Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two Years Later

One day, not quite two years ago, while I hauled debris out of my house, a photojournalist from some British paper asked to talk with me. Seeing as how hauling the stinky, rotting remains of my personal affects to the curb alone wasn’t exactly the epitome of happy fun time, I was more than happy to take a break. He asked me what my plans were, and I remember saying something along the lines of “You couldn’t drag me away from here with a bulldozer.” I, in turn, asked him what he was doing, and he said something about covering a single block in New Orleans with the intention of coming back in a year to see how much progress had been made. Sounded like a good idea to me.

Well, two years on and I haven’t seen or heard of him again, so I guess the idea fell through – waning interest in New Orleans on the part of Britain? Editorial priorities? Maybe I just missed him. At any rate, since it didn’t work out with him, I decided to present my own little tour of my block, two years later.

Since my neighbors to the right as you walk out of my house were the first ones back, let’s start with them. I’ve mentioned them before – he grew up in that house; his parents left it to him, and he and his wife lived in it. Since they didn’t have a mortgage, they didn’t have to get flood insurance. They moved back in while rebuilding, which has been quite slow, seeing as how there wasn’t any insurance money and he had to do most of the work himself and he’s old. They have middle-aged couple living in other side, helping with the renovation. They all come out and drink beer out of cans on the plant-covered porch, and if you squint real hard so their front porch is all you see, you can almost imagine everything is back to normal.

A large two-story sits next to them, fronting onto Banks. For a long time, an extensive family of Hispanics lived there on the upper story which escaped the flood. They seemed to have disappeared now, though I couldn’t say why, maybe they found a better place to live, maybe they just moved on, hopefully they didn’t get deported. I do know it wasn’t because they ran out of work.

Kitty-corner from there, Finn McCool’s is of course up and running and has been for quite some time. It’s a real focal point for the neighborhood, and just won Best Neighborhood Bar honors from Gambit, so the block definitely has that going for it. We ambled down last Monday for Pub Quiz night and, while we couldn’t find a table because of the crowds, we did take second place.

Coming back my way, directly across from Finn’s on the other side of the block, the corner house got stripped down to the studs – even the siding was gone. It has plywood walls now, and I assume work is happening, though without any windows or real doors, it still looks rather like a really large child’s block with a roof. A few long four by fours, tilted at an angle, hold the roof of the front porch up.

Next to that is a little shotgun single. Near as I can tell, nothing has been done with it – no gutting, nothing. So it just squats there, home to nothing more than rot, stink, and a large feral cat herd.

The couple next door moved in after the storm, the new young kids on the block. They offered to buy the feral cat cave next door, but the woman who owns it refuses to sell. The single shotgun they live in is all renovated, and I really like that new people moved into the neighborhood, rather than it just getting reoccupied by those with roots here already. That, I think, is a very good sign.

Next to them is a renovated (at least on the exterior) though still vacant single shotgun. No rent sign, no sale sign, so I’m not sure what’s up with it. It looks good, though, freshly painted a nice light blue.

An elderly lady lives next door, and I’m pretty sure she’s back, though I only see her rarely come out on her porch.

The raised shotgun next to her place escaped the worst of the flooding, but – despite the aging “I am coming home” sign on the front porch about eight feet up – the place remains unoccupied. Again, I couldn’t tell you why. Ditto for the two houses directly across the street from me, not raised and completely abandoned. I know they’re gutted because some church group volunteers showed up a couple of months ago and did it but, if not for them, those two places would have remained untouched since the day of the storm.

The adjacent lot has completely reverted to jungle. Seriously – trees have sprouted and grown. You could get lost in there. You could film “King Kong” in it. I would find it rather amusing, actually, except that I’m sure the current occupant of the White House will call it “wetlands” and use its existence as a reason to not restore the coastline.

Right next to that is the house in the best shape on the block, belonging to a gay couple who seemed to renovate and re-landscape before the rest of us even finished throwing out our crap. Unfortunately, they’re moving to Vancouver, and it kills me to lose the best and brightest on the block (not that I blame them). I just hope whoever buys the place realizes how lucky they are.

Next to them on the corner, another abandoned place, nothing happening, no one there, blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Across from that back on my side of the street, renovations were recently completed and there’s a rent sign hanging out front. Doesn’t look like there’s any takers yet, but it’s something.

Next to that is the empty lot that borders my place. The insurance company totaled that house, so the ex-Marine/current teacher and his wife that lived there own the empty lot free and clear. I heard they were having trouble getting a loan to rebuild, but just yesterday (yesterday – no joke, no exaggeration) some people showed up with surveying equipment and pounded a bunch of painted sticks into the ground, so maybe soon I will be awoken by the sweet sounds of power tools and salty construction worker language.

Oddly enough, no FEMA trailers mar my block, though several are scattered around the various corners. Not something you really notice – after all, who’s going to think, “Hmm, why aren’t there white ugly trailers ensconced in front of all these houses?” – until you turn the corner and practically run straight into one. Which I do, often, when I go running out to the bayou. No matter how many times I do it, I apparently can’t get it out of my head that sidewalks are for pedestrians, not mobile homes.

Finally, my house. I’ve mentioned before how the inside is pretty much back together, though the outside remains a mess. The plants Dr. A put in have helped immeasurably, but there’s no hiding the black, angry line across our doors, a daily reminder of just how high the water got. We tried pressure washing, but the muck and the stains just go too deep, and the insurance money has run out. The paint job will have to wait, though who knows when we’ll be able to afford it.

Two years ago, I thought fixing the house would be the tough hurdle to get over, but in the end that just took muscle and sweat and will. I could come up with that, but in the meantime, the mortgage shot up four hundred a month, thanks to rocketing insurance rates and taxes, and energy bills more than doubled, thanks to, well, corporate greed. I managed to get my place rebuilt, but what little monetary help I received was used up long ago.

So how are things two years on? Some good, some bad. I thought rebuilding would be the hard part, but it looks like holding onto my home will be the more difficult slog. Turns out, money is more powerful than any bulldozer.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Joys of Yardwork

Years ago, I rented half a shotgun with an ex. This shotgun had a jungle for a backyard, weeds literally taller than me. We had a dog, though, so I was determined to make the backyard habitable and spent weekend after weekend clearing everything out of there. Once I got through the weeds, I discovered the trash, a seemingly endless supply of broken bottles and smashed cans, rusty nails, car parts, hypodermic needles, bullet casings (not the best neighborhood), and once, memorably, a pair of XXX-Large blue tiger-striped bikini underwear. I hauled at least a dozen giant garbage bags to the curb.

Once that was done, I laid out flower beds with old bricks and planted bushes and flowers. I uncovered concrete we used as a porch and put down sod over the rest. I even dug up a tree from the ex’s family farm and transplanted it. (Okay, I had help with those last two things.) The point here is that I worked my ass off for that backyard.

Then we broke up. She kept the apartment, and the yard. And the dog.

But that’s okay. The place was a rental, and I considered the work I did on that yard as practice for when I bought a place of my own.

A couple of years ago, I was out drinking with friends and got it into my head to go see that yard, so we found the old house (the ex wasn’t living there anymore), snuck around the back and hauled ourselves up on the fence. We’re very lucky it didn’t collapse. Anyway, the yard was still there, still pretty much as I had left it, all grass and bushes and flowers and the tree was pretty tall. I sincerely hope whoever lives there now enjoys it.

These days, I have been living in my place for a couple of months now, and I finally finished the unpacking last weekend. That’s one less thing to do. The closet still doesn’t have doors or shelves or a rod, but considering I didn’t have a shower when I first moved in (I poured a bucket over my head), I feel like real progress has been made. Unfortunately, though, the insurance money is all gone daddy gone, which means everything else I do is going to have to come out of my pocket, so progress will be pretty slow from now on. And the backyard was a jungle, with weeds above my head, not to mention a chain link fence down the middle.

However, a friend of the housemate asked her what she most wanted to make the place feel like home, and she said a backyard. She has a dog, after all. Next thing we know, last Saturday these guys show up and tear into the yard. They showed up again Monday, and when I got home from work, the yard was completely cleared. Even the chain link fence was gone. Plus, they’re building us a wood fence.

For a second, I felt bummed that I wasn’t doing it myself, but you know what? I got over it, like, real quick. After all the work, heartache, and stress I put into this place (and will continue to, no doubt), I decided I’m all right with someone else handling the yard. I don’t care what goes in back there as long as I can eventually put a kegerator on the porch.

Monday, March 05, 2007

That Voodoo That You Do

Okay, listen, I’m sorry! I’m really, really sorry. I don’t know what it was that I did to you, but whatever it was, I take it back. I’ll make up for it however I can.

If you’re the person who put a curse on me, whoever you are, I’ll make it right. Just take the curse off, please.

I buy a house, renovate it, and it floods a month later before I can even move in, destroying all my books and most other possessions with it. That’s just bad luck, and I can accept it. Then getting screwed by FEMA and insurance companies and energy companies – well, that happened to everyone so nothing special there.

But then I finally move in, and they finally start knocking down the place next door. And the outer wall, the entire length of it, falls over onto my house, damaging the roof. Even I’m not that unlucky.

And then, when they get the wall off, they’re cleaning up with a big crane, and the guy swings the crane into my house, smashing the roof again. Come on! That’s not right, that’s not normal, that’s not within the realm of the statistically believable. That’s gotta be a curse.

Then the alternator on the car goes. Again. And even my bicycle is acting funny.

Plus, my cat’s kidneys failed and I had to hospitalize him. He’s out now, and acting like himself, after I spent a few weeks jabbing him with a needle to give him fluid. He’s on hormone shots, now. Nevertheless, whatever it was that I did to you, you who have cursed me, fine, what I get back I probably deserve, but going after my cat, too? That’s just plain mean.

So you win – whatever it was I did, I’m really, really sorry about it.

Meanwhile, does anybody know any good anti-curse voodoo?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

God's Plan: Colts Annihilate Bears

So the Saints gave us a hell of a run and got further than we ever could have expected or hoped. Now, intellectually I realize that the success of the Saints isn’t inherently tied to the rebuilding of New Orleans, but it felt that way, and when they lost the NFC championship it seemed all hope died. The whole city was depressed. But then the next day came, and the one after, and it turned out the world didn’t end and there was still all this cleaning and fixing to do, and that’s when I figured that the Saints not going to the Super Bowl (as sweet as that would have been) is actually a better metaphor for rebuilding New Orleans. After all, the rebuild is going to take years of hard work, and it’s only proper that the Saints journey to a dominant football dynasty takes the same.

Meanwhile, I hope the Bears get absolutely destroyed by Peyton Manning and the Colts, because people in Chicago are assholes. I don’t know if word of this reached anywhere else, but down here we all know about the signs Chicago fans were holding up saying things like, “We’re going to finish what Katrina started” and the complete dick who said “Too bad you didn’t drown” to a New Orleanian and his 8 year old boy. So fuck Chicago, its football team, and their fans.

If the Giants had played Chicago, I don’t think people would have held up signs saying, “We’re going to finish what al-Qaida started” or told people “Too bad you didn’t die in the World Trade Center.” So what’s the difference between these two national tragedies that cost thousands of people their lives?

I think the difference is blame. Apparently, people can’t live with the idea that sometimes bad shit just happens. Everything has to fit some kind of divine, universal plan. With 9-11, there was a villain to punish, so that was fine, but hurricanes don’t come with a bad guy. The only one to blame is God, but God would never do something so mean without a reason, so therefore we sinful New Orleanians must have brought this destruction on ourselves. Consequently, it’s perfectly okay to be jerks to us and not help the Gulf Coast recover; in fact, that fits right in with the divine plan.

I’m sure I’m not the only New Orleanian who stands accused of being preachy, but when the president can’t be bothered to mention us in the state of the union address and when we’re confronted with attitudes like those of the people in Chicago, we tend to get a bit defensive. If I’m preaching, it’s because I have to.

Now I’m sure not everyone thinks that way, and I’m sure not everyone in Chicago is a moronic asshole. In fact, I have friends in Chicago. Nevertheless, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy watching Archie’s boy kick Chicago’s asses all up and down the field, because that would be nothing less than divine justice.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

And Here It Is!

My house or, as Gav calls it, Caligula's Palace.

Here's where you'll be drinking.

Mmmm, mantles.

But more importanty, the bathroom chandelier!

A purple-walled office ...

... and a bedroom closet! (Yes, it will have doors soon.)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Stepping Over Lamp Posts

When I run along the St. Charles neutral ground, I have to step over this fallen lamp post. I'm not sure how long it's been there, but for as long as I can remember a few blocks before I get back to the apartment, it lays there, in the way, and I step over it. You might think I would have to hurdle it, or even jump, but it's pretty low to the ground, and stepping works just fine. I don't even really think about it, which I think is why I don't know how long it's been there. It has just become part of the landscape, one of the nuisances of life in New Orleans these days. I'm aware I'm constantly dealing with stuff that people elsewhere don't have to, but I think I speak for most New Orleanians when I say we just get used to it.

For instance, in the last couple of weeks, the bulk of the work on my house finally got finished. Yes, believe it or not, my house was essentially complete, and the only thing left was to get a final inspection and get Entergy to turn on the electricity and gas. Just one more nuisance. Gav, my contractor, told me that once the inspection was done, the inspector would fax the permit over to Entergy so they could turn my stuff on. However, Gav also told me that when I called, Entergy would lie to me and say they didn't have the permit and getting gas and electricity could take weeks. Problematic, since I wanted to move in, but didn't really feel like doing it without hot water. I know, I'm so spoiled.

Now, while I had no reason to doubt Gav, my fears were deepened when the inspector showed up because he said the exact same thing. Yep, the city inspector said Entergy would lie to me and I would have to spend days on the phone with them, trying to make them find the permit he had faxed over days ago. Needless to say, this didn't bode well.

Determined to find a way to bypass the delays , I figured I would get a copy of the permit myself and take it to some Entergy office somewhere and thus circumvent their lies. I did get a copy of the permit, but couldn't find an address for Entergy anywhere. With growing concern, I called them and ignored all the voice mail options until I spoke with a real person. Unfortunately, when I asked her for the address of an office where I could come by and get my account started, she told me there wasn't one since they do everything by phone. They had anticipated my ploy, circumvented my circumvention!

Despairing, I went about setting up an account with her and she told me I needed to get a permit and get back with them. I saw my opening.

"I have a permit!" I cried. "Right here in my hand."

"Hold, please." A few agonizing minutes later, she came back on and said, "Oh, I see we actually have received that permit."

Success! Unbelievable! Not only that, be we made an appointment and the guy actually showed up. I nearly had a heart attack over finally catching a break.

The upshot of all this is that - one year, four months, and eight days after - I am moving into my house.

Perhaps I need to repeat that with emphasis.

I AM MOVING INTO MY HOUSE!!!! Did you hear the trumpets sound? Did you see the clouds part and the light pour forth?

Of course, I know that any number of problems will still arise, not the least of which will be living in a neighborhood about a quarter occupied and filled with abandoned, rotting housing, as well as the long, slow recovery of the whole city, but for now -

I stepped over the lamp post.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Because Nobody Demanded It ...

... my band Smuteye has our first official bar gig this Saturday, the 16th, at the Bottletree in Birmingham, Alabama. Our massive winter tour has begun; next stop - world domination!

So if you have a taste for country-punk - and who doesn't? - we'll see you there. Country-punk? What's that? That's what happens when a massive flood drives away a silly country band's banjo player and rhythm acoustic guitarist, who sensibly removed to North Carolina, and the band is left with a bassist who learned to play during the heyday of '80s hair metal, not to mention Schlong's guitarist. The drummer's ocassional attempts to rein us in have, so far, been mostly for naught. Schlong, by the way, is reuniting for a couple of shows in San Francisco for New Year's.

In other music news (because I don't really feel like writing about Dollar Bill's re-election just yet), we recently caught El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, who does one fantastic Christmas show. If you haven't seen his illegal immigrant take on "Run, Run Rudolph," then your life is, as yet, incomplete. Clockwork Elvis opened, and yes, he dresses like Alex from Clockwork Orange and sings Elvis. Plus, he comes with his own burlesque dancers, which Gav and I immediately agreed is the certain je ne sais quoi that Smuteye has been missing and anyone interested in filling those positions should immediately contact us.

Finally, just last Wednesday I left work and spotted a flyer for an Asylum Street Spankers show that very night at Tip's to benefit their foundation helping local musicians recover from Katrina. Now, I don't know how the Spankers snuck in without me knowing it, but combine them with recovery efforts, and I dropped everything to make the show. Grading, what grading?

They played an almost all, um, "adult content" show, including "Shave 'em Dry," "Tight Like That" and "If You Love Me (You'll Sleep on the Wet Spot)" plus stuff like "Wake and Bake" and "Winning the War on Drugs." If you somehow aren't familiar with the Spankers, they play music that sounds like it was written in the '30s or '40s, but with turn of this century content. Plus, their Mohawked fiddler/mandolin player Sick used to be a New Orleans street musician. They also played a new song (at least to me), the hilarious satirical protest song "Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your S.U.V." I wanted to tell everyone about it, but of course couldn't remember any of the lyrics. Thanks to the magic of web, though, everyone can enjoy the video here. Rabid neoconservatives with tendencies to accuse any and all free speech that doesn't agree with their views as treasonous and threaten dissenters with execution (hi, Ann Coulter!), need not click.

And that, folks, is what some New Orleanians do for fun when not trying to rebuild our houses in time for Christmas.