July 31, 2017
Another Anniversary of the Horror called Hurricane Katrina is coming in August … Robert Moulton has provided a monthly personal accounting of his experience during that devastation of his home town – New Orleans … take a moment to read his entire account if you have not read it … or scroll to the end to read the latest account of when he returned to view the devastation of his home … this one was a difficult read for me … the vivid smells and pictures in my head of his personal loss. ~Annie, Editor
This is a continuing account of Robert’s experience during the horror that was Hurricane Katrina. Below you will find Parts 1-13 of his personal story. Scroll to the bottom of this post to read the most current installment.
The Devil’s Slot Machine
By Robert Moulton
What follows is the experience of three people who endured the horrific disaster known as Hurricane Katrina. It is a tale of resilience, endurance, redemption, uncommon courage, and loyalty. Above all it is a story of steadfast love, perhaps the greatest love I have ever known, the love of Lauren Hooper for her sister, my wife Robin Eddy.
The hurricanes bouncing around the Gulf of Mexico usually miss you hence my title The Devil’s Slot Machine. When they do hit it’s usually tropical storm force to low Category 2 force winds, downed trees, a week without electricity, and scattered roof damage. But when the slot machine comes up 3 skulls, you get slammed by hellish wind and water. Typically this occurs in New Orleans every 20 to 40 years. As is the case in so many dramas, the wheels inside the machine had been turning for many years until the skulls aligned for the cataclysm known as Hurricane Katrina.
In this case the meteorological and human tragedies evolved in eerie parallel. The last major hurricane to hit New Orleans had been Betsy in 1965. So we were due. And the near misses had been growing in intensity and frequency. Hurricane Georges had swept east of the city as a Category 2 in 1998. Though damage was minimal, some restaurants on the West End flooded and closed never to reopen. In 2004 came the sudden intensification of Charley to a near Category 5 before it hit the Florida Gulf Coast. And Ivan later roared through the Straits of Yucatan as a Category 4, seemingly taking dead aim at New Orleans. But high pressure in Texas pushed the storm east, with dry air weakening its western side. Ivan hit the Florida panhandle as an asymmetrical Category 3. Even in its weakened state, Ivan washed away portions of I 10 in Florida. We had a few desultory flakes of snow that Christmas. Veterans of Betsy mentioned that it had snowed in New Orleans in the winter before Betsy so this could be considered a kind of omen. (I was a sixteen-year-old high school student in Connecticut in1965.)
The summer of 2005 had regularly been setting records for the number and intensity of hurricanes. Category 1 Cindy hit Southeast Louisiana on the unusually early date of July 5th. It was a particularly memorable day for me because my lawyer and I had to show up in court to fight a tragic ticket. The downed trees and power loss made life interesting but he got the charges dropped. Gotta hand it to the guy, he did a competent job under conditions that were completely unexpected. It always helps to have a lawyer who’s quick on his feet.
Hurricane Dennis formed on July 5th, becoming a Category 4 hurricane with a central pressure of 930 millibars, the lowest ever recorded in July and eventually striking the Florida Panhandle. Hurricane Emily sprang up in the Atlantic and briefly reached Category 5 strength breaking Dennis’ record with a pressure of 929 millibars. It was the earliest Category 5 storm recorded in the Atlantic making landfall in the Yucatan Peninsula as a Category 4. The warm waters of the ocean are the fuel that feeds hurricanes I watched with detached bemused alarm as the temperature in the Gulf rose steadily 89, 90, finally 93 degrees. I remember thinking that if we had a hurricane that year it would be a monster. A prophetic thought indeed.
As hurricanes continued to churn out devastation year after year, my wife’s struggle with alcoholism continued unabated. I tried to deny her access to money so she couldn’t buy liquor, but it was a futile struggle. Family members had money and she always managed to scrape together enough to buy her poison of choice Taaka Vodka. It was exhausting and discouraging, and I was beginning to burn out. In August of 2005 things took an ominous turn. Her complexion turned sallow and she became very weak. Then one day I had to enter the lady’s room at the old Sav-A-Center in Chalmette to lift her off the seat. She had literally gotten too weak to lift herself off the toilet. With the rationalization mechanism so typical of the substance abuser, she blamed me for embarrassing her. Without my distracting presence, she could have accomplished it herself. I called Lauren in London, explaining that Robin had become seriously ill and was acting completely irrational. Since Robin and Lauren were so close I reasoned that Lauren might be able to talk sense to her. The operative word being ‘might’.
Lauren booked a flight to New Orleans, arriving on Tuesday, August 23rd. But coincident with her arrival, Tropical Depression 12 formed in the Bahamas. The gears of the slot machine were slowing: the first skull had dropped.
When we got home from the airport, Robin couldn’t get out of the car as usual she blamed others. Lauren finally realized the full magnitude of the problem – “I’ve got to have a drink, Robert, this …” I gave her a glass of the inexpensive but classic Chardonnay that I favored at the time. Strangely enough Robin’s stepmother Beatriz has an old friend in France, an ophthalmologist who knew an internist associated with the old Lindy Boggs Medical Center. We set an appointment with Dr. Klainer for Thursday, August 25th.
We spent Wednesday lolling around the city enjoying ourselves. We ate at the Oceana on Conti and Bourbon. The atmosphere was funky and relaxed with a ceramic fragment and cement floor with seafood tastefully prepared – unpretentious and delicious. I drank sparingly so I could walk it off and drive home with no problem. Lauren was enjoying herself. She had lived in New Orleans many years before with Robin and the fond memories of her time here came rushing back. She was always on the edge of anxiety about Robin’s health. It hurt me to see Robin pick at her food with disinterest since she always appreciated good food and had been an intuitive and gifted cook. That enjoyment had been taken from her. Lauren reconnected with an old friend she met when she had been maid of honor at our wedding. Meanwhile, Tropical Depression 12 had developed into a tropical storm as it moved northwest across the Bahamas. It was given the name Katrina.
Thursday we concentrated on Robin’s appointment with Dr. Klainer. She was a slight, spare woman in late middle age with a loosely tied back shock of untidy gray hair. I felt instantly at ease with her. Her kindly manner and obvious indifference to her appearance convinced me that she cared more for her patients than vanity or money. She made the obvious diagnosis of severe liver damage and arranged for Robin to be admitted to Lindy Boggs Medical Center on Friday, August 26th. We spent the rest of the day lazing around the city. Robin and Lauren had always been extremely close and it was heartening to see them reminisce about the good times they enjoyed some 25 years earlier. The old Tyler’s Beer Garden on Magazine Street, their apartment on Coliseum Square, the fun they had when they were young and carefree. Lauren and her old friend had begun talking more, setting themselves a bit apart. I figured what the hell, she could use a little diversion before Robin was admitted to the hospital. Katrina strengthened steadily as she drifted northwest across the Bahamas. She hit north of Miami as a Category 1. My mind roamed back to Andrew in 1993, which devastated South Florida and then went south and west of New Orleans, coming ashore as a Category 3 near Morgan City, another near miss.
Katrina crossed Florida that night, emerging into the Gulf. She was supposed to head due North to the Florida Panhandle. Then the second skull dropped. The storm veered west, strengthening to a Category 2. New Orleans was now in the center of the cone of probability. To use another gambling analogy – the storm was pin balling out in the Gulf. Which bumpers and flipper – pressure ingredients, wind currents, moisture would determine where the ball – the eye of the storm – would land? How strong the storm, mere nuisance or catastrophic damage? It didn’t look good. The storm was intensifying rapidly over the steamy waters of the loop current seemingly headed straight for New Orleans.
Katrina certainly had my attention. I ducked into the Whitney Bank at 200 St Charles to withdraw $500 cash – travelin’ money – just in case. As is my wont, I got there at 3:55 pm, right before the bank closed at 4 pm. I was amazed that I was virtually the only customer there. I had expected the pre hurricane equivalent of a bank run – long lines of stressed out people exchanging worried glances and sharing the latest gloomy news from the weather service. That blasé attitude would change soon enough.
Lauren and Robin were busy preparing for Robin’s admittance to Lindy Boggs that evening. Phone calls were exchanged back and forth to London. Of course, Robin’s father had to be appraised of the situation, and Lauren updated her husband and children as well. (Auntie Robin had always been a favorite of the children.) Katrina strengthened to a Category 2 at about the same time Robin was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit. When sorrows come they come not in single sentries but in battalions.
The staff at Lindy Boggs was attentive and kindly. In particular I remember a gracious and philosophical male nurse one Stuart Scott. The name rang a bell because of ESPN. Apparently his sportscaster namesake wanted his domain name and they came to some sort of amicable agreement. I was reassured to know that a man as reasonable and decent would attend Robin as his sportscaster counterpart. Lauren took charge making sure that nothing was spared in the treatment of her sister. Robin had always described Lauren as ‘bossy’. That particular quality would be especially useful in the chaos that awaited them in the days and weeks to come. Lauren and I had begun to grate on each other. Understandable since we are both very strong willed. I was worried about her and wanted her to spend the night at my place. Katrina was looking more and more like a worst-case scenario. I was worried about Lauren and wanted to keep an eye on her. She wanted to spend the night with old friends. She spent that night at the friends’ house. I caught Stuart Scott on a smoke break. He was empathetic, “It’s tough, man. Your wife’s in ICU and your sister-in-law’s givin’ you shit.” He wasn’t taking sides just merely empathetic. Lauren was pleased with him as well and kept in touch with him for sometime after the storm.
The storm preyed on my mind as I left the hospital enveloped by the steamy semitropical night. I found a joint on North Carrollton that offered a good price on knockwurst and sauerkraut, an inexpensive and fortifying meal. I retired there to ponder.
The bartender and patrons were beginning to take notice of the storm. The false camaraderie and sincerity that characterizes barroom conversations was being replaced by talk of Katrina. Eyes were straying to the Weather Channel playing continuously on the TV. My mind tends to scenarios; I pick an outcome and carry it to its conclusion. The logical conclusion of current conditions was beginning to look horrifying indeed. I began to plan weighing my responsibilities. At this point I must make an unflattering confession. Robin was not my primary concern. I was burnt out by 20 years of dealing with her alcoholism. I had always been kind to her, given her refuge from the evil consequences of her addictions, and the evil people that went with them. I did what I could but if she was hell-bent on destroying herself, I couldn’t do anything about it.
I was, however, very worried about Lauren. She had made a life for herself in London. She had children and a husband to think of and her career as a social worker and counselor. And what of her father? There was the very real possibility that he would lose all of his children to a hurricane. Also, there was my livelihood to consider. If I got my car safely out of town I would have a living when I got back. I shared the cab with another driver so he figured into the plan as well. Steve the Schnurrer wasn’t much, but he was still a human being and he would figure later into the drama.
Then there were my four pets. Cleo, named for her sad eyes, reminiscent of the basset in an old sitcom, The People’s Choice. Actually, she was anything but melancholy – stupid, stubborn, thuggish and virtually untrainable. Cleo was ninety pounds of pit-bull, mastiff or bulldog mixed with boxer. But she was an effective guard dog for someone living in the Lower 9th Ward – everyone was terrified of her. I had rescued her from the streets, so I felt responsible for her. Sophie was another story. She was some sort of shepherd mixed with chow and was sweet and eager to please a delightful animal. She was also substantial, some sixty pounds or so, and she wasn’t fond of car travel. Even getting her to the vet was a chore. The cats were charming little animals. Robin’s Pookie was perhaps the most loving, trusting animal I have ever known – cream, tipped with brown, as sticky sweet as a toasted marshmallow. He loved everybody and everything especially dogs. Our cinnamon cat Daisy had just emerged from being a kitten. Hyperactive and mischievous always messing with the other animals. She was a loving animal with a distinctive loud purring that resonated like an outboard motor. (She just leaped on the bed with her distinctive yowl claws extended as she pawed for my attention. The only one of the animals still alive.) These then were my concerns as August 26 elided into August 27.
Saturday remains largely a blur. Katrina became a Category 3 in the wee hours of the morning and a Category 4 early in the afternoon. About that time I decided I needed a full tank of gas so I drove a short distance to the gas station in St Bernard Parish. The atmosphere was very different from the sleepy lobby of the Whitney Bank the day before. Here I found long lines of frazzled and anxious motorists. When I finally got to the front of the line, I nosed in front of another driver who was obviously very frightened and angry as she cursed me. I decided that at this point I could still afford to be civil and motioned for her to fill up ahead of me. She was visibly grateful and thanked me as she pulled in to fill up her tank. A short time later I drove away with a full tank, 99% certain that I would be running for my life come morning. When I visited the hospital that night, Robin seemed better – rested and collected. It seemed like the absence of alcohol along with nutrients and fluids of the IV were working their magic. But I thought of Robin’s father – it didn’t seem fair to him to risk losing all of his children in a hurricane. I tried to convince Lauren to evacuate with me and gave her a stark warning, “You have no idea, no idea what you’re about to experience…” I lay no claim to prophecy, but I was dead on with that prediction. She told me later that the hospital staff told her to leave but she put her foot down:
–She’s my sister and I’m staying.
Not only did the floor nurse relent, but also Lauren told me later that she apologized for even suggesting that Lauren desert her sister. Greater love hath no man. I retired to my spot on North Carrollton while the bartender and I gazed at the menace being explained on the TV screen by the good folks on The Weather Channel. The bartender shook his head, “That motherfucker, that motherfucker…” It was apparent that life was about to get very unforgiving so I give you: Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bad Moon Risin’
I hear hurricane’s a blowin’
I know the end is comin’ soon
I fear river’s overflowin’
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
Don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise.
The Devil’s Slot Machine
Editor’s Note: Reading is an exercise in empathy. We read to understand the experience and emotions of those we read about. As you read Part 2 of The Devil’s Slot Machine, take note of the places mentioned here, especially the Lower Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf coast. Much has been written about the people who lived in New Orleans, survived Katrina … or didn’t, their lives, their dreams, their hopes and where they are now. An excellent reference is YouTube as they tell their stories … the following is one man’s account.
“The freighter put out to sea and from his cabin Michael could see the lights of New York City burning like the fires of hell. “HE FELT AN ENORMOUS SENSE OF RELIEF … ALL HELL WOULD BREAK LOOSE BUT HE WOULDN’T BE THERE.” –Mario Puzo, The Godfather (emphasis mine).
Previously I have described the process of getting my wife to the hospital for her liver trouble as Hurricane Katrina grew apace. Her sister had come over from London to be by her side. I left them at the hospital late Saturday night, August 27th.
I returned to the Lower Ninth Ward as August 27th slid into August 28th. D minus 1 and counting … my mind was in overdrive, obsessively shuffling that which needed to be taken in my car and that which had to be left behind. Animals, pet food, water, cat litter, financial records, clothes, and canned food … I was going to make mistakes; I hoped the mistakes would be as small as possible. The adrenaline of panic was fighting the crushing weight of exhaustion. I decided to get a few hours of sleep–it would be a long and brutal drive tomorrow, I needed whatever rest I could get. I retired about 2:30am for some precious hours of fretful sleep.
Meanwhile Katrina continued to metastasize. There was an eye wall replacement on Saturday and the storm doubled in size. After the eye-wall replacement, the storm continued to intensify. It was a Category 4, on the cusp of a Category 5, when I went to bed early Sunday morning. The gears of the slot machine were slowing, creaking to a stop. The grinning apparition of the third skull was becoming more and more apparent.
My sleep was riddled with nightmares–stuck on I-10, wind and waves rocking the car … storm surge undercuts the car … no contact with the road as I am swept into Lake Pontchartrain, filthy gray green water closes in, the cats and dogs wail….
I awake after four fitful hours to turn on The Weather Channel. The talking heads can barely contain their ghoulish excitement as the reporting opportunity of a lifetime has fallen into their lap. Staccato yet pompous voices rattle on as they live their dreams. This is it. The slot machine has ground to a stop with all three grinning skulls staring right at me. We’re gonna get slammed. A hell of a goddamn way to make history. The visual image over the Gulf is horrific–like a grade D horror movie ‘The Eye That Ate New Orleans’! I have no intention to hang around to be the guest of honor.
More good news, Katrina has been upgraded to a Category 5. I make some frantic last minute calculations, weighing the odds. The eye of the storm will likely pass directly over the city or slightly to the East. But if I go West it will take me 15 miles to get to the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and another 25 miles to get over the bridge. Forty miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the last 25 miles utterly exposed over the water on a low-lying bridge. No, thanks. Heading due West on I 10 will hardly be better. I decide to risk a route Northeast across the Rigolets, it will be 35 miles or so to get to Slidell, out of the shadow of Lake Pontchartrain and the storm surge, and I am betting that most of the traffic will be going the other way.
What to take? My car is an old boat of a 1993 Cadillac but it can only hold so much. The business records come first–I want to prove to the city that I have the license to all four of my cabs when I get back. Checkbook, a week’s change of clothes, toilet paper, toilet kit, paper towels, canned ravioli, bottles of water, raisins, dog and cat food, cat carriers, cat litter, and on it goes. At this point my actions are still fairly deliberate; I pack the suitcases as carefully as I can. The animals stare at me with solemn, imploring and knowing eyes. The cats yowl plaintively, the dogs are silent, their eyes enormous mournful dark brown pools. It’s getting on towards 9 am, the eye is some 190 miles SSE of the city and I have less than 15 hours to run for my life before catastrophe comes howling in. My packing becomes more hurried; I start throwing things in 19-gallon Rubbermaid tubs. Nothing focuses the mind like the very real prospect of losing your life. Make the wrong mistake; you die. It’s clarifying, almost exhilarating. Time is short, the pace gets frantic. I start throwing things in plastic garbage bags. In the background The Weather Channel beats out a drumbeat of doom–100-year storm, worse than Camille, possible record storm surge of 30 plus feet. The trunk is full, I put the cats in their carriers on the floor in the back of the cab; I can put no more back there without obscuring the rear view mirror. The front seat is reserved for the dogs, snacks, water and s few books (Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Life of Darwin and Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts).
I gather up the house keys, lock the door and secure the shutters. I gaze fondly at the old live oaks of Jourdan Avenue and walk around the corner to the landlord’s house, an impressive two-story affair shaded by pecan and mulberry trees. The streets are strangely quiet. Don’t these people know that we’re on the brink of disaster? Between alcohol and a stubbornly laid back attitude, many New Orleans residents stumble through life in a pleasant haze. Slashing wind and rain are about to shred the their comforting illusions. I can’t rouse my landlord, so I throw the house keys in the mailbox along with an explanatory note that has my cell number. The key ring is attached to a miniature plastic spine, an ad for some chiropractor or other. I wonder idly if the skeletal key ring is an awful omen. I get in the car and turn on the ignition. I call my sister in Chicago to leave a message that I’m evacuating to points unknown. As I turn the corner of North Rampart I take one last glance at the old Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood and its stately old trees. What will be here when I return, if I return?
The sky was surprisingly mild, pearl gray stratocumulus clouds interspersed with washed out blue sky. The dogs whined, the cats yowled. I turned left on Forstall Street, past the house of a kindly old man who fed stray cats. I wondered what would become of the man and his cats. (See picture introducing Part 2)
Enough musing–focus, focus, focus! There are many ways to die on the highway. I was specifically concerned about flooding–getting out from the shadow of Lake Pontchartrain and its lethal storm surge. I was hyper aware of the threat of traffic jams, the deadly clogs in the arteries to safety. I crossed the Danziger Bridge and onto Chef Menteur Highway and the Chef Highway entrance ramp. No delays other than traffic lights. So far so good.
I cruised along I-10 East, listening to the traffic reports on WWL AM 870, wondering when I would lose the transmission in Mississippi, and how long the station would remain on the air. Traffic slowed slightly to 35, 40 miles an hour in the far reaches of New Orleans East, past Bayou Sauvage.
I reached Slidell at 11:45 am or so. Not bad, considering that the trip was ordinarily 45 minutes in light traffic. I exhaled a bit–I was on the north shore of the lake, heading inland, soon to be safely away from storm surge … or so I thought. I placed calls to all my siblings, leaving messages on their answering machines, informing them that I was getting closer to safety. The animals had calmed down, lulled by the rhythm of the wheels.
Traffic clotted up at the intersection of I-10, I-12 and I-59, as streams of traffic from East, West and South merged to head North towards refuge. We were moving now, but more slowly, at a pace of 20 to 30 miles an hour. We had just made it on to I-59 when an airport van cab began to wave me over, incessantly flashing lights and honking his horn. I tried to ignore him, but he persisted. Wearily I pulled over. An Hispanic driver and his passenger emerged from the cab. The driver explained that he wanted to return to his family in New Orleans and wanted me to complete the fare to Pass Christian. My God! Pass Christian! 30-foot storm surge! I recoiled in horror. I motioned to the passenger, a gray-haired man maybe 45 to 50 years old– “You don’t want to get in this car. I’m living like an Okie … a gypsy. You’ll have no place to sit, the dogs, and the cat litter…
The passenger pled his case. He was a truck driver who lived in Kansas City. His mother lived in Pass Christian. She was legally blind but transportation was available in the form of his late father’s car. He had taken the last flight into New Orleans from KC. I did some rough calculations. We were an hour or so from the coast, so worst-case scenario it might delay my evacuation by three hours. Judging by the position of the storm, this was a risk I could afford. I shrugged–“Yeah, I guess you do wanna get in this car. Make friends with the dogs…” The other cab driver gave me $180 cash, most of his fare from the airport. So I was up on the trip.
It was a ways north to the next exit, where we turned on US-43 and looped back down towards the coast. So here I was, improbably, driving back towards the eye of the Storm of the Century. We compared notes along the way about our respective professions. He asked me about the dangers of creeps and weirdo’s; I asked him about the perils of highway hypnosis. No danger of highway hypnosis on this day. It is remarkable how the stark fear of death keeps a man alert and focused. The sky had turned a sullen gray. So we reached Highway 90 at Bay St Louis, crossed the St Louis Bay Bridge to the beach and there it was–the Wall of Doom, encroaching inexorably upon us. Out on the still glassy Gulf stood a solid mass of black thunderclouds some 40,000 feet high. How to describe it? Pitch black smoke from the Fires of Hell, or the Mountains of Mirdor … I would have not have been surprised to see black riders issuing from that awful cloud. The lowering menace was delivered as promised a day later.
He directed me to a small street a few blocks after the bridge and we stopped at a small ranch house about a block and a half off the beach, shaded by enormous oaks. The peak of the roof on that one story house seemed that it could be no more than 12-14 feet tops. A car that I remember as a 1986 Chevrolet sedan was in the yard. I told him he and his mother would be OK, that it was a reliable car and ’86 was a good year. He agreed, we wished each other luck, he got out of the car, and I took off. I’d done my duty, no use tempting fate. It occurred to me that perhaps I had saved that woman’s life, as the storm surge would wash some 10 feet over the top of her house. That is if the car started and had sufficient gas to carry beyond the storm surge to a working gas station. On such details turns the hinge that determines life and death in massive natural disasters.
The streets were ominously deserted except for the occasional police car. Worse, all the service stations were out of gas. I was OK for the moment, but no use taking chances. Add one more worry. I turned north on 11. I was wary of 59 because of traffic and limited access–if traffic clogged up I wouldn’t be able to turn off. I found gas a little station in McNeil, Mississippi about half a mile off Highway 11 and filled up. I asked for the quickest way north to Hattiesburg. A grizzled old hillbilly lookin’ guy directed me to US 11 North. I reached 11 and turned; he followed me and pointed out that I had turned south–back towards the Gulf. Another act of kindness on that fateful day.
It was 3 o’ clock as I once again turned north on Highway 11. Traffic hummed along and I finally managed to get in touch with my sister in Chicago. At least my relatives knew I was still alive and probably not due to perish in the storm surge. The dogs pressed close to me for that tactile sense of security, with one head on my lap and another pressed on the foot that operated the accelerator. These large powerful animals so dependent on such a flawed and uncertain human being. Southern Mississippi is lovely country, verdant and rolling. My spirits rose as I motored through the countryside–chances were increasing that I would survive this thing. There was a relapse of anxiety in Hattiesburg. It reminded me of traveling through the country with my Dad in the 50’s and early 60’s–free flow on the country highways and traffic clogged as the highway entered the city. I can still see the long low hills of Highway 11 in Hattiesburg, the bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched out ahead of me. The sun broke through the western clouds; lovely green light streaked with gold suffused the scene. We slowly worked our way through, and traffic sped up to 50 as we hit the open highway. It was 5:30 pm, 6:00 pm and we were now 100 plus miles north of the Gulf. I began to exult, the quote from The Godfather running through my mind. “All hell would break loose BUT I WOULDN’T BE THERE!” 175 mile an hour winds, record low pressure for an Atlantic hurricane, BUT I WOULDN’T BE THERE!
Or as Winston Churchill put it ~ ”Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be fired upon without result.”
Then I thought of Robin and Lauren and felt lowdown and blue. They were in the crosshairs of the storm in a hospital in the middle of the New Orleans bowl. Robin was in the ICU with an IV in her arm. In her weakened state with a bad liver how could she receive nourishment without the IV? Could she survive the heat and the attendant dehydration? But the survival instinct enforces a certain pragmatic selfishness. I still had to finish outrunning the storm and find a place to stay for my four-legged charges and me. Back to the task at hand…
I must say that I was impressed with Mississippi. I had expected sharecropper’s shacks with malnourished suspicious tenants. Instead all around me were prosperous farms and verdant forests. And the people had been unfailingly kind and helpful. To keep abreast of traffic and storm news I listened to local radio stations, occasionally switching back to WWL to get what news I could of the city, and to see if it was still on the air. It seemed to me that public radio was the only thing on the air in Mississippi. From my limited sample it seemed that Mississippi public radio stations play the highest quality of blues available anywhere. They treasure their heritage and do what they can to preserve and enhance it. Impressive.
We rejoined I-59 between Hattiesburg and Laurel. The highway was crowded, but moving. Vast hordes of displaced people, restless, migrating to who knows where. There was something primal about it–like the roving herds of wildebeest on the Masai Mara, migrating not towards food but away from danger. Hopefully, with few crocodiles lurking along the way. Traffic slowed, as we got closer to Meridian. Then more reassuring news–the eye of the storm was supposed to head straight towards Meridian. Was the storm sentient, malevolent; was it tracking me? It was dusk as I reached Meridian, 7:30 pm or so. I stopped at a gas station to refresh and reconsider. I walked the dogs and let the cats out of their carriers to use the litter box–very carefully. If the cats escaped here they were lost. The cats gave me no trouble; they were docile creatures, well treated and therefore pliant. After once again refilling the tank, I got a huge cup of the elixir of life, sweet cousin caffeine, and considered my options. Since the storm was moving north-northeast, it seemed best to move due west on I-20. After some finagling I got through the streets of Meridian and on to I- 20 west. The sun was setting as I left Meridian slightly before 8 o’clock pm. The words of Jackson Browne reverberated through my mind:
Runnin’ on empty, Runnin’ blind.
Runnin’ into the sun but I’m runnin’ behind.
Traffic was barely moving; the node of I-59 and I-20 was a major intersection of evacuees moving south to north and east to west. I was fixated on getting out of Mississippi and west of the track of the monster storm. The masses of cars were moving fairly well after I cleared the Meridian area. Traffic clotted up again as I reached the outskirts of Jackson. We cleared Jackson at 10 pm or so, and I was beginning to flag. I had been up since 6:30 am on only 4 hours of intermittent sleep; the staring at headlights and taillights and my sidereal rhythms were beginning to get to me. I switched the radio to WWL AM 870. The radio station is clear channel and can be heard over much of the eastern US after dark. The winds were still light with nothing much to report. That would change soon enough.
There was a rest stop slightly west of Jackson and I pulled into a scene of chaos and cacophony. Wailing children, barking dogs, shrill, exasperated mothers trying to keep order. Once again I walked the dogs and returned to the car to try to rest. It was hot, still 85 degrees or so and the car smelled of dogs and cat litter. I tried to doze sitting up but it was futile. My valiant watchdogs were doing their job all too well. Every time someone walked close to the car they detonated in frenzied, explosive barking. It was amusing to see the wide-eyed fear in the faces of passersby, but I wanted to sleep, goddamnit! Sh-h-h, Cleo, Sophie sh-h-h… Oh SHUT UP!!! You damn dumb dogs! They looked at me wonderingly and then lustily returned to their duties as someone veered too close to the car. My fulminations were as useless as the mad quacking of the outraged Donald Duck vainly trying to evade his tormentors. Then there was the prickly heat and the ache of extreme fatigue. It felt like someone was pulling barbed wire through my veins. Wearily I decided there was no rest to be had. I took a long hard pull on what was left of my coffee and headed back West.
I was almost in a trance. Whatever remained of my energy compelled me ever westward, all but hypnotized by the oncoming headlights. There was another knot of congestion, as I reached Vicksburg around midnight, but not so bad. It was late and that much further away from the storm. My mind eased again as I crossed the Mississippi from the bluffs at Vicksburg, the lights of the city twinkling on the river below. Back in Louisiana, I felt almost certain that I was clear of the northeastern track of the storm. Now If I could just find a place to sleep, shelter for my animals. The dark beside the road offered nothing promising. Surely there was something farther west in Monroe. I reached the outskirts of Monroe slightly past 1:30 am. My drowsy senses quickened, looking for a sign. A few exits into the city a light went on inside my head. The large green Interstate sign read:
MONROE CONVENTION CENTER
The magic words. Surely they had made space inside for weary evacuees. I pulled off at the next exit and found an all night coffee shop. Over my coffee I asked the waitress for directions to the Convention Center. I leave you with the words of The Band:
I pulled into Nazareth I was feelin’ bout half past dead
Just need some place where I can lay my head
Hey mister can you tell me where a man might find a bed….
The Devil’s Slot Machine
O-o-o-h the storm is threatenin’
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter,
Lord I’m gonna fade away
~The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter
Parts 1 and 2 described the formation of Katrina coincident with the decline of my wife’s health. I left my wife and her sister in the ICU as I fled the Storm the day before landfall, pushing north through Mississippi and then west to Monroe, LA. We pick up the narrative in a diner in Monroe, as I ask directions to the Monroe Convention Center, in search of shelter …
I questioned the waitress closely to fix the directions to the Convention Center in my mind. She refilled my coffee diligently; she could see my situation and was accordingly patient and kind. I ordered some biscuits and gravy to fortify myself with carbs and fat. With one last searching question I drained the precious coffee and paid the check. The bill wasn’t much so I left a hundred percent tip. She had earned it and I wasn’t broke – yet. I staggered back into the darkness.
After a few wrong turns I finagled my way to the spacious drive that led to the Convention Center. I asked the cop standing guard if they were taking evacuees. He was abrupt and suspicious (as cops are apt to be at night). He didn’t know but directed me inside to the Red Cross desk. I asked the lady manning the desk if they could do anything for me. She scurried away into an office and informed me that they didn’t have any cots available just then, but they could figures something out. And my animals? She directed me in the back to the Equestrian Arena.
The arena was located in the back, across a large parking lot from the main building. My prayers were answered! The inside of the arena had a large dirt floor where ad hoc kennels were set up for a multitude of dogs. We set up Sophie and Cleo in separate kennels and I asked the security guard about the cats. He pointed upstairs. A press box perhaps? Better and better. I opened the door and beheld a small room lined with cages, filled primarily with birds and cats. We managed to insert the cat carriers of Pookie and Daisy into the stack of cells lining the walls. I stuck my fingers into the cages so my cats could rub against them to reassure themselves and asked the lady in charge to periodically check their water. Back to the car.
I selected a toilet kit; a change of clothes and a towel then trudged off to the mail building where I managed to find a dark nook in a hallway. Arranging the toilet kit and clothes into a pillow and improvising a night shade/blanket from the towel, I lay down on the institutional carpet. We all know the condition of being too tired to sleep, but I was beyond that. At long last realizing that I would safe from the Monster Storm. I succumbed gratefully to the call of sleep. I was out.
Increasing light and noise woke me about 8 am. I can’t say I was refreshed, but four hours of knocked out sleep, unworried by the Storm, and was better than I had done in a while. I stretched, yawned, gathered up my hobo’s kit and set out to reconnoiter. There were open cots available in the mail hall so I put down my kit as a marker and set off to find the cafeteria. The set up was pretty humble – school cafeteria food, Styrofoam containers, and plastic utensils. Once again I loaded up on carbs, fat and caffeine – orange juice, biscuits, bacon, sausage, and coffee. Fed and somewhat refreshed I went back to the arena to do the same for the animals.
Barely mid morning and it was already in the mid 80s. The arena smelt feral, combining the pungent odors of unwashed dogs, urine and feces. My dogs strained and whined as I approached them. They had behaved themselves the night before, not wanting to shit where they slept. There was a large field beside the parking lot. I walked the dogs there, and noticing a spigot, doused them as protection against the heat. I was careful to keep my hand on the cats as I took them out of the carriers one at a time to use the litter box, casting a wary eye on the door lest they escape.
I called my siblings to assure them that I was still alive. My father had passed away in 2003 and my mother was in a rest home so I resolved not to trouble her. When I reached Robin’s father in London he had not heard from his daughters. A dormant worry sprang to life in the back of my mind. The stern imperative to survive had demanded all my energy and utter selfishness; having assured my own safety I was free once again to think of others. At this point it looked like New Orleans had dodged the worst of it. Wind damage, yes, but the city was still there. Little did we know … it occurred to me to upgrade my sleeping arrangements, so I got directions to the local Wal-Mart. There I purchased a cheap sleeping back, a foam pad, some more Gatorade, Altoids and most importantly a Rand-McNally Road Atlas for my probable trip North. Back at the Convention center I laid my newly collected purchases down at my campsite and had lunch. My new life as a nomad was beginning to take shape … but what of my old life in New Orleans?
It so happens that I writing this 11 years to the hour after the Storm reached maximum intensity in New Orleans – daybreak, 6:30 to 7:00 am. The eye passed slightly to the east, so the city was on the ‘weak’ side of the storm. But it was bad enough – 100+ mile an hour roaring winds, slashing rain, the clackety clack of debris colliding in the air. Try to imagine what Robin and Lauren endured in ICU in the middle of this hell … Robin with multiple tubes in her arm … more about that later.
Among other things I am a finance junkie and consequent information hound. At this stage in my life I was not and Internet adapt so I required print. As the horseplayer needs his Racing Form, so I needed my Wall Street Journal and Barron’s. I asked around and was referred to a quaint local establishment known as The Book Rack. As I drove there in blinding midday sun, it was very hot indeed, the temperature registered between 97 and 99 degrees. The Book Rack was comfy and homey as are most local bookstores. My approving New Orleans eye noticed that the owners or clerks, however they may be, appeared to be lesbian. A cosmopolitan, sophisticated touch for so small a city. At any rate, they had what I needed. Plunk a junkie down in the middle of any city in America and he will find a street corner to buy drugs; so the same with me and I will find a newsstand to buy a Wall Street Journal and Barron’s. On the way back to the convention center, I indulged in McDonalds.
The news from New Orleans was becoming more and more alarming. Communication remained poor, so the reporters knew only what was directly in front of them. But the mosaic of destruction was being pieced together for the outside world to see. When I got back to the convention center, the heat, sunlight and fatigue had gotten to me. The vast cavern of the main hall was cooled to a soothing 65 degrees and I crawled back into the womb reading bits of the financial publications and snippets of Balkan Ghost to pass the time. Later afternoon I discharged my duties to the pets, then supper. When they dimmed the lights of the main hall at 8 pm, I was ready for my first full night’s sleep in a week. Sleep crept in easily, blissfully.
I must have slept for a good 13 hours when we were all jolted awake. A man with a booming, overwhelming, relentlessly FRIENDLY voice was working the room – local state representative so and so. If you are familiar with Texas think stereotypical Aggie. If you were weaned, like I was on Catch-22, think The Texan. (The Texan was the utterly sincere, repulsively friendly character who drove all the malingerers from the hospital. Yossarian and Dunbar literally preferred risking their lived getting their guts shout out by flak to another moment listening to that awful voice.) Yet, I remember the man with great affection, a smile playing the odds figuring some of us would stay and vote. At the time all I wanted to do was sleep – ‘You wanna help us? Shut the hell up and get outta here, man. We’re exhausted and worried and we need REST!’ Reluctantly I decided resistance was useless and got up to face the day.
On my way to the cafeteria I stopped by a group of people hunched over their laptops, at times gasping and shrieking. Houses were floating by on the screen, people waving from rooftops, the occasional corpse in the water. The worst had indeed occurred; the city was 80% flooded. My home was gone for now and I had to plan accordingly. A chill hit me as I wondered what happened to Robin and Lauren. I called London – Robin’s dad still had no news. (Robin had no cell phone and Lauren had only a netbook. Since all I had was an old Nokia dumb phone, it was easier for them to communicate with London than with me.)
Uproot thousands and thousands of people from their homes, and then throw them together in strange circumstances unusual things are bound to happen. There was a magical rich strangeness in the air, fraught with comic potential. Our hearty state representative was on such example, another was provided when I went upstairs to feed the cats. I decided to linger to comfort them. I was wary of Daisy (now purring on my chest) because she was little more than a kitten and might bolt. But Pookie had always been timid and affectionate – he would luxuriate in the attention and pose no flight risk. It was while I was thus engaged that I became aware of the remarkable character of Fraiser the Grand Eclectus Parrot. Like most of his tribe, Frasier was an accomplished mimic with a decided mean streak. It was childishly easy for him to imitate the sound of any unhappy, angry cat. After all he had plenitude of feline sound bites to choose from, arrayed lavishly all around him:
Cats —– r-r-a-a-o-o-o-w-w!!
Parrot —– r-r-a-a-o-o-o-w-w!!
Cats —– R-R-A-A-O-O-W-W!!
Cats, prideful creatures that they are, do not at all appreciate such brazen mockery and mimicry and they let our hero know it in no uncertain terms. So the call and response continued in rising crescendo until our mimic could no longer contain his delight:
HA! HA! HA! HA! – In the curious mechanical and maniacal laugh of a parrot. Needless to say the laughter did nothing to improve the disposition of the cats … The ladies of the press box seemed as taken with Frasier as I:
“Now, Frasier … as they fussed and clucked about him.”
In the field beside the parking lot some kids were playing Frisbee and I walked over to join them. Playing Frisbee in the field – a throwback to my youth in the sixties and seventies! My arm had deteriorated somewhat but I still managed to hold my own. While I was there, I witnessed the remarkable ‘tree climbing’ aptitude of a certain pit-bull. The dog would launch himself full tilt at a smallish oak, hurl himself at the tree and use the momentum to clamber up to a low lying branch. I talked with the owner and it turns out he had lived in Treme, a mile and a half from my old Lower 9th Ward home. Yet it took a hurricane evacuation to Monroe to encounter this remarkable beast. There were other simple pleasures – walking the dogs on the field to the ravine beside the railroad tracks, savoring the lonesome whistle of the freight trains as they clacked by. I mention the curious delights of life at the Convention Center not to minimize the unfolding tragedy but to embrace and celebrate life. Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy but to embrace and celebrate life. Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy there are joys to be had. We are given but one life. LIFE IT! Dammit!
Some tall thin young men helped out in the lunch line. They were barked at by a gruff but sincere middle-aged man, half drill sergeant, and half pastor –
“These people are homeless and hungry. I don’t want any of y’all eating anything until these folks are fed.”
You guessed it, The University of Louisiana Monroe basketball team. The food was abundant and a lot of it would be thrown out. It wouldn’t have hurt if the kids scarfed an occasional hot dog or burger. Still I appreciated the coach for putting us first.
It had occurred to me that my animals were due for a check up and I was worried about their close proximity to other animals and possible infection. I had secured an appointment that afternoon. Like every one in Monroe the folks at the vet’s – receptionist, vet techs and Dr. – were unfailingly kind. All told it wasn’t that expensive and I hadn’t come close to running through all my cash. I was settling into my routine, but the fate of Robin and Lauren still preyed on my mind. Sleep came easily again that night, another sign that I felt more and more at home.
I awoke feeling almost normal Wednesday morning. I was comfortable, too comfortable. Whatever I was going to do with the rest of my life, it was going to require decisiveness and energy. I had to keep moving. Once again I called London, still no word from Robin and Lauren. I touched base again with my family and discussed the possibility of evacuating further north. I was starting to consider the possibility of decamping to my brother’s house in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He and his wife had sundry cats and dogs, so it seemed that they might be more tolerant of my menagerie.
I had started to make some friends among the volunteers – mostly women. Men will be men and women will be women. There was a lady from the Northeast – New York or New Jersey as I remember – who worked the cafeteria line. She enjoyed volunteering for The Red Cross during various natural calamities. We chatted about the good work and good people of The Red Cross and sang the praises of Clara Barton. The ladies who worked the press box with the cats and parrots were universally kind and pleasant, although their tolerance for Frasier the parrot was beginning to wane. Day after day of his incessant noise and insufferable ego would try the patience of a saint. One woman in particular, I remember, was blonde, attractive and about my age. There was a genuine chemistry between us. The reader must remember that New Orleans has a particular reputation in the Bible Belt – sophisticated, alluring, beautiful; yet corrupt, decadent, wicked. Altogether fascinating. The opening line is generally – “I went there for Mardi Gras, had a wonderful time, but …” Of course my occupation doesn’t hurt – “You probably see some pretty WEIRD things out there —“
*Wink, wink, nudge, nudge*
As I recall I spared this woman the salacious details, she was really sweet and it seemed inappropriate. She praised my courage; and didn’t know how she could have possibly handled the troubles Katrina had thrown my way.
— Courage? What courage? Courage is when you deliberately put yourself in harms way. It’s not like I have a CHOICE. I’m just doing what I have to do.
I was flattered but bemused by her attentions; at this stage in my life I didn’t have anything for anybody. Fond memories.
In my various errands around the city, I formed a general impression of the city and its inhabitants. North Louisiana has a reputation for intolerance and racial violence but I saw none of that. The people I met seemed pleasant and generally kind to one and all. With its churches, ranch houses, and general politeness the city seemed stuck in the 1950s. Think Mayberry or the Southern California of Leave It To Beaver. There was also a Western flavor – cowboy hats and boots; there had been a rodeo in the arena shortly before the Storm. And, jarring to my urban sensibilities, a lot of the black folks talked, dressed and acted much like their white country brethren. The music I heard was all country or rock – my beloved jazz and blues were absent. I was aware that I was moving closer to the Midwest and away from the tropics. There were no palms, merely palmettos and the banana ‘trees’ seemed little more than waist high. Despite my fondness for the city and its people I missed the corrupt tropical splendor of my New Orleans. No time for that, I had to move on for now.
I awoke the next morning determined to leave. I mean, why mooch off The Red Cross and the City of Monroe when I could mooch off my family, right? It seemed unfair for me to stay there and use the resources meant for people who literally had no other options and nowhere else to go. And how much could it cost an established household to have one more mouth to feed? If you add it up groceries for one don’t amount to much. I was determined to be cautious and frugal so as to be as small a burden as possible. At least some good news – on my daily call to London I learned that Robin and Lauren had been rescued and were safely ensconced in the River Center in Baton Rouge. The first sign that our lives were starting to piece themselves back together. I gathered up my personal effects, made the necessary phone calls and decided to make tracks to Yellow Springs. I rounded up the animals and elicited on last cackle from Frasier the parrot. I said goodbye to the ladies of the press box, with a particular nod to a special volunteer. My radiator had been acting up so I topped it off and filled extra jugs with water, just in case. From my trust Rand McNally Road Atlas, I determined that I could get on
I-20, thence to I-59 and I-75 before exiting to Yellow Springs. Piece of cake. I was off.
The Devil’s Slot Machine
By Robert Moulton
From the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter
Oo-oo-h-h the floods are threatenin’ my very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter, or I’m gonna fade away.
Interesting sidebar here…Merry Clayton, who sings the wailing background vocals, spent the early years of her childhood in New Orleans. Her home was in Gert Town near Xavier University. Hurricane Katrina inundated her house with
5-10 feet of water. Prophecy? Or mere coincidence? You decide.
To date, I have described the gathering storm, my evacuation and my sojourn at the Monroe Convention Center. Now I return to New Orleans to recount the experiences of my wife and her sister during Hurricane Katrina.
My evacuation was fraught with tension that yielded to exhilaration as I outsmarted and outran the storm. No such exhilaration was granted to Lauren and Robin as they anxiously awaited the hammer blows of Katrina. They were helpless as quail cowering in the shadow of a hawk. That hawk had the covey in her sights; the only hope was that chance would lead the raptor to another bird. So everyone in the hospital, patient and staff, waited with growing dread. By afternoon it was apparent that the medical personnel would have to ride out the storm with the patients. Hence the staff had an increasingly grim set to their faces as the day wore on. Occasionally a flicker of beseeching fear appeared in their eyes but mostly they just carried on, absorbed in their duties. The necessary worried phone calls were exchanged back and forth between staff and family members.
Cirrhosis and Katrina were just the latest in a lifetime of misfortunes to befall Robin. She had always felt maltreated and scorned; she was always seeking comfort and strength. Lauren did not let her down. Robin occasionally mentioned me – Robert …
… Don’t worry darling. Robert’s a fantastic driver. He’ll be OK.
Lauren was effectively Robin’s private nurse, constantly monitoring her medical condition and attending to her needs. This was a blessing to the nurses; they didn’t have to worry so much about Robin and were free to give more attention to other patients. Robin and Lauren managed to reach London one last time to reassure their family. The monster storm metastasized on the screen as the ghouls on the Weather Channel nattered on, sounding the drumbeat of doom. They were not to be denied their moment of glory. The last patches of blue sky resolved to slate gray as day faded into dark night.
Around 9 or 10 pm the breeze freshened and it began to drizzle. The wind and rain steadily increased as late night slid into the wee hours of the morning. The great live oaks o Bienville and Jefferson Davis Avenue swayed, then began to wave their branches wildly like trees in some demented cartoon. Great cracking sounds were heard above the roar of the wind as limbs were shorn off. Debris clattered in the air; voicing the characteristic sound of a great hurricane, very like the clacking and roaring of anon rushing freight train. Occasionally there was the crash and tinkle of breaking glass as flying objects broke windows. Lightning and thunder increased space with the storm. A great crack of thunder shook the building, a blinding flash illuminated fear in stricken faces, casting deep shadows and … total darkness.
Flashlights and cellphones appeared to mitigate the gloom. But lightning is the least concern in the ICU. With patients on life support, electricity is literally a matter of life and death.
Robin’s survival was now very much in doubt – how could she remain hydrated, nourished, and how could she slush the toxins from her body? A timely rescue was imperative. Lauren soldiered on, hand pumping nutrients and water into Robin’s body. The storm intensified until dawn, and then gradually subsided. The levees had broken and water rose as the winds died down. Murky, filthy water, reeking of sewage and swamp. Water moccasins ripples through it, the occasional corpse floated by. The city looked tattered and shabby in the wake of the storm. Most of the leaves had been blown off trees, huge branches had been ripped off and cluttered the ground, and trees had been downed, roofs blown off. Very few birds were heard; man and nature alike were exhausted. Ominously the first pops of gunfire were heard in the distance, the cops and looters had begun their danse macabre. The exhausted denizens of Lindy Boggs Medical Center, both patients and staff, fell into an uneasy sleep as darkness fell. Nurses split the night shift into 4-hour segments so they could all grab some sleep as no one had slept for 36 hours.
More Gimme Shelter – Rape, murder it’s just a shot away … A fitting anthem for a city descending into chaos.
Somehow Robin managed to wake up the next morning. The liver cleans toxins from the blood and a bad liver means the toxins accumulate causing jaundice, lassitude, confusion and intense itching as the toxins irritate the skin. It goes without saying that Robin’s suffering was amplified by the 90+-degree heat and humidity. Fortunately she had Lauren, who attended to her tirelessly. Then there were the smells … The Smell of Death is not some dark romantic fiction. Decaying human flesh has a particular odor, much like that of bad pork. Very, VERY bad pork. Add to this the smell of fetid swamp, decaying vegetation, dead animals – and you get the smell that lingered overmuch of New Orleans for months. A few gurneys were in evidence, bearing bodies covered head to toe in sheets, amplifying the fragrance. The smell of urine and feces compounded the perfume … and of course there were insects. Flies buzzed and prospered and hordes of nasty little German roaches scuttled about with the constant staccato crack of gunfire, especially at night. So Robin lay, groaning, in the midst of a nightmare out of Hieronymus Bosch.
I can only speculate as to how Lauren kept Robin nourished and hydrated. No refrigeration, no pumps … I suppose there were still prepackaged scalpels, alcohol to sterilize things and bags of saline and nutrients. Somehow Robin remained weak but stable through Tuesday, August 30, the day after the storm as Lauren and the medical staff carried on.
Midmorning on Wednesday there a distant purring was heard … Could it be? The sound grew louder and more distinct – the putt putt of outboard motors! There was a great shouting and splashing about as the skiffs tied up to the building. Clean-cut efficient looking men – National Guardsmen – sprang out of the boats to help guide people out of the windows and into the rescue craft. Strange looking angels of mercy, all in camouflage and combat boots with assault rifles slung on their sides. But they were polite and kind as they guided their charges through the dark floodwaters of post Katrina New Orleans. Urban floodwaters are more swamp than lake – shallow and with all sorts of strange objects lurking just below the surface of turbid water. Fire hydrants, cars – some barely visible beneath the water like some basking giant reptiles half out of the water – trash cans and God know what was down there. It was most surreal to look DOWN on street signs barely protruding about the flood. The guardsmen chose to cruise down Canal Street, as it was wider and less likely to be booby trapped with underground obstacles. Canal Street lived up to its name that day … a vast canal of opaque and stinking water. It had a sepulchral air, framed on both sides by trees nearly denuded of leaves, the occasional body (both human and canine), and the odd water moccasin wriggling through the muck. Vultures circled overhead, eagerly appraising the feast beneath them. So the guardsmen guided the evacuees through the apocalyptic vistas of New Orleans after the storm.
They took a right turn at Galvez and then a left on Poydras in order to approach the heliport of the Superdome at an angle uncluttered by narrow city streets. Word had somehow been passed ahead (communications were all but nonexistent after the storm) that these were ICU patients, to be given first priority for the helicopter run to Baton Rouge. The water grew noticeably more shallow as they approached Claiborne Avenue; they splashed ashore to join the wretched refuse huddles and yearning to be helicoptered the hell out of town. There was the squalling of miserable children, and the occasional harsh bickering quarrel, but mostly these people were numb. They had seen too much in too short a time; sensory and emotional overload had drained them. Plus they had figured out that they would be evacuated so they waited patiently. Two fears haunted them – were family members alive and if so where were they? It would be hell reconnecting with family scattered at unknown locations across the country. The other concern was water – could they get enough potable water to survive until evacuation? A cruel and ironic death, to die of thirst in a flooded city. The relentless late summer heat and pitiless sun magnified their misery. The skyscrapers of Poydras Street looked pretty beat up; dark holes had mostly replaced the windows that would ordinarily glint in the sun. The Hyatt was especially hard hit. Robin was given a wheel chair and Lauren rolled her up the ramp of the parking garage to the rooftop heliport.
Shortly some helicopters appeared. Over the loud whirring the sisters were instructed to enter a helicopter. Passengers seated, the craft rocked, teetered a bit, and accomplished a take off. The indescribably flat landscape of South Louisiana spread out all around them, the unbroken horizon describing a perfect circle. The Mississippi meandered sinuously through it all; to the north was the expanse of Lake Pontchartrain. New Orleans was a patchwork of houses and trees set in the waters of a chocolate swamp. Jefferson Parish fared much better; there was a stark demarcation at the 17th St Canal between flooded New Orleans and dry Jefferson. The helicopter puttered past the closed New Orleans International Airport devoid of planes. They were now over St Charles Parish, south of the western part of Lake Pontchartrain, a place of swamps and oil refineries. The stench and flames of the refineries were absent thanks to the storm. The great wheeling flocks of ibis and herons were beginning to return to the wetlands, but their numbers were still reduced. Between St Charles and Baton Rouge the swamps gradually merged with the characteristic deep green cover of southern bottomland deciduous forest. The sisters were to worn out by the storm to worry about the perils of helicopter travel or observe the land beneath them. The Mississippi Bridge and miniature Empire State Building capitol of Baton Rouge loomed ahead. They set down at a heliport south of the city.
Southern hospitality can be an overworked cliché, nevertheless the people of Baton Rouge showed Lauren and Robin nothing but kindness from the moment they landed at the heliport. They were whisked away to the Rivercenter where facilities were set up for evacuees. The great cool cavern of the convention center hall with its tidy rows of cots seemed almost luxurious compared to the chaos, stench and heat they had endured. It was barely mid afternoon as they settled in. The sisters contacted Lauren’s children who informed their grandfather. When I called Robin’s father the next morning, I was given the good news. A new month and a new start for all of us.
The Devil’s Slot Machine
By Robert Moulton
In my hour of Darkness, in my time of need
O Lord, grant me vision, O Lord, grant me speed
~Gram Parsons, In my Hour of Darkness
Gram captures the soul of the hurricane evacuation. His mournful pleas for divine intercession speaks for those who have lost their home and loved ones, those running from disaster in the darkness.
This is a personal memoire; out of necessity most of the recollections are my own. But let us not forget the ‘Patron Saint’ of the tale, Lauren Hooper. It is very possible that without Lauren, Robin would not have survived the terrible days at Lindy Boggs during and after the storm. I will admit to no special courage in the vicissitudes of my life after the storm. I was an ordinary man trying to rebuild a life shattered by a catastrophic storm, doing what I have to do. Lauren chose to put herself in the landfall of a terrible storm out of unthinking loyalty to her sister. That is the very definition of courage, which is why I write this piece … in Honor of Lauren.
Certain natural disasters, notably earthquakes and hurricanes, occur in a very brief interval of time. The damage by earthquakes is done in a time frame of seconds to minutes, the punishing wind and rain of a hurricane generally occur over a period of not more than 10 hours. But the aftermath … the damage done by resultant fires and floods, the painful process of rebuilding broken lives, that extends the timeline out additional days, months and years. Of course for those who lose their lives, for cities reduced to rubble and abandoned, there is no rebuilding. So, I ask the reader to be patient, to reach into the reserves of empathy as I recount the beginnings of the long road back to normality.
We have covered the ordeal of the sisters during the storm, their rescue to Baton Rouge, and my evacuation to Monroe. We pick up the story now as I head out of Monroe and north to Ohio.
I circled out of the Convention Center and returned to I-20, unspooling back from where I came. Northeast Louisiana is flat farmland, a delta teem with with cotton and rice fields. Indeed Delta Airlines got its start as a crop dusting service in Monroe. The low levees of rice fields, at most 4 to 6 feet high, crisscrossed the landscape. The rice paddies made a patchwork – some flooded and shining, some emerald green with water glittering beneath the fecund rice waiting to be harvested. Scattered sparsely across the fields were lonely farmhouses shaded by cypress and oak. Countless skeins of blackbirds attended the fields, wheeling and turning in the sky. A hard blue sky and still high late summer sun presided over all. I was aware that I was a witness to history, so my senses were heightened as I sought to imprint the passing scene in my memory. I was particularly attuned to evidence left by The Storm, to see the true extent of the damage.
The first signs of destruction were visible in Vicksburg: tree limbs on telephone and electric lines, leaning telephone poles. I stopped at a gas station to fill up and the situation was chaotic. Some of the pups were working and some were not. Waiting customers were even more disheveled than the station – I wasn’t the only Okie in the crowd. There was a lot of snappishness between family members, wailing children, and shrill voiced mothers desperately trying to keep order. The dead gas pumps tipped me off that I had made a wise choice – I was headed into the area of storm damage, who knew when I would next find a functioning station? It was 11 am and already oppressive; I felt guilty about leaving the animals in my hot car when I went in to pay for gas and receive change. I was all they had; they could no risk separation from me. I walked the dogs when I got back; they slobbered and sucked at the gas station water hose and I doused their backs for good measure.
Back on the road and headed east and north toward safety. The dogs planted themselves against me, as was their habit. From time to time, I leaned back with my free hand and stuck my fingers in a cat carrier so they could comfort themselves by rubbing against my fingers. This extra gift of tactile reassurance was the least I could do for them. Trusting little creatures, I wish I shared their confidence in me. (Even now sole survivor Daisy has planted herself on my chest directly under my chin. She has little time left, but her immense faith and trust in my have not diminished.)
Small tree limbs and leaves littered the highway with increasing frequency as I pushed on through Jackson with incident. The rolling wooded terrain of central Mississippi was surprisingly scenic, particularly through Bienville National Forest. The road wound its way through deep forest occasionally splitting to allow wooded medians. It reminded me of the covers of old Esso ‘Happy Motoring’ maps of my youth, or the bosky dales of Connecticut’s Merritt Parkway. Not bad for a major East West Interstate. Still there were the broken branches and occasional downed trees to remind me of the severity of The Storm. I-20 joined
I-59 near Meridian and trended east by northeast. Glancing at the atlas beside me, it seemed that I had planned well – there were no really large towns on my route and I could avoid the plague of rush hour. Storm debris reached a peak near Meridian where the eye had passed – Katrina was still a Cat 1 when it passed through. Even at high speed in the daytime could see from the clogged traffic and lack of neon advertising that electricity was problematic. Soon after Meridian the highway turned more towards the northeast and I beheld an astonishing sight. Vast convoys of utility bucket trucks were headed south to repair the broken lines of coastal Mississippi and New Orleans. Convoys, nay-entire armies of bucket trucks – Progress Energy, Duck Energy and other assorted companies. A lot has been made of the chaos in New Orleans after The Storm, and justifiably so. Yet, I was heartened by the prompt response to the electrical emergency. This spoke well of the resilience and resourcefulness of our country. Fifty miles into Alabama I noticed the pale, ragged scar of a severed tree limb. This stuck in my mind as the northeastern most extent of Katrina’s wind damage. Such was the Mark of the Monster … Flooding and wind damage from Pensacola to almost Baton Rouge; then northeast through most of Mississippi to northwest Alabama.
In Alabama the hills were higher and harder – this iron country. I sped past Tuscaloosa and Birmingham; Alabama is mostly a blur in my mind. The hills continued to rise. I-59 sliced off the Northwest corner of Georgia as the long ridge of Lookout Mountain rose in the East. I stopped at a gas station in Georgia run by a surly attendant with a wino beard who seemed to be right of Deliverance. The forest crowded the filling station, leaves hanging over the tarmac. They got good — $7.50 a gallon. I had heard stories on the radio about gas shortages and price gouging. I didn’t know if the price was going to get worse so I paid … hearing banjos …
I-59 vanished into I-24 in North Georgia and I-24 looped east-northeast to Chattanooga where it commanded a striking view of the city spread out below. The silver Tennessee River looped it’s way through the hills of city spanned by old school arched bridges. The factories and smokestacks, not longer spewing smoke, lent a certain gritty chart to the scene. We were now in the Easter Time Zone and it was early evening with the hills casting long brooding shadows. I hastened along I-24 through the foothills to where it abutted onto I-75 then took 75 north-northeast parallel to the ridges. The slanting sun outlined the contours of corrugated mountains casting shadow in ravines and highlighting ridges in glorious golden green. My spirit soared. Hemmed in by the swamps of South Louisiana I have always loved mountains – they bespeak freedom and carry me into the wild blue yonder. To the west it was mostly shadow, the east was still bathed in warmth. Shadows crawled up the mountains till only an orange gold setting sun lighted the peaks. Then only a fading indirect flow graded the peaks as darkness advanced relentlessly. The mountain faded to dark looming massifs, my constant companion on the trip north. Again Gram came to mind:
Once I knew a young man went drivin’ through the night/
Miles and miles without a word, just his high beam lights.
I was a good 30 years past my youth but the image of solitude; darkness and driving spoke to me.
I-75 turned north northwest through the Cumberland Plateau. Fiddling with the radio I turned the dial to the ’50,00 Watt Clear Channel Choice of the Gulf South, WWL 870’. Voices@ Life! The radio stations of New Orleans had banded together to form United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans, an improvisation to keep radio on the air as the city recovered. Citizens could exchange information to highlight condition s in the city and aid each other in reordering their lives. I was in touch with my brother every few hours as I pushed ever northward towards refuge. I emerged from the Cumberland’s and skirted Lexington; then on through the hills of northern Kentucky. My spirits were briefly lifted when Jackson Browne came on the radio ~ ‘Runnin’ on empty, runnin’ blind’ … My anthem of nihilism, freedom and abandon. I might be on the cusp of old age but I intend to keep running and driving to the end. Still, the dark sky and darker hills were starting to get to me though I had been driving only three hours in darkness. Then, over a bluff … it was breathtaking! The city of Cincinnati and the Ohio River sparkled and shone beneath me. After hours of driving through the wilderness, I was ready for comforts and vitality of civilization … and Yellow Springs was little over an hour away.
I skirted Cincinnati, headed toward Dayton. Hays gave me the instructions to Yellow Springs. (I like to think that I can keep directions in my mind if I limit myself to a few turns ahead. Typical overconfident male.) I caught the 675 loop east of Dayton and exited on the Dayton to Yellow Springs Road. When I reached the city limits I called Hays again and he guided me home. I was beginning to flounder when Hays said – I can see you!
Turn around, I’m right behind you
I still don’t
(Exasperated) I’m right here, waving my arms!
I saw a figure about a block away flapping his arms, cell phone glowing in one hand. At this point I had no computer and only an old Nokia cellphone. In my technologically illiterate mind people still made phone calls from landlines or phone booths. Hays guided me home as I duly followed him and his cell phone. He instructed me where to park my car so as not to discomfit the neighbors.
The Devil’s Slot Machine
By Robert Moulton
Bob Seger, Beautiful Loser
He’s your oldest and your best friend
If you need him he’ll be there again
He’s always willing to be second best
A perfect lodger, a perfect guest
Such was my task — to make myself agreeable and helpful while I figured out what to do with the rest of my life. To be ‘a perfect lodger, a perfect guest’. Previously I have described Katrina’s assault on New Orleans and my flight from the city. We pick up the narrative at my brother’s house in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
Right away my low down Lower Ninth Ward hounds complicated my plans. As soon as I got them inside they raised a ruckus and thoroughly intimidated my brother’s kindly old lab. She retreated into a corner with a sinking heart and a sinking tail feebly wagging as she begged my brother for reassurance and explanation. The heathen hounds were banished into the Jacuzzi room that my brother had recently added onto the house. Hays and his wife had graciously readied an upstairs bedroom for me. I took some personal effects and the cats with me up the creaking stairs to a night’s rest. My thoughts drifted back to my childhood home in Connecticut where I also had an upstairs bedroom with the leaves outside my window rustling in the night. Fatigue kicked in and I found sleep.
I awoke at 6:30 am or so with the dawn and the birds. Despite my inadequate sleep, I was cheered and invigorated by the scene outside my window. Nature is very comforting in the middle latitudes — lush deciduous trees, liquid birdsong. It is the Nature of Wordsworth and Keats and Frost. Whereas Nature in Southeast Louisiana is the Nature of Joseph Conrad’s Malayan jungle. Masses of dark vegetation press in on chocolate waterways. Everything crawls and slithers and creeps, bites and stings. The birds are ungainly, prehistoric — egrets, ibis and pelicans. So I used the September morn outside the window to cheer and fortify myself. I was homeless, adrift. I needed to find consolation and strength where I could.
Unfortunately I went downstairs to find that the dogs added to my woes. They had torn up the Jacuzzi room, the water was running, the place thunderstruck. Water was spilled on the floor — soap and shampoo and towels were flung haphazardly about. Homelessness loomed …. The dogs could get me put out …. Hays shook his head — ‘This won’t do, buddy.’
–Um-m, I ‘ll keep ’em in the car until we figure out what to do with ’em.
I had to do some serious babysitting — jail them in the car and walk them every few hours. Hays went off to his job as an assistant principal and I went off to walk the dogs and think. Yellow Springs was such a well-kept, shaded little town. But that morning I had no inclination to ramble; I had to get back to the house to organize my possessions and think about my future. Kathy offered me some lunch and I ate but sparingly. I wanted to be ‘the perfect guest’ by taking as little as possible. There was always my Chef Boyardee Ravioli. Hays returned from school that afternoon and they dug up Key Largo from their DVD collection. Marvelously on point! This snippet of dialog sticks:
Ralphie: What all happens in a hurricane?
Curly: THE WIND BLOWS SO HARD THE OCEAN GETS UP ON ITS HIND LEGS AND WALKS ACROSS THE LAND. (Emphasis mine).
Back outside to tend the dogs and upstairs to attempt to sleep.
I awoke at 3 am and walked gingerly down the creaking stairs to check the car and walk the dogs. I occupied myself by reading Balkan Ghosts until I heard the stirrings of breakfast. Over a superb breakfast of homemade biscuits Hays and Kathy suggested that perhaps I explore The Glen. ‘Nah. I really don’t want to enjoy myself or get comfortable. I want to stay bored and unhappy. I need a goad to keep me moving.’ Hays got busy looking for local kennels and I went to look after the dogs.
Yellow Springs had a quaint, tidy air about it. Was it a college town built around Antioch or a nature reserve? The trees had neat little brass plaques identifying the species — eg quercus alba, (white oak). I must admit I took some perverse joy in introducing the citizens of Yellow Springs to my less than genteel, down home, southern DAWGs. I was accustomed to letting them strain on their leash as if I were about to lose control. It was a theatrical flourish that I had used with great effect on the budding hoodlums of the Lower Ninth Ward. It had an even more delightful effect on the sheltered denizens of Yellow Springs. They shot a glance out of the corner of their eye at the uncouth apparition walking his big brawling dogs and their steps got that much quicker. One lady was particularly delicious. She was walking a little bichon frise, barely a mouthful for my ravening hell-hounds.
–Oh my, and what sort of breed do you call those…er-r-r…things…?
–Just dawgs, ma’am. Down home southern junkyard dawgs.
And she resumed her strides with a speed that was indeed astonishing. The bichon frise could not keep up and she scooped him up as she scurried off.
Back at the ranch Hays had located several inexpensive local kennels. I was starting to be pressed for funds so I chose the very cheapest I could find. A quick phone call confirmed that they had space for the dogs. It was down towards Xenia and I figured I’d better resolve the problem ASAP so Hays printed up a map for me off of Google Maps. How little I knew of the cyber world back then! Looking back on my ignorance, it never ceases to amaze me. I left armed with the printed map and headed south towards Xenia. The country was looking increasingly unpromising as I headed south — ill tended fields, ramshackle or abandoned houses and barns. The map directed me to a long lane with an unsightly concrete block structure at the end of it. I felt a pang as I gathered up my charges and went inside. The noise was deafening and the stench overwhelming as the lady grabbed her enormous key ring and led me to the dogs’ cell. The frenzied barking was so bad that she wore firing range earphones to deaden the sound. I tousled and massaged the skin of each dog separately before I left. They looked at me with sad wondering eyes — had I abandoned them? Would I be back? I settled up at the agreed price and I drove off, trying to put my neglected dogs out of my mind. Such are the cruel choices foisted upon us when natural disaster disrupts our lives.
Back at Hays’ house I decided to take another walk around. I ended up at a popular local spot with the tacky appellation of Ye Olde Trail. I ordered a draught and the bartender’s face registered instant sympathy when I mentioned Katrina. She shoved another beer my way. At least the damn storm was good for something — I got a good buzz on and only had to buy one draught. I shouldn’t make light of it; the bar patrons seemed genuinely concerned and as they inquired about my home. I told them what little I knew, which was basically nothing. The main focus of attention was the Ohio State-Miami of Ohio game, which Ohio State won handily. The fans were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, proving once again that despite its gingerbread architecture and the bohemian flair of Antioch, Yellow Springs was very much a part of Ohio. I saw no reason to linger after the game and made my way back to the house. At supper Kathy asked me about Robin:
–I really don’t know. Hard to keep in touch….
–But Robert that’s your WIFE.
Once again the guilt. Wrapped up in my own drama of survival, I had let my concern for the two sisters lag. The ever-present ache emerged from the shadows to the front of my mind. After supper I did some uneasy and desultory reading and went to bed.
Again I awoke at 3 am. So many things to do, the mind in overdrive, refusing to rest….
At breakfast we decided to celebrate Labor Day early today, Sunday. Later that morning we drove out to Young’s Jersey Dairy. Driving through the cornfields I was again reminded that Yellow Springs was not some Shangri-La, plunked down in the midst of the heartland, but an organic part of the land around it. Young’s was a curious place–a roadside stand but more quaint, becoming something like a tourist attraction. It was cheerful, somewhat upscale and everyone there seemed to be having a hearty good time. I remembered from my grandfather’s dairy farm that Jersey cows have the highest percentage of fat in their milk — to make the best butter and ice cream. The sundae I ordered was smooth and creamy, among the best I’ve ever had.
Back home Hays and Kathy busied themselves in preparing a holiday meal for all of us, including their children Rachel and Gabe and his fiancée Alice. I tried to help, but in truth the most helpful thing I could do was stay the hell out-of-the-way. Hays and Kathy proved to be excellent cooks, their specialty being Mexican food and homemade pizza. Alice has always impressed me — a solid, maternal, decent human being. I proved to be correct in my assumption that she would make an excellent mother. It was a warm family gathering, but I was all too aware that I was the unspoken outsider. My mind wandered as I thought ahead….
Like her father Rachel had gone to Antioch and was teaching nearby. She had upgraded to another house and was readying her former place for sale. We agreed that I could come over the next day and assist in the process of cleaning up the old house. The place proved to be a charming little bungalow with a gangly old apple tree in the front yard. Most of the apples were not yet ripe, but the hard sour fruit had a certain piquancy. I did my best to help in odd jobs and labor, scraping paint, cleaning up under the gutters and glorying in the golden September sunshine. The house seemed to be about 80 years old and it occurred to me that the paint was probably lead based and the shingles asbestos. But what damage could traces of lead and asbestos do to me in a few hours? I never lent much credence to all that ambulance chasing stuff anyway; 11 years later and still no sign of cancer. After a light lunch of white bread and cold cut sandwiches I ambled back to Hays’ place.
I went into the back yard and marveled at the space and the shade provided by hickory and maple. I remembered how much more land my father had in Connecticut — a full acre. I felt the ache of what I had lost, the semi rural idyll of my brother’s life pulling at me. But for better or worse I had chosen life on the edge. Live life to the fullest, take whatever life throws at me, experience for the sake of experience. Sometimes when you live that way life throws you a wicked high hard fastball straight to the head. No matter, I had to dust myself off and keep going.
I went back inside and Hays led me into the computer room. He brought up Google Maps and I showed him my old house. We zoomed in and he shook his head — ‘It doesn’t look good’. I could see that the area had flooded around the house but I couldn’t determine how deeply. But the water had definitely gone over the floor of my elevated house. We swept down to the river on the Industrial Canal; by the river it was almost dry. Then back past the St Claude Bridge to the breach on the levee where the barge had broken through and crushed houses and cars. On towards Florida Avenue and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet where the houses were completely submerged, the roofs but a ghostly outline beneath the filthy water. The classic line from King Lear applied:
–As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.
Nature had unleashed Her fury on New Orleans, all but smashed the city with a brutal hammer blow. She wreaked Her devastation coldly, impersonally, the way She does when the Slot Machine aligns at three skulls. The Malignancy of Chance.
Shaken, I reflected on the difference between the leafy glades of Yellow Springs and the flooded waste that was my home. This is what I had signed up for when I decided to live life on the edge. I was quiet that night at supper, brooding on what I had lost. Afterwards I tried to kill time by delving into Balkan Ghosts, reading of catastrophe in various Near Eastern nations, trying to make my own troubles seem trivial by comparison. I trudged upstairs to an uneasy sleep.
Again worry tore at me and woke me in the wee hours. Lying awake I pondered my next move. Yellow Springs was indeed charming, but there was nothing here. There was much more available at my sister’s house, all of Chicago and the suburbs. It seemed reasonable to spend the day packing and leave on the morrow. I said hello to my cats and dallied a bit with them — a small indulgence, a small comfort in the turmoil. I set about to pack as quietly as I could in the old house with the creaking floor boards, leaving just a days worth of clothes out. Then on to the bathroom and the rest of the house, scouring the rest of the house for things I might leave behind. I was to live out of a suitcase for the next day. Hays was up next, swiftly making his sandwiches as he prepared for work. He mentioned that he might know of a no-kill shelter where the dogs could live indefinitely. He would call me some time in the morning. Good news! Hays had pulled another rabbit out of his hat — he gave me the address of the no-kill shelter. I made the trip down to the canine prison and of course the dogs greeted me joyously; they came close to knocking me over in their excitement. I settled up with the warden and thence to the no-kill shelter, where it was completely different. The staff was young and effusive and the kennel looked more like a bedroom than a kennel. A huge weight was lifted. I called Barbara and told her I should be there some time tomorrow. I spent the rest of the day looking under seat cushions, restless, anticipatory. I figured to leave for Chicago at 10 AM the next day, so I would arrive after the noon rush hour and before evening rush hour. I touched base with Barbara the next day and gathered up the cats, cranked the car and took off.
Copyright © 2016 Robert Moulton
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 7
By Robert Moulton
Neil Diamond–I Am I Said
The parallels between Neil Diamond in L A and myself in exile are to, put it mildly, inexact. But no one captures the ache of being away from heart and home better than Neil Diamond:
L A’s fine but it ain’t mine
New York’s home but it ain’t mine
But I’ve got an emptiness deep inside
And I’ve tried
but it won’t let me go
The trip up Highway 68 to I-70 was an uneventful and pleasant jaunt through Ohio’s rolling farmland. One delightful surprise — Dayton had a first rate blues station on the radio, which I listened to as long as the signal held up. I breezed west to Indianapolis, then north to I-80 and through Chicago with no trouble, arriving at my sister’s house in Hoffman Estates mid afternoon. Barbara and her husband do extensive work for the homeless through their church in Chicago. I thought wryly that now they could fulfill their mission through one particular homeless man — Barbara’s ne’er do well brother. Joking aside, they treated me with unfeigned kindness. Bob’s family had seen difficult times in the ’30s and ’40s, so he well knew the meaning of hardship. Both their children had left home, so they let me use Ben’s old room upstairs. I got the added bonus of admiring the superb crayon murals that Ben had crafted. Such an intelligent and talented child he was! Bob is not an animal person so I kept the cats locked up tight in the room, or Siberia as I came to call it.
So I had established a temporary base, now what? Again, I must ask for the reader’s empathy and indulgence. There was no high drama during my stay in the Chicago ‘burbs. But consider my state of my mind and the plight of those who shared my fate. I was lost, alienated — pining for the life, the city and the love I had left behind while wondering if there was anything left when I returned. Such is the fate of the evacuee — I had family to stay with and a roof over my head. Shed a tear for the refugee in a camp.
I set to work taking care of official business. I owned three other cabs besides the one I was driving, and I was totally unaware of their location. Тhere were nightmarish visions of one of my drivers crippling a pedestrian in Kansas and saddling me with a ruinous settlement. So I located the office of the insurance company in Opelousas, Louisiana and paid one month’s insurance out of my father’s trust. The ladies at the cab company later said that I was the only one who so much as inquired about paying the insurance that month. I figured I had gained some Brownie points.
At this point I must introduce one of the great-unsung heroes of the Katrina ordeal — Gene Alleman of White Fleet Cab and French Quarter Tours. He had family in Jefferson Parish and Hammond, so he was able to evacuate very close by. He worked tirelessly, mucking out the headquarters and records of White Fleet at 3300 Bienville. Coincidentally this was across the street and a scant block away from Lindy Boggs — where Robin and Lauren had endured the horrors of Katrina. I discovered that I could reach Gene by cell phone if I called at 6:30 in the morning or before the lines got overloaded. He was kind enough to stop by my old cottage on his way to check on family property in St Bernard Parish, “I don’t know, Bob, it doesn’t look good. The waterline looked pretty high.”
Comforting news. But it meant so much to reestablished contact with home, even if it was only the occasional early morning phone call.
Things were improving in Baton Rouge. I got word from London that Robin seemed well enough to travel. It seemed only right to see her off at the Baton Rouge airport; who knew when I would see Robin again?
I located one of my drivers in Baton Rouge. He and his wife did a quick consultation and agreed to let me stay at their place for the night. I booked a flight to Baton Rouge on the inauspicious date of September 11. Barbara as trustee of my Dad’s estate disbursed the funds. It so happened that the cheapest flight was Northwest Airlines through their hub in Detroit. (Chicago to Baton Rouge through Detroit? I have never grasped the voodoo economics of hub and spoke airline transport.) Despite the awkward anniversary, I had not a whisper of trouble that day; indeed people seemed to have forgotten. I was struck by the bustling Detroit terminal. It did not accord with my image of a wretched decaying Detroit. Of course The Northwest hub was not downtown … I chanced upon an open airport bar showing the finish of the opening game of the Saints’ season. John Carney kicked the winning field goal as time expired. Desperate as I was for hope, I clutched upon this as an omen.
After an uneventful flight, a friend with a car picked me up at the airport. I found out the cab registered under my name that he had been driving was swallowed by the flood, but I didn’t press matters. We stopped at an outdoor coffee shop to relax and kill some time. It was good to be back in Louisiana, breathe the soft twilight air, have coffee and beignets, talk and basically do nothing for a while. I missed that sweet indolence when I was up North. After a pleasant hour or so the friend drove us to my driver’s apartment. FEMA had given him shelter but no furniture. Fortunately he was Egyptian and accustomed to sitting on low cushions. Dinner was fittingly Middle Eastern — a pita buffet with couscous and salad fixings eaten by scooping with fingers and pita. True to the tradition of hospitality, I was their honored guest.
But, there was a darker side — Middle Eastern patriarchy puts ours to shame. I held the man and his wife in high esteem because they always paid on time. She was a Louisiana native and former office manager who made sure everything was done on a business like basis. But she had bought into the Muslim role of the submissive wife. She wore a demure Muslim scarf and robe highlighted with silver threads. Her husband demanded — and received –absolute obedience. They must have had six or seven kids and they made nary a peep, except for the baby. When the baby raised a cry the old man gave him a surly cuff to the side of the head. He cursed and growled at his children with words and tone of voice more befitting a redneck prison guard than a loving father. The household was run on absolute submission and fear. Remember that al Islam means complete submission to God. He treated his family in a manner as brutish and arbitrary as the God of the Quran’s behavior towards mankind. The contrast between his graciousness toward me and his thuggish treatment of his family was painful. It was also shocking to hear him mutter that 9/11 was a plot coordinated by the Israelis. I said nothing because I was his guest and I needed the roof for the night. I haven’t mentioned his name because I have already written ill of the man and have no desire to further complicate things.
They were kind enough to have prepared a separate room for me and I slept reasonably well when you consider it was a strange room with only a mattress on the floor. Robin’s flight was in the early afternoon so we had a leisurely breakfast before the friend with a car showed up to bring us to the airport. At the airport we searched the terminal and … I caught sight of Lauren waving frantically and Robin sitting beside her in a wheel chair. Emotional embraces were exchanged all around, as we realized fully for the first time that we had all made it. Robin looked pale and thin, but not so sallow as I had remembered her. Then I learned for the first time that I had made an expensive mistake. Their connecting flight was through O’Hare and I had blown the money on the trip to Baton Rouge for nothing. The joke was on me. I laughed long and loud, as I am prone to do in such situations and turned to explain things to my driver. He laughed and gave the run down in Arabic to his friend, who’s English was minimal. The friend shook his head and chuckled. I bade goodbye to them as the sisters and I found seats in a food court. This illustrates one more reason why natural disasters are expensive above and beyond actual physical damage. In the chaos and confusion of the aftermath, deprived of routine and budget, victims inevitably spend too much money … often on things that turn out to be completely unnecessary.
Over a light meal and coffee we filled each other in on our experiences during and after the storm. I eyed Robin anxiously and noted that she was eating, not much and not enthusiastically, but eating … an encouraging sign. Robin and Lauren explained in detail to me the horrors of the storm and the extravagant kindness they had received from the people of Baton Rouge. I did my best to fill in my side of the story, although it lacked the high drama of the sisters’ experience at ground zero. I reminded Lauren ruefully of my warning shortly before the storm — “You have no idea of what you’re about to experience, no idea…”
— “My God, Robert! The sound of that wind…”
I was explaining my detour to Pass Christian and the possibility that I had saved the life of the truck driver’s mother when Robin cut me short, “You’re just trying to make yourself look good. Always trying to act like a big shot,” I groaned inwardly; Robin often did this to me. Why is it that when a woman gives herself body and soul to a man she immediately starts to cut him down to size? Is it to lessen our power over them, like children delighting in the missteps of their parents? I cannot say for sure. Call me a sexist if you will, but I am striving for candor in this memoir. I don’t care to edit in the name of political correctness. They left to board their flight and we exchanged last minute hugs. I squeezed Robin as long and as powerfully as I could, not wanting to let go. They crossed the metal detector and I watched them disappear down the corridor.
My flight left about an hour later. The connecting flight went without a hitch. Bob picked me up at the airport because my sister didn’t trust her night vision. She was effusive and warm when we got home, but I was tired. I retired quickly upstairs to reacquaint myself with the cats and get some much-needed rest.
When I awoke next morning I assessed the situation. All of us were safe, Lauren and Robin in London and me in Illinois. Though I was safe, I was emotionally adrift. I had grown up in a wealthy, almost rural Connecticut suburb, and spent most of my adult life in New Orleans. I had come to demand surroundings full of distinction and character. I didn’t mind that so many of the neighborhoods of New Orleans were poor and run down, they had vitality and quirkiness, old live oaks and Victorian cottages. By contrast, my sister’s neighborhood was austere, almost institutional. They lived in a subdivision of fourplexes, angular beige town homes devoid of individuality. The neighbors rarely talked to each other. I felt utterly lost. Very well, I did not want to be comfortable. I would use my alienation as a goad to drive me ceaselessly forward.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 8
By Robert Moulton
Louisiana 1927, Aaron Neville
Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re tryin’ to wash is away, they’re tryin’ to wash us away.
To date I have covered the approach of Katrina, and how Robin, Lauren and I survived and escaped the ordeal. Now we begin the process of rebuilding our lives…
The biggest weight upon me was the problem of what to do with my time. I had gone from the relentless pressure of surviving and fleeing the storm to … nothing. Blank, stupefying boredom. My sister was financially secure and very kind, so I had no immediate worries. I did a little research about job opportunities and available apartments. It didn’t look promising — the jobs paid too little and the apartments were too expensive. I decided to go with my heart, to assume that New Orleans would survive and concentrate my efforts on returning home.
Again, the pressing question — what to do with my time? I was entrusted with the financial management of my father’s trust, so I could watch CNBC 6, 7 hours a day. There was always the library where I could do my financial research. There were pizza joints — Garibaldi’s with their fifties jukebox, my sister took me to Uno for deep dish. At night I could go out to my car and listen 870 AM, clear channel New Orleans to hear the painful, tentative starts of the recovery. I was consumed with aching nostalgia, grasping at anything that spoke of home. I found a particularly heartening green shoot in The Wall Street Journal. The owner of an Oriental rug shop on St Charles Avenue had put up some satirical signs on the plywood he had used to board up his shop:
August 30: DONT EVEN TRY. I AM SLEEPING INSIDE WITH AN UGLY WOMAN A BIG DOG TWO SHOTGUNS AND A CLAWHAMMER
September 4: STILL HERE. WOMAN LEFT FRI. COOKING A POT OF DOG GUMBO.
The first tangible sign that the spirit of the city still lived — the Groucho Marx/Dr Strangelove/jazz funeral ability to laugh in the face of disaster. My spirits soared as they rapturously embraced the rug merchant and his goofy signs. False hope or the beginning of a genuine rebirth? Time would tell.
On the other hand, Chicago radio was an immense disappointment. I could find no blues on any channels, AM or FM. How could that be, in the home of Chess Records, of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters? True, there were blues clubs downtown, but I passed. It didn’t seem right to spend money when I wasn’t making any. I wanted the alienation and boredom burning inside me, as fuel powering my drive to return home. As for the radio, I had to content myself with classical music on WFMT and NPR.
Another worry nagged at me constantly. I am by nature a negligent and careless man, forever misplacing my keys and my wallet. The headquarters of my Whitney Bank had been inundated — with extraordinary foresight; the bank’s nerve center had been placed in the basement, now flooded. In the interim, was making due at its Houston branch. Did they have any records remaining of my account? Open to question. So I had to keep close watch on my checkbook and sundry financial records. And what of City Hall and their records of my four CPNC’s? So I stood in constant fear of being betrayed my own carelessness. There was the panic when I misplaced my checkbook. I turned my temporary room upside down, searched frantically between the cushions of the living room couch. Mercifully I discovered the missing checkbook between the split bench seats of my old Cadillac. Such was the redeeming value of stark fear. The inertia of my sloppy old habits remained strong, but the sobering counterbalance of fear kept me honest.
My dear little cats were another problem. Bob is a devoutly orderly and neat man. The precise bookkeeping of his life allowed no place for the messiness of animals. I was the beneficiary of his hospitality, and it would have been bad form to impose cat hair, urine and feces on his orderly existence. So I was horrified when Daisy escaped the confines of her upstairs Siberia and went for a romp around the house. Barbara kindly assisted me in catching the dastardly fugitive. Our little vandal overturned one of Bob’s potted plants in the heat of the chase. But we caught the escaped criminal and returned her to the confines of Siberia. We gathered up the dirt, put the plant upright and vacuumed up the remaining dirt from the rug. As far as I know the plant survived. In their kindness and generosity Bob and Barbara made no mention of the incident. I kept a sharp eye on Daisy and she didn’t escape to trouble them again.
I do my best to be a temporizing and pragmatic man. If plan A doesn’t work, then plan B and so on through the alphabet. I was haunted by the constant fear of overstaying my welcome. Returning home was at the top of my list, but suppose that didn’t work out … was I to be shuttled from relative to relative like my late insufferable grandmother? Still I didn’t want to be a burden and I searched desperately for ways to make myself useful. Barbara’s son Bill and his wife Janet owned cats and dogs and liked to take trips to Disney World and such. Perhaps I could make my self-useful by attending their little beasts. It was with an eye towards being a pet sitter and houseguest that I decided to spend a Friday night at the home of Bill and Janet. It was way out in the exurbs, towards Rockford. The houses were bleak and faceless, not the sort of place I would have chosen. But beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. There was the added plus that I had always been Janet’s favorite uncle — a combination of Uncle Buck and a sober W C Fields. The house was overstuffed with tchotchkes and the refrigerator brimming with junk food. Before they went out for the night, I asked them if there were any rules. Janet laughed — eat whatever you want, Robert. When I returned to Barbara’s in the morning I had made a mental note that Bill and Janet ran a forgiving and undemanding home.
Bob fed the homeless religiously once a week in downtown Chicago. I went shopping with him to give what little help I could. I marveled at Bob’s laudable combination of thrift and generosity. To feed the homeless was an act of pure Christian charity — he got nothing but satisfaction from the deed. Yet he zealously guarded the money of the church; he made sure the money the church allotted to feed the homeless was used to the full of its effectiveness. The ad hoc kitchen was in the basement of the Chicago Temple. It brought me back to the homey unpretentious Methodist Church of my youth – linoleum floors, folding tables and chairs, and potluck suppers. I did my bit ladling out the food — it seemed the least I do after being in the receiving end of so much charity. Bob also allowed me first pick on the clothes he had scavenged — some of which I have to this day … an odd hodgepodge, a quilted 49ers jacket, a hoodie with the logo of Arlington Computer Systems, an old Houston Rockets T shirt. But they serve their purpose.
And – I am hesitant to write this because it strains credulity, like so many of the twists and turns of Robin’s life. As the old cliché goes, truth is stranger than fiction … Robin was being treated in London by one of the world’s foremost hepatologists — Roger Williams, the man behind Britain’s first liver transplant. He was also treating beloved footballer George Best as a charity case, after alcohol and riotous living had destroyed both Mr. Best’s liver and his finances. Dr. Williams excels in all phases of medicine, science, administration and the intense personal care of his
patients. Observe the grieving face of Dr. Williams announcing that the end was near for George Best:
Robin had gone from slyly drinking herself to death in the backwater of the Lower 9th Ward through the wrath of Katrina to the care of perhaps the finest liver specialist in the world. She had her demons and she had her angels.
The weak and the powerless feel the ups and downs of life more intensely. Rubbed raw, unable to resist life’s currents they are quickly swept into despair, yet the smallest glimmer of hope can transport them into rapture. We were about to be sucked into a new vortex of despair as the latest fleur du mal bloomed in the Gulf. Tropical Storm Rita developed in the Bahamas on September 18 and became a Category 1 as it moved west through the Florida Straits. She continued to suck up the warmth of the loop current and by September 21 she grew into another horror –the most intense storm ever recorded in the Gulf, 895 mb and 180 mile an hour winds. It is impossible to overestimate the danger posed to the city of New Orleans by Rita. The levees had been breached and barely patched. If the eye of Rita had passed full strength just to the West of New Orleans, delivering her full fury to the city … the flood damage might have been irreparable. It is conceivable that she could have changed the course of the Mississippi and made New Orleans all but impossible to rebuild. That is not as crazy as it sounds. Man made levees have frozen the Mississippi on its present course for hundreds of years. Meanwhile the river heavy with silt has been depositing that silt to raise the height of the riverbed and its levees. The surrounding wetlands, unreplenished by the periodic floods once common in the Delta, have been subsiding and eroding. Combine over topped Mississippi River levees with the ravaged flood control system around it … Figure it out. Water finds its own level.
I awaited transfixed and helpless. The metaphor of The Devil’s Slot Machine became became increasingly suspect in my mind. It seemed as if chance had nothing to do with it. Satan, dissatisfied with his inadequate effort the first time around, had resolved to send Rita to finish the job. Mercifully that proved not to be so. The whirring gears of the meteorological slot machine sent Rita some 200 miles further west, where she made landfall on September 24 and wiped out coastal communities in Cameron Parish. There was some overtopping of recently repaired levees in New Orleans, but this proved to be but a blip in the rebuilding process. So the damaged threads held. Scattered and isolated but safe, we could proceed with the rebuilding of our lives and look towards return.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 9
By Robert Moulton
Katrina gave me a kinship with the woman in Dorothea Lange’s iconic dust bowl photograph. Her car had just broken down. When your car is house home and transportation and it deserts you in your hour of need….
Unreliable as it was, the car was my ticket back to New Orleans. It was plagued by a succession of cooling problems, water pump leaks etc that preyed on my mind. Barbara knew a shop that was recommended by a friend. I decided to take it there because the recommendation was better than picking someone out of a phone book. The mechanics were dubious when they took my car — they didn’t like the looks of me or the car, I could see they were worried about getting their money. They called me incessantly that afternoon when the car was done. I hesitated because my funds were low. I decided to deplete my account of cash and deposit a check from the trust. The check would clear in time to give me traveling money. I pressed them to guarantee that the car would make the trip to New Orleans; they were coldly noncommittal. Comforting.
It was getting noticeably cooler in Chicago, another spur to action. And … I missed my city, the smell, the feel, the live oaks, the tropical flowers. I wanted to see if WWOZ was on the air, if I could still get my blues and jazz. The homesickness was a relentless and almost palpable ache. I remembered Steve the Schnurrer’s odd Hungarian last name and his hometown — Nazareth, Pa. The mnemonics were easy because that was the home of Martin guitars. I called information and gave them the name — it was the only one in town and I got through. Steve had spent a month or so in New York on his annual August vacation, then back to his parents in Pennsylvania. Like me, he was getting restless and wanted to see what was happening in New Orleans.
Steve was another of the improbable figures that have adorned my life. He was a prime specimen of the genus hippiebum, and over the years he had acquired a solemn and pretentious artistic patina. Imagine Maynard G Krebs as a professor at the New School. Pretension came naturally to our Schnurrer, as a man of no mean aesthetic sensibilities he was clearly above a life of quiet desperation, trapped in the gears of toil as a slave to Mammon. No, he was predestined to pursue the exalted yet elusive grail of artistic fulfillment. Of course it didn’t hurt that his air of cultural superiority facilitated his ability to put the bite on the gullible and insecure, eager to imbibe some of his rarefied wisdom. It had proven particularly useful in his relations with women.
Alas his pursuit of wisdom took a backseat to the pursuit of women, which accorded well with his unstinting hedonism. As befits someone of his inclination, he had a decided physical resemblance to a certain Ron Jeremy. Truth be told he unblushingly endorsed the morality of the frog pond — hop on anything that moved and if thrown off, hop on the next object with a pulse. Fortunately for his relations with me he was as heterosexual as he was relentless. Convenient, for I had proven most useful to him over the years and his patented frog pond technique would have proven detrimental to the extreme. He was generally cutting and condescending, as befits a man both self-centered and pretentious. Once he started driving for me his demeanor underwent a remarkable transformation. He became agreeable and pleasant, a smooth and knowledgeable conversationalist. I was known for being overly kind and tolerant towards my drivers. He sized the situation up and decided that I was a man worth cultivating. Robin saw through him, and consequently hated him~ “He’s USING you Robert. Can’t you see it?” Yeah, I could see it, but another driver would probably be worse and what was I to do?
Our Schnurrer was blessed with an interesting and diverse heritage. He looked and talked very much like a stereotypical New York Jewish hipppebum. In fact he was Hungarian on his father’s side, Jewish and Italian on his mother’s. Perhaps his father’s family imparted an Eastern European cast to his features that seemed Jewish. His father was the manager of a Chevrolet dealership. The connections with General Motors afforded the opportunity for the old man to make the acquaintance of Roger Penske, and he indulged in fly-fishing, a pastime typical of the well to do north easterner. All this was not lost on the budding young Schnurrer. He realized, consciously or unconsciously, that with such a secure port in any conceivable storm he was under no compulsion to earn a living and that he was free to pursue his lofty artistic ambitions. Indeed his meandering existence made my life look like the very embodiment of industry and thrift. But you could not accuse the man of being dull. He and other oddballs like him were one of the reasons I missed New Orleans so much right now. My relatives are decent folk, sober and literate, but they lack the eccentricities that make the residents of New Orleans so entertaining and engaging.
After graduating from college the Schnurrer set out in dedicated pursuit of the fruits of the garden of earthly delights. It was astonishing. Three years older than I, he had seemingly been everywhere and done everything, a veritable Forrest Gump of the beat generation. As a true native son of Nazareth he had acquired the obligatory Martin D-28. He had played with Dave Van Ronk in the Village. Through the years he continued to play with various folk and rock ensembles of questionable quality. He had studied at the University of Iowa writer’s program. Later he worked on a small paper somewhere out in the bayou where as a card-carrying liberal he was sanctimoniously critical of then governor Edwin Edwards. Edwin has never missed his cut of the pie, but he lacks the vindictiveness of the current cutthroat crew in Washington. Edwards called out Steve for his criticism at a live event, but not vengefully. More like hurt feelings. Steve had his screen actor’s guild card and had taught acting in New Orleans. He had hung out in Palo Alto and played chess with a guy who had gotten kicked off Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip bus. No mean feat that. What could the man have possibly done to be expelled from THAT ragtag assemblage? During the time when psychedelics were fashionable Steve had dropped acid and observed the feeding of the hyenas at the zoo. Think of it –the cackling, hooting and growling, the snapping jaws, the cracking of bones and rending of flesh. We must not deny that our Schnurrer was blessed with a certain elemental peasant strength. I count myself as a fairly resilient character, but witnessing that delectable vision sky-high on acid would have sent me straight to la la land, never to return. After various and sundry vicissitudes he found himself in an apartment uptown, right off St Charles near Lee Circle. This was key, for the apartment was above the flood zone. Remember that.
Towards the end of September I reestablished another significant connection. Barbara handed me the phone~ “Robert — Patsy.” I hesitate here. Patsy is a truly unique human being, a strange visitor from another planet if you will. Describing her attributes and misadventures strains my capacity and challenges the reader’s credulity. But she had been a part of my life for some twenty-five years, and my landlady from 1986 to 1996. I had met her in the most unholy Abbey, the same dive bar on Decatur Street where I met Robin.
How to describe Patsy? Let me start by invoking Leonard Cohen and Judy Collins:
And the words from the last verse of Suzannne:
Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river
And she’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers
The look, the hair, the long skirt, the bric-a-brac, the cast iron patio furniture, the words to the song; it’s all very hippie chick, very Patsy and very Lower 9th Ward. I loved it down there; the air of tattered decayed hominess suited me perfectly
She lived right across the street from my landlord’s home on North Rampart Street. My landlord’s yard abutted the rear end of the lot I lived on. Chez Patsy was right below the St Claude Bridge over the Industrial Canal some 5 blocks or so from the river. Precise location and elevation is very important for understanding the effects of Katrina, for they determined the severity of any flooding. Elevated houses hard by the river received very little flooding. But away from the river, as you moved towards the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, things worsened rapidly. My cottage and Patsy’s house were past the line where nuisance flooding transitioned to the catastrophic.
Though raised as a Catholic, Patsy had her own version of post hippie spirituality She was a sort of animist, where all things animal or vegetable had their own soul. A staunch vegan, she had once verged on malnutrition because she was reluctant to kill and eat plants. A nurturing sort, she filled her house and yard with all manner of living things — plants of every description, and what she quaintly called ‘critters’ — dogs, cats, goldfish, rabbits, chickens, iguanas, you name it. Her devotion to her critters was reminiscent of Ellie Mae Clampett. Interesting that the actress who played Ellie Mae, Donna Douglas, was from Baton Rouge. The household was completed by her holy terror of a son, Adrian, and his ex marine fiancée Judy. I had known Adrian since he was a squalling brat upstairs disturbing my sleep. I had given him the affectionate moniker of Young Attila. He did his best to live up to his distinguished title, and he had aged like fine wine, maturing into a full-blown Hun.
In addition to her kindness, Patsy was a very non-judgmental human being. Indeed with her pantheistic and passive disposition she was remarkably indecisive and unwilling to make distinctions of any sort. She loved to tell long stories, droning on like a child, devoid of organization or emphasis. No plot line, no high points. No climax. When she did make decisions it was generally in the mad rush of impulse and passion, unfettered by the constraints of calculation. While I had appraised the situation and ran for my life before the storm, she waited passively, sedated by an unfortunate fondness for Franzia Rose box wine. Such was the situation of her household when Katrina came roaring in.
According to what she told me afterward, it could have been worse. There was of course the great commotion of lightning, wind and the crashing of falling trees. After the wind died down came the rising of the water, 7 feet or so, drowning the entire ground floor. But the second floor was livable and she had stored many things up in the attic. She told curious tales of Adrian paddling around the 9th Ward in a kayak. Apparently he had also improvised a skiff from a wooden door that he used to pole around in the turbid water. The closest thing to violence that Patsy related occurred when someone tried to appropriate Adrian’s ‘skiff’. He beat the man away with his pole and continued his watery excursion. After the waters subsided somewhat there was an impromptu barbecue on the uptown side of the St Claude Bridge. Citizens both black and white shared beer and liquor and foodstuffs of dubious provenance. Patsy asked an inebriated black woman how they had acquired the delicacies and libations served at the barbecue — “Don’t even ask, honey.” What the hell, the electricity was out, most of the stuff they had looted would have spoiled.
Judy’s parents were helping Adrian and Judy to buy a house on Austerlitz Street uptown not far from the river. It was well removed from the flood zone and they had left Judy’s truck there. When things had dried out, Adrian made his way uptown and retrieved the truck. Judy’s parents lived in Michigan, and it seemed reasonable to decamp there. So they gathered up everything they could muster, possessions animate or inanimate, and headed north. Most of their animals had been spirited upstairs for the storm and survived. What a sight our Bayou Beverley Hillbillies must have made! Of course Judy’s camper/pickup truck was of 1990s rather than 1940s vintage and in place of the Clampetts’ placid bloodhound they had a cacophonous menagerie of cats, dogs, two parakeets, possibly one or two box turtles and I believe an iguana. Young Attila lived up to his nomadic namesake and powered them non-stop to Michigan in a little over 30 hours. Considering the state of the vehicle and its passengers, they suffered very few mishaps on the way. An overly aggressive dog nailed a parakeet; I believe that was it.
They all ended up in a house in the middle of a cornfield in southern Michigan. It was from there that Patsy called me in Illinois. How she located me I do not know, perhaps she had my sister’s number in her address book. I might have given it to her as a contact number on one of my annual summer vacations. True to her animist nature she described the corn as if each plant were a sentient being, altogether a benevolent assemblage gathered to watch over her and her family. She described in detail the perambulations of her box turtle around the farmhouse. It was good to hear Patsy’s very New Orleans voice, to savor her goofy interminable pointless stories. It intensified my homesickness, steeling my determination to return home. She called some days later to lament the fate of her vegetable companions; some dastardly villain had cut down her corn. “Um-m-m, Patsy, I believe that’s called HARVESTING. You know, they cut down the corn and separate the ears so we can have corn for dinner….
Such was the state of our affairs as September slid into October. I continued my conversations with Gene Alleman who slogged on with his yeoman’s work mucking out the cab company’s office on Bienville Street. The company had opened a temporary office in a real estate office at a dry location, the 700 block of Carondelet. Uptown was reopened for residents. The Schnurrer and I remained in close communication, plotting our return.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 10
By Robert Moulton
Doc and Merle Watson, Southbound
Lord I’m homesick
Blues are the only songs I ever seem to pick..
I’m alright till late at night I’m sitting by my window/
I count sheep but I can’t sleep from listenin’ to that train blow
A fitting anthem for traveling South. There is the longing for home, and the interweaving guitar picking is suggestive of rolling wheels
The Schnurrer jumped first. The plan was straightforward. Steve would take the plane down and see if there was anything left of his apartment. If it was habitable I would follow with the car. So we would could have a livelihood and have a place to stay. Simple. Not easy, simple.
If memory serves he caught the plane down on Wednesday, October 5 — “I can’t believe it. The place didn’t flood. We even have electricity.” I questioned him closely about water damage.
— The roof leaked, we got water stains on the walls. Nothin’ much. We lucked out.
In a flash my tension dissipated and in my euphoria the future teemed with possibilities — the classic mood swings of the vulnerable. Marching orders In hand, I set about tying up loose ends and planning the logistics. The first task was to find a place for the cats — I knew that Steve’s landlord didn’t allow animals. Barbara helped me locate a no kill, no fee shelter in Barrington. Barrington is a wealthy township — gentleman farmers and such, and they can afford to be charitable. I set off north on Barrington Rd towards the center of the town. Soon enough the countryside changed — parklands, horse farms with their distinctive white board fences. The trees — post oak, aspen and maple — shone gold and red against the bright fall sky. It took me less than half hour to get to the shelter, located in an upscale shopping center. The semi detached brick stores and shingled roofs bespoke affluence, as did the carpet inside the shelter. The staff was very attentive and solicitous. Katrina was the magic word — everyone wanted to hear my story, everyone shook their head at the suffering of the people and the incompetence of the government. I said a last goodbye to the cats, stroking as they rubbed their heads against me for reassurance. I left the cats and their carriers in the good hands of the shelter.
It seemed reasonable to leave on a Sunday — no rush hour, and it gave me an extra day to tie up the loose ends. I walked a lot around Hoffman Estates and Schaumburg — picked up a Wall Street Journal and a Barron’s, and a bag of locally grown Macintosh apples on the cheap. There was the obligatory scouring of seat cushions and I stepped outside to hear WWL late night to assure myself that the city was still there. I savored my last meal with Bob and Barbara and finished packing the car, going to bed as soon as I felt sleepy. They left for church before I woke up. I had a bowl of Cheerios and looked at the map. I 55 led directly to I I0 on the west side of Lake Pontchartrain, but it made an extravagant loop west to St Louis. So due south on 1 57 it was. I fixed the sequence in my mind — I 290 to 294 to 57 to 55. Got it. Since I visited every summer I had a permanent set of keys. About 10:30 am or so I locked up and pulled out of the driveway, rushing towards home.
Traffic wasn’t bad on the outskirts of Chicago and soon I was barreling down 57 at cruising speed. I made a phone call to my brother Charley in Minneapolis; after all the horrific news out of New Orleans I wanted to keep every one reassured. Kankakee flew by, 3 hours into the journey I was past Champaign, devouring the endless flat cornfields that are the heart of Illinois. Somewhere in Central Illinois I looked out the window and noticed a lonely cypress in the middle of the field. A sign of the South! South, I was pulled ever south…
The late afternoon sun shadowed the hills as I reached the environs of Carbondale — coal country. In the delta flatlands near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers the brown fields speckled with white cotton bolls gladdened my heart. Strange. My father worked in the Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge when I was born. Ten years later they transferred him to New York; I spent the next 15 years of my life in suburban Connecticut. My early years in Baton Rouge seldom crossed my mind. I had moved to New Orleans entranced by the charm and joie de vivre of the city. I considered it an oasis of decadent civilization in the midst of the desolate South. Slowly, imperceptibly I began to consider myself a son of Louisiana and then a Southerner. The South had reclaimed its own after my interval in the Northeast.
It was dusk as I crossed into Missouri to join 55 at Sikeston. I called Charley again and he was astonished at my progress. An unrelenting 60 to 70 miles an hour adds up. I did some calculations. The distances to travel in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee were inconsequential. Then I would be in Mississippi and then home. I was glad the long hard haul through Illinois had come at the start of the trip when I was fresh — it was all down hill now. I stopped at a Denny’s by a gas station in West Memphis to refuel the car and myself. I misread the signs to the interstate so that I had to circle back to get headed south. But, I righted myself and soon enough crossed the bridge into Tennessee. The lights from the city sparkled and danced on the river below. Memphis passed quickly and I was plunged into the deep gloom of Mississippi hill country forests. My eyelids were heavy and my foot weighed heavy on the accelerator; I was tired and compelled towards home. I tried to ease up a bit; late night weariness can easily get you a speeding ticket. Fortunately years of experience spared me that additional misery.
Jackson was a lifesaver. I stopped at a gas station and noticed gentleness in the air as I got out to use the men’s room. The chill of fall had yet to reach Mississippi. The rest stop gave me coffee and a firecracker sausage. Junk food I know, but the sour spicy mush was a kick to the senses, shaking me awake. I figured that my car and I had the reserves to make it the two and a half hours to New Orleans. The hills, such as they were, smoothed out to gentle undulations. An hour and a half later I was in Louisiana. The land became table flat and more and more I noticed the weird silhouettes of cypress in the night, the great lateral branches extending out like tops of wind sheared thunderclouds.
Then Hammond, then Pontchatoula, and the flat farmlands abruptly gave way to the Manchac Swamp — the wetland between Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain. Lake Pontchartrain! I was as good as home. But my elation was mixed with dread — what damage lay ahead in the stricken city? I could see signs of chaos in the darkness — broken treetops, the bleached ghostly remnants of boats tossed about by the storm. And the smell — was it mere stagnant water or something worse?
55 debouched into I 10 at Laplace. I had reached the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain … a mere sweep to the East, 20 minutes to Kenner and 10 minutes to Metairie. New Orleans didn’t open till 6 am, so Metairie was my interim destination. I have always loved the drive into New Orleans — it is like driving off the end of the world. South of Lake Pontchartrain everything is almost tropical; palms, citrus, there is a lush exotic feel. But the end of the world is a dangerously exposed place. The Devil’s Slot Machine had hit it big and rained the currency of destruction upon the city. What did it leave behind?
From Laplace to Kenner I 10 is a causeway over the swamp. It is hard to tell where the Lake ends and the swamp begins. There are channels, islands, and mud flats. Lake Pontchartrain itself is an uncertain body of water, a brackish estuary, neither fresh nor salt water. Katrina had funneled huge amounts of salt water into the Lake. The damage was threefold — wind, storm surge and salt. Even in the dark I could see cypress broken by the wind and denuded, poisoned by the salt. In no time I was back at ground level in the suburb of Kenner, the planar expanse of the airport to my right. There were some lights at the airport, but it was eerie, subdued. I got off at the Veteran’s exit to look for gas; my tank was low and I had little choice. Everything was closed. I circled back to the Spur Station by the Veteran’s exit. The sign said it would open at 6 o’clock. It was now 2:45 am. I settled in for the wait.
There is no feeling like fatigue compounded by tedium. My body ached; my eyes seemed clogged with sand and exhaustion hammered at my brain. There were few cars out but one happened to pull in. The gas pumps had power, and he could use his credit card. I explained my situation and he generously took my ten dollars and put the money on the pump. I thanked him profusely and drove off to see if the 24-hour Morning Call coffee stand was open. I was in luck. I recognized the waiter (another welcome sign of home) and ordered black coffee and beignets. I plied him with questions, hungry for news of home. How had he fared during the storm? Had his neighborhood been flooded? He weathered the storm in Bucktown, wind and rain but no flooding. A drunk wandered in from a Fat City strip club. Of course. The essential businesses are always the first to reopen. He and his girlfriend had a contretemps and she left in a huff, driving home to River Ridge and leaving him stranded. He had a few dollars left. The little money he had barely paid for gas, but I didn’t have anything else to do … he rambled on during the ride home, it all seemed very tangled and disjointed. But it was good to hear the New Orleans accent and wonder at his convoluted New Orleans love life. It was now around 4 am and I had two hours to kill. I drove around Metairie, gawking at the downed trees and branches, noticed the handiwork of men with chain saws in cleaning up and stacking the downed wood. As light crept into the sky, I discerned the blue tarpaulins that the government issued to cover damaged roofs.
5:30 am or so I got in line at the National Guard checkpoint, waiting to be let in to the city. After a few cursory questions they let me through. I drove on Veterans across the 17th Street Canal into ravaged Lakeview.
Spectral Lakeview in the gray light of dawn, a war-zone. Trees blown over, the skeletons of trees drowned in toxic salt water. Everything caked in dried gray mud. The ever present black waterline — 5, 10, 15 feet high. Ruined household effects thrown to the curb. Refrigerators lined up like tombstones, fragrant with the smell of rotting food. And the smell of rotting flesh lying where it had drowned. All thrown at the senses of a man who had been up for almost 24 hours, 16 of those hours filled with hard highway driving. Never will I forget the sensations of that terrible morning.
I headed for the French Quarter. Water was still pooled at the bottom of the railroad underpass on Canal Boulevard, the remnant of the flood. Heedlessly I splashed through. I made my way down Orleans Avenue, noting that the water line was slowly dropping from 5 feet to 3 feet and so on down. The French Quarter had been spared — and in the chaos after the storm no parking rules! I found myself at Johnny White’s Sports Bar on Bourbon Street. Heroically, the bar had remained open through the storm and its aftermath. Even without electricity they managed with candles and ice chests. Essential public services must be maintained. I acknowledged an old acquaintance, an alcoholic woman who had moved from California years ago. She set up shop as a bartender and ‘artist’ selling quirky but forgettable doodads. An undercurrent of sexual tension had always flowed between us, sexual tension cut with anger on her part. She had always been fascinated by the idea of cab driver as pimp; I had fed her evil imagination with winks and innuendo. It all amounted to exactly nothing, another silly barroom game. We had lost touch before my marriage; I tried to fill her in on the details. But she rambled on in the self centered aggrieved monologue of the alcoholic. She got progressively angrier, striking at me ineffectually with the mixed hostility and lust of a woman who had been drinking too much for too many years. I looked at the clock — 8:30 am. It seemed like a decent hour to call Steve. I hadn’t called earlier because it was his place and I wanted to make myself pleasant and agreeable. I drove over.
I looked around the place. It was a slightly tawdry but comfortable bohemian apartment. There was a shelf full of vaguely hip books, an old Martin in its case, Beatles posters on the walls. The only concession to the storm was some brown water stains and flaking paint on the wall. Steve slept in the bedroom; I had a futon on the living room floor. He was gracious — “You could use some rest.” I threw a sheet over myself and gratefully succumbed.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 11
by Robert Moulton
The analogy between post Katrina New Orleans and a Doors standard from forty years earlier is wildly discordant, except for the powerful underlying weirdness common to both. Nobody does strangeness and disorientation like The Doors.
I give you this month’s anthem–Strange Days:
The long trip down from Illinois had drained me. I awoke later that day, Steve and I had some light conversation and I slept the night. Next morning I was troubled with the inevitable hangover resulting from severe sleeplessness and fatigue. It seemed logical to laze around for a day or two while I recovered, reacquainting myself with the city I had left in such haste. I yawned and looked around Steve’s apartment, which was facing a small courtyard at the back of a triplex on Clio Street.
The kitchen was a small nook next to the entrance and was typical of kitchens in old apartments — a well-worn ceramic sink with an incongruous assortment of utensils, pots and pans. The bathroom had old Sicilian tiles, an old shower and the slightly fruity smell peculiar to the bathrooms of old apartments — shampoo, old cakes of soap, and deodorant with a tinge of mildew. Steve’s room was set back from the main room. We kept the door open to maximize the cooling of an underpowered AC unit, set in a window in the main room. The amber light of morning slanted through the high windows and illuminated the floating dust motes. All in all an agreeable environment for an old beatnik such as myself.
I set out to have a look at the courtyard. It wasn’t much. A few odd tropical plants, moss covered bricks and an old storage shed that had been blown off its blocks and pretty much destroyed by the wind. I passed through the narrow walkway that separated the building from its neighbor and looked around Clio Street. Across the street was the headquarters of the eponymous architectural and engineering firm of Waldemar S. Nelson. The old man had done himself proud, designing a solid brick fortress that appeared completely unscathed by the hurricane force winds. I went back inside and Steve and I dabbled in pleasant conversation. We were both glad to be back home and in the company of a kindred spirit. Our conversation meandered pleasantly as we lingered on topics dear to us both — the 1960s and its music, books, Buddhism and our respective adventures and misadventures. Many of the anecdotes I have used to characterize Steve in Part 10 came from our post Katrina conversations, though in what percentage I cannot say. I have known Steve for over 30 years; we were both old hippie types who settled in New Orleans in the late 70s to keep the party going as the rest of the country sobered up and rejected the hedonism of the 60s and 70s. So we came to know each other quite well. We decided to continue our partnership as before, Steve would drive the day shift and I would take over at 3 PM.
I set out towards the Quarter to see what was left. I noticed that some of the young cypress and maple trees on Lee Circle had been cut in half by the wind, looking like little more than jagged sticks. The smell of death lingered in the air, it did not to disappear until I got some blocks into the Quarter. The Central Business District was not that hard hit — mostly roof damage covered by the ubiquitous government issued blue roof tarpaulins. I walked deeper into the Quarter, eager to see the fate of my old stomping grounds — Jackson Square and Lower Decatur Street. As I walked down Royal Street at the back of St Louis Cathedral I could see that the iconic Magnolia and Sycamore flanking the cathedral were gone. These were large and beloved trees that had survived Betsy and the Hurricane of 1947. Trees that frame the cathedral in so many paintings and prints. So the winds, while not catastrophic like the flooding were not trivial. The great statue of Jesus in back of the cathedral was largely unscathed, missing only a finger. I am no believer but a devout skeptic, and do not underestimate the power of religious symbolism. The upraised arms of the Christ radiated compassion and hope. But the desolation was inescapable. The CBD normally bustled with business and traffic, while the Quarter typically teemed with buskers and barkers, artists and tourists. An occasional pedestrian and the paired teams of National Guardsmen, bristling with guns and gear, were all that was to be seen. Sadness hung in the air, more omnipresent even than the smell of death.
Across Jackson Square, past the shuttered Cafe Du Monde, down Decatur Street, everything closed. Finally a return to something like normality — Jim Monaghan’s Molly’s At The Market was open for business. I ordered a coffee and looked around. The place hadn’t changed — the same wooden bar, varnished with urethane and dotted with cigarette burns, the same autographed photos of Jim Monaghan schmoozing with the rich and famous, the same portrait of Yeats, the same standard Irish shamrocks and Irish jokes, the same urn with the cremated remains of ‘Irving’ whoever he may have been. Another thread of continuity unbroken.
At this point I must beg the reader’s indulgence as I digress from the narrative. Jim Monaghan was a standard part of French Quarter bohemian lore and his memory deserves mention. He was the classic malcontent who visited New Orleans on a lark and never left. He opened a bar — Molly’s Irish Pub — on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon where he set about fashioning himself as the stereotypical Irish American saloon keeper and man of influence, with an eccentric New Orleans twist. He cultivated a mixed bag of regulars — Quarter rats, politicians, and newsmen. A few years later he opened a second place — Molly’s At The Market — which evolved into his de facto headquarters. Jim maintained an image as a character but he was an effective (albeit stingy) businessman and a shrewd judge of human beings. Through all his vicissitudes he remained a dedicated social climber, sucking up to those above him, whose influence and approval he craved. Conversely, he was snide and dismissive towards the French Quarter service people who formed the bulk of his employees and clientele. I never cared for his snobbery and sarcasm, but he ran a good bar, so what the hell. He had a knack for hiring young, attractive and personable barmaids, some of whom I dated. He did not age well developing a substantial gut, his beard turned salt and pepper and his face assumed the exhausted jaded look of the aging debauchee. He had the all too common male habit of asking his female employees for sexual favors. One of his barmaids described his request for a blowjob thusly ~ “Look at him! Would you stick that dick in your mouth?” I give you another telling anecdote on the Monaghan technique to circumvent the suffocating zoning regulations of the Vieux Carre Commission:
— Let me tell you how to do it. If you want to put a screen door on your property, ask the Vieux Carre Commission for permission to take DOWN your screen door.
The man knew how to get things done.
The bar had gone to his son when he died. Short of help after storm, the son now tended bar. The resemblance between the man behind the bar and the pictures of the young Jim Monaghan on the wall was startling. Monaghan Pere had basically abandoned his family when he came to New Orleans, so his son hardly knew him, but the same mannerisms obtained — curt, haughty, and dismissive. Even though I had always disliked Jim, I was comforted by the similarity to his son. It was part of the continuity with pre Katrina New Orleans that I so desperately hoped to find.
I left Molly’s and walked a few doors down to the Abbey. The Abbey had seen better days. When it was founded it aspired to be a watering hole for intellectuals and professional people. It had a monastic motif, as evidenced by plastic panels of faux stained glass on the door and a general atmosphere of ill lit gloom. A most sacrilegious abbey indeed. In the late 70s I was long winded and thirsted to display my expertise and argue tenaciously. The Abbey was the favored spot for me to indulge my pretensions. It slipped gradually down hill, abetted by underinvestment from its owners. The men’s room of the Abbey was legendary. As the bar went to seed the plumbing began to leak and the concrete floor was typically covered with a few inches of fetid water. Hence the affectionate nickname Lake Abbey. The bar had virtually completed its transition to squalor when Robin started working the graveyard shift in the winter of 1983-84.
It was typical damp; chill New Orleans winter night when I entered the Abbey for my customary cup of coffee. At the end of the empty bar a lovely young woman was engrossed in The Sun Also Rises. Think Vivien Leigh in A Street Car Named Desire but 15 years younger. What in the hell was THAT vision of loveliness doing in THIS dive? It was overwhelmingly poignant and I instantly felt a great tenderness towards a young woman of such class trapped in such tawdry surroundings. I on the other hand was not so prepossessing. I had thrown my clothes on haphazardly and had a Greek fisherman’s cap thrown carelessly atop my head. I slouched up to her and delivered my most devastating pick up line ~Aah, so you can read? She shot me a look of withering disdain. She didn’t dislike me, she HATED me. But somehow the itch of irritation transmuted into the tormenting itch, and then the roaring flames of lust. In a very real way that was the beginning of this story.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 12
By Robert Moulton
Spencer Bohren, The Long Black Line:
A visceral video for a very moving song. Captures the harsh reality of life at the time.
Curious to see if other businesses had reopened, I walked a few doors down to the most unholy Abbey. I turned the door and was instantly enveloped in a darkness that was almost tangible. The quaint aroma of beer pong enhanced the miasma… A bored barmaid looked up, surprised to see a customer. I ambled down to the dishwashing basin, where she was idly polishing some shot glasses, strategically positioning myself to catch the cleavage as she bent over the sink. The view did not disappoint. Starved as always for news of the city, I plied her for her experience during the storm. She had stayed uptown, the darkness and the mosquitoes were irksome but she had managed. Small flies hovered about us, the size of gnats but they did not bite … soft, pulpy and repellent to the touch. I excused myself to use the restroom, eager to see if Lake Abbey had endured. The water was still there and still fetid. Storms may come and storms may go but Lake Abbey is eternal….
I continued my journey of rediscovery and walked towards the river and the French Market. There was but one solitary T-shirt shop –KATRINA GAVE ME A BLOWJOB I’LL NEVER FORGET! It was heartening to see that the goofy, irreverent light of the city still flickered.
Further down I could see the sheet metal roof of the Esplanade Wharf, lifted and curled up by the wind. The sky over the river was a soft blue dotted with puffs of cumulus clouds a far cry from the harsh late summer metallic blue that had prevailed before Katrina. It was warm but not the pitiless heat of August that I had left behind. A gang of Hispanic laborers waited patiently for work at the foot of Elysian Fields, a pretty ragged looking bunch. It was late morning and they had little chance of finding work today, but they came here to work and what choice did they have but to wait or work? The scene of destruction on Esplanade stood in stark contrast to the balmy day. Jagged white scars showed where the live oaks had been ripped in half by the storm. It was almost noon, time for me to start back to the apartment to await the Schnurrer and the car. I decided to walk up Bourbon Street to see if there was any action.
Bourbon Street was shuttered until I got to Johnny White’s Sports Bar. Nothing else was open until I got to the four blocks before Canal Street. Flickering neon signs and piles of garbage bore witness to last night’s debauchery. There was little going on; at this time of the day everyone was either working to rebuild the city or sleeping off last night’s booze. A solitary barker stood outside the door of a darkened strip club.
–Man, you wouldn’t believe it. Some of the girls are taking home 3 grand a NIGHT.
Makes sense when you think about it. Thousands of lonely FEMA workers and National Guardsmen with no place to go and no place to spend their money except at Bourbon Street strip clubs – simple – Supply and demand. Of course the good ladies of such classy establishments as Stilettos and Big Daddy’s were glad to relieve the lonely gentlemen of the troublesome burden of excess cash. Thoughtful of them.
I paused and gazed into the Musical Legends Park, at the statues of Al Hirt and Chris Owens. The park was recessed from the street, sheltered from the slight breeze. Once again the noxious midges hovered around me.
I negotiated the last few blocks of Bourbon Street and crossed Canal. Gradually the smell of death again crept into my nostrils, strengthening as I continued uptown. It occurred to me that I should go over to the temporary headquarters of White Fleet Cab to pay my insurance for the month. A makeshift paper sign that read greeted me:
Open 9 AM –12 PM Monday — Friday
The few businesses that were open after the storm all operated under drastically reduced hours. Very well. I would take care of it in the morning. I called Gene to let him know I would be in the next day. I passed by Lee Circle, where a few day laborers still lingered wincing at the sign on the Shell Station — Regular Gas $3.40. There was a food truck at Erato and St Charles, half a block away from the apartment. The one thing abundant after Katrina was free food, liberally available, sometimes in incongruous places. What the hell, I didn’t know how much money I would be making and the plate of jambalaya they gave me wasn’t half bad. I walked half a block and finished the jambalaya in the apartment. Steve had found an outfit in Maryland that sold books from publisher’s remainders. I settled in to read a biography of Dylan. Steve called and said he would be about 15 minutes late. Such would be my routine for the next few months. It was comfortable enough, especially after the isolation and anomie of the last month and a half.
As promised, Steve gave me the keys about 3:15 pm. It felt good to be back in the saddle. I have always enjoyed driving. The city is beautiful and you never know who you will encounter — saint, sinner, rogue or madman. The unexpected is always there to kill the tedium that makes a hell of most people’s workaday lives. I was still itching to survey the damage left by the storm. So I gave myself a pass for the night; I looked for passengers, but I let my curiosity lead me where it would. The most astonishing sight was a mere block away on Erato St. The storm had torn off the entire side of a wooden frame house –while everything around it was untouched. The utility poles and wires still stood, the roof was undamaged, and the furniture remained intact. It was like looking at an architect’s cutaway, or the inside of a doll’s house. I was awed by the sheer improbability of it all. What kind of wind, what sort of gust, could cause such madness? Katrina gave me a blowjob I’ll never forget. I continued up St Charles Avenue, pretending to look for customers but in reality exploring the city. The massive live oaks of St Charles Avenue had been left in extravagant disarray — some overturned with tendrils of roots dripping brown earth, some left dismembered and jagged by the wind. It looked like a mad bonsai sculptor had run amok, leaving chaos in his wake. Piles of leaves and branches were everywhere; chainsaws could be heard in the distance. Occasionally, I encountered men hard at work sawing and stacking the remains of trees or roofers clambering about. The blue tarpaulins (henceforth called blue roofs) issued by the government as temporary roof covers shone bright on the rooftops.
I turned right on Napoleon, carefully looking for signs of the flood. The gray mud appeared, along with the black water line. The mud grew thicker and the long black line higher as I headed towards Broadmoor. Oversized grave markers of refrigerators were everywhere, brooding over the city. It had been 40 years since the last monster storm, people had forgotten, if they ever knew, the consequences of leaving food without electricity to rot. The stench was unendurable and the refrigerators unusable. At Napoleon and South Broad stood the main pumping station, located at the center of the Uptown bowl, some 10 feet or so under sea level. It had, of course, flooded quickly and amplified the misery of the city after the storm. It seemed reasonable when it was built to place it at a low point to drain the city, but when the levees broke… Disaster planning must foresee many combinations and permutations; the unforeseen can always be deadly. As I roamed about the streets, night fell and enveloped the city in primeval darkness. We are used to some residual glow from homes and streetlights but in Mid City and Broadmoor after the storm, there was nothing but the faint lights of downtown New Orleans in the distance. Thus even below sea level with Louisiana humidity, the stars glittered with startling intensity. All the broken oaks and cypress seemed to be but weird shadows against the sky. I drove back towards the Quarter to see if I could scare up any business.
There were no cabs, but not much business either. The Guardsmen and FEMA workers were concentrated in the few open strip clubs, traps that sucked them up and didn’t spit them out until the indeterminate closing time. After a few insignificant fares, I headed for my habitual stomping grounds on lower Decatur. There was a seedy bar on the corner of Decatur and Governor Nicholls, open to both streets. I pulled up and walked in. It felt comfortable, more down at the mouth than Molly’s, not as skid row as The Abbey. Pots and pans of the grease stained kitchen were completely visible from the bar, adding to the air of informality. The kitchen was closed due lack of help and lack of readily available meats and produce. This was Mojo, which was to become my second headquarters after the storm.
The barmaid was a tall dark woman that I came to know fairly well over the coming months. Her home was in theTreme, a neighborhood that borders the French Quarter at North Rampart Street half a mile or so from the river. The French Quarter is high ground for New Orleans, sediment laid down by centuries of flooding from the Mississippi before the construction of levees. The natural levee begins to fall off at Rampart Street; hence the flooding that filled the natural bowl of the city stopped at Rampart. Her home was some blocks into the Treme, so she was not spared. She had stayed and she was a vivid witness to the chaos unleashed by the storm. The water flooded down North Villere Street in a great rippling surge, trash bags and garbage bobbing along with the stream. She left for two weeks or so, spending time with friends in the Florida panhandle and then in Texas. Like most evacuees, her tale was convoluted and crazy, improbable and barely credible. There had been some sort of kerfuffle in Florida so she left to try her luck in Texas. She got tired of the drama and returned to the city as soon as she could, only to find the hideous circular flowers of green mold creeping up the sheet rock of her walls. Accordingly, she was stressed and talkative, as eager to share her story, as I was to hear it. I wrapped it up for the night, creeping into the apartment to avoid disturbing The Schnurrer.
The next morning paying my insurance was top priority. After a breakfast marred by the ever-present tiny flies, I walked to Carondelet Street and the temporary headquarters of the cab company. The informal, improvised nature of the office had a certain offbeat charm. The head of the real estate office was there, with his ad hoc ‘guard dog’ a placid, rotund yellow lab. We shared our crazy anecdotes of the storm as the office help took care of the paper work. Everyone worked together, staying out of each other’s way, doing what they had to do. It was good to reconnect with Gene and the ladies that worked the office. We were now essentially family, bound together by the shared hardships of the storm. Such ties are enduring; I feel the enduring kinship to this day.
When I got the car that evening, Steve and I went out to the Metairie post office to get our respective post office boxes — regular mail was a long way from being restored. Indeed the downtown New Orleans post office was still a work in progress. Baton Rouge was now the postal headquarters of South Louisiana. After depositing Steve back at the apartment I went back to work. That night I needed to make an effort to make real money, but there was little to be had. The tight fingers of anxiety began to clutch at my stomach. Sooner or later I would have to pay my bills, and my cash was running low. The next morning I phoned Barbara for a thousand dollar advance. The mail was slow, who knew when the check would arrive….
My anxiety only grew over the weekend. Something would have to break. Living day-to-day, almost moment-to-moment, I hoped I would not be broken. I heard that the lower 9th Ward would be reopened Monday morning for a ‘look and leave’. That gave me something to focus on, taking my mind off the dismal state of my cash flow.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton
The Devil’s Slot Machine – Part 13
By Robert Moulton
Lower 9th Ward Blues is artless, very moving and very underrated, the primal lament of a man who has lost his home and his world. It encapsulates the contradictions, the glory and the tragedy of New Orleans; a city perched on the edge of the world, where alluvial silt dissolves into the Gulf of Mexico. Oddly enough for such a precarious location, New Orleans emanates a sense of tradition, permanence and place — ancient live oaks, run down but comfortable cottages, customs passed down for generations. But in the ongoing battle between man, land and sea, the sea is always ready to reclaim its own.
The Lower 9th Ward was due to be reopened at 9 AM on Monday October 17th. The Schnurrer dropped me off in the French Quarter as he went to work. I had ample time to walk to St Claude and Poland before the National Guard opened the St Claude Bridge and allowed us to see what had happened to our homes. I walked along the river from Esplanade and Decatur to Poland; the distance was shorter. Once again I was aware that I was a witness to history and so my senses were sharpened, trying to drink in and record all that I saw. I knew that the eye passed East of New Orleans in St Bernard Parish, so I was attuned to look for damage as I headed in that direction. It seemed that the damage got worse as I headed down river, the sheet metal roofs of the wharves curled and lifted higher, greater damage to houses, roofs missing shingles, more wires down. But I wasn’t sure. It is difficult to be objective; every observation is colored by confirmation bias.
I turned on to Poland and noticed that the grass on the neutral ground hadn’t been mowed. It was dry and sered; many of the blades were red and topped by seedpods. A group of people stood at St Claude and Poland, clustered behind National Guardsmen barring the way to the Lower 9. I was pleased to notice my next-door neighbor Andrew. He was a cautious and responsible family man with a wife and two daughters. He had played it safe, leaving two days before landfall with his wife and two daughters. He had adopted Daisy for his daughters a few years back, when she was a mischievous kitten, but he had bestowed her upon us because she tormented his other cats, chewing off their whiskers(!) and such. I thanked him for Daisy, saying that she was a delight, for all her boisterous foolishness. How had his cats fared? They had managed to corral the somewhat solitary surly Snowball, but the normally placid and affectionate Tiger had been skittish and had to be left to his fate. Another melancholy grace note to the storm; Tiger had always been friendly towards me. His loss cast a momentary pall over the day.
The Guard lowered the barricade and I ambled down beside the bridge, up the stairs to the catwalk that ran along side the drawbridge. The vintage 1920s drawbridge was stout and sturdy, the grate and the rusted counterweights and girders stood proudly unscathed by the storm. I looked left a few blocks, at the oddly improbable site of a barge beached in the 9th Ward, arrogantly crushing houses, trees and cars beneath it. The barge had been swept through a break in the levee, another testament to the brute power, the cruelty, the indifference, and the surrealism of the storm. Katrina turned every day reality on its head, creating weird phenomena far outside of our expectations, something of an alternative universe. Whatever else you may say about the experience, it was not dull. Which is why I write about it.
I descended the levee onto North Rampart. The smell of death, which lingered throughout most of New Orleans outside the Quarter, intensified, accompanied by the marshy, musky foul odor of dried mud. The dull gray mud must have been a quarter of an inch thick, dried in polygons like the floor of Death Valley. There was no sign of Patsy or my landlord. Their homes and yards remained frozen in the chaos that remained after they left. I turned the corner of Jourdan Avenue. I passed Andrews’s shotgun single with a wave. I looked upon the yard and the cottage that had been my home for ten years. A medium sized tree had crashed into the roof. Other than that, the roof was reasonably intact, missing some shingles but the tarpaper and wood underneath remained. The back yard was a jungle, a tangled testament to the power of wind and water — downed trees, underbrush, and chaos. The door was unlocked and ajar. The red X by the side of the door testified that soldiers had been there on 9/4 and discovered no bodies. I braced myself, and pushed inside.
A foul, sulphurous smell like the dirtiest dump you have ever taken in your life assaulted my nostrils. From the looks of the walls the water line had been from 5 to 7 feet deep inside the house. Which wasn’t all-bad, the place had 12-foot ceilings and the books and objects stored above water were largely intact. In other respects the interior looked like it had been ravaged by countless mini tornadoes. The water had picked up and tossed nearly everything it had touched. It was literally impossible to set foot on the floor. Instead I trod on books, clothes, knickknacks, newspapers, kitchen utensils, the litter of the storm. My old Martin was lying across an overturned sofa. I opened the case and to my surprise it looked salvageable. Fortunately my other guitars lay unscathed atop the highest shelves wedged against the ceiling. I hadn’t played guitar in years; disuse had saved them, stowed away, forgotten, out of sight, out of mind and out of the reach of the flood. Not so my records. Turntable and speaker were useless, and my treasured vinyl collection was but soggy cardboard covers pressed into the plastic discs. From the living room/library I passed into the bedroom and thence to the kitchen.
The mattress had been lifted off the bed and deposited on the floor. Robin’s clothes lay strewn about by the waters. As she was not here, and I was in intermittent contact with her, I had to make my own call on what to do with her possessions. I would hear about that later. As I passed into the kitchen, things got even weirder. The refrigerator was turned upside down — not completely, but the base was literally higher than the top. The waters had seized it and sloshed it about so that the heavy bottom of the fridge jutted up, with the top resting on the floor. The whole thing slanted at approximately 10 degrees down to the floor. The water inside was indescribably fetid, stinking of mold, corruption and rotted food. I opened the doors of the refrigerator and let the Witches brew slosh down between the cracks in the waxy floorboards of yellow pine, warped and twisted by floodwater. The rest of the kitchen was a variation on the same theme. Utensils were haphazardly tossed around, those that were right side up of course filled with the complementary cocktail of corruption. The cast iron frying pan was deeply rusted from the brackish water, as were the high carbon steel knives. The cabinets were of inexpensive plywood and accordingly ruined by their long soaking, layers peeling and curling apart. The laundry room held another delight. Both the washer and dryer remained plugged in, but the lighter dryer had floated up atop the washer. I stood in awe at the destructive power of water.
I entered my office and discovered the source of the overpowering fecal stench. I was not on line at the time; I did all my financial research on paper. I had kept stacks of old newspaper as reference material. Newsprint is a cheap product, high in sulfur content and highly acidic. Many of you have no doubt savored thee aroma of paper mills. Add filthy brackish water with its attendant bacteria et voila — le parfume de la merde. Another interesting observation — the cottage was of 19th Century vintage, made of salvaged flat boat wood, the walls hand plastered. The cypress floorboards did not buckle, they lay flat and true under the debris of the storm. The original plaster walls betrayed only smudges of mildew, but the add on floor of yellow pine, the renovated sheet rock walls …. The mold found the sheet rock particularly congenial. It grew in great garish abstract circles, a nightmarish Wassily Kandinsky burlesque of toxic green and urine yellow. So much for progress. And always the flies, the hordes of fruit fly like insects feeding on the corruption. I didn’t start the process of salvaging my belongings because I needed to photograph the damage to get flood benefits from the feds.
I had enough. Although I suffered no real respiratory symptoms, the stench and mold were not pleasant; I longed for the ‘fresh air’ outside. If I may interject here, the event is harder to write about than it was to experience. I was plodding dully on, doing what I had do, dissociated from the horror around me. As I write, I struggle to recapture the destruction and desolation, to re experience the pain to make it vivid for the reader. Still it is something I must do, especially for those who suffered far more than I. The struggle must not be forgotten.
Catching my breath outside I lounged against an oak tree and realized that I had time to kill before my shift started at 3. Heading down Jourdan Avenue towards the river to see if the damage lessened as the land rose. A shotgun single was denuded, topless, with the roof lying beside the house. Had a gust picked up the roof and dropped it immediately? Who knows? The power of a monster storm is both vast and capricious. Sure enough on balance the damage receded as the ground rose. There was a house whose bottom floor was but a carport, surrounded by columns. The house seemed to have done fine. The place had always been graced with a noisy pack of beagles that bayed at me when I walked the dogs. With my fondness for animals I missed them and hoped their owners had saved them from the storm. It was only a little after noon, so I walked back to the Quarter to have a cup of coffee at Molly’s while I awaited the start of my 3 PM shift.
Copyright © 2017 Robert Moulton