She’s a Lumberjack and She’s Okay

January 24, 2006

Nettie and I are back, O Best Beloveds, and the short version is we came, we saw, we got a roofer. Read on if you want further details on the state of New Orleans, some food porn and a really big tree. It’s going to be a long one, so I’ve divided it into relevant, irreverently titled sections, so that you might skip to the stuff you find particularly interesting.

1) City Porn: This is the hardest section to write, as I’m not sure I can do justice to the place of contrasts that is, more than ever, the city of New Orleans. It is at once the same and utterly changed, in high spirits and deeply depressed, moving forward and stuck in late August.

Nettie, who drove around a bit in hard hit areas like Lakeview and the 9th Ward, and I made a point our last two mornings to go to the Lower 9th Ward, the most devastated portion of the city. Due to our geographic failings, we started in a relatively visually intact section; while the buildings there were damaged, to the naked eye they looked salvageable. Many had “Do Not Bulldoze” signs on them, and you could see why residents want to fight to save their homes, assuming said homes are structurally sound, which is a big assumption. But then we got oriented and headed towards the North and everything changed. House after house after house was reduced to a rubbish heap of piles of random lumber, unrecognizable as anything much less someone’s home. Other houses were pushed into each other; three homes that once lined up in a row now smashed at various angles into each other. We passed by many large vacant lots before realizing they were anything but; two, three, four homes were literally blown away. Sometimes, concrete cylinder pilings were left behind, making the lot look like a cemetery, which it was, of sorts; a graveyard of hopes and a certain way of life. Sometimes just the steps were left, leading to nowhere, which is a metaphor that doesn’t bear explication. Drive down any regular block and houses line up with more or less geometric precision; here, when the houses remained, they were no longer in a straight line but a zig zag, as if a kid had been playing with a toy set and then kicked it around. Cars are tilted up on their ends or up over fences. A giant truck was perched on a house. Houses push into other houses, breaking down walls, and sometimes, incredibly, are sitting on top of other houses. We saw a deck chair dangling from a telephone wire, and a roof that had landed in someone else’s backyard, with no roofless house within sight. And finally, there was this; the front wall of a house completely gone, exposing not just the house itself, but also the interior of a closet, with a line of neat suits hanging tidily from hangers, all in a row on the rod, all ready to go, except for the film of brown filth coating each one.

I am going to say a lot of positive things about New Orleans in the course of this email, and they are all true, but believe me; if you go, and I am looking in the direction of DC when I say this, please go and walk those streets, and get the oily mud on your shoes, and look at the rubble of this neighborhood, and that row of suits. I don’t really understand what we saw, and I certainly don’t claim to know what to do, but I do know there is a great deal to be done, and we must bear witness.

Our own section, Mid-City, “got clobbered,” as the owner of Parkway Bakery said, though not as dramatically as the worst hit areas of town which is why you don’t hear about it as much. As a result, much of it remains depressingly dark and silent. Many stretches of flooded areas look like small economically floundering small towns these days rather than part of a major city, with dark boarded up or smashed glass storefronts and empty interiors, abandoned, dusty and sad. In some cases, owners are waiting for poky insurance companies–insurance woes are a constant theme, with tales of elusive agents and roofers replacing discussions of mold reduction–but in some cases, occupants have given up. The area is holding its breath; it touches all the dry, unflooded areas of town, and so has a chance at civic revival, but conflicting proposed plans leave its fate unresolved.

The exception is our particular neighborhood, Bayou St. John. Up and down our streets and those nearby are signs of a busy, active ‘hood. Sodden interiors have been ripped out and thrown into piles, which are picked up with semi-regularity by cleanup crews. Renovation is constant; parking is hard to come by, thanks to all the trucks. Restaurants are back, so is the local Italian market, with another bigger name getting ready to open a brand new market. Nearly every house appears to be occupied or is on its way. Buildings along our main thoroughfare look like regular picturesque New Orleans; coming after the Lower 9th, it reminds us of how lucky we were. Meanwhile, the Quarter and the Garden District and the portion of Uptown just above it look more or less like they always did, absent a few details (like the St. Charles streetcars, sidelined indefinitely due to lack of funds to repair them). Some stores have closed–our local bakery has shut down, and we saw a few shops on Magazine that have given up–but many more are back in business. Restaurants are booming and more than one business has said they had their best December and January ever. Everyone is hurting for lack of staff; nearly every business has a “help wanted” sign up. The littlest thing could reduce us to tears of gratitude for the pleasure of normalcy; Central Grocery, even if it was closed today so we couldn’t get our sandwiches, the Wild Magnolias at Rock N’ Bowl, who had to get new suits having lost theirs to flood, Joe at Faulkner House Books, all gracious and calm and courtly.

One of the most discouraging details from our late Sept visit was the vegetation; tropical, verdant NOLA was painted in shades of brown and gray, having spent weeks and months drowning underwater. There hasn’t been much rain–just as well, considering the roofing problem–but enough to make the neutral grounds (that’s the meridian to you) green again, and to start to encourage more plant life elsewhere, like droplets of clover flowers in our yard. The hard hit oak trees seem to be regaining their footing, even though most look like they got pruned by a drunk. Best of all, many of the streets looked oddly clean; back in Sept, every street was covered in various forms of trash, blown there by storm or placed there by flood or flung there by an owner trying to clean up. It seems there are a number of volunteer groups, who meet once or twice a week, and take over a stretch of road, and clear it. I hope they get the very best throws on Mardi Gras and are bought many, many drinks. There is so much left to be done–in addition to endless trash and debris, many streets like ours have mud leftover from the flood waters, and after a rain it gets a bit pungent (let the record show Nettie did not notice)–but that these people refuse to consider this the Augean stables makes them quiet heroes.

And all over, there are tales to be told, and people eager to tell them. The man next to me at the donut shop said his house in Gentilly was fine, but unfortunately, he evacuated to East New Orleans, where it got six feet and more of water, and was trapped there for a week. “All that time, I could have been in my own house!” he said, wryly. And everyone is eager to help, from the neighbors who offer to come over when we aren’t in town to let in delivery people or contractors, to the guy sitting next to me at the cable company, offering advice on termite protection and drywall installation.

But still, electricity remains out in parts of the city, and phones remain out all over. We heard from one of our neighbors that the phone company is predicting December (!!) for the return of phone service. There is no mail delivery in many parts of the city, including ours. Trash pickup is erratic and strange. Looting is happening in the devastated areas, adding injury to injury. And on it goes.

And yet, while everyone we talk to acknowledges all that, their eyes also burn with a passion about the possibility and hope for the future of their city. When they say that in the end, there will be not just a New Orleans, but a better New Orleans, we tend to believe them.

2) House Porn: Owning a 100 year old house that you don’t live in full time means any visit commences with the search for The Thing That Is Broken This Time (various candidates in the past have included roof leaks, heater failure, electrical funkiness and squirrel infestation). At least this time, we already knew what was broken. For those who chose not to delve into the multipage earlier report on the house, the summary is that our two story house took on less than two feet of water (we think), and since our living quarters are on the top floor (the first floor is garage and basement), this was largely good news, except for the parts about the moldy drywall, the washer/dryer/water heater massacre and all of my cousin Craig’s belongings, which he stowed down there during his year medical research trip in Africa. Also, we lost some of our roof, and thanks to Hurricane Rita, the ceilings in one half of the house (it’s a double shotgun; Steve and I are on one side, Nettie, Diana and Dave on the other) look very very interesting, and by “interesting” I mean “stained brown and falling down.” In short, nothing special; the same story is told by everyone else in that middle ground between “We did fine,” and “We had a house in Lakeview/East New Orleans/Ninth Ward.” (Emphasis on “had.”)

Huge was our relief when we went inside and took big whiffs; no moldy, mildew smell, proving our mold eradication efforts (bleach, drywall ripping-outing, treatments by Mold Guys) were effective. Everything else looked pretty good, with the introduction of a mystery; the bed in Steve’s and my back sunroom showed signs (dirt, fur, smushed down sheet) of an unauthorized feline visitor. The mystery is this: given that the room in question was locked, with no holes for access, how did the cat get in or out? It’s Shroedinger’s Cat crossed with Sherlock’s Locked Room. We don’t mind giving a refugee shelter, especially since it didn’t leave any other traces (well, apart from the amputated squirrel tail in the basement, but let’s not discuss that), but we surely do wonder how it came to stay.

Our big goal for the trip were finding a roofer, which we accomplished thanks to Ti and Jill, who directed us to their roofers, both of whom remarkably returned calls and came and gave estimates within a couple days, all of which was really efficient and thus totally bewildering behavior for New Orleans. And while I don’t want to jinx anything, it’s looking like one of them may be starting on said roof in a couple of weeks, which would be rather nice, given how Nettie and I sat around her side of the house on Friday watching water splash into a bucket from a leak in her hallway ceiling. Or we would have watched it, had the electricity been on. There we were, Nettie in her shower and me in my tub, both of us couldn’t have been more naked if we tried, rejoicing in the new water heaters and what they do, and FWAP! the lights went out in the whole ‘hood. And our house is very, very dark. After considerable comic bumbling on our respective sides, we met up at Nettie’s, lit some candles and I commenced to fret that this wouldn’t be a simple power outage, given how long it took Entergy to restore power to the area in the first place, and that it could be weeks before came back again, a whine I felt heartily ashamed about when the power came back on around 1am. But that’s how it is just now; a one-time pleasure,the combination of a New Orleans rain storm and a power-free candlelit night becomes a cause for anxiety and a reminder that things aren’t there yet.

Goal #2 was dealing with the 100 year old pecan tree, a three story, multi-ton wonder with a trunk that would take two sets of arms to encircle, which crowned our backyard and was a major reason for buying the house in the first place, and naturally, came down during the storm. Thoughtful and giving to the end, it fell on the only spot where it wouldn’t cause any major damage, parallel to our house and the houses behind us. We got a preposterously high quote to remove it, and fretted over what to do, when our next door neighbor Henry, a contractor and ridiculously competent man, who stuck it out during the storm and for a week thereafter committing various acts of practical heroism, and who is handling all our home repairs, just said “You know, I bet if I took a chain saw to it, we could get it out ourselves.” Well, and why not? Nettie and I said. And so, with the help of HandyBoy Kevin (supporting player from Sept trip), we did. Henry bought himself a serious chainsaw, and only once made the obvious joke, and for two days straight he calmly sliced and diced and dripped sweat, as we hauled branches, flung and rolled logs and pushed wheelbarrows. “I am Cancer Chick, hear me roar,” I thought, as I maneuvered a wheelbarrow full of trunk parts. I learned there is a practical application for physics and geometry outside of high school classes (not that I didn’t pay close attention to high school geometry class, and not that I’m just saying that because my high school geometry teacher is reading this), as Henry demonstrated how to use levers and fulcrums and accurately predicted which direction the trunk would roll when certain portions were removed. Two chains were burned through in the course of two days, and Henry was reduced to sawing through the thickest part of the trunk (some twelve feet from the stump) in small curving chunks, rather like the bites one takes out of an ice cream bar. In the end, only a couple tons of trunk were left (Henry’s tackling it today or tomorrow), which sounds like a lot, until one considers that two days before the entire yard was nearly completely filled by the tree and its branches, and that now the deconstructed tree rests in our driveway, awaiting the free Army Corps of Engineers debris pick up. The yard currently looks no worse than it usually does after we’ve neglected it for a few stormy months.

Meanwhile, our washer, dryer and new fridge got ordered, wireless Internet access installed (with the help of HandyBoy Kevin, who coolly took a look when I got stuck in the process, and said “Oh, your computer is talking to your router instead of the cable connection,” or something like that, and hit a few buttons and made it all go. Between this and Henry explaining why I made a mistake in ordering an electrical dryer instead of a gas dryer in language that made Nettie, who was well-trained by her contractor father, nod her head in understanding and sounded like so much gibberish to me, I concluded that I am a worthless lump of flesh with no practical knowledge whatsoever, unless you count knowing how to ridicule a screenplay and suggestions on where to eat. “You have specialized knowledge,” said Kevin, because he was raised to be kind.) which sounds weird, but cable is working where phones are not, plans were made for tree replanting, all kinds of friendships were struck up with the neighbors and we even met some guys who want to buy our old roof slate when it is replaced in a few weeks, which makes us very happy, because a great many old architectural details are going to get tossed out during the rebuilding process, rather than appropriately recycled. In short, some months from now, we should have a pretty nice house. That won’t leak ever again. Or at least not for a couple of decades.

3) Food Porn: All work and no caloric play makes Nettie and Mary really cranky, and we got things off to a most satisfying start with dinner with Ti at Cafe Adelaide. The all-too-dreamy Chef Danny simply fed us, beginning with Tabasco soy glazed tuna, with celery root puree, then Louisiana boucherie, ultra-tender (could almost cut it with a fork) slices of pork with a swish of blackberry honey, plus a white boudin crepinette and tasso braised cabbage; then seared duck breast with a sunny side up quail egg, savory duck cracklin’ cornbread and sweet and tart roasted tomato jam, one of the most outrageous duck dishes I’ve ever had. Dessert was a sampling platter: two cheese (Fleur de Lis and Fleur de Teche with kumquat marmalade), drunken fig and bleu cheese tart (best savory dessert I’ve ever had), chocolate molten cake with a heart of white chocolate ganache, creole cream cheesecake and pecan pie. We discovered that Chuck’s friend Ted, aka Dr. Cocktail, was in the house and a pal of Ti’s, and he came over and we couldn’t resist taunting Chuck via a note on Nettie’s blackberry. “Tell him to make Nettie a Corpse Reviver #2″ came back the response, and Nettie shouted this to Dr. Cocktail, by now at the next table, and he promptly got up, went to the bar and did just that. And it was divine. Many were the cocktails, and even more the laughter, and it was brilliant welcome back, even if I did miss the chance to tell local Congressperson William Jefferson and two visiting, Katrina Committee Congresspeople, who were also dining there, a thing or two (they slipped out while I wasn’t looking, probably because I was too intent on mopping up the last of the blackberry honey).

Friday we went to the Gallery, a seafood place in Metairie we ate at during our trip back in August, and fell in permanent love with. Fried shrimp, plus a plate full of two large crabcakes topped with more crab lumps and creamy angel hair Alfredo, plus a stop for cupcakes and pieces of caramel douberge cake from Gambino’s, a decades-old institution that had an outlet in Mid-City that they don’t plan to reopen, a decision we strongly hope they will reconsider. Errands ran late on Friday and with no plans we opted to run into Parkway Bakery, our local po boy shop which reopened to great (1000 people attended their opening party) acclaim a few weeks ago. Reports were they were only serving their roast beef sandwich, but a handwritten menu showed multiple choices, so I asked the owner, Ray, which should I get–the roast beef or the hot sausage? After confirming I knew what hot sausage was, and liked it, he said ‘How about hot sausage with cheese, and roast beef gravy with debris [the bits of beef that fall off when the roast is sliced}?” Yes, I said, that. Definitely. “Okay. And it’s free.” Just another act of random culinary kindness, this from a man who told me he was so tired, from battling hurricane aftermath, living in a FEMA trailer next to the store, and roasting beef seven days a week, that he was starting to stutter. Minutes later, he slipped on some grease and dropped an entire tray of roast beef and gravy over himself, head to toe, an accident that would have been very bad had the stuff been hot, but since it was only lukewarm, he simply shook his head and wished he had a large loaf of bread he could lie down in, for a photo op. Still, he’s taking a vacation at the end of February and no one begrudges him.

Saturday we got shrimp po boys from Broad Street seafood (our local seafood place, home to the best shrimp po boys I’ve had, remains closed), which were too salty. That night, Poppy joined us at the newly reopened and bustling Galatoire’s, where we started with plump shrimp in a spicy remoulade sauce, some turtle soup (okay, but it has nothing on Commander’s, was the consensus), and some souffle potatoes. Poppy and Nettie had Crabmeat Sardou, hollandaise sauce covered crabmeat on artichokes. “It tastes like my childhood,” said Poppy, as she sighed with pleasure over the dish that was her earliest Galatoire’s memory, while I had sauteed pompano menieure, the fish sitting in just the right amount of butter sauce topped with lump crabmeat, while we all shared spinach Rockefeller.

Sunday we split a Parkway roast beef po boy (our lunches were ad hoc affairs during Tree Dissection). Jill and Yasmin brought us homemade gumbo and jambalya, but I felt the call of Frommer’s work, and we went to the Quarter to check out Stanley, a new cafe from the Stella! people. Naturally, it’s not open for dinner. We were tempted to return to our neighborhood since we noticed our local Spanish place, Lola’s, which usually has an hour wait was mostly empty. Guilt won, and we went to the Clover Grill, since I hadn’t eaten there in some years, mostly because whenever I tried, it was late at night and I wanted a shake, only to be told each time that the ice cream machine was broken, to do a new review. It’s lovely to have a constant in a changing world, and so I said “Of course it is,” when I asked for a malt and they said “The ice cream machine is broken.” The hamburgers were excellent, and so was the floor show as the manager threw out a belligerent drunk guy, calling out “BITCH!” and chasing him down the street. We finished up with beignets at Cafe du Monde because I was wearing black pants.

Monday we tried a half a small olive loaf topped with bleu cheese, bacon and red sauce from La Boulangerie, and then took a muffuletta from Nor-Joe’s Italian grocery in Metairie for the plane ride home.

And then we thought about a place where the past isn’t ever really past, and where the neighbors say “Welcome back! What can we do to help?” and our next-door neighbor fires up his chainsaw to help you get rid of your tree.