My Year of Hurricanes
Going back to work after losing everything.
This article is part of an ongoing series by Blake Bailey, a New Orleans resident who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read more of his dispatches.
Last week my wife and I rode out Hurricane Katrina at a friend's house in Oxford, Miss., watching the Weather Channel and checking online until we were pretty sure our home in New Orleans—where we'd lived all of two months—was a total loss. Then it was back to work.
At such times, I find work is the only anodyne. On the morning of 9/11, for example, we watched TV long enough to see the south tower fall and maybe 15 replays of the plane hitting it. Then I went upstairs and worked until dinner, writing almost five finished pages—twice my usual output. While I was working, I felt fine; afterward, though, I checked e-mail and learned that Nostradamus had predicted 9/11 ("Two brothers torn apart by Chaos ... ") and that World War III was imminent.
In Oxford, I began multitasking as soon as I saw, online, the placid Atlantis that used to be my neighborhood. While our baby daughter rolled around the carpet with a dachshund named Bud, I called Travelocity to cancel a Labor Day flight from New Orleans to Cleveland; then, while Travelocity kept me on hold, I used my cell phone to call our insurance company in New Orleans. It was odd to hear the pleasant recorded message asking whether I wanted to report a claim.
"Yes, I do," I said. "Our house is really, really flooded—that is, I think it's flooded—certainly looks that way—and we don't have flood insurance per se. I'm pretty sure we're covered for wind-damage, though I don't have the papers right in front of me." (This was true: My insurance policy and all other vital documents were left behind.) "Anyway my name is—"
Then the Travelocity person came back on the other line and I told my insurance company (its voice mail rather) that I'd call back. Travelocity informed me that Continental Airlines had yet to cancel my flight; since it was a nonrefundable ticket I'd either have to reschedule or accept a penalty worth almost the entire price of the ticket. I remonstrated: The flight left in four days, I pointed out, from New Orleans; in all likelihood swamp boats would be trolling the tarmacs. Travelocity advised me to take it up with the airline. I hung up—bitterly—and called my insurance company, whereupon I was told that the voice-mail box was now full.
The next day I went to a nice coffee shop on the Oxford town square and tried to get some work done on my book, a biography of John Cheever. I was editing (labeling, pruning, cutting, and pasting) the bits I'd transcribed from Cheever's 1956 journal. I noted, as always, the incongruity between Cheever's outer and inner lives: He'd just finished The Wapshot Chronicle, sold a story to the movies, and was about to take his family to Italy for a year. Meanwhile, he was miserable as ever—alcoholic, lonely, furtively bisexual. Now and then I'd look up from my laptop and stare out at the sun-dappled square; unlike Cheever in 1956, I mused, my own life (outer) had gone absolutely to shit. Yet—at that moment anyway—I didn't feel half-bad.
In the midst of this reverie I saw a familiar face: a former student of mine named Della, whom I knew from my previous life in New Orleans as a bachelor eighth-grade English teacher. Della had evacuated with her mother, a proudly bohemian woman who'd supported herself as a freelance set-designer for local movie productions. In the past couple of years the Industry had come to New Orleans in a big way, and Della's mother had prospered modestly. She'd just finished a 10-year renovation on her funky home in Mid City, near Bayou St. John.
"So much for that," she said tipsily. "I guess I can always go back to bartending, though I imagine things will be pretty medieval in New Orleans. Come see me sometime and I'll give you a cup of mead."
We talked about the looting, which had seemed rather larky and sensible at the outset—groceries, diapers, that sort of thing—but had turned ugly amid a dawning sense of futility. The gun department at a Wal-Mart supercenter had been ransacked. Gangs of armed thugs were roaming the city, taking potshots at helicopters. We imagined a sort of Escape From New York scenario whereby President Bush (if he ever got around to visiting) crash-landed somewhere in the Ninth Ward. Given that most American militia were deployed elsewhere in the world, they'd have to send in Snake Plissken to retrieve the nuclear codes.
Even though it was boiling hot, I decided to walk back from the square—about two miles. For the past few days I'd done little more than sit in a car, watch TV, and drink bourbon. I could use the exercise. At about the halfway point I passed a historical marker directing me to Faulkner's grave some 20 paces to the east. I walked over, my book bag chafing against my sweat-soaked back. "I believe that man will not merely endure," I said, in a folksy Southern drawl; "he will prevail." I'd memorized that part of the writer's Nobel speech for an oral presentation in college. As far as I was concerned, it was the weakest thing he ever wrote (with the arguable exception of Fable).
The next day it was time to move on. Our friends in Oxford were wonderful folks, but they hadn't counted on lodging, indefinitely, a homeless family. ("Are you doing any good?" my host would ask, with a kind of irritable solicitude, while I hogged his computer for hours at a time.) The six-hour drive to Fayetteville, Ark.—where my father-in-law lives—was a nightmare. Gas had jumped to three bucks a gallon, and I pictured the dregs of our bank account leaking away while the tank filled. Then the car's AC cut out as we drove west into the sun: The baby screamed; the dog sighed; I got dizzy and sick and gave up the wheel to my wife.
On arrival I went right to bed, but not to sleep: Rather I lay there wondering whether we'd have health insurance now that my wife's internship was in limbo, and what would become of our house, our mortgage, and were we eligible for FEMA assistance, and was our poor old cat still fighting for life in the bathroom (and what must she think of us?) ... on and on, my teeth chattering. There would be a lot of work to do in the morning.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.