My Year of Hurricanes
Calculating the good things that came out of Katrina.
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.
After living through a certain number of hurricanes, one begins to feel like a hapless cartoon character with a stylized thundercloud over his head. Last Monday, for instance, I fully expected Hurricane Wilma to pay us a visit here in Gainesville, Fla., though she would have had to go well north of her projected path. Instead, after a bit of blustery rain that morning, the sun came out and we had our first day of cool, glistening autumn. Life can be beautiful, as they say, and so in this column I thought I'd dwell on some of the nicer things that have happened since Katrina rendered us homeless.
When my wife and daughter returned to Gainesville a few weeks ago (while I stayed in Norman, Okla., working on Cheever in my mother's real-estate office), the day-care situation was bleak. My wife had found an opening at one of the better places, but it proved an awful letdown after our beloved Kinderhaus Montessori in New Orleans. The elderly minder at the new place seemed a little weary of small children, though she didn't positively abhor them. "OK," she'd sigh, "stop crying." After three days of the phase-in process, it was my wife who was in tears.
"They mean well," she sobbed to her friend Heidi, with whom she was staying at the time, "but it's just so—so awful …"
Heidi suggested she call some of the other day-care places, if only to get on their waiting lists. "At least you'll feel better," she said.
So, my wife called. "This is amazing," said the first person she spoke to. "Because we do have a place in your daughter's age group, and that almost never happens. We just got an opening, and I've been calling everybody on the wait list, but nobody's called back yet. If you want it, you can have it."
My wife took it. She figured the place would have to be pretty Dickensian to be worse than our present arrangement. Instead, it surpassed our fondest expectations, such that even Kinderhaus seems something of a mauvaise époque. Nowadays, not only does our toddler refrain from tears when we drop her off in the morning, she often shrieks with dismay when we come to pick her up (or at least when I do). "Amelia had a great day exploring and looking at books!" her lively young caretakers write in her daily report, along with a sober tally of her bowel movements. It's remarkable what a blithe business life can be—however difficult in other respects—when your child is happy. The other day my wife bought Amelia a cow costume for the Halloween parade at her day-care center, and it was the giddiest I'd seen either of them since we became refugees.
"Someone must be looking out for you!" We hear that a lot. Also (re our sudden removal from New Orleans): "God must have had different plans for you!" Yes, one is tempted to reply, and He must have had radically different plans for those poor sods in the Ninth Ward …
But one doesn't say that. People mean well, after all, and in our case they have a point: Since losing our home and other possessions, things have turned out rather well. Consider the fact that—unlike most of our friends in New Orleans—our livelihoods weren't affected a whit. As a writer, I spend my days exactly as before (albeit in the starker milieu of Windmeadows Apartments)—that is, I dribble at my laptop in a desultory way, drink too much coffee, and compulsively check my e-mail. As for my wife, she's resumed her doctoral internship at the University of Florida, where her old friends were glad to have her back and vice versa. Nor, on bad days, is she inclined to let self-pity get out of hand, seeing as how she works with seriously ill children and their grieving families.
In fact, our whole Weltanschauung has improved as a result of this ordeal. Before, I took the Hobbesian view that life tended to be nasty, brutish, and short, if you weren't careful. But now I have moments when I'm a regular Pangloss. "Things have a way of turning out for the best," I find myself saying, and, "Really, people are so kind." Almost two months after the hurricane, hardly a day goes by that we don't receive some further remembrance from friends or family: a gift card, a check, a parcel of baby toys, books, clothes, small appliances, and so on. My friend Christian—a sort of Bertie Wooster with a social conscience—recently sold his house in the Hamptons and gave us the furniture, just like that. After the delivery truck left (he paid for that, too), our little one-bedroom unit reminded me of the butler Hobson's hospital room in the movie Arthur, what with the transplanted mahogany amid the dreary beige of it all.
Even car salesmen go out of their way to be nice to us. One may recall that we fled the hurricane in my wife's car, a 1998 Suzuki Esteem, and left my poor old Saturn to a terrible fate. So, we needed another car, the cheaper the better. When we said as much to the salesman at Wade Raulerson Pontiac, he winced and sort of twiddled his cigarette in a way that struck me as dismissive, if not downright sinister. Then we mentioned the hurricane, etc. The next thing we knew we were shaking hands with the man's boss, who, it shortly transpired, was the friend of a friend (one begins to feel karmic inklings!) who made it his personal business to see that, by God, we got a good car cheap. The snazzy green Subaru Outback we eventually drove off the lot had been thoroughly checked by a third-party mechanic, repaired as needed, and sold to us for thousands below blue book value. "You don't like it, you bring it right back," said the gruff but kindly dealer as we sealed the deal with a final handshake, and a couple days later he sent us a $219 gift card to Home Depot.
Happy, too, are our dog and cat, who now live with my mother in rural Oklahoma. I worried a little about the cat, who'd survived almost three weeks in a flooded house. The 12 cats at my mother's place would be disinclined, I thought, to respect her solitary nature. As it happens, they seem to sense that she once subsisted on rats and toxic water and give her wide berth. As for our dog, Gracie, she seems to suspect that she died at some point (perhaps in a boiling hot Suzuki) and went to doggy heaven. There are no leashes at my mother's place, no dog pens, and plenty of fresh cat turds to gobble up in the morning. Nor does my mother mind—as we did—sharing her couch with a dog. "Talk to Gracie!" my mother commands when I call her on the phone, and so I pour my love into the dog's taut, lifted ear. Gracie listens with a wary frown: God forbid we should come to reclaim her.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.