ordered a whiskey.



We met some cops Jeff knew. The scene was an alphabet soup of government and media: NOPD, FBI, CNN, ABC. We sat back, sipping our drinks, laughing and chit-chatting as the scene stirred around. Glossy reporters paired off in corners, pulling out phones and blackberries to earnestly swap tips and numbers. Others drank and flirted. Everybody seemed to be about business of one sort or another: shop-talk or sweet-talk.

An FBI agent, a severely drunk and plainly crazy young blond woman, overheard Jeff was a psychiatrist. Her eyes lit up. “You’re a psychiatrist? Ooh, diagnose me!” (In her oblivious state, she missed Fay’s flagrant eye-rolls and violent gagging sounds.) But after making no headway in her impromptu therapy session, she switched to a nearby male acronym.

The night went on. The drunks got drunker. A skeezy, sloppy dance party started. The kitsch novelty of the deeply crappy bar was wearing off, and we departed for home (hopelessly past curfew but without incident).

I remembered why I never… ever… hung out on Bourbon Street. Our outing, though much needed, was far from a return to normalcy—it was yet another marker of exactly how strange things remained.

* Some conservative religious leaders claimed that Katrina was punishment for the wickedness of the city. (I’d heard such comments myself while flipping through the Texas radio dial.) If so, God screwed up. Bourbon Street remained dry and returned to business in short order. The workaday corners of the city carried the heavy load.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


Louise slapped this on my back. (She thought she was pretty sneaky.) Ah yes, Prank Awareness, a key Piagetian developmental stage. But I worry where this will end: First a kick-me sign; then in retaliation, a spring-snake peanut brickle can; then what? a bucket of water over the top of the door? and then? and then? The potential ultimate consequences of a domestic prank war are fearsome (though I'm reasonably confident I would emerge victorious).

Post-Diluvian Follies: Frigi... Dare!

I saved the wretched kitchen for last. Floodwater slopped as I gingerly carried pots and pans to the back door where I tossed them in a rusty heap. Flies buzzed furiously as I scooped armloads of dry goods into trash bags. And there was the refrigerator, the white behemoth lying sideways in a pool of its own filth. It terrified me.

The plan was to stand it upright, then slide it across the floor through the goo, and finally shove it out the backdoor into the yard—not a long-term solution but good enough for now. I squatted down, got a grip, and heaved. It was much heavier than I’d expected. I heaved again, got my legs underneath, and with all my strength tipped it upright.

The plan went awry.

The refrigerator door swung open. Twenty-odd cubic feet of yellow-brown, frothy floodwater and rancid foodstuffs—vegetables, meat, Ziploc bags whose contents had liquefied, eggs whose shells had turned soft and translucent—gushed out and surged across the floor, splashing everywhere. (Sadly, I wasn’t wearing my ridiculous but waterproof overalls.)


Down/Up

The smell slammed me in the face. (My mask typically blocked even the most noxious of aromas, so the unmediated stench must have been simply horrific.) I felt the vomit surge in my throat. Though uncertain of the exact consequences of puking into my respirator, I was pretty sure it was the heinous first step in a hideous comedy-of-errors chain reaction that should be avoided at all costs. I had to leave.

I staggered backwards, slipped, and nearly fell into the carpet of maggots, lunged forward through the house and out the door, ripped my mask off, and gasped deeply.

I took a particularly vigorous shower that evening.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oh, Yeah...

I've been using cow manure (man-oor, man-yure—how do you say that?) to fertilize our plants. I needed more. I wrote myself a note: "More cow poo". Then the unmistakable voice of Christopher Walken popped into my head, repeating the phrase—weirdly accentuated: "More cow poo". Where'd that come from? I thought to myself. Then I remembered: Oh, yeah...

More cow poo.

Treme Explained

Dave Walker's "Treme Explained" series* is pretty damn good, a factoid-by-factoid breakdown of all of the local, obscure, and/or cryptic cultural references in each episode. Much of it will be familiar to many locals, but there's always a couple of gems to surprise and please even the most die-hard of New Orleans factoid-fanatics.

Mmm, factoids.

* In typically half-assed NOLA.com form, there isn't any actual tag of feed or link to just the series (well, actually there is, but it's two episodes out of date), but the full series is embedded, along with a bunch of other "Treme"-ish stuff, in that link I give.

Post-Diluvian Follies: "I Was Just Trying to Help"

Guests came to dinner one evening, friends of the family, a father and son back in town as FEMA contractors, training to travel around the outlying parishes and inspect damaged homes. The father was a strange, engaging older man who (when not FEMA-contracting) lived in the Caribbean and captained tour boats. He had spent his younger years in New Orleans, including a stint as a police officer. Though he seemed to possess a sort of eccentrically enlightened world view, he had seen the city’s murky underbelly and had the stories to tell.

He told of a time in the French Quarter when a suspect was trying to escape. “This was back in the sixties, and it wasn’t like it is now. It was like the Wild West.” (Things just then actually seemed remarkably like the Wild West, but I wasn’t going to quibble.) “We—my partner and I—we start shooting at him. We’re shooting at him, and then this other guy comes out of a bar to see what’s going, and he see’s the guy running away so he takes out his gun, and he starts shooting at the guy. So we tell him, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’, and he says, ‘What? I was just trying to help’...”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Poems About Coffee

Let's have a virtual poetry swap (no, not a "slam"), and let's have a unifying subject. Let's have that subject be coffee (the best of all possible subjects). Here's mine, "Broad Avenue" (I wrote it this morning):
The many lanes of
Broad Avenue,
In which cars twist
Like braids,
Are a pleasant place to be
When I drink my morning
Coffee.
Your turn.

Post-Diluvian Follies: Sloppin' II—The Grind

Fay called, she was in Metairie. Did I need anything?

“Could you get me a mop?”

She might have wondered how a paltry mop could help with such a huge mess (and I no longer remember the answer), but she was kind enough to oblige.

I was dragging some heap of muck to the curb as Fay and Mimi pulled up. When they saw me, their faces furrowed deeply with looks of maternal consternation. And in their faces I saw myself clearly—my absurd get-up and my absurd task—Sad Sack the Stinky Clown and His Heinous House of Horrors.


The trash kept piling up. Within a couple of days I had amassed a waist-high heap running half-way down the block. The next morning it was gone, whisked away by one of the many debris-hauling crews prowling the streets. In short order, I’d amassed a fresh, even larger heap. Another mound grew in the back yard.

(There were many more piles to come. Our house alone generated more trash than I ever could have imagined. And this was multiplied many tens-of-thousands-fold across the city. House after house looked like it had vomited its contents onto the street. The total amount of trash was stunning.)


In


Out

As the trash grew, my nerves declined. Any sense of initial excitement had long since faded, replaced by loneliness, fatigue, stress, and depression. Despite all my slogging, there was still much much more, and I began to seriously doubt I would ever finish. I grew indecisive, broken, and crazed. The long days in my vile, poisonous house took their toll. At night I slept poorly. I dreamt I was walking down long dark halls, sucking slowly and thickly through a respirator, my boots clunking heavily in the silence.

Post-Diluvian Follies: "It's Just Too Depressing!"

A friend had given me the name of her contractor. I called him.

“Your insurance company is going to try to screw you! Talk it up! Tell them it’s wicked up the walls. It’s wicked to the ceiling. There’s toxic mold! You’ve got to gut everything! Don’t sign anything!”

I thanked him.

That afternoon, the insurance adjuster arrived. (His last name was “Curry”. Our other adjuster’s was “Coffee”. Strange forces at work.) He was a fair, pudgy man with a deep southern accent, polite manners, and exhausted eyes. He’d been living in his car for weeks, he explained, traveling from claim to claim. I found him remarkably genial for a man living in a mid-size sedan, receiving daily earfuls from distraught claimants.

He measured, noted, and tabulated. He talked about depreciation models and replacement values and rates per square foot and lots of other things that made my head hurt. I watched him carefully. I saw—as best as I could determine—no overt attempt to screw me. He went on his way.


The contractor arrived. He was obviously, in normal times, a groomed, put-together man. Now, though superficially kempt, he had a wildness about him, an air of mania and an unhinged look in his eyes.

“You’ve gotta get this thing gutted! You don’t want to wait. The mold’s just going to get worse!”

“Okay.”

“I’ll get you an estimate, but I gotta get my own shit together first. I’m going through the same thing, man. I just got back—just saw my office for the first time this morning. There’s black mold everywhere. I was going through it, and I thought, ‘I gotta get out of here before I die, man!’”

Amidst speculative prices per square foot and recommended sources of temporary power supply, he lamented the state of the city. I commiserated, “I know it won’t be exactly the same.”

“No, it’s going to be better!” he nearly shouted. “We’ve got to tell ourselves that. Otherwise it’s just too depressing!”

Monday, May 10, 2010


Four women in red, Economy Hall, Jazz Fest

Blech!

The winds are out of the south-southeast and the city once again stinks of oil. Blech!

Post-Diluvian Follies: “Welcome To Your City, Sir”

Early one evening, I was sitting in the idling car in front of Fay and Jeff’s house, talking to Sarah on my cell phone as it recharged from the cigarette lighter. A Humvee rolled slowly past and stopped at the corner, twenty yards ahead. Two guardsmen stepped out and sauntered slowly towards me, casually but with hands on their rifle-straps.

“Hold on a second, babe…” I rolled down my window and gave my cheeriest, most un-looting “Hi!”

“Sir, are you aware there’s a curfew?” He must have been about nineteen.

“Yeah… But I’m staying right there, and my phone was dead, and I needed to make a call, and I only have a charger in the car...”

“You have two minutes, sir.” They re-sauntered back to the Humvee. The Humvee didn’t move.

Exactly two minutes later, they climbed back out and started towards me again.

“Okay! I’m done…! I gotta go, babe. I love you… Alright! You all have a good night!”

They watched me cross the street and go inside. The Humvee rumbled away.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


Cheers to Mama's Day! The girls were drinking Shirley Temple's with home-made grenadine (reduced pomegranate juice and sugar—easy-peasy). The adults were drinking Jack Roses with the same home-made grenadine. Yum.

Post-Diluvian Follies: Home, Comparatively Sweet Smelling Home

Several days after my arrival, portions of the city—dictated by zip code—were officially reopened to residents. Every day the city got a little fuller, the streets more crowded. Little slivers of life emerged. A nearby drugstore reopened (meaning I didn’t have to leave the parish to buy deodorant, a non-trivial leap forward) staffed entirely by haggard-looking managers (again: no population, no employees). The newly returning residents began the long task of picking up the pieces, reassembling a functioning city.*

Two days after I set up residence in their empty house, Fay, Jeff, and the children** returned from their far suburban exile. Suddenly, it was something like a regular family household—a teeny island of normalishness in a big sea of odd. Sebastian started school in the unflooded suburbs. Fay, an excellent cook, returned to her kitchen with a fervor fueled by long absence.

My dinners of MREs or solitary bar food were supplanted by spaghetti and meatballs made from scratch served with wine and eaten at a table surrounded by friends and children, warmth and conversation instead of muted TVs and the overheard chatter of drunks. The change was marvelous and made the crappiness of my days almost tolerable.

* Though it was often a cobbled together, improvised approximation of a functioning city. Somebody discovered that the shuttered coffee shop on the corner still broadcast wi-fi. Where, in happier times, tables full of latte-sippers might have surfed the web, now a lone laptop-wielder sat on the barren sidewalk getting his vital information fix.

** The city was slowly re-filling, but children were still an extreme rarity.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Lights, Camera...

Bill and his entourage arrived: John with his big truck and generator; the two “bulls”, young guys from New York City who did the hard labor; a non-profit worker also from New York manning the camera (apparently they never found a film crew); and a Times-Picayune reporter observing the whole affair.

John and I caught up on the past few days as the crew bustled about. (He had seen mold-sicles.) Bill moved fast, “Hey, David, it’s good to see you. We’re going to do what we can for you… We’re setting up a negative pressure ventilation system… Can we move this…? Look, this is crumbling… Alright, we’re going to take this plaster off here… Can you guys get a good shot of that…? José, you should be wearing goggles… Look at this lathe board. That’s spores all on the back side. It’s got to come out… Okay, and this is sheetrock. Good. Guys, we’re going to do another area here.” The camera and its floodlight followed everything.

The reporter asked me questions: How seriously did I take the threat of mold? What was I doing about it? (He also asked about our demitasse collection—arrayed intact above the flood line—which he referred to in the subsequent article as my “teacups”.)


“Teacup”

The bulls cleared swaths of wall in preparation for busting into them. They crumpled moldy posters into the trash. José gingerly took down a portrait of the Virgin Mary and handed it to me, “I think this one’s okay.”

Bill continued, “Make sure your contractor does this right… You should have a clause… You don’t want to mess around… We’re trying to get the word out… We’re having a meeting… When was this house built…? Could be asbestos...”

Then they were done. Two large swaths of wall were gone. They packed up the camera, crowbars, and negative ventilation system; turned off the generator; loaded up the truck; and went on their way.

I felt jumpy.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Helping Hand Jive

Others offered assistance, an array of outsiders ranging from the genuinely helpful to the well-intentioned to the mercenary to the pathetic.

The genuinely helpful: I adored the old folks in the Salvation Army van that came by every afternoon, right when we were all most desperately in need of a break, to hand out ham sandwiches, hot lunches, water, Gatorade, and candy bars. They were uniformly gracious and kind and so absolutely loveable in their little red mesh baseball caps that I would have jumped through their window and hugged them if I hadn’t been so completely disgusting

The well-intentioned: A battered Food Not Bombs pickup made the rounds. It was painted with colorful child-like scrawls and “POWERED BY BIO-DIESEL” written across the back. A skinny shirtless guy with a scraggly beard and lank white-boy dreads offered me a free meal. But with the Salvation Army sandwich resting pleasantly in my belly, I politely declined his kind but dubious fare.

And each day, sometimes twice-daily, animal rescue crews stopped by, attempting to re-rescue our tenant’s cat (despite the large scrawl on our house indicating a fait accompli). When I told them they were too late, they rushed across the street to re-rescue the neighbor’s cat, and I again told them they were too late. I was tempted to surreptitiously plant kitties-in-distress just to validate their efforts.

The mercenary: The city swarmed with out-of-town workers of every variety, from big-time contracting outfits with shiny trucks and downtown hotel rooms to sketchy odd-jobbers with barely-roadworthy jalopies and tents pitched in vacant lots, all looking to get a lucrative early slice of the massive rebuilding pie.

Almost every vehicle on the road (besides the Humvees) seemed to be a pickup truck from Texas. And the rest were trucks from Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, even Michigan and beyond. A truck would roll down the block and slow to a stop. The driver would lean out the window and offer an eye-popping quote for his services.

The pathetic: And there were homegrown operations, quickly formed companies called “Big Easy”-this or “Crescent City”-that wearing their “504” area-codes like a badge of honor (though in truth, localness was a doubtful recommendation).

A raggedy old truck with Louisiana plates stopped in front of the house. The driver called to me out the window, “I’m local.” He told me where he lived. “I’m an electrician. I do good work. I’m not one of these fly-by-night fellas.” But his red eyes and thick speech gave the tell-tale signs of a long soaking in hard alcohol.


Mr. Flambé

I feared a stray spark might light him up like a flambé. I didn’t hire him.

The looky-loos: Some didn’t come to help or profit. They just came to look.
As I muckily stumbled onto the porch in my slop-suit, a shiny car full of gawk-eyed strangers from God-knows-where rolled slowly down the street, staring in air-conditioned slack-jawed wonder.

I muttered unkind things into my respirator, “Fuck you, you fucking high-and-dry motherfuckers with your shiny fucking cars and your shiny fucking above-sea-level houses. I’m not a fucking zoo animal, fucking fucks...”

It wasn’t fair. (I later did my own share of disaster-touring.) But those were dark hours, and my disposition was less than charitable.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Would You Be Mine, Could You Be Mine...

Except for my clunking boots and labored breathing, the house was silent. Except for the birds, the hot breeze, and the occasional rumbling truck, the neighborhood was silent too.

But some days there were others. Sometimes neighbors showed up, in from their respective exiles, doing the same thing I was. I saw Greg and Linda two houses down. And Tony and his family across the street.

We were a lost little group, shell-shocked, bewildered, clueless, trudging around in our masks, stopping now and then to gaze dumbly up at our houses: “What…?” The mother across the street looked bad—broken. I often saw her sitting slumped on the steps, respirator around her neck, staring off into nothing with an expression of blank exhausted despair.

But the company was a comfort, turning the private misery into a shared one. We’d exchanged waves before the storm, but now we fell into long conversations—What the hell do we do next?

And the company was useful. Our block tightened under crisis into a sort of information co-op, swapping tips, connections, and phone numbers: a good demolition crew, how to save hardwood floors, the proper ratio of bleach to water.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Meals, Not Quite So Ready to Eat

I ate MREs everyday for lunch (and sometimes for breakfast) but quickly found myself craving food that would actually rot if left unrefrigerated. And eating food from a bag on a porch by oneself in an empty neighborhood was a lonely business.

My first evening in the city—actually, due to the curfew, late afternoon—I went looking for a hot meal and the sound of human voices. I wove a long slow route towards downtown: past countless silent businesses; past one open but particularly forlorn and dubious restaurant; past the firehouse brimming with extra trucks from all over the country (the city was plagued with fires); past the long row of firemen in motley uniforms seated in folding chairs on the sidewalk watching the sporadic traffic roll by. I continued downtown, crossing Canal Street, passing its cluster of news crews, then into the French Quarter where packs of off-duty guardsmen prowled for booze and naked women, then turned and meandered back uptown again, finally stopping at an open bar on St. Charles Avenue.

I ordered a burger. It took forever as the sole bartendress scrambled between grill-duty and drink orders from the long row of thirsty customers.* Finally the burger arrived, burnt, unadorned, handed to me in a styrofoam box.


Burnt burger in a box

The only condiments were a few sorry packs of mustard. I sat at a table outside and ate. At that moment, in that improbable place, with an ice-cold beer and the half-heard chatter of the patrons around me, it tasted wonderful.


The next night, I went out again. This time I found a newly opened restaurant. (Newly opened, not re-opened. It was a curious time to launch a business.) It had white tablecloths and vague pretensions to fanciness.

And it was crowded, full of Garden District well-to-dos in pastel and white summer casuals, hopping from table to table—everybody knew everybody—and talking loudly: Where’d you go? When did you get back? How’s the roof? How’s the wife?

I sat and chatted with the bartender (actually an owner—with hardly any population there was hardly any staff), sipped my wine (ah! the indulgence), and read my book. Finally my meal arrived, another burger (I doubted the more ambitious menu options) and a salad (to counterbalance my steady diet of nutrient-pouches). This time the burger actually was good. The food, the wine, the fatigue of the long day, and the bubbling excitement of the crowd commingled, and I settled into a quiet, blissful reverie.

Then, as the sun slanted in through the windows, the cop on guard at the door announced it was curfew, and we all had to leave.


The bar down the street was still crowded (bars seemed to enjoy a de facto exemption from the curfew), and I wasn’t ready to return to the silence of my squatter-camp.

I sat at the bar and ordered a bourbon, sipping and staring absent-mindedly at the television. The crowd was a mixed bunch, from fresh-scrubbed twenty-somethings to scraggly middle-aged bar-flies. And like the restaurant, an excited charge filled the air. People talked enthusiastically about when they evacuated, where they went, how much it sucked, how many days they’d been back in town, where they were staying, what their place looked like.

The first bourbon went down too easily. I ordered a second. It had slipped into evening, and the pitch of the crowd heightened. There were hoots and hollers. It got loud. Friends giddily chatted. People looked for apartments to rent—or beds to stay in. A stumble-drunk hippie-chick aggressively hit on me.


Hippie-chick

I declined and stepped out into the warm night air.

There were more people. I talked to my daughter’s pre-school teacher and then to a sour young man who was packing up to move to some much better place for some much better job.

Finally, it was time for me to go home. As I walked to the car, I realized the long day of hot work and the string of absent-minded drinks had come on fast, and I was something less than completely sober. I weighed the issue:

Problem:There were no cabs.

Mitigating factor:

There was no one to run into.

Problem:There were National Guard patrols.

Mitigating factor:“I’m driving home half-drunk from a bar,” was probably the only permissible explanation for why I was out after curfew.

In the end, lawlessness prevailed. I (very carefully) drove down the dark empty streets, safely returning to the solitude of my quiet little domicile.


I was drifting off to sleep. My phone rang. I groggily answered, “Hello?”

“Hey, David, this is Bill. Look, we’re on our way down they’re right now—yeah, we’re driving right now—a big SUV for the gear—should be able to handle any kind of terrain—and I’ve got a great team together—my best guys—but the film guy fell through, and we’ve got to find a film crew as soon as possible. Do you know anybody?”

“Um, I can ask around…”

* Bars were clearly leading the city’s economic recovery. They were often the only businesses open, and they were busy—lots of folks with lots of sorrows to drown and not a lot else to do.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Meals, Ready to Eat

Sandy’s MREs proved to be a godsend. As the week progressed, I found that my rattled brain—sufficiently taxed by my primary endeavor—had little extra room for such minutiae as finding and preparing food. And the highly engineered soldier-food proved well-suited for the calorie-burning task of flood-slopping.

Each case contained twelve brown plastic pouches labeled with different entrées: Chicken Tetrazzini, Jambalaya, Beef Ravioli, etc. Each pouch contained the entrée in yet another brown pouch plus a “Flameless Ration Heater (FRH)” and a varying array of sides and accessories: crackers, cheese spread, peanut butter, molasses cookies, salt, Tabasco, moist towelettes, matches, gum, toilet paper.


Meal, Ready-to-Eat

Heating the meal was complicated, like an exciting and possibly dangerous eighth-grade lab experiment. The instructions explained how to place the entrée pouch in the heater pouch,* how to add water (neither too much nor too little), how to hold it level for one minute and incline it against a “rock or something” for ten to fifteen minutes, and how to knead the MRE “to ensure uniform temperature”. But beware, the “contents will be HOT”. (I burnt myself on my first attempt.)

By the end of the week, though, I was an expert, casually tearing, folding, flipping, and kneading with hardly a thought.**

* The smell of heating was distinctive, chemical but pleasing. I will forever remember it, inextricably mingled with the city’s flood-stench.

** A sort of MRE culture sprang up in the city. My neighbors across the street had their stash. We’d sit on the stoop at lunchtime eating out of bags with plastic spoons. People had favorites and swapped them like school lunches. Certain entrées were prized, others were reviled and left sitting neglected in the corner of the box. (The vegetarian meal was the subject of particular scorn.)

Monday, May 03, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Sloppin’ (or This Is Not My Beautiful House!)

The goal was (sort of) clear: Go through our stuff. Save what could be saved and haul the rest to the curb. Get the house ready for whatever might be next.

I arrived each morning, mentally clocking in for another day in the slop-mines, unloaded my gear (the house was wide open—my stuff traveled with me), suited up, and got to work. My uniform consisted of:
  • The giant plastic yellow bib overalls
  • My clunky work boots
  • The industrial strength rubber gloves
  • My respirator*
I was the cutting edge in post-Katrina chic:


Post-Katrina chic

Day by day, I worked through the house, front to back, item by item, weighing each against a vague and anxiously wavering set of criteria:
  1. How incredibly foul is it?
    • How wet is it?
    • How moldy is it?
    • How stinky is it?
    • Does it make me want to puke?
  2. Is there any hope of de-fouling it?
  3. Do I possibly have anything resembling the time, energy, or emotional resilience to de-foul it?
  4. Is my attachment to the item sufficient to justify the effort of de-fouling it?
  5. Do I intend to use it in the preparation or consumption of food? (Though the floodwater’s toxic chemicals and poo-taint might eventually be scrubbed away, the psychic reverberations were just too nasty.)
  6. Did I actually never really like it in the first place, and though it survived unscathed, I secretly wish it had flooded, and now would be the perfect time to toss it?
It was miserable work. I hauled out sodden carpets, moldy books, funky chairs, old records fused into a single monolithic stack, rusted stereo equipment, kids’ toys, crumbling cabinets, disintegrating sub-flooring, a baby stroller, dead plants, illegible stacks of bills and files, Christmas ornaments, and a million other things. I tossed a wet mattress over the balcony and tumbled washers and dryers out into the back yard. I pushed sad old antiques aside and bagged up blurred photographs for later reckoning.**

The pain was tri-fold:
  1. Dragging bag after bag and armful after armful of sodden, waterlogged crap out to the curb in the sweltering heat was physically exhausting.
  2. Making the thousands of large and small decisions about what stayed and what went was mentally exhausting.
  3. Seeing the stuff of our lives piled in moldy heaps by the curb was just plain depressing.
And there was the smell. It permeated and saturated everything. It soaked into my skin, my hair, my clothes; the muck ground into the grooves of my boots. It basted me. And though my slop-gear kept some of the flood-taint out, it kept all of the sweat in. Sweat pooled in my respirator. (I had to shake it out at regular intervals.) Sweat soaked into my overalls and gloves. Within a day they reeked profoundly—a sour, rotten, human funk. I, the house, and the city stank in unison, commingling our aromas in a rancid Hell’s Potpourri. (Eventually I abandoned the overalls, donning them only for the nastiest of tasks.)

I befouled everything I touched. By the end of the week, Annou’s car smelled like a bear-cave. (We later had it professionally cleaned, but it still stunk. She politely swore she didn’t notice.) In the afternoon, I slimed my trail of ooze back to Fay and Jeff’s for my elaborate decontamination protocol (boots never cross the threshold, funk-attire straight into a plastic bag, funk only washed with funk, etc.). Each day ended with a vigorous Silkwood-style shower as I scrubbed away its accumulated filth and misery.

* I quickly found the gasmask untenable. It was uncomfortable. It was miserably hot. The eye holes clouded up. The giant filter hung like a can of beans from my chin. And it looked silly. My neighbors wore modest (but sufficient) half-face respirators. I looked like I should be holed up in an underground bunker in Idaho with a stack of survivalist magazines writing cryptic manifestos about why federal taxes are a sham. So I went to the Westbank for a half-face respirator of my own. Just like the cool kids.

** My labors were occasionally interrupted by garbled phone calls from my employer who asked how I might feel about relocating to Dallas. (I didn’t know much, but I knew I wasn’t moving to Dallas.)

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: “Be Careful of Those Bike Accidents, Sir.”

I ran into a checkpoint at Jefferson and Prytania. The guardsman, gun slung across his shoulder, walked up to the car. I rolled down the window.

“Can I see some ID, sir?”


Natty Guard

I showed him my license. “70115—you’re good.” He looked down at my knees, scabbed from my frantic roof-top scramble. “Be careful of those bike accidents, sir.”

“Actually…” I started to explain but then thought better of it, “…I will.” I drove on.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Spill

This is incredibly disheartening. This was shaping up to be a damn fine year, perhaps the year our region truly got back on its feet after the storm. But instead it looks like we'll once again be left holding the bag on the aftermath of, to paraphrase, a man-made frakking catastrophe of epic proportions.*

* This creeping scale feels familiar: a seemingly modest misfortune gradually revealing itself as a massive debacle. And the shoddy federal response is feeling familiar too.

Post-Diluvian Follies: (Not So) Bright Lights, (Not So) Big City

The air in Fay and Jeff’s house was hot and stale—little black flies buzzed in the kitchen—but it was largely unscathed. I set up my nomadic squatter camp: the big jug of potable water, my muck-gear, the coffee stash, the peanut butter, and the cases of MREs. The air conditioning kicked into life. The shower was hot. Life was alright.

The unflooded neighborhood looked something like it had before. But a fractured branch dangled ominously over the front porch. The corner traffic light rested on the ground. And it was ghostly quiet. Friday afternoon felt like a hushed Sunday morning. I saw other people from time to time, but it was rare (and felt like an apocalypse or zombie movie when, after the crisis has passed, the handful of survivors stagger blinkingly into the bright new morning to behold the hushed, brutalized world around them).

I quickly settled into some approximation of a workaday routine: making the short commute from my squatter camp to “the house”, putting in a full day of de-mucking, and returning each afternoon. The drive, though a mere five minutes, traversed worlds: from the exploding green of the relative high ground; to the flood’s edge along St. Charles; to the brown lawns of the shallow waters; and then further, where block by block the waters rose, up the steps, onto porches; and then into the heart of Floodville, the deep stench, the ghost town of dead festering houses.
And in between the slow de-mucking, wrangling with carnie roofers, visits with mold-gods, and treks to the Westbank for more supplies and potable water, I found moments to travel around the city, checking on the houses of friends and family, making staticky cell phone reports (I had the pleasure of telling a friend his house had been spared by inches), gradually learning the neighborhood by neighborhood fluctuations of the all-important water-line, seeing who was doing what where, and making the first feeble attempts to take stock of the massive calamity that had befallen our city.

Beyond the obvious ravages of wind and water were other marks of the city’s strange fate. In the absence of the human hand, fueled by the hot tropical fervor of late summer, any greenery that hadn’t been killed by the floodwaters surged forward with unfettered vigor. Weeds sprang violently up through the sidewalks. The formerly kempt grass of the levees now stood knee-high like a country field.

Many street signs were missing. But a bounty of strange new signs had sprung up in the storm’s wake: hastily printed advertisements for an array of disaster-related services (gutting, roofing, mold-remediation…); hand-painted scraps of plywood announcing food handouts or the rare newly reopened business; bristling warnings on the sides of buildings from bunkered down hold-outs in the chaotic days after the storm, “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT”; desperate pleas scrawled on the street for helicopters, “WE NEED WATER AND FOOD, SICK BABY”; cryptic symbols spray-painted on the fronts of houses by rescue crews; and weird diatribes from cooped up loners. (One proclaimed the onset of “MARTIAN LAW”.)



The law, though terrestrial, was abundant; New Orleans was a city under occupation. From the early anarchic days after the storm, the pendulum had swung to the other extreme, and now the ratio of people enforcing the laws to private citizens who might theoretically break the laws was staggering. A dizzying array of entities maintained the peace: NOPD, other police on loan from far-flung jurisdictions across the nation, and an alphabet soup of federal agencies (not to mention the scary Blackwater guys providing security at the Love Boat** and several other facilities). But the dominant presence was the National Guard. A nearby Catholic high school had been commandeered as a temporary headquarters. Camouflaged vehicles packed the parking lot. Patrolling Humvees crammed with guardsmen in full combat gear rumbled up and down the narrow streets.

But despite the massive police and military presence, despite the sundown curfew and other martial precautions, the place still had a curiously lawless feel. Looting, pillaging, or going anywhere at night were prohibited, but everything else, it seemed, was fair game. New Orleans was now a frontier town, and no one had time for the more nuanced refinements of civilization.
Certainly, conventional traffic laws went out the window. And with good reason:
  1. Traffic lights didn’t work.
  2. Fallen branches and flood detritus still littered backstreets, making linear navigation impossible.
  3. Many laws, intended for a fully populated city, simply lost relevance with so few people around.
So one way streets, stop signs, and other vehicular mores fell by the wayside.

They were replaced by remarkable politeness. A sort of small town civility took over.*** Large intersections, where traffic lights blinked meaninglessly or lay dead on the ground, turned into strictly observed four-way stops with (most) drivers diligently and graciously adhering to the protocols. Drivers on the debris-choked backstreets patiently waited for others to pass, giving them the country-style two-fingers-off-the-wheel-wave as they went by.

And at night, the cars disappeared. Seven o’clock felt like midnight. Only the Humvees remained, breaking the silence with their occasional distant rumbling. Where I stayed, lights shone down on the empty streets. Beyond that, in Floodville, supreme darkness reigned, covering everything like an impenetrable blanket.

* Potable water was a major issue (everyone lugged around their personal supply) and a major topic of conversation: Where
could you drink the tap water? Was it safe to shower? How do you pronounce “potable”?

** The “Love Boat”, as many called it, was the cruise ship docked on the Mississippi River to provide temporary housing for police and other first responders. From what I heard, it was less than lovely.

*** New Orleans has always felt smaller and politer than most cities. But those days were beyond the norm. I suppose with only a few thousand people in the city limits, you had to be careful who you were rude to. You would probably see them again.