Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Moving with Mardi Gras Bead Bags

I am surrounded by a sea of brown, not my favorite color on a good day. Definitely not my favorite color at the moment as the entire house is filled with brown moving boxes waiting to be emptied. It was a bit easier this time. I didn't pack quite so well, after all, the stuff only had to get six miles from where it started, and of course, half of it had never been unpacked from the last move. That was just the stuff in the house. Katrina helped out by eliminating many boxes that were in storage, so I didn't have to get the really big truck. Besides, when all is said and done, we have entirely too much stuff. And we feel it more keenly in the face of so many who have nothing.

I knew boxes were going to be in short supply, and as it turned out we used all the boxes we had even though we'd put a few aside for emergency last minute stuff. I set about filling boxes, calling the utilities, getting the new lease signed for double the rent we were paying. We moved from Algiers Point and our wonderful neighbors, to the Marigny Triangle on the east bank of the river. One of the biggest reasons that we had decided to move was that the commute and transportation logistics were taking over our lives. Algiers Point, while just across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, can seem like Alcatraz if the Ferry isn't running.

Before Katrina we commuted by bicycle. The Ferry ran from 6AM to midnight, leaving either side of the river every half hour. Sometimes midnight wasn't late enough, if there was some really good music going on, as there usually was, but in that case the bikes could land in the trunk of a taxi and home we'd go. After Katrina, it was a long time before the Ferry started running again. Like the rest of New Orleans, a city that had and used a pretty good urban mass transit system, the Ferry staff had been scattered or were sobbing in front of their devastated homes. When the system started up again, the hours were shortened to 6AM to 8:45PM, which made it impossible to use it if you worked nights across the river. Everyone held out hope that it would return to at least the pre-Katrina hours, but it didn't and from all reports won't, possibly ever. The question of whose decision the new hours are remains a mystery. Our neighbor called four different entities related to the running of the Ferry and got four different answers. The answers ranged from fuel costs to staffing issues to the people on Algiers Point not wanting the "Eastbank element" to have access to the Westbank by Ferry after a certain time. The answers were no help at all. And, in the end, it didn't make any difference. Our choices were to buy another vehicle or move. We decided to move.

What we found were exhorbitant rents, landlords with bizarre requirements (sometimes worded in ways that just skirted the anti-discrimination laws), and demands for deposits that were high enough to constitute a down payment on a house in Dubuque. We found a place, great place, are paying double our rent, and will be paying off the deposit for the next six months. The price of living in New Orleans these days is high, financially and emotionally. We're scraping by, just, but have wondered how the people with FEMA vouchers that are about to run out are going to manage once that money is gone. They will be unable to work service industry jobs and pay the high rents, which will force them out of the city making it harder for the small businesses and restaurants to get workers and stay in business, which is already a tenuous proposition. The same circle/cycle I've talked about before.

The utility bills are skyrocketing (haven't actually had the nerve to look at ours yet, it's on my to do list for today) and BellSouth is something else again.

Everyone has moved at some point and called the phone company to have their service moved. After trying to sell me DirectTV, a new long distance plan and DSL service, they finally get the order in for our service to move. I say "I need it turned off here May 1 and turned on there May 3." (As it turned out, our move was delayed by three days so those dates didn't even matter!) "I'll have to put you on hold for a minute, is that okay?" "Sure." "Ma'am, it looks like there will be a bit of a delay in getting your new service up at your new address. Looks like the soonest I can get someone to set this up is ***/4." Sounded to me like she said 5/4, so I responded with, "That's no problem. I can wait one extra day!" "No, ma'am, I don't think you heard me correctly. I said 9/4." "9/4?" I repeat as it sinks in. "You mean SEPTEMBER 4?" "Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. I've heard of some people getting it sooner though." "How much sooner?" "They get their service in two months or so." "Two months? Do you realize where my new address is? I'm not asking for service in an area of the city that has to be completely rewired, like New Orleans East!" "I don't know, ma'am, I'm not in Louisiana. September 4 is the soonest we can get to you." Amazed I hung up the phone and decided to switch to Cox.

Sounds strange but my decision was a hard one. After the storm I managed to jerry rig an internet connection to get information out because BellSouth's lines continued to work in my area. Cox took weeks and weeks to get their lines back up and running. With another hurricane season just two weeks away, I was worried that should another storm hit, I would be unable to communicate if I switched to Cox. In a normal city in the normal world, my decision would have been made based entirely on the ridiculous lag time of four months to get a telephone, but in post-Katrina New Orleans, there are other considerations.

Levees, elections, FEMA, SBA, insurance adjusters--all this is part of life in New Orleans all these months after the storm. But there are the little things like four month waits for phone service or Ferry schedules that are also a regular part of our daily concerns that are unlike life in other American cities. I recently had a friend visit after having spent several years working in the Ukraine. Some of the minor details that we all took for granted before the storm have been so turned upside down that these aspects of life are sounding more and more like his tales from Odessa.

At least the mail has gotten better. The post office actually forwarded our mail when it said it would, and the first piece of mail I got was our official SBA loan denial letter saying that we were being referred back to FEMA. I felt nothing as I read it, nothing. Not anger, not sadness, just a weird kind of resignation. We are starting to believe that the unstated bureaucratic strategy is to wear people down to the point that they give up. We have said over and over that we won't give up, it's a matter of principle, but upon opening that envelope that numb resignation made me understand the concept of giving up.

The worst part of the numbness is this strange sense that we are not part of our own country, we're not going to actually get help. Not just this household, but thousands of households here. Huge sums are bandied about in the media, but so few have actually gotten any help. We were a big story when looters were all over the CNN screens, but now we have totally become yesterday's news. The problem is that yesterday's news for people outside of this surreal bubble is today's reality for those of us inside it.

So many beautiful words have been written in articles and on blogs about why we stay here, what makes New Orleans so special, the almost irrational attachment we have to our city. There are days when it certainly occurs to us that life could be so much easier if we just moved back into the "United States" instead of staying in this uncertain, unsteady swamp that seems to have been disowned. Just move somewhere where everything works and every day isn't filled with debris piles and commercials by law firms expressing a desire to help you fight your insurance company (this usually is followed by a lovely, homey insurance company commercial telling you what a good neighbor they are, that they're there or what good hands you're in.) Just move somewhere where there isn't a man on TV telling you to report FEMA fraud (you know, that guy who actually got some help and you're jealous, so turn him in--no doubt he got the money fraudulently--it must have been fraud since he got it!) Just move to a place where the storm that wiped out a city isn't in your face every day in some way.

But then there's this irrational attachment everyone writes about. It's undeniable--illustrated perfectly in the perfection of our denial. We believe we can rebuild our lives and our city and we set about it with a look of grim determination on our faces. Sure there's another hurricane season coming, but it's two weeks away! Besides, the worst of it usually comes towards fall. We've got time to get some things done before that. We'll do it on our own since it's clear that's what we'll have to do even while we secretly harbor hope that Washington will eventually do right by us, and do it in time.

Besides, we're resourceful people. Quirky little bastards making art from debris, that's us!

Oh, and for future reference, when moving if you run out of boxes, the giant Mardi Gras bead bags are excellent for moving special pieces. Just wrap the statue in a towel and place it in the bag. Then do the same with that special bowl. Now you've packed both the towels you had no box for AND the special things you didn't want broken. As I said, we're resourceful.

Besides those bead bags are so much more colorful than brown cardboard boxes. For us, New Orleans is the bead bag, and we just can't move to a brown cardboard box, even if it's packed perfectly with reinforced tape.


Mark said...

My wife, who is not a native Orleanian and has never lived there before, preceded us by four months. Yesterday she called in a paroxysim of tears and anger because you can't buy a fucking vacuum cleaner in NOLA, and cause the folk at the uptown Wal-Mart were about to riot over the lack of goods. Imagine, a riot over the lack of stuff to buy in American.

You're not alone in box hell. I'd have to look at the United way bill to tell you exactly how many, but I think Shit Load will do fo rnowl I think she just barely got her sanity back because the carpenters arrived today, and the double is now connected, and she can walk to the room with the big TV and comfy couches without having to go around outside.

She won't tell me this, but I know she must think to herself every day: what the hell has he done to me, in the same fond sort of way last associated with a difficult delivery and the too late arrival of the anesthetist for an epirural.

She tells me she still understands. She left work the other day at Canal Place and saw a jazz combo featuring the same leader/drummer we saw in Fargo in September, the band that wept while they played as the trumpeter sang Do You Know, the moment she tells me she understood that I would never survive post-K anyplace else.

Still, box hell and the 100% fuel adjustment charge and the battle with Lowes that led to me smugling two pieces of counter onto the movers truck outside the guanranteed estimate, and the fact that you cant' by a vacuum fucking cleaner after nine months. In America.

I don't know who's crazier, me for sending us on this insane path, or my wife for agreeing. A match made in heaven. Sorry for ranting and venting. Glad to see your back on the blogosphere. Don't stop.

TravelingMermaid said...

Nice post. Glad you're somewhat settled and back online!