plenty enough suck to go around a memoir of floods, fires, parades, and plywood
By CHERYL WAGNER
CITADEL PRESS Copyright © 2009 Cheryl Wagner
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8065-3103-8
"Hold it tight!" Jake said.
"I'm holding it as tight as I can," I replied.
Jake and I balanced on a two-and-a-half-foot ledge on the second story of our raised house, each balancing an end of a huge half-wet plywood sheet that was heavy as shit. Jake had nails pressed between his lips and a hammer jammed in his back shorts pocket. My neck started to feel like taut rubber bands. I tried not to look over my shoulder and envision my plummet to the ground below. The night before I had done a rare thing: I had watched the local evening news and seen the angry red blob in the Gulf. And so here we were.
"I am trying!" I said, plopping my end down a second.
"Jesus! Tell me when you're going to do that! You're going to kill us."
"Don't talk about it," I said. "Or I'll be too freaked to stand out here."
The shutters on our Mid- City house were not of the High-Velocity-Miami-Dade-Category-5 variety. They were French and louvered and about a hundred years old. Every hurricane season since the scary 1998 Georges evacuation seven years earlier, I had wanted to do something about those shutters, but never had. I liked the way the sunslanted through when I was reading books in bed, and new ones for our entire double-camelback would have cost the amount of a small car. But most of the iron hardware had rusted off and, for this evacuation as for the Hurricane Cindy one the month before, I twisted some pantyhose and a plastic grocery bag to cinch them tight. I wasn't proud of this. The day-of-reckoning aspect of evacuation always made me feel like a loser.
"Come on, pick it up. We still have to pull the other one out from under the house and haul it up here, too."
"Let's just leave it," I said. "It's not going to cover the whole hole."
"We can't leave it. Half the clapboards are off. The wind will blow out the walls. That tarp isn't gonna do jack."
"If the winds are that bad the side windows are going to blow in anyway," I reasoned. Some of those had air conditioners drooping out of them and the rest had no shutters. Not even louvered ones. I pictured the heavy old window units dropping like cartoon anvils through the next- door neighbor's roof.
"Come on," he said.
I gave the plywood another heave. I leaned in closer to the wall and tried to ignore the wood cutting into my fingers. Out of the corner of my eye I could see our two basset hounds, Aunt Clotilde Robichaux and Buster, on the other side of the eight-foot bedroom window. Their two curious noses greased the bottom panes.
Wham! went Jake's hammer. I jumped slightly on the ledge. Wham! Wham! Clo started barking.
"We should never have let Tim take out that post," I said.
"It was termite eaten," Jake grumbled around the nails in his mouth.
"Then we shouldn't have hired the other guy."
Our friend Tim the indie rock carpenter had announced that he would not help us on any tasks that were outside and required the forty-foot extension ladder. He had not retired from the Southern band semi-famous for throwing fried chicken for nothing. He was in the midst of learning the pedal steel guitar. He had too much to live for.
So the old-timer carpenter had seemed like a find. The old-timer had laughed at heights. Yes, he brought his bored young nephew with the shiny gold grill and repeatedly attempted to school him on how a nail gun fired. But then he fired the lackadaisical nephew and started afresh. The old-timer's new partner was his elderly wife who wore a neat Jackie-O wig. She came with him to work and made a picnic of it, setting up a transistor radio and a chair. She sat in our backyard under the breezy banana trees listening to the soul station and eating chips from a small bag, occasionally standing to hand an icy Coke up the ladder. I was pretty sure this was nonstandard, but it was also charming-someone's grandmother still so in love that she wanted to sit on a foldout chair and gaze up at her husband all day.
But then the picnic was over. The old- timer and his wife suddenly stopped coming. Tim made a rare altitude exception and scrambled part way up to check the old- timer's work. He pointed out that for a major structural beam of our back wall, the old-timer had used slim finishing nails not much thicker than fishhooks. And so when the storm warning came down, our back wall was not only still open but also in places little more than tacked together.
"We got hustled," I said. "Tim sucks and the old-timer sucks and we suck. This is bullshit."
"Jeez, will you stop talking? I can't concentrate."
Complaining about the predicament took my mind off the lack of railing between me and my twenty-foot bellybuster to the cement patio below. This seemed like exactly one of those situations I had brought on myself by continuing to live in New Orleans. If instead of moving from a small Louisiana town to New Orleans at seventeen I had fled the South like forward-looking modern careerist girls without money are all supposed to, and moved into one of those New York or Metroanywhere cubbyholes off a subway entrance, then I would not be on the back balcony about to fall to my death now. I would be in my little cubbyhole for nine hours until I got on the train to go back home to my other cubbyhole. Bored maybe. Filled with the famous "inexorable sadness of pencils / neat in their boxes" and crammed with "all the misery of manila folders and mucilage" like in that choking Roethke poem perhaps, yes. But safe!
We nailed and nailed until we were half-assed boarded up. I packed my laptop containing my just-finished novel. Jake had his computer, his bass, and originals of the documentary we had just finished about America and Louisiana's first and oldest developmentally disabled rock band. A few changes of clothes and two basset hounds and two dog beds, and my small car was crammed full.
Rumor was our next-door neighbor used to be a songwriter for Motown. Now he lived behind barbed wire with his wife and two small children. We usually nodded hello and good-bye when we passed in the alley. For some reason, his five-year-old son called Jake "Donkey Donk." Because Jake played music, on occasion they talked Pro Tools plug-ins across the barbed wire that we had been told a "crazy white family" had erected in the sixties. A few nights before, I thought I had seen his little girl twirling modern dances with some other leotard girls on public access TV. He was getting out of his car with some morning doughnuts and we were rushing to leave. We were alarmed by his breezy, breakfast gait.
"Didn't you see the news?" Jake asked.
Our neighbor stopped cold with his doughnuts. "What news?" he said.
The big red blot had looked bad, we confided. Bright red like a blob movie and scary. We were afraid. Almost a decade living next door, and we'd never spoken to each other this way. His eyes grew wide.
"I'm gonna turn on that news," he said.
This New Orleans story begins not with the storm. It starts, as many New Orleans stories do, with some bureaucratic bungling. And with Charity Hospital. In 1939, with more than two thousand beds and a gleaming Art Deco façade, the new Charity Hospital in New Orleans was the Superdome of hospitals for Louisiana's poor.
Instead of laboring in bed at the family's strawberry farm on the Hungarian Settlement as she had with her first child, my grandmother decided to climb into the truck with my grandfather and drive to New Orleans. Together they left the dirt roads behind and time-traveled to give birth to my mother in the gleaming new hospital on Tulane Avenue.
But my mother was stubborn and late. For a week my grandparents walked under the trees near a relative's house on Joseph Street trying to coax the baby out. Soon my mother arrived. And there, on her birth certificate, appeared my mother's first New Orleans problem. Whether it was a simple misunderstanding, two Hungarian men struggling to make themselves understood, or classic New Orleans ineptitude, we will never know. But instead of Elizabeth after my mother's own mother, the clerk typed Lizzie. And so my mom entered the world marked with a Charity Hospital flub that still haunts her at government offices to this day.
By the late fifties, my mother was a young woman who hoped never to pick another strawberry. And so she left the settlement for good and moved in the shotgun house on Joseph Street with her aunt Mary to work. Later she moved into the dorms on Tulane Avenue across from Charity Hospital and donned a starched, white nurse hat. She walked across the street to learn from the nuns at the place that had misspelled her name.
What happened next is a story so old it's almost embarrassing to tell. New Orleans stamped my mother's heart. My mother fell in love with the city. That New Orleans gets in people's blood is one of those clichés that also happens to be true. When a cliché is true, I'm never sure if that makes it not a cliché anymore or if that just makes the cliché all the more sad.
The way people love New Orleans and what they love about it is individual. For poor, rural Louisianans from immigrant families like my mother, New Orleans was an international city that appeared over the horizon once you cleared the familiar, murky hurdle of the swamps and lake. It was the big city Louisiana had to offer. New Orleans had a bustling river port and an airport. People hailed from everywhere. There was a small Chinatown. In the fifties, though an old, old city, New Orleans was also for the deep South a strikingly modern place.
During her childhood, Mom lived on a farm with an outhouse and an outdoor clay oven. As a small girl, she attended the all-night wake of her great-grandmother who was laid out in her own living room. But in New Orleans her Hungarian relatives had long enjoyed modern plumbing and funeral homes.
Mom leapfrogged past where the farms and woods and swamps and outhouses ended and into the city where Fats Domino recorded the country's first rock 'n' roll record. By the mid- sixties, she was married and my father worked briefly for Delta. The two grabbed hands and climbed aboard shiny silver airplanes and flew the country for free. This was around the time on TV that Star Trek unveiled its famous transporter used to dismantle people one particle at a time and reconstitute them later. I imagine to a farm girl, New Orleans gave my mom a taste of that. When she stepped onto a jumbo jet on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain and stepped out in New York and San Francisco, it must have been like walking on the moon.
Because she had lived in New Orleans as a young woman, Mom transmitted some open New Orleans attitudes to her five children when she later took a nursing job halfway between New Orleans and the settlement. When I went to play at a professor's kid's house and came home shocked that I had seen a naked clay lady hugging her knees on the edge of the mom's private bathtub, Mom explained, "Oh, that's nothing. That's art."
When I was a child it was clear that life, real life, happened in New Orleans. At Mardi Gras the men drank at the Friendly House and played cards at the VFW hall on Magazine Street. You could peek in and spy your grandpa and uncles in the curling smoke inside until someone shooed you back to eat stuffed peppers with the other children and ladies. On the street were walking krewes of old men dancing by with gin breath, paying perfect strangers crushed paper flowers for whiskery smooches. Old men with cigars in their mouths juked in broad daylight in the street.
When my father died, my aunt Mary showed Mom how to keep moving. Aunt Mary had lost a child, so she knew. People die for no reason and you keep going. I like to think of these two in the late seventies and early eighties dancing down their front steps for the Krewe of Shut-Ins parade with us kids cheering them on. Old woman in a worn housecoat shaking her rump, showing the young mother how you wriggle free of life's palls.
When I moved to New Orleans in the late eighties, before the Internet, people had to actually leave their bedrooms and even their towns and move somewhere to meet anyone who was remotely like themselves. Some of my first New Orleans friends were small-town Southern gay guys, ex-Southern Baptists who longed to don a cape on Decatur Street, a black punk girl sick of Virginia, and a pothead hard-core drummer whose mother had run the Tallahassee Informed Parents for Drug-Free Youth. New Orleans was the place these Southerners chose when they got old enough to finally be spit out of their mean towns. It was the place you came to start your real life, stop hiding your real self, say your true opinions, wear the jacket you always liked and not have a beer bottle hurled at the back of your head from a pickup truck over it, and still be close enough to drive back home to see if your parents loved you yet. When you got to New Orleans, people said, "Come on over." For many it was a place of comfort in exile. It was not just fun. It was home. And so it was important to us.
By the summer of 2005, how a good honor-roll Catholic daughter winds up happily living in sin and blatantly child-free in her thirties was a question my mother no longer asked herself. New Orleans was the place you sent such daughters in hopes of keeping them close to home. They would be living among relatives and people from home but also strangers and freaks. So it has been and so it will always be. These are the daughters you drive into the city on weekends to do something fun with. You don't know exactly what all they're up to, but you packed them with some common sense and you sent them there so they don't starve or move to New York where you'll never see them again.
Jake was aggravated that we were evacuating. Earlier that summer, a storm that wound up coming nowhere near New Orleans had us jamming the two dog beds into the car and scurrying off to Houston. Our friend Stan had laughed and said, "Y'all evacuated for that?" and detailed all the hurricane party exploits we had missed. At such times I think Jake wished he lived with a non-evacuator instead of the early evacuator I had become.
And who could blame him? Evacuating mostly sucked. When evacuations became more frequent in the late nineties, I and many other New Orleanians trying to put a rosy spin on things declared them sudden mini-vacations. But they weren't. Evacuations had taken on a disturbing pattern for us. For every unexpected good thing that happened, there was a counterbalancing bad.
During the evacuation to Houston, we had discovered a secret African and Arab immigrant world nestled in the South that we had never known existed, complete with men in traditional African dress pushing goats on dollies. But it cost me $500 later when I blew out my car air-conditioning running it for the dogs until I could sneak them into our motel. Other people we knew came back either merely brainfogged from too much motel cable or claiming they had eaten some unforgettable something at a cousin's house in Lafayette. Maybe we weren't doing evacuations right.
I wanted to leave early in hopes of getting ahead of the Winn Dixie water and batteries freak-out, the mandatory evacuation grumblings and subsequent "I'm not getting locked in that nasty Dome again!" panic that had been raging since people evacuated there for Hurricane Georges. I wanted to leave before my mother started calling every half hour to nag me about her visions of me drowned in the bottom of the New Orleans bowl. Above all, I wanted to be miles and miles ahead of the one-way traffic projectile vomit that was Contraflow.
In the middle of the night next to me in bed, Jake had put the pillow over his head and grumbled, "You just decide." (Continues...)
Excerpted from plenty enough suck to go around by CHERYL WAGNER Copyright © 2009 by Cheryl Wagner. Excerpted by permission.
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