This article is part of an ongoing series by Blake Bailey, a New Orleans resident who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read more of his dispatches.
Since moving back to Gainesville, Fla., a couple weeks ago, my wife and baby daughter and I have been living in one of the myriad apartment complexes (“Windmeadows”) in this university town. Our one-bedroom unit is paid through November, the gift of a kind friend, and we’re lucky to have it. On the other hand, it does remind us of a certain ill-favored dwelling from our salad days here in Gainesville—a place called Arbor Park, where dogs howled through vaporous walls and oafs trolled around blasting their car stereos—and so we miss, all the more, our two-month sojourn as homeowners in New Orleans. Was it all a dream? Or is this the dream? Certainly the landscape would suggest as much: a stark de Chirico painting of parking lots and sidewalks and strip malls. And why is the water in that fountain dyed turquoise?
Driving down from Norman, Okla., I’d stopped in New Orleans to see how much we could salvage from our flooded house in suburban Gentilly; the idea was to return the following week with a suitable rental truck. I figured a 9-foot cargo van would just about cover it and called a U-Haul dealer once I got to Gainesville.
“We don’t rent to New Orleans,” said the folksy rustic on the phone. “No place to put it.”
” ‘Put it’? I’m not sure I—”
“No place to put it! You know, drop it off! … You know?”
At length I explained that I’d actually be driving round trip, and once we got that straight, he confessed that his own U-Haul dealership was in the town of Orange, about 40 miles south of Gainesville. I should have just hung up and found a better location, but by then our long vaudevillian colloquy had worn me down. Besides, the man seemed to sympathize with my refugee status and offered what seemed a good deal: $29.95 a day!
The following Monday, then, bright and early (though not so early that my wife wasn’t late for work when it was all over), we arrived in Orange to collect the van. There were two problems: 1) there was no van, and 2) the price for the much-larger truck they proposed to give me was, forsooth, $29.95 a day—plus $960 for mileage. I left in a huff, sans truck, and as we drove back to Gainesville the baby began to cry. And cry. For my part, I suddenly wished (not for the first time in these last six weeks) that I were dead. An hour or so later, though, I managed to rent a proper van from Enterprise ($99 a day, unlimited mileage) and felt somewhat better.
I arrived in New Orleans around 5:30 the next evening and proceeded to my friend Alfred’s house in the Uptown section of the city. Alfred, a lawyer, was still at his temporary office in Baton Rouge and wouldn’t be home for a couple hours. In the meantime, his domestic staff (two nannies, two maids) stood laughing on Octavia Street outside Alfred’s wrought-iron security gate. As I greeted them I felt an icy gust of air blasting from the wide-open front door across the lawn; the AC compressors roared and roared. This, I suppose, was the women’s way of celebrating the restoration of power to this affluent neighborhood, while their own apartments in very different parts of the city remained dark and unlivable. I paused to survey the immaculate edifice of Alfred’s mansion: not a shingle missing that I could see, much less a grimy 6-foot waterline and rampant mold inside and out. Due, no doubt, to a peculiar defect in my own nature, the sight of such houses (especially when they belong to old friends) excites a certain unsavory ambivalence.
That night Alfred and I had dinner at Herbsaint on St. Charles Avenue, perhaps the swankiest of the few reopened restaurants in town. The place was packed with the intrepid gentry who’d returned to the city early and damn the torpedoes. We were all Hemingway liberating the Ritz in occupied Paris. We poured wine for each other and swapped war stories. Alfred told me he’d evacuated to his native North Carolina, preceded in a plane by his wife and three daughters; his main reason for returning to New Orleans now—there wasn’t much business to conduct in Baton Rouge, truth be known—was to collect his domestic staff (“noblesse oblige”). Later we drove to a dive bar called the Saint in the Lower Garden District, where a wispy tattooed bartender kept reminding everybody of the midnight curfew and finally had to turn out the lights. It was sort of fun driving back in the cargo van—more than a little squiffy—through dark, deserted, debris-filled streets.
The next day was ghastly hot, and I was hungover and depressed. But I was also glad to see a number of my old neighbors tending their houses. There was something otherworldly about the scene: people in protective masks, moving in a slow, pensive, almost floating way among the garbage and furniture and rusty appliances. My neighbor Jean had covered her entire yard with soggy clothing (from a distance it looked like the famous crane shot from Gone With the Wind: The wounded multitude on the streets of Atlanta), and I asked her if she really thought she could salvage all of it.
“Probably not,” she said. “But it’s all inventory. If you want to get full value from your insurance company, you have to inventory at least three times the actual contents of your home.” She beckoned me inside. Her house was a lot like mine: the same cypress molding around the doors, the same plaster walls, the same warped and buckling hardwood floors. Many of the houses on our block had been built by the same architect in the late 1930s. Jean pointed to various items of furniture. “See that oak dresser? Solid. Just wipe it off with a little bleach and you’re good to go. But see that?” A crumpled table. “No good.”
I also chatted with Kathleen, who’d lived two doors down from me. Almost every stick of furniture she owned was piled willy-nilly on the sidewalk; she was less sanguine than Jean, it seemed, about the relative value of anything soaked in that water.
“My treasure!” she said, flinging her arms apart. For an ironist, though, Kathleen has a tender heart, and her voice grew husky as she told me about certain of our old neighbors. “Remember Betty across the street?” she said. “The cancer patient who’d been given six months to live?” I remembered a wizened but cheerful old woman who used to sit on her screen porch every evening. “She was evacuated to the Astrodome. Luckily, her granddaughter was able to find her and bring her home, but Betty died a couple days later. And Robert? You remember Robert?” She pointed to the next house over. No, I said, I hadn’t met Robert in the two months I’d lived there. “Well, Robert was eccentric,” said Kathleen. “He’s been sort of a hermit since his mother died.” Her voice was stopped by a sudden sob; Kathleen and almost every neighbor of ours had lived on the block for many years. “He died,” she said finally. “He shot himself. We tried to get him to evacuate, but he wouldn’t leave his mother’s house. So, anyway somebody called him the day after the storm, and he said he was just fine, no problem, but the next day it flooded and he—I guess he just panicked.”
Packing up my house was a lugubrious business. The place stank, the day kept getting hotter, and I found it hard to breathe with the gas mask my wife had insisted I wear because of toxic sediment and mold. I kept calling her on the cell and asking if she wanted me to salvage this or that item.
“Just leave it,” she kept repeating.
A relative of hers who’d worked on flooded houses had told her not to mess with that mold—we had a baby to consider, etc. He even told us to abandon our books, below and above the waterline, because of poisonous spores or something. But I was damned if I’d just toss, say, my 12-volume Heinemann edition of A Dance to the Music of Time. Also, I wondered about our old dining room table and chairs, by far our nicest furniture, a housewarming gift from my mother; the whole set was almost paisley with mold, but I thought I’d try Jean’s advice about the bleach. After a few tentative swipes at a chair leg, the thing snapped like a piece of stale toast.
What with books and prints and stuff in the attic, though, I was able to fill my cargo van to the roof; it clattered along for six hours or so and then gave up the ghost somewhere in Tallahassee. For the rest of afternoon I sat in the heat waiting for Enterprise to bring me another van—wishing above all things that I was back in my bleak apartment in Gainesville. Three or four hours later, ecstatically, I was.