Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Back Home: 8 Days in New Orleans

FEMA Trailers on UNO's Campus
Originally uploaded by LisaPal.
Well, here we are. It's been almost five months since Katrina hit and we're finally back home. We're staying at my mom's.

We arrived home 8 days ago and ...
  • It took less than 24 hours for my nice, clean, new (to me) car to be covered in dust and bird-shit. (At least the birds survived.)
  • It took 2 days for the container we shipped via freight line to arrive at the local terminal.
  • It took 3 days for the rest of our stuff to arrive via UPS from Charlottesville.
  • It took 4 days for my car to get a flat tire from roofing nails in the street. (People who have been here for a while will say, "Only one tire?" My brother had them in three tires after one outing in the city. Fixing flats has become a booming business at the few service stations that are operating around here.)
  • It took 5 days for me to get around to removing the boards from the few windows that were covered. It also took 5 days to hook up with my adjustor so he could scope the inside of the house for damage.
  • It took 6 days for Kenny, my favorite neighbor, to hold an impromptu get-together with a handful of other neighbors to celebrate our return, (or just as an excuse for us to drink, which is the most appropriate way for us to reconnect with the spirit of our city.)
  • It took 7 days for me to stop walking around inside and outside the house trying to figure out what to do first and just pick one thing instead of trying to do everything. (With the beautiful weather we've had, I decided to just focus on the debris and detritis outside the house for now.) It also took 7 days for me to give up on picking up pieces of broken slate tiles that had fallen from the roof to the ground on the side of my house. The biggest pieces are up now, anyway.
  • It took 8 days for me to develop the "Katrina Cough." And to get the broadband to work properly at my mother's house.
I hope that tomorrow I can say that it took only 9 days to get over my shock at the utter destruction of most of this city. But I doubt it. And I wonder how long it will take me to stop looking at the water-lines on every building, fence, car, post, and anything else that shows it, when I drive around. There's a big, dirty bathtub ring around this city and I'm frequently transfixed by it or lost in thought about what it must have been like to be in each spot when the water was at that level....it would have completely submerged the car here...it would have come up to my neck if I'd been walking in this spot...it would have been two feet over my head if I'd have been inside that house...

Originally uploaded by LisaPal.
At this point, downtown New Orleans looks pretty good. Uptown doesn't look too bad, at least in the area that escaped flooding. Even my neighborhood is coming back to life, and coming back strong, flood and wind damage notwithstanding.

But, oh, the rest of the city. My poor, poor city. The destruction is overwhelming. After five months, the most severely flooded neighborhoods still look like some scary, post-apocalyptic hell.

Picture Caption: One of my neighbors planted petunias on top of an excavated pile of dirt and concrete on the side of the street.

Student Apartments
Originally uploaded by LisaPal.
Nothing you see on television and no photograph comes close to conveying the scope and intensity of the destruction here. You see it in little screen-fulls on TV. But when you stand on a street in Lakeview (and I haven't even been to the worst of the worst, the Lower 9th Ward yet), and you look all around you, look in every direction, 360 degrees, it's totally un-fucking-believable. For the most part, everything is dead. The trees, the grass, the homes, the neighborhoods. Everything is broken down, blown out, brownish-gray, and lifeless.

Picture Caption: These houses are located opposite UNO's campus on St. Anthony St., and were once occupied predominantly by students.

To get to and from school every day, Alex has to pass through miles of Lakeview and some of worst flood damage in the city. His high school is on UNO's campus and, five months after the storm there is still a swamped boat on the neutral ground in front of it. The entire residential area across the street from the school is destroyed. Completely destroyed. I had friends and students who lived in those houses. I'm sure they evacuated and are okay, but I haven't been able to contact a lot of them. I'm sure most of them lost everything.

Picture Caption: The boat and Ben Franklin High School, on UNO's campus. The school had four feet of water on the ground floor, but they managed to get it open by Ben Franklin's 300th birthday on January 17th. But neither of my kids' schools has a working cafeteria, which means no hot lunchs for the kids. Alex's school serves Domino's pizzas and Rachel's school serves brown bag lunches of sandwiches, chips and warm milk- I guess it's the kind that doesn't require refrigeration. I'm not sure I'd want to try that.

My Friend Janice's House
Originally uploaded by LisaPal.
There is still so much need in this city and, sadly, not a lot of help. I've got dozens of people in my neighborhood living in FEMA trailers. One of my neighbors has three trailers on her property inhabited by family members who have lost everything. I brought whatever I could from Virginia- mostly household goods, but no furniture - and I've been giving these people whatever I have that they can use. I'm giving some of the furniture from my house to friends who need it more than I do. In fact, I want to give away a lot of the things I have and can live without -and it's funny how many things you can live without when forced to do so. We learned this in Virginia. (We also learned what things we can't live without.) I have to say that it's really been nice to see how my neighborhood has pulled together to help each other.

Picture Caption: Yes, Oliver-Zaytuni, that's a picture of *our* Janice's house on Pasteur Blvd.

So we are home, but life is anything but normal. There is still so much to be done here, and it's hard to imagine it ever being finished. Katrina is old news to the rest of the world, but for so many of us here, we're still living it every day and it's a long, long way from being over.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Hooray, We're Home!

Well, we made it back to New Orleans without incident, but we're using the incredibly slow dial-up at my mom's house. Tomorrow I'll see about getting broadband for her and as soon as it's up and running, I'll get caught up on comments, updates, and with reading your posts, too.

Thanks again for the positive energy and advice!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Problems and Solutions

Thanks so much for your suggestions and advice. I was so overwhelmed last night with the problem and the lack of information needed to make any kind of clear-headed solution. I had so little time to act without incurring more expense and in the morning, only one person had responded here. And I kept thinking about finding the problem-solver, but I just can't stomach asking for help- not again. Then I realized that I had to be the problem solver because I couldn't wait to find someone else to help me figure it out. So, I worked through the options.

The option of getting the car fixed was fraught with problems. First, there was the delay, which meant more motel days and more expense. Then, there was the fact that the engine damage would be a very costly repair. And according to online appraisals, the car would in no way be worth more than $2000. (It had a lot of other flaws -a lot .)

Renting another vehicle just to get home also had problems. The small town didn't have many national rental companies (no airport) and a one-way rental, if I could have found one, would have been very, very expensive. And it would have been a sunk cost because I'd still have to deal with the Camry. (More expense.) It had to have some value left in it, even if it wasn't much. And I don't have the luxury to leave anything of value behind like that.

The reality of the situation was that my beloved Camry was in bad, bad shape. Terminally ill with heart-failure, so to speak. I was worried about it making it home from the time I drove it up to Virginia. Fixing it seemed like a highly risky and questionable use of funds. But buying another car is not the kind of thing I do without tons of time and research. And time was in very short supply. And Radford, VA, was not exactly the auto-mecca of the mid-Atlantic. But as luck would have it, it did have one auto dealership. And luckier still, it was in walking distance from the motel.

So, Rachel and I walked over and started poking around the used car lot and about a millisecond later, a salesman homed in on us. I explained our situation but he was all salesman. And he said they'd give me something on the Camry as a trade-in and I could finance the rest and get a decent and safe car to get us home- but how much of a trade depended on the shape it was in. (Uh-oh!) And he'd also tell the owner what was going on and see if he could help us out a little.

Long story short, (a first for me, I know), they gave us a generous $2000 for it (yeah, I know- they probably took it back somewhere else), and Radford, Virginia is the Camry's final resting place. We are spending the night in the seediest motel of the week in Birmingham, Alabama, thanks to a very road-worthy, used Chevy Malibu.

I get this indescribably icky feeling when I type or say Chevy Malibu. Not that I ever really want to be defined by the car I drive, but a car does, in many ways, reflect the personality of its owner and this car is so*not*me. But necessity is a mother. And neccessity's little offspring got us 35 MPG on the highway today, and for that and the fact that it's not a bad little car, I will love it. But I will love it like a foreign exchange student who comes and stays for a while, then goes back home and is remembered fondly, and without the pain of separation. If I'm going to have to buy a car, I want to follow my nature and research obsessively, then bring home the car that's like the pound-puppy that you know is meant for you the moment you lay eyes on it - the one that you love deeply until the day it dies.

When my mom came to visit us in Virginia, she said that seeing the Camry was like seeing a member of the family. And indeed it felt like part of my little family, as I've had it for almost 12 years- 3 years longer than I've had Rachel. Leaving it at the dealership was like having a beloved pet euthanized. It was painful. I patted the car on the trunk and thanked it for almost 12 years of faithful service, for doing it's best and getting us where we had to go most of the time. Then I had to turn and go away quickly and not look back or think about it too much, other than to keep reminding myself of why it was good to let it go ... no more antenna that buzzes for two minutes whenever the radio is turned on or off... no more rear windows that don't open... no more speakers that don't work... no more CD player with a CD permanently lodged inside that someone gave me to check out but I didn't like... no more windshield cracked from one side to the other... no more leaky trunk with the gasket seal that doesn't stay in place... no need to keep a battery-powered fluorescent light in the car because the dome light has shorted... no more big hole in the passenger seat where a halogen light burned through it...no more breaks that grind and occasionally lose pressure and go to the floor... no more broken door handles... no more water in the tail lights... no more having to keep several quarts of oil in the trunk...no more looking at ugly memorial fender dings from the old days when Bird, the neighborhood drunk, would run into the parked car after rounding the corner on his bicycle...

It was time. When Rachel pulled the recently-applied "New Orleans- Proud to Call It Home" bumper-sticker off the Camry and stuck it on the CM, the curtain fell.

So, I'm no Malibu Barbie. But I'll be very kind to Little Replacement Car (can I just call it LRC instead of that other name from now on?) while I try to find a suitable and inexpensive vehicular expression of myself. (And a job to help pay for it.) Then I'll try to sell LRC for as close to what I paid for it as possible.

I met Ingrid (our beloved friend who used to babysit Alex and comments here from time to time) while leaving a note on her 1967 (?) Volvo P1800, asking her to call me if she ever wanted to sell it. After I stopped pining for it, (okay, Ingrid, I admit that I still pine for it now and then), I said that my next car would be a hybrid. (Oh, how I wish that hydrogen fuel cell cars were on the market right now!) But I'm not sure how I'll pull that off right now. Maybe I'll get an old diesel of some sort and run it on biodiesel. Who knows. At least I have transportation while I explore the options.

Here's a question for you guys: What do you drive and do you think it fits your personality or is a proper vehicular expression of yourself? And if it's not, what car would serve that purpose?

Well, we're only about 5 hours from home, and I'm going to try to get some sleep before morning comes ripping through this night..But I may have to go and shoot the group of loud party-boys and girls-going-wild who are whooping it up outside my window by the disgusting swimming pool filled with swampy, greenish-brown water. Unless the gang members in the room next door do it first.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Trip, Interrupted (What's the Universe Trying to Tell Us?)

Well, only one of my mother's prayers were answered today. She prayed that we'd be kept safe and that our car would make it. And since I'm writing, clearly we're safe. And we're not in Charlottesville. But we are in Virginia.

We made it exactly 152 miles before the car went kaput. We've been having problems with it burning oil and it seemed a little strained on the drive up, but it made it and we've managed well enough by adding oil to it regularly. But I had concerns about it making it back home with a full load. I considered renting a truck and towing it home, but it was too expensive and I didn't have enough stuff to bring home to justify the size truck required for towing. So, I opted for the trucking container and I had the oil changed for the trip on Wednesday.

In the beginning, I could feel the car straining to go up the mountains, (well, it is a 12 year-old Camry with a 4-cylinder engine, loaded to capacity, so I'd kind of expect that) but after a while, it seemed to be having an easier time of it. Then, about 45 miles south of Roanoak, VA, the oil light came on. I pulled over and added the almost 3 quarts I had in the trunk. (I think the Camry only takes 4 quarts.) The dipstick was barely registering it and I thought it might just be because the engine was still hot, and surely 3 quarts would be enough to get us to the next exit. I looked under the car to make sure nothing was dripping and everything looked okay. So, I started the car and began to drive off.

Everything seemed okay for the first few seconds, then I noticed this thick, gray smoke coming from the tail pipe and the oil light was on again. I had a similar problem with this car about 5 years ago (and I'm told that it was a miracle that the engine wasn't completely ruined that time- though it cost me almost $2000 to fix it then), and I know better than to keep driving with the oil light on. So, I pulled over and called AAA. We were in the middle of nowhere on I-81. The sun had just set and it was getting dark, fast. Rachel was terrified and crying. Alex was getting a little freaked out, too. It took an hour for the tow truck to arrive.

When I told the driver what happened, (he's also mechanic), he told me what I already knew would be bad, very bad news. (There is a well documented history of oil-burning Toyotas- this has been going for many years. Here are some cases involving the 1994 Camry that sound just like mine, and this is my second time around with this.) The repair shop he works for is closed until Monday. And he didn't know where else I could take it that might be able to fix it on a weekend. And he said he doubted that anyone could fix it in less than a couple of day, even if we did find a place tomorrow. And he said that fixing it would likely cost at least a couple thousand bucks, possibly a lot more.

In the absence of any notion of where to take the car, we towed it to a motel in Radford, VA, a little town about 50 or so miles south of Roanoak.

Now what do I do????

I'm stuck in a motel right off the interstate with no transportation. Check-out time is noon. Can I possibly solve this problem by then? I don't know anything about mechanics here. Is the car is even worth fixing? Tomorrow is Saturday. My kids need to be in school on Monday. It takes two days to drive home from here, since I'm the only one driving -and that's assuming I have something to drive. And we have a car packed full with our stuff- the stuff we value too much to take a chance on shipping home. Far too much to take on a plane, if we could fly home. But to do that, we'd have to have some way to get to Roanoak, another way to get all our stuff home, and more than $1000 to spare for airfare. And then I'd still have to do something about the car.
Maybe I could try to buy something old but at least road-worthy to drive home. But what happens with my insurance? Can I get a different car insured on a Saturday?

What the hell do I do????

Alex is chompin' at the bit to use this computer so he can rant about this latest problem in our on-going series. I haven't checked his blog lately, but I imagine it's probably quite interesting these days.

In the meantime, any advice you guys have will be much appreciated!

Homeward Bound
Things I Will/Will Not/Have/Have Not Miss(ed)

Greetings from a cheap and yucky Charlottesville motel. We're on our way home. We were supposed to leave by Tuesday, but moving without any help has proven to be a much bigger deal than I could have possibly imagined. Setting up a household in another city, even if only for 4 1/2 months, means having to stock it and furnish it. I had to buy a lot of things for the house (the kitchen alone was a major deal to furnish) and Renard and I stuffed every inch of the car with things from home when we brought it up in October. Now, everything had to be either returned home or given away. Most of the things we gave away to other families from New Orleans or gave back to the hurricane relief organization that found us housing and helped us with the furniture. But you'd be amazed how much was left- all the stuff we brought, the things people sent us and all the things we bought that we could use back home- staggering.

We rented a cargo van and drove to a trucking terminal and loaded it into a container to be trucked to a terminal in New Orleans where we will have to go and unload it and get it back to my mom's. This cost us $525 and was cheaper than renting a truck and towing the car. But, we didn't pack everything we needed to pack and had more than could fit in the car. So, we gave more away and sent the rest home via UPS. Virtually every cubic inch of the car is packed and we can barely squeezed into it. We have about 20 hours of highway to which to look forward in my 12 year-old car that burns oil. I've got a spare 3 quarts in the trunk but I'm not sure if I can get to it with all the stuff back there. So, say a little prayer for us.

So, as we end this exile and this unforgettable chapter of our lives with our return to Chocolate City, (whatever it is or will be, it's certainly not Big or Easy anymore), I offer you this working list of things I will/will not/have/have not miss(ed)...

Things I Will Miss About Virginia: (in no particular order)

  • Looking out of the window and seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.
  • Slopes and hills instead of endless flatness.
  • Having enough trees around the place I live to make me feel like I'm near surrounded by nature without the idea scaring me.
  • Seasons that change.
  • Fall colors.
  • All the flowers that grow here but can't be grown in N.O. because of the heat.
  • Seeing wild deer grazing here and there.
  • Being 2 hours from Washington D.C.
  • Living in a city that has an Ethiopian restaurant.
  • Being able to be the musician I am rather than being first known as the wife/ex-wife or girlfriend of a musician, and for that reason, being easily dismissed as such.
  • Snow.
  • Snow days (off).
  • Sunrises and sunsets like the ones I photographed and will post once I'm home and have a computer with internet access again.
  • Living at elevation that's not preceded by a negative sign.
  • Being in 20 minutes from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
  • Seeing rock outcrops on the side of the highway. Actual rock.
  • Being able to drink the tap water without worrying about heavy metal poisoning.
  • Excellent public schools.
  • Little rocky babbling streams all over the place.
  • Hearing service employees say, "thanks and have a nice day," after a transaction and it sounds like they sincerely mean it.
  • Being able to leave little dinky things in plain view in my car (like a cell phone charger or an umbrella) without having to worry about someone breaking the window to steal it.
  • A socially conscious community that walks the talk and where people set up charities to actually help others without skimming the donations for themselves.
  • A well-managed state and local government where corruption isn't the accepted norm.
  • Lots of really kind and genuine people.
  • Being able to drive for miles and miles without ever hitting a pot hole.
  • A place to live that has real, functional closets!
  • The master bedroom suite and the big roman bath tub.
  • Having a working fireplace in the house and easy access to wood.
  • Not having seen a cockroach in months. (It's the most consistently uttered benefit of living here that I've heard from all the other Katrina exiles I've met, as well.)
  • Going outside without being eaten alive by mosquitoes.
  • Low humidity and all the stars you can see at night when there's not excessive moisture hanging in the air.
  • Needing to drive only 5 minutes to find places dark enough to see constellations, "falling stars" and the the Milky Way streaked across the night sky.
  • Having a month of temperatures hovering between 17 and 40 degrees and getting a utility bill for only $200. (An energy-efficient place to live.)
  • Food stamps and Medicaid- but they were temporary anyway.
  • The giant recycling center.
  • The idea of a house with a basement. (Forget those in N.O.)
  • People who actually use their turn-signals and don't drive slow in the left lane.
  • Having a grocery store in my neighborhood.
  • The handful of friends I made here.

Things I Will Not Miss About Virginia (in no particular order)

  • The high cost of living. (Because this city always lands on those "Best Places to Live in The U.S. lists.)
  • Worrying about hitting a deer on the highway.
  • Living in a place with wall to wall carpeting.
  • The electric stove!##&$%@!!@!!!
  • Big Spiders
  • The tiny kitchen with no counter space.
  • The House Centipede- they're disgusting and can run as fast as a cockroach, but cockroaches still creep me out more.
  • Being in a hurry and having to scrape ice off the windshield while waiting for the car to warm up before I can leave. (Okay- scraping the ice was kind of neat, but it would have gotten old.)
  • Walking Rachel to the bus stop when it's 18 degrees outside.
  • Having someone living above and beside me. (Well, no one did, but someone surely would have moved in if we'd stayed.)
  • Electric outlets in places that serve no purpose other than to be eyesores.
  • What feels like a more segregated community. (Where are the black people?)
  • No urban landscape.
  • Having to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. (I can never remember that I'm supposed to do this and surprised when people stop for me. I'd rather they not do it. New Orleans is an every-pedestrian-for-him/herself-type city. And I'm fine with that.)
  • Being so far away from my family and friends.
Things I Missed About New Orleans: (in no particular order)

  • Black people. (They're harder to find than we imagined. )
  • My diverse neighborhood. (Like most of the city.)
  • The architecture!
  • Being able to be the 5th or 6th car to go through after the traffic light turns yellow.
  • King Cake (but there's still time...)
  • Popeye's Fried Chicken. (I rarely eat it, but I like the idea that it's there if I want it.)
  • The music scene.
  • Cooking with gas.
  • Mom's cooking and company.
  • My students and my university.
  • The bohemian scene and music in the Faubourgh Marigny. (A neighborhood.)
  • The chance appearance of a brass-band second-line (jazz funeral) rolling past my house on its way from the church down the street to the cemetery up the street.
  • The sound of the streetcar passing on Carrollton Ave.
  • Living in a neighborhood where a short walk takes me past pleasing architecture to coffee shops, restaurants, a park, the river, and lots of other cool places.
  • The sound of riverboat fog-horns.
  • Beignets. (I actually craved them while I was here.)
  • My front porch swing.
  • My cool neighbors.
  • Cannolis and cappuccino from Broccato's and pizza from Figaro's.
  • Mom's black-eyed peas and Lebanese cabbage rolls on New Years Day.
  • A dependable internet connection.
  • Family and friends.
  • The indelible spirit, sense of humor and creativity of my city.

Things I Didn't Miss About New Orleans: (the first three tie for #1, the rest, in no particular order.)

  • Cockroaches
  • mosquitoes
  • POTHOLES everywhere! The bane of my car's existence.
  • Unrelenting humidity.
  • The violent crime.
  • Parking meters and metermaids.
  • Trash on the street and sidewalk around my house thrown by neighbors walking from the corner store one block over.
  • Overgrown grass and weeds on the neutral ground, as we say, or "median," as the rest of you would say.
  • Having to get my own grass cut.
  • Being overwhelmed with things to do. (Okay- maybe I did miss this a little, as being busy energizes and motivates me.)

I'll check back in tomorrow if the next yucky motel also has free wi-fi, and if not, as soon as I can...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Post-Katrina Lesson #1- Adventures In The Psychic Psychotic Friends Network- Part 5

At last, The Final Chapter. You can finally fall of the edges of your seats and into the creepy world of our last week in Keswick. It's a VERY long post, but it's time this story be dispensed with.
It's our last week in the House of Horrors. We have to find another place to live. I'm confused and confounded and searching for an explanation. Was it something my kids did? Maybe...

As I mentioned before, the Xs only had dial-up internet and no call waiting. But if you were on the computer and a call came in, people could leave a message and you'd hear it. You could pay $2 to take the call while you were online, or simply let the caller leave the message and call them when you got off. Alex's only lifeline to his friends was that computer, as his cell phone didn't work in Keswick. We were told that we could use the computer any time and if a call came through, to let XX know. But Alex wasn't telling anyone that calls had come through when he was on the computer and I could see XX was getting frustrated by this, as I would, too. But she didn't restrict his use of the computer and still said he could use it any time he wanted. But I didn't feel good about this. I knew no one really called the house after 10:00 PM, so I told Alex not to use the computer until after that time unless he needed something for schoolwork. In that case, he should get it and get off ASAP.

When I was in New Orleans, I called the house one night around 8:00PM and got the machine, which meant that someone was on the computer. I left a message, asking that I be called back. Nothing. I called three more times. Same thing. It was getting late and I knew Rachel would be going to sleep and wanted to talk to both kids before it was too late and stressed this in my message. Finally, Alex called back, but by that time, Rachel was already asleep. And yes, he had been on the computer. Yes, it was during the time period that I expressly told him not to go online. Yes, he heard the messages. Yes, he basically ignored them. I was not happy about this and told him not to do it again! The next evening I called and ...same thing! I was furious!

The night I returned to Keswick from New Orleans (the night before our expulsion), I observed that XX closed the door to her "office" which had wind-chimes hanging from the knob. Alex needed to look up an assignment for school that was due the next day and because the door was closed, he asked her, very politely, if it was okay to use the computer. In a very harsh and nasty tone, she responded, "Oh, give it a break, will ya!" then turned and walked off.

Alex was a little freaked out by this, and though I didn't like the way she handled it, I understood why she may have been aggravated. Alex was on the computer a lot. On weekends, he might stay online until 2:00 or 3:00 AM, but aside from me, XY was the only person who got up in the middle of the night to observe this. Otherwise, he was quiet and you wouldn't know he was there. Anyway, this was just one more of the many less-than-friendly interactions between she and Alex.

I also learned that her obvious favorite, Rachel, had some problems while I was away. On one of my calls to Alex from New Orleans, he was very unhappy about the way XX had jumped all over Rachel for lifting the lid off a covered dish using a potholder. XX told her not to do it because she's drop it, and Rachel, in her usual way, sweetly insisted that it was okay and she could do it, and then attempted to demonstrate. According to Alex, XX flew off the handle and in what, from his perspective, was an extremely harsh and threatening tone- a tone, Alex says, that is much more severe than any I've ever taken with my kids -she roared at Rachel, "Are you challenging me???"

I'd heard her use a similarly harsh tone with Rachel once before, when she didn't think Rachel expressed enough gratitude for some act or deed- I can't remember what it was now. Anyway, I remember thinking at that time that it was a bit much and it sounded childish for an adult to react in that way.

There was one other incident involving Rachel that occurred while I was gone. XX gave Rachel some nail polish remover to use, unsupervised. Most adults know that nail polish remover is a strong solvent, and that if spilled, it will remove the finish from wood. I have only let Rachel use it without my direct supervision a few times and, explaining to her what could happen if it spilled, instructed her to only use it while sitting on the tile floor of the bathroom. Well, guess what happened? Rachel sat on the bed and used it, left on the bedside table with the cap off, went to sleep, and knocked the bottle over in her sleep somehow- maybe with a pillow. And it messed up the table's finish.

According to Rachel, XY seemed aggravated, but XX said that it wasn't a good table anyway, (I had noted earlier that it had white paint splatters on it), and she was very forgiving to Rachel - "everyone makes mistakes," she said, and indeed, it was just as much of a mistake (in my opinion) giving a 9 year-old a strong solvent without supervision. It couldn't have been that big a deal to XX, though, as she rewarded Rachel with a trip to the salon for a French manicure the day before I returned. No one said a word about the incident to me and I didn't even notice the problem on the table until a can of Scott's Liquid Gold mysteriously appeared on it (hint, hint) days after I returned.

Okay- let me get back to the last week and the day of our expulsion. It's Monday. Kids go to school. I am going through everything in my head to try to figure out what we did/didn't do wrong. I was extremely upset and didn't want to see, talk to, or be around the Xs in any way. I was just too hurt and didn't feel I could just pretend that nothing was wrong to make them feel comfortable with the situation. And Renard and I noticed that they seemed to be hiding out anyway. XY was usually camped out in front of the TV in the den while XX watched soaps with him or flitted around doing this and that, but on this day, they stayed in their room and we didn't see hide nor hair of them until they started preparing dinner. Rachel went in the kitchen for some reason and XX snidely inquired of her, "What's your mother's problem? I notice she's not talking to me." This was not a sincere sort of inquiry. It was in that tone, you know... What's your problem? Rachel knew what had happened, but simply didn't respond and came back to the room and told me about it. I thought it to be an odd question, given what she knew happened that morning and the fact that she'd been for the most part, tacitly ignoring me for the last few weeks.

We were going out to get some food (no way I was going in that kitchen to cook anything) and I had been thinking that I should go and explain to XX why I had become invisible. Renard and the kids went to the car and waited while I went to the kitchen.

I stood in the doorway, about 6 feet from where she stood at the sink, washing vegetables. In a very calm and quiet voice I said, "XX, I understand you were wondering why I wasn't talking to you. I just wanted to let you know that I'm not in a place where I can do that just yet. I'm hurt and upset and ..." As I am speaking, XX keeps her eyes fixed on what she's doing, but begins muttering, first at a normal volume, then in an escalating tone, onw word, over and over...you. "...I'm hurt and upset...you...And I'm worried.....you....you're putting us out and I don't really know this city or where to go...YOU..."

At this point I can no longer ignore her interjections and I'm a little confused by them, so I responded by very calmly explaining, "well, I am talking about my feelings .....and it is my life and my children's lives and...

Before I can get another word out of my mouth, she turns and looks at me, wild-eyed and shrieks, "WELL WHAT ABOUT ME?? WHAT ABOUT ME???? WHAT ABOUT ME???" I'm completely confused by this, and know that any attempt to get to the root of what's going on will not happen in the state she's in, so I calmly said, "I can't talk to you about this right now. I've got to go." I turned to leave and before I could get to the front door, XX is following behind me and screaming in my ear, WHAT ABOUT ME???? WHAT ABOUT ME??? IT'S MY HOUSE!!!!!"

I stepped out of the door and she slammed it behind me so hard that I expected to hear the sound of glass panes shattering.

First, I thought what the hell is she talking about?? Then I thought to myself, well that's surely sets the tone of things from here on out. How does one recover from something like this? I guess if she had apologized, there might have been a chance for detente. But she didn't. And from that point until the day we left, we did everything we could to become invisible. We'd make great pains to avoid XX, though we'd still pass XY in the den and when we did, we'd cordially acknowledge him. He inquired occasionally as to how the hunt for another place to live was going. Despite the coldness of his announcement that we'd have to leave, he'd never been ugly with us. And frankly, I had to wonder what he thought of his wife's explosion. Maybe he'd seen this kind of thing before. I'd now seen it twice. Except she apologized to me for the first episode.

Renard was scheduled to fly home from Baltimore on Wednesday of that week and, because of the distance from Charlottesville, we were going to spend the night in Washington so we'd have a shorter drive the next day. I made arrangements for Rachel to stay at a school friend's house down the street. Alex said he was fine staying at the house and could take care of himself. I knew he could, too, as he can be quite the diplomat and muster up civility towards people who are hardly civil to him, if need be. He would come home from school and stay in the wing, eat a microwaved pizza, do homework, etc. and go to school the next morning. I'd be back by the time he returned from school that afternoon. If he had any problems, the neighbors said he could go to their house.

When I returned on Wednesday, I entered my bedroom in the wing and found most of the clothes that had been hanging in the closet that Rachel and I shared strewn across the bed. Confused, I went into the den and asked XY about it. He said that XX told him I had taken all the hangers and she needed them. I was confused by this, as I had taken all the "good" hangers I had from my home and brought them to Keswick. I had as many as three articles of clothing hanging on one hanger, just so that I wouldn't use too many of XX's. But she had an amazing surplus of them anyway. I went and looked at the few that were left in the closet and noticed that the remaining hangers were hers, but she'd taken all of mine that came from home. I went back into the den and sheepishly told XY that...uh...the hangers XX took were mine that I'd brought from home.

XY left the room and returned with an armload of hangers, saying indeed, he knew that these were different from their own. He left again and came back with another bunch, and apologized. I wondered what he must have been thinking about his wife and her actions at that moment.

I took the opportunity to clean out the closet and get everything ready for packing. As I did, I realized that a nightgown and robe she'd given me to use in the cooling weather were missing as well as several articles of my own clothing. This really disturbed me, but I decided that it was not worth saying anything to XY about this. After all, it would be akin to accusing his wife of stealing, and I don't know how he'd take that.

Then it occurred to me that XX had ample opportunity while we were all gone to snoop around in all our things. I looked around for more evidence of snooping. When we evacuated, I'd taken all our valuables with me. The pouch with my good jewelry was still in its place, Alex's savings bonds were where I'd left them, the money XX's mother gave me for Alex was still there. So I dismissed the thought.

There was nothing belonging to the Xs in our rooms. The closets, drawers and cabinets had been emptied for us and everything they had been storing in the bedrooms had been moved out. XX had no reason to go into our rooms whatsoever. But she was going in. Over the next few days, I noticed that more things were disappearing from the wing. Every time we left, she was coming in and taking things. Little things and mostly things that XX had given us that were in obvious places. The body spray that Rachel loved disappeared from the bathroom. XX had multiple sets of stainless steel flatware and we had an overflowing container of it by the sink in the wing. Every day it dwindled until there was only a coupe of butter knives left. XX took all my loose teas and herbs out of the little plastic containers she'd given me and put them in plastic bags. I found the containers in her cupboard.

On Thursday, the Red Cross called to let me know that they'd gotten us a hotel and we could check in on Monday. On Friday I let XY know of our moving plans. I asked and XY had told me that we could take all our food with us. (I wasn't assuming anything at this point.) On Friday, I went out to buy moving supplies and returned to the house to find a box in the wing with our non-refrigerated food in it. XY said that XX had packed it. When we first arrived in Keswick, we went to the grocery store and I bought about 4 bottles of Crystal Hot Sauce, made not far from my house in New Orleans, and three other kinds from Louisiana. I love Crystal and knew it would be a while before they'd be making and distributing it again. XX wanted to buy the store's entire inventory, but I thought that was unnecessary and we left several bottles in the store. XY told me to be sure and take the Crystal because he preferred another kind and no one would use it anyway. The Crystal was missing from the box of food and so were all the items my mom had sent in a care package for me- seasonings and such. The day we moved, I went to look for these things and found everything but the unopened bottles of Crystal. They disappeared from the pantry in the kitchen where they had been for weeks. Apparently, XX had hidden them. I put all the other items on the kitchen counter and told XY that these were things my mom sent that weren't in the box and that I wanted to make sure it was OK to take them. (I know- it's crazy that I thought I had to ask permission to take my own things, but they were in a communal area and I didn't want to take the chance of XX claiming I took anything of hers. And after having told me a couple of days before to be sure to take the Crystal (which clearly meant something to me), XY told me, with some embarrassment, that XX informed him that she bought the Crystal and wanted to keep it "for the house." Forget the fact the fact that I actually bought the Crystal. It's cheap. But it was clearly my sentimental connection to home and she chose to keep it from me. And to add to the strangeness, when we went back to that store to buy some of the remaining bottles, every one of them was gone. And so were the other Loisisana brands. (!!??!!) We couldn't find any anywhere, but did eventually did find a few gigantic bottles of Crystal and bought two of them.

One afternoon, it may have been when I was in Washington, XX walked right into Alex's room and was clearly shocked to find him there. She mumbled some excuse about airing out his room and then quickly left. Then Alex heard XX go into the den and snap at XY, "why didn't you tell me Alex was there???!!!" Oops. Busted.

Every day that week until the day we left, there was evidence of XX's activity in our rooms, but after the in-plain-sight things disappeared, we found nothing of ours overtly missing. But remember, I had just returned from N.O. with the car loaded to capacity with items from home that we needed or that would make us feel better about being away. We had a lot of things in the upstairs bedrooms as well, in open boxes since we thought we'd be unpacking. I saw that XX had gone through some of these and had even taken some of the things that one of her husband's friends had given us out of the box and put them with her things on the other side of the room. I just left them there and added some of the other accompanying items that we'd been given to her collection. Clearly, she didn't want us to have these things. But it bothered me terribly that she'd been rifling through my stuff and it was starting to creep me out. There was no way for me to tell if anything was missing. So, I taped all the boxes up and stacked them by the door.

Usually, XX came into the wing when we were gone, but very early on Sunday morning, long before we'd normally be getting up, something awakened me. I heard the creak of the door to the wing as it opened and footsteps creeping up the stairs to the second floor. Then I heard footsteps moving from one side to the other of the room above mine where Rachel had her toys and things. I heard some sort of muttering - definitely XX's voice. I was wide awake now. I could hear drawers opening, I could hear her on the far side of the room by the window and couldn't figure out what she could be doing. I could hear things moving around. She spent the most time in this room and I couldn't tell if she went into the other (but I already knew she'd been through that one.)

This was creeping me out. I wondered if I should wait by the bottom of the stairs and try to catch a glimpse of what, if anything, might be in her hands. But instead, I just laid silently and listened to the angry-sounding muttering and movement in the room until I heard her move back down the stairs and out of the door. I had considered locking the door to the wing, but I was afraid that if I did, I'd have to experience another shrieking session - how dare I lock her out of part of her own house! - and I really preferred to avoid that kind of confrontation.

The only other times I'd seen XX that week was on two occasions when we passed each other in the hall. On the first of these, we made eye contact and she had an sad, almost tragic look on her face- the look of someone who was suffering. I felt kind of sorry for her. The second time, it was a look I can't describe easily- cold, piercing. I remembered her telling me one day before I left for N.O., that she dreamed she had monsters in the house- monsters in every room. Evil monsters. I wondered of she thought we were monsters. She looked at me that second time in the hall as if she were the monster and I should be afraid.

It was Sunday night, our last night in the house. After the kids went to bed, I had a bad feeling. I had been telling my mother what was going on and all week she had been saying, "You've got to get out of there. Please get out of there!" My mom and I are both pretty intuitive, and she was really upset and worried about us being there. I'd felt like we were okay before, but that Sunday night I felt in my gut that something was not right and I'm not the type to have irrational fears. And my gut-feelings have been pretty accurate in the past. I think XY felt it too, because he did something very unusual that night that he'd never done before, and it may have been the thing that kept this story from a tragic ending. We'll never know. That night, our last night in the house, XY stayed awake the entire night watching TV in the den, the room that separated the main house from the wing. He was usually in his room by 10:00 PM, but not on this night. I still had this bad feeling and began to wonder if I should be worried about him, too. But I knew this wasn't a rational fear. I had no reason to think he might be unstable in a dangerous way. But, oh, that feeling. So, just in case (and in case he fell asleep), I stacked heavy boxes in front of Alex's door so that no one could get in without making noise moving them. (I didn't want to wake him up and scare him. His room was right across the hall from mine. Rachel and I sleep together.) The door to my room would not lock, so I barricaded us in, as well. The next day when I told my mom about XY, she said, "He didn't trust her. He was standing guard." I think she was right.

The next day, I sent the kids off to school and I got busy cleaning and packing our remaining posessions. I think XY saw how uncomfortable I was after XX's erratic behavior and he was being very accommodating of my requests for things I needed like the vacuum cleaner. (I wouldn't go in the main house without asking him to come with me, anyway.) I was still cleaning when Rachel came home and I asked her to go and get the sheets from the dryer. XX was in the kitchen and said to her, "It's wrong for your mother to make you do the work that she should be doing. But don't tell her I said that because I don't want that monster coming in here and screaming at me." Rachel didn't respond but when she told us about this, Alex said that he was glad XX didn't make that remark to him. He was furious that XX would refer to me as a monster and tell Rachel something intended to turn her against me. (That's my boy!) Maybe XX hoped that Rachel would hate me for asking her to bring the dry sheets to the wing. Hah! Anyway, the remark didn't anger me at all the way it did Alex and my mother when she heard about it. I just found it amusing that someone who'd shrieked at me on two occasions while I either sat mum or quietly excused myself, would worry that I might come and scream at her.

All of our stuff was going to be taken to the neighbor's garage for storage until we had an apartment. Not everything was in sealed boxes when we left. Some boxes were open and we had some things in bags. My musician friend helped me move and it took two trips in our two Camrys to get everything out of the house. I washed all the linens and cleaned that wing like it had never been cleaned before. We checked every nook and cranny to ensure we hadn't left anything behind. I think it was at some point while we were unloading from the first trip to the neighbor's house that the last things were taken. Mostly Alex's things- books, magazines and CDs- a whole bag of things. Alex said that I had things in that bag as well- but I'm not sure what. One day when I go to look for something I know I had here and it's gone, I'll find out. Anyway, the whole bag disappeared. But because our things were packed up and in someone else's garage, we wouldn't discover it right away.

Before we left, I wrote a thank you note and left it on XY's chair. In it, I thanked him for everything he did to help us when we first arrived and I apologized for whatever we did or didn't do to make XX so angry. XY was supposed to have left at 6:00pm for a poker game, but he stayed until we finished at 8:00PM. Again, I think he didn't trust XX and he knew how uncomfortable I was without him there. When I went to tell him goodbye, I saw that he'd read the note. I thanked him again and gave him a firm and sincere hug. I realized that none of what happened was his doing. He was carrying out XX's orders. He told me that he thought we'd be much happier in our own place (no shit!) and wished us well.

Once we found a place to live and began unpacking, it became clear that several things were missing. Alex discovered this right away, but I had brought things with me that I didn't have a reason to use, but just wanted them out of the house in New Orleans for safe keeping. Things like jewelry, photos, Alex's savings bonds, important papers, and a few sentimental items. These are not things you use day in and day out. These are things that you don't discover are missing until the occasion arises when you want them and go looking for them. And every so often, we realize that there is something else that we haven't seen and can't find.

I don't wear jewelry with any regularity, with the exception of earrings and the occasional bracelet. I had the everyday stuff- earrings mostly- in one place and the good jewelry in a few little pouches all enclosed in a larger pouch. These were kept in a drawer in my room in Keswick. Once I realized that my things had been gone through, I did a cursory check the pouch and it was okay. I knew what was supposed to be in it and it was there. XX knew, too because on the day that she took me on the tour of her jewelry boxes, I retrieved the pouch and showed XX some of the things I treasured. Among the more valuable items in the pouch (in terms of both monetary and sentimental value) were an antique diamond cocktail ring given to me by my parents, my wedding and engagement ring and ring guard, a ring belonging to my deceased father, and a beautiful pair of antique (19th century England) gold earrings given to me by Rachel's father. I checked the pouch on the first day that the room had been pilaged. But I didn't check it again on the days following that. I didn't think I needed to.

A few days ago, it occurred to me that we hadn't seen a ring that I bought for Rachel at the Tower of Terror in Disney World. It was a cheap ring, but a good fake. It was the kind that looked real and expensive, but after being worn a few times, surely that would change. I said, before we start attributing this disappearance to XX, let me make sure it's not with my good jewelry. I opened the pouch and looked through every one of the smaller pouches, but it wasn't there. And something else was missing. My wedding set. A 2.63 carat pear-shaped diamond with a sapphire and diamond baguette on each side, a medium gold band, and a band of alternating diamond and sapphire baguettes that's worn on the other side of the wedding band as a ring guard. (Don't get too excited. It was 1985 and Willie had just done a Levi's 501 Jeans commercial -huge checks were pouring in. It wasn't cheap, but it didn't cost a fortune. The diamond had some significant flaws in it, though not visible to the naked eye -and Willie got it loose from a friend whose dad was a diamond broker and gave him a great deal. I bought the baguettes myself and paid to have the rings made, since it was my design.)

I have been absolutely sick about this. I have torn this place apart looking for the rings, hoping and praying that I took them out but just don't remember. That pouch has only been in one place other than in my personal posession: the X's house. And all the other jewelry is there, unless I'm forgetting something else. But all three of these rings -the set -is gone. Please say a prayer that they turn up somehow, because I don't know how to deal with this one if they don't. And the sad thing is that these rings would have been given to Alex to either give to the woman he would marry or to his own daughter or granddaughter, if he has them. So, if XX took them, she screwed Alex again, albeit indirectly this time.

Let's hope the story really ends here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Post-Katrina Lesson #1- Adventures In The Psychic Psychotic Friends Network- Part 4

Originally uploaded by LisaPal.
Richard asks... Alright, if nobody else will ask the obvious question I WILL. What the hell is the psychotic part?? Cuz if you haven't already described a loony tune, then I can't wait for the orchestra to get fired up.

Well, get your opera glasses polished up, 'cause were getting close. I can't do it all in this post because it's not fair to just say behold the psychosis, without putting it in proper context. By the end of this post, you'll be standing on the edge of the abyss. Next post, we all fall in.

Now, back to the story...

When we left off, XX had broken down and apologized repeatedly for her nasty behavior toward me and said we were fine, everything was fine. And everything seemed okay for a week or so. I had been busy trying to find a way to get back to New Orleans to get my car and check on my house and was spending a lot of time alone in the wing making phone calls and fighting with the aircard for internet access. I think XX resented this (remember- she complained that I was on my cell phone all the time and I said this was a clue), and soon she would barely acknowledge my presence when we'd cross paths around the house. We only engaged in prolonged conversation when I initiated it and really worked hard on making it happen. She seemed happy only when I was following her around like an obedient and loyal pet and this and I did from time to time both to placate her, and because I did consider her a friend and I cared about her feelings. If this was what she needed, then I'd give it to her. I realize now how manipulative this was of her. She was happy when she felt she controlled me. But it doesn't change anything. That's one of the things about trying to maintain a position of love without judgment. You just have to accept people as they are, like it or not, and give what they need as best you can without failing to honor your own needs.

During this time, I was really trying to give XX the attention she needed, but I noticed little instances of passive-aggressive behavior erupting from her. For example, one day she asked me to meet her at Best Buy sometime after 4:00PM, once we'd both finished running our individual errands, so I could help her pick out a PDA. She was to call me when she was on the way there. I finished my tasks early so I killed time in town waiting for the call she promised. The call never came and when I called her (repeatedly) she didn't answer. The plan was for XX to bring Rachel along since XX would be home when Rachel returned from school and I'd be out at an appointment. Rachel remembered the phone ringing and XX looking at it and putting it back in her purse more than a few times. So, I'm waiting and waiting and calling and calling again, and after finally getting through to the house after 100 busy signals and 2+ hours of putzing around killing time, XY answers and says XX has been home for a some time and had already gone to Best Buy. I later asked XX what happened and she said she tried to call me but couldn't get through. Rachel said XX made two calls while they were out, one to XY and one to her mother, but that was it. (Did she think I wouldn't ask Rachel?)

Another example, around the same time: When we first arrived in Keswick, XX invited me to go to see the Rolling Stones when they played in C'ville using XY's ticket, since he was sick. Then, about 2 weeks before the concert, while I'm in earshot, she starts calling all kinds of people and offering them the ticket without having ever "uninvited" me. She just acted as if the invitation never happened. I didn't think it would be appropriate to address this and once I realized that I didn't have to work around this date, I made plans to leave and was in New Orleans on the day of the show. But she could have given the ticket to my poor, forlorn son, who, as we learned earlier, was being ignored by her much to Rachel's advantage and who was starving for such an outing. XX went to the concert with her mother and a woman I heard her openly disparage many times.

I discussed my need to make the trip home with both of the Xs well in advance of making any arrangements and both assured me that they were OK with having the kids with them while I was gone. They said they didn't mind at all. And XX had taken quite a liking to Rachel, as most people do. She's a sweet and fun little girl and I call her my little Satellite of Love (50 points to anyone who gets the reference without having to click the link), because she happily orbits me and wants to participate in whatever I'm doing. She's a good little sidekick and XX loved this, as I guess Rachel was giving her the time and attention she wanted. In return, she showered Rachel with little presents and purchases, to the wretched exclusion of Alex, even after I asked that one of my children not be openly favored over the other this way. XX even took Rachel to get a French manicure. Nine year-olds do not need French manicures and heaven knows I don't need any more vanity seeds planted in Rachel than the ones that the wretched Disney Channel has already sewn.

A couple of days before I was to leave, while XX was napping I asked XY what was going on with her, and told him that I felt she was acting strangely toward me. I offered the two aforementioned examples. He said, repeatedly, that XX was just worried about him and she was just tired. He said that she was used to him doing everything and now that he was recovering, he was being more critical of her and more demanding and it was wearing her out. (They'd been bickering more and more and on one evening, to my horror, XX started disparaging XY to me while he was in the room, and she repeatedly tried to solicit my agreement that she was right about him being an asshole! I'm sure the look of panic was all over me -shoulders frozen in a shrug; eyes wide like saucers, darting between the two them; mouth hanging open in shock. Oh, please, oh please, oh please no! Please don't do this to me!!! I couldn't utter a word.) Anyway, XY repeated over and over not to worry about XX's behavior, that she was just tired and that they would be leaving for Florida in a few weeks and we'd have the place to ourselves and everything would be fine.

Don't worry. Everything will be fine.

I was gone for 5 days. Renard and I arrived in Keswick at 8:30 on Sunday evening. The Xs left soon after Alex told them I'd called and would be arriving within the hour. When they returned, XX and XY gave Renard a friendly greeting on the patio while I was inside, then went into her room and closed the door. She came out once but barely spoke to me. The following morning, once I'd gotten Rachel off to school, XY very coolly informed me that we had to find another place to live.

I was stunned and devastated. I asked why? Why?? What happened?? XY said it just wasn't working out. He said we had to be out by the time they left for Florida- in about three weeks. What did we do or not do?? He had no answer. He just repeated the same response. It wasn't working out. Then he said Alex would be happier somewhere else. Like on the street, I wondered? I said I didn't understand. Then he said that they just didn't think they could show the house with another family living in it. (They'd shown the house several times since we'd arrived and XX even remarked more than once that when the house was shown, we'd had the wing neater and cleaner than the rest of the house and better than she'd ever seen it.) He repeated the remark about Alex being happier somewhere else several times, as if it were some sort of consolation to me. It just didn't make sense. Just before I left, he said not to worry. Everything would be fine. I hadn't even been back for 12 hours and now nothing was fine and I had everything to worry about.

I had a physical reaction to the news the likes of which I've never had before. I felt like my head was going to explode. I had so much pressure in my neck that I thought every blood vessel would burst. I felt as if my head was about to explode and that I might pass out at the same time. I mumbled to XY that I didn't feel so good- that something was wrong. I slowly lowered myself to the floor to put my head down. He sat there and sipped his coffee, never taking his eyes off the newspaper, never once asking of I was okay. I tried to compose myself. I just wanted to get out of the room. I slowly rose and said something like, "so much for the brotherly love," (see Part 1) as I quickly stumbled from the dining room. I made it as far as the den and then collapsed over the ottoman, breathless. It took a few minutes before I could breathe again. I went into the wing and into Alex's room where I calmly made sure he was getting ready for school. Then I excused myself and went upstairs where Renard was sleeping, fell onto the bed, and burst into some of the most intense sobs I've ever sobbed. I didn't want Alex to know what had just happened, but he couldn't help but hear me. He wrote about it on his Xanga site and, needless to say, he was very angry and upset 17 year old . So Mom, if you figured out how to get to this blog and you decide to read his post, please overlook his use of expletives and forgive him for saying that what I was crying about was worse than what he thought I might have been crying about. You know he doesn't mean that. Not at all!

Once I composed myself, I got on the phone and started making calls. I had given up an apartment with six months of free rent and now we had no place to go. There was no way we were staying at that house for those three weeks until the Xs left for Florida. I wanted to be out by the end of the week. I went to the Red Cross and they said they could get us into a hotel, but the only way we could get a room in town was to wait until the following Monday, as all the local hotels were booked because of a big football game at UVA that weekend. I think it must have been the longest week of my life. And it's in this week that the real scary behavior starts to occur. If this story wasn't already so long, I'd finish it now, but I know I'm already asking a lot with such a lengthy post. So stay tuned...

Monday, January 09, 2006

Next Question Answered...Home Sweet, Stinky Home

Muse asks : What's happening with your home in New Orleans? Will you and your kids be able to move back in (even if repairs need to be made)?
My home? Beautiful, wonderful, lovely, compared to so many other homes in New Orleans. Katrina's floodwaters didn't get inside of my house; they came up just below the floor joists. That's great news. But the water came up half way over my two central air units and trashed them and my hot water heater as well.

The wind did some damage to the exterior of the house, with a couple of broken windows, obliterated (decorative) shutters, some of the siding and all of the downspouts blown off. (The wind actually blew paint off the house and off of Renard's van.) The roof had damage as well. Several shingles and most of the roof caps were blown off. Water came in and went down the all of the walls. Mold is growing in the plaster. Almost every room in the house had water stains like the ones in these pictures- and that was in October. Who knows what it looks like now, after having been exposed for 4+ months. FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers don't put blue tarps on tile, asbestos or slate roofs. Which means most of us with old houses have to wait in line for a roofer while the water trickles (or pours) in with every rainfall.

As I said in the comments section of the "question" post, we'll have to stay with my Mom (who is doing well and has things pretty much back to normal at her house) until I can get the central air units, hot water heater and refrigerator replaced, provided the condition of the walls and ceiling hasn't changed. When they're repaired, we'll probably have to leave again, as I am very sensitive to plaster dust.

You may recall that the thing about which I was most apprehensive when I went home in October was having to deal with the two refrigerator-freezers that were loaded with food that sat putrifying for 5+ weeks. Well, the experience lived up to my expectations, but there is a nice element to the story.

I knew I had to get the refrigerators out of the house but had no idea how I was supposed to accomplish this task without help. So, I posted a message on a board that had just been created by my domain registrar, DirectNIC.com, a division of InterCosmos Media Group -a company run by a bunch of locals in New Orleans, asking if anyone knew where someone like me could get such help. (They stayed in town and took heroic measures to keep their servers up through the storm and its aftermath, and documented everything that was happening on a blog, complete with live webcam feeds. Their story alone is amazing.) One of the employees of the company named James, immediately offered assistance. Now that's customer service!

Dealing with the refrigerators was horrific.

I had two of them -an old one and a new one that I bought when I thought the old one was broken (turned out that it was a wiring problem in the house.) The new one didn't fit in the old one's space, so I had it in the dining room until I could do some renovation work in the kitchen. We used both and the new one had just been filled after a trip to Sam's Club.

We started with the new one. I had an N95 respirator on with Vick's Vapor Rub smeared all around and inside my nostrils to mask out the odor. Still not enough. James brought a hand truck with him and we blew the wheels out when we tilted the fridge back onto it. That's also when a gush of putrid liquid came pouring out of it. There are no words for this odor. Simply no words. I admire James' fortitude as he turned down the mask I offered. Eventually, he caved and accepted some Vick's. He gagged intermittently as we struggled to get the thing out of the house. But it wouldn't fit through the doorway. It was swollen with the gases of decomposition and we were told by "the authorities" to leave the contents inside and to seal the refrigerators with duct tape and put them on the curb. And I wasn't about to open that thing. No way. But without opening the doors, it definitely wouldn't make it out of the room. We had a problem.

The only solution was to take the door frame off, which damaged the plaster. (The lath underneath it turned out to have a quite unique pattern. You can see a picture of it and lots more from the house on the Flickr site.)

We borrowed another hand truck from workers in a neighbor's house and tried to load the fridge on it and blew a second set of wheels. We didn't have access to a hard-wheeled dolly, so we just pushed the fridge to into the far end of the foyer (scratching the hardwood floor all the way there) and after taking it off the front door's hinges, realized that it wouldn't fit through that space either. James had to go and Renard (who'd come to help) was ready to go as well, so I stayed to try to clean up some of the muck before the sun went down. (We still had no power.)

While I was outside, my beloved neighbor, Slim (nobody calls him by his real name) came by and saw me there. It was a beautiful reunion! I bought the house almost 18 years ago and he's been my "neighborhood father figure" ever since. He's helped through the years with minor repair jobs I've had and he always watches out for me.

He asked what was going on and when I told him, he offered to help. Soon there was no question that the front door frame would have to come off as well. Slim got quickly to work and soon both refrigerators were on the porch. I didn't even realize that I'd been left alone with the front door off its hinges and probably couldn't have put it back on by myself until Slim addressed that issue. Because of the damage inflicted on the frame, the door would no longer lock. So my house now sits with a heavy-duty barricade mounted inside to block the unlockable front door. That's one more thing for the to-do list.

As you might guess, this was a real funk-fest for the flies. There were phone, cable and power lines dangling all over the place, but one of them looked unusual. Only one. It appeared to have a strange and different texture than the others. A closer look revealed that the odd texture was the result of being covered in flies. Big, fat, disgusting flies. They went from the ground to about 8 feet up the wire and you could walk right up to it and they wouldn't fly away. I postulated that they must have been too full to fly, having gorged themselves on the contents of a neighbor's refrigerator that spilled out from a broken garbage bag on the curb nearby. (Initially, people were told to empty the contents before putting the refrigerators on the curb, but I suppose that proved to be a major sanitation hazard, if they even got people to comply in the first place. I'd made my mind up long brfore that that I was not opening the refrigerators, no way!)

Nothing you've seen on TV really captures the destruction of New Orleans. I have never experienced anything as creepy as what I did when I first drove into the city on October 5th, about 30 minutes before curfew, as the sun was setting. To see this once vibrant city all dull and gray, with nothing but my car's headlights illuminating piles of debris and damaged or burned out houses was something I'll never forget as long as I live. After I passed the National Guard checkpoint, I felt like the last person alive after the apocalypse; like I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone. There was not a soul in site. Not a person, not an animal. There was no color, no light, no sound. Nothing but gray emptiness. A major American city empty and lifeless, with destruction everywhere. Try imagining the city where you live in this state and maybe you can get some feeling of what this was like. It's the emptiness -the absence of any signs of life -that's so chilling.

It was not as bad in the light of the clear and beautiful day that followed my arrival, at least not in my neighborhood. At lot of clean-up had already taken place. The flood water peaked on my block at around 3.5 feet. Most houses are raised. But in other parts of New Orleans, the devastation is incomprehensible. And if you drive through certain parts of the city at dusk, they look the same today as what I saw when I first arrived. Dark and desolate.

There is so much work to be done in my city before life even comes close to anything that resembles what we once called normal. After all this time, services are not up and running in some places ans where they are, they're often inconsistent, grocery stores and gas stations are still scarce, mail is still not being delivered in many areas, and certainly not with any regularity when it is delivered, many traffic lights don't work... I could go on. We'll recover, but it will be a long road for New Orleans. But on the bright side, there are no meter maids working anywhere!

Be it ever so humble (and it's never been so humbled before,) there's no place like my home. No place. And we can't wait to get back.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Questions Answered

Well, I was hoping for a few more questions, but this is a start...

De asks: Talking monkeys - cool concept or something to be feared?

This one, friends, is an easy one, for we need only look to the whitehouse for testament to the danger of talking monkeys. Yes, talking monkeys are bad. Very bad. (More photo comparisons can be found at www.bushorchimp.com....apparently links are forbidden. (?)

Muse asks: What did you want to be, when you were little?

A marine biologist or a geologist. In high school, the answer was "pharmacist" for a while (for dubious reasons), but marine biology remained the big answer.

When I was little, my dad and I used to go fishing or out on photographic expeditions just about every weekend. Our outings would take us to beautiful and very wild places. He bought me field guides of salt and fresh water fish, salt and fresh water marine organisms, reptile and amphibian books, and rock and mineral books. We'd go out with our scoop nets and capture all kinds of neat little grass shrimp, minnows and juvenile bass and perch and the occasional crawfish, and put them and some native aquatic plants in an aquarium and watch them interact and grow. He also took me to one of the only places in southern Louisiana to find any interesting minerals (rocks are scarce when you live on an alluvial plane), Port Sulphur. This was really another fishing venue, but you could find sulfur and gypsum on the ground near the mines.

In college, I was a biology major and marine biology was still my thing. At the end of my freshman year, I had an opportunity to participate in a Cousteau project that summer. (Yes, Cousteau as in Jacques...and Jean-Michel.) I sent in my application and rounded up academic transcripts and letters of recommendation from my professors and applied for a grant to cover expenses -and I was accepted. I attended again in 1982, but they wouldn't give me another grant, since I'd already gotten one. In between those two life-changing summers (in many, many ways), I attended marine biology/geology field school in Jamaica at Discovery Bay Marine Lab, in a joint program with the University of New Orleans and University of the West Indies.

PICTURE NOTES: The underwater picture is a picture of me on the wreck of the Rhone, during Cousteau's P.O.S. 1982. Next, that's Jean-Michel Cousteau on the left, our local (caribbean) marine archaeology specialist and dive outfitter, Bert Kilbride and his wife Jackie in the middle, and me, all puffy from the salt water after a long day of diving other activities in the heat of the Caribbean summer sun, on the right. I was not quite 19 years old. The picture below was from field school in Jamaica., December 1981. All of these pictures (and more) were in the folder of treasured images and artifacts I brought with me when we evacuated. I posted more of these on Flickr, with comments, so all you have to do is click on this link to get to the main page of the site for perusal.

So what happened?

I always said that if I failed a biology class, I would have to "rethink my entire existence." Well, I moved out of my parents house after my first semester at U.N.O. and into my own apartment. I'd been working part-time in a film lab since I was 15 and I went to full time in order to support myself, while taking a full load of classes (in a science curriculum) at school , complete with long lab classes. And to add to the burden, I developed a much more active social life. Studying was not a priority.

And then I failed genetics. I didn't even bother to take the final. It was a notoriously difficult class with a notoriously difficult professor, and I wasn't up to it. Well the time had come. I had to rethink my entire existence! But alas, after my groovy experiences doing fieldwork in Jamaica and interacting with the natives, I decided that anthropology would be much more fun and interesting. And, probably easier. There's more to the academic story, but we see where I ended up.

Ask Me a Question

Go ahead. Ask. Ask anything you want. You can ask me a personal question, or a philosophical question or a hypothetical question. But you can't ask me trivial question like who created the Periodic table (Mendeleev), who wrote The Periodic Table, (Primo Levi) or what the atomic weight of Cadmium is (112.41). That would defeat the purpose, because the purpose is to get me to write. Not just daydream blog entries in my head but never write and post them. For I am still stuck in the doldrums. I know I have a story to finish. (I haven't even gotten to the psychotic part of the Psychotic Friend story.) And I have other older news to report that I haven't gotten around to.

But I need a push.

As it is, all I want to do is stay in my bed (it's the most comfortable place I can find to sit in this apartment) sleep, read, and sleep some more. That's what I want to do all the time, not what I get to do all the time- but I find myself doing it every chance I get. I don't get out much. I haven't put gas in the car since December 11th- that tells you how often I get out and about. I don't know what to do around here but buy groceries from the store, about 2 blocks away. The highlight of my day was eating half of a six ounce package of Genoa salami and composing an ode to its deliciousness in my head while playing Spider Solitaire on the computer . (Oh, salami, were it not for you and your cousin, prosciutto, vegetarianism might have been a possibility for me. But not lacto-ovo, parce que tellement j'adore le fromage aussi!) All this will change in a couple of weeks when we return home to New Orleans. But right now...

I am null.

I need a push.

Stimulate me with a question.

If I think there's a reason to write something (because you asked), it may get me excited about doing it, for a change and that might get the juices flowing enough for me to get caught up. (Unless no one really cares about the unwritten stuff, in which case, I'm off the hook and on my way out the door to buy more salami.)

So, I invite friends, strangers and you anonymous lurkers hanging out in the shadows to ask me a question. Whatever you want. Because I've got to shake this.

Muchas gracias.