… I got my insurance money. I mentioned in the last post that my blue roof is among the many in New Orleans that are, officially, gone. The roof was the first thing to get fixed because fixing anything else only to get it leaked on really sort of defeats the point.
For all this time, the first question most everyone asked me whenever we spoke was, “How’s the house?” Still, I’ve been putting off writing about it because first, there wasn’t much to say, and second, it’s boring, mostly a tale of bureaucracy and regulations, minutiae and percentages, inspections and waiting on hold, oh, so much waiting on hold. In short, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, more often than not signifying nothing. Still, things are finally happening, so here goes.
The Good Dr. Arwen and I bought the place together – it’s a shotgun double which, for the non-New Orleanians, is a traditional style house here with two front doors that both open to a long row of rooms one after the other, with no real hallways. They say the name derives from the idea that you could shoot a shotgun through the whole house, front to back, if you wanted.
We bought it “as is” from people who weren’t finished renovating it on July 29th, and spent the next month finishing renovations. In fact, we worked right up until evacuation – Gavin and I grouted my new bathroom floor on Saturday, then evacuated Sunday, and Katrina hit Monday, August 29th. Actually, the house survived the hurricane pretty much intact, losing only a handful of shingles from the roof, which resulted in the leaks that were the first things to be fixed. The failure of levees – thank you government and Army Corps of Engineers – wrecked it, though.
The three feet of water that sat in the house for about three weeks pretty much destroyed everything inside. If you doubt that, take a yardstick around your house with one end on the floor and imagine everything within its length soaking in water for almost a month. Then imagine mold growing up the walls and over everything else straight to the ceiling. Pretty much does it, doesn’t it? Plus, since I was just moving in, everything was packed up in boxes on the floor. If you haven’t read “Operation Bass Save” from way, way back in October, it’s got a quick description of the results of that particular misfortune.
So the first thing I had to do was shovel all the moldy, stinking trash out. Wearing big rubber boots, a respirator, and gloves, I tossed to the curb, oh, almost every book I had ever read, along with hundreds I hadn’t gotten to yet, and somewhere in the gluey, slimy, largely unreadable mess, my copies of the journals that had published my short stories. Since I’m a writer and English professor, I did that first because I knew, for me, that would be most upsetting – the books themselves are of course replaceable for the most part, but all the scribbled notes in the margins were not, nor were the signatures and dedications from all the writers I met, nor were the first editions and antiques, like the complete Poe in ten volumes published in the late 1800s. They made a pile about ten feet long, a couple wide, and three or four feet high.
On top of that went photos and posters, the hand-made “7 Deadly Sins” sign my friends and I carried around for the Greatest Mardi Gras Ever, all my notebooks and papers from college, not to mention costumes and toys and videos and kitchenware and beer-brewing equipment and all the other little knick-knacks that clutter up our homes because they remind us of who we are. That took a long, lonely week in early October (happy birthday to me!). At the end of every day, I would go back to the old apartment and shower, even though we weren’t supposed to bathe in tap water those days, but I couldn’t live with the sweat, stink, and muck on my skin.
Meanwhile, my neighbors, who had actually lived in their houses, threw out even more.
It’s an odd thing to have your whole life rotting on the curb for all the neighbors to see, waiting to be picked up by the garbage collectors. I felt totally exposed. My friend John said to me one day, “I saw your Tank Girl down the street,” and I wanted to cringe because it’s a comic book and it’s embarrassing to still be reading comics at my age, especially one called “Tank Girl” and this despite the fact that I knew John would hardly hold it against me, in fact had read them himself. But what of everyone else? The piles sat there for quite a while, weeks in fact, plenty of time for anyone who cared to learn about my reading habits, or to note the Star Wars toys that came out of the house of a single thirty-something non-parent. It’s also plenty of time for you to remember that “adult novelty” tucked away deep in a box and think, “Oh gee, I hope that’s on the bottom somewhere.”
I did rescue three bottles of wine that had spent those five or six weeks in the house. One I drank the night I rescued it, with a hearty “fuck you” to all that had happened and all that had caused it. I saved the other two, the first of which I plan on drinking my first night back in the house, the second on the anniversary of Katrina, though the way things are going that order will probably be switched. Either way, both will be drunk with some sorrow but with more defiance and determination, and don’t worry, if they’ve turned to vinegar, I’ll have back-ups.
After that came the gutting. I got help from my dad, as well as my friends Gavin, John, and Karl. As soon as we pulled the drywall down, we discovered the mold covered the plaster underneath, since the previous owners had put drywall up on top of the original plaster and lath. If you don’t know, lath are narrow thin boards nailed horizontally on the studs all the way up a wall, with maybe a half-inch of space between them. Cover that with plaster and ta-da! Wall. At least that’s how they did it around here in the days before drywall. Preservationists insist the plaster should be cleaned of mold because it’s part of the history of the house and whatnot, but I was too busy getting that moldy shit out of what was left of my house to listen.
And what a nasty, dirty job it is – first of all, the plaster crumbles into small chunks and powder which gets up your nose and into your eyes and ears no matter what kind of mask and goggles you wear. They help, but the stuff is insidious. So you break the plaster with a hammer or crowbar (I called mine “Big Max”) and it flies off in all directions, and then you pull the lath down with Big Max or your bare hands. You would be surprised at how much of a house you can pull down with only your hands. I just imagined that rather than plaster and lath, I was pulling Brown’s vapid stare and Bush’s smug smile off their bloody, shrieking skulls and the rest was easy. Pretty good therapy, actually.
After getting all the walls down, then I just had to spray the whole place down with bleach, which makes all the dried mold puff out in clouds of powder. Even with the respirator, this doesn’t feel exactly healthy. All of that – the trash, the gutting, the bleaching – was done before October was out, and then all I had to do was wait for the insurance money to come so I could start rebuilding.
Did I mention that I finally got the insurance a couple of weeks ago?
For the seven months in between, the house sat – gutted, bleached, ready – waiting. So when you all asked me what was going on with the house and for months I said “Nothing,” it wasn’t that I was being rude, or didn’t want to talk about it, or didn’t want to bore you with the details, it was because literally nothing was happening.
During that time, I spent an awful lot of time talking on the phone, working my way through endless bureaucracies, inching toward that ever-elusive, apparently mythical goal – rebuilding money.
For those with a tolerance for financial minutiae, here’s how it works: the insurance adjustor comes out (this happened in October) and works up an estimate of damage. This then needs to be okayed by a gazillion cubicle-dwellers in a gazillion offices around the country if not the world. All of these people need to weigh in with their opinion, even though they’ve never been anywhere near N.O. and haven’t taken one look at my house, as far as I know. Once they all decide that the adjustor knows what he’s talking about (or haggle out the differences), the insurance company actually cuts a check. In our case, two of them – homeowners’ and flood. Homeowners’ covered the minor roof damage, flood everything else. Luckily, homeowners’ didn’t try to blame everything on flood (a common problem around here that leads to court cases and even more delays). Both checks arrived sometime in May.
Here’s where it gets fun. The flood insurance comes in two parts – contents and structure. We easily maxed out the contents coverage, so when they tell you most people go with $25,000 – don’t listen. It won’t even begin to cover everything, and we didn’t even live there. Then, the structure check was made out to us AND the mortgage company. Apparently, we’re not to be trusted, though how it could possibly be to our advantage to run off with an insurance check that doesn’t cover what we owe in mortgage in an age when running from your debts is practically impossible, that eludes me.
So the money to repair our house passed briefly through our hands, only there as long as it took us to sign it, and then off it went to work it’s way through the mortgage company bureaucracy. That only took several phone calls (“Yes, I swear we’re fixing the house. No, we’re not living there – there’s no power, no water, no nothing. No, I didn’t receive that – please don’t send anything to the house because there is no mail service there.”), as well as many signed documents, all of which had to be signed by both me (here in N.O.) and Dr. Arwen (3 hours away where her job has gone since New Orleans’ version of a psychiatric hospital is an emergency room set up in the old Lord and Taylor’s). One of those documents had to be notarized, requiring we were both present at the same time. Lastly, they wanted a signed, detailed estimate from the contractor. After all that, the mortgage company consented to send us a third of the money.
Yep, just a third. We get the second third after the mortgage company has sent out an inspector who confirms that half the work has been done, and the final third when an inspector determines that 90% is done. Interesting how we’re supposed to get 90% of the work done with only 60% of the money.
Again, that check stuck around just long enough to get signed and then off it went to the contractor. Gavin took maybe a week and a half to get to my place, which is remarkably fast considering the amount of work in this town, but then if I hadn’t been a good friend with a contractor, I probably wouldn’t have considered buying a house in the first place.
In the last few days, the roof has been fixed, a floor torn up and redone, a couple of closets torn down and another two put up, and the egregious errors of other renovators fixed (they took out a load-bearing wall, which John discovered while walking in the attic and almost falling through). Gavin said it could take as long as six months before I can live in it, an estimate not based on the amount of time the actual work takes, but rather on waiting – for an electrician, for inspections, for getting appliances delivered, and for money. We’re hoping for better.
All that said, and it was rather a lot – anyone still with me? – I do a little jig every time I think about how the work has finally begun, even if it was 9 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days later.
I try to go by everyday and see if anything needs doing. I’m probably more in the way than anything else, but when we started renovating back pre-K, it was Gavin and John and Karl and me – I ran wire, I knocked down a wall, I laid tile – and that’s the way it’s going to finish (with a little help from some more friends). So far, this house has claimed my blood, my sweat, and my tears, and probably will get a few more things before it’s done, but when I’m home that first night and I uncork that bottle of wine, well, nothing will be sweeter, and everyone’s invited.