Miracle at Gainesville
How a poet and a resurrected dead man saved a Katrina evacuee.
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.
Recently I began to feel neglected as a hurricane evacuee. The CARE packages had become more sporadic, and my friends seemed less engaged by the odd allusion to our predicament. Also, as far as I can tell, there are very few evacuees in Gainesville, Fla.—where my wife and baby and I have been living these past few weeks—much less in this particular apartment complex, Windmeadows, where the residents don't strike me as the commiserating type. The media, too, has moved on, what with the distractive buffoonery of the present administration, which likewise has its mind (so to speak) on other matters. FEMA has entered a dormant phase. For the past two months—ever since receiving those first promising checks for Emergency Lodging and Rental Assistance—our online application status has remained unchanged, though the FEMA booklet promises an inspection within 10 days of a given disaster.
Finally I decided to give FEMA a call, and at length a human voice came on the line. During our conversation this woman seemed to be playing a vexing game of solitaire, or perhaps painting her nails a color she didn't much like.
"Can I help you?" she asked, after the dead air that followed my greeting.
I told her I was an evacuee from New Orleans, and gave her my ZIP code and FEMA number. An interval passed.
"Can I help you?" she asked, not unfamiliarly.
"Yes, you may." I tried to sound friendly—not one of those whiny refugees, don't you know, but rather a chap who was weathering his little bad patch with a smile. "I was wondering if you could tell me when FEMA will be inspecting my house? See, I don't have flood insurance, so it's sort of import—"
"No ... sir. I don't know when your inspection will be scheduled."
Silence. Perhaps she'd returned to her card game or nails.
"Well," I said, "have any inspections taken place?"
"But not in my ZIP code."
"I wouldn't know that, sir."
So what exactly would you know, you idling oaf? That's what I wanted to say, but I worried she might note any rude remarks in my FEMA file and hence I'd be inspected dead last or not at all. So instead I thanked her brightly and said goodbye.
Around this time we started looking at rental houses, since we're expected to vacate our borrowed apartment at Windmeadows by the end of the month. Given that we're still paying off a mortgage on our moldy ruined house back in New Orleans, we figured we could afford to spend maybe $1,000 a month, tops. This would have gotten us a pretty sweet crib in certain parts of New Orleans, but not in Gainesville.
Most of the houses in this price range look, on the outside, like a Walker Evans photo. Those we ruled out. When a place wasn't positively ghastly, though, we'd call the real-estate agent and schedule a visit. The first place I visited was very ugly indeed (orange concrete block), but in a fairly nice neighborhood with lots of trees. Once I got inside, though, I had to breathe through my mouth. The filthy gray wall-to-wall carpet not only reeked of mildew, but was scored with cigarette burns, as if the place were a clubhouse for chain-smoking junkies. I thought of what Cheever had said about certain houses "where everything we see, touch, smell and hear urges us to commit murder or suicide or get drunk and perform some contemptible sexual obscenity."
"You'll never rent that place," I told the real-estate agent when I returned the key. "It's squalid."
He nodded as though I'd wished him a nice day. He was an old, old man who seemed tired of this line of work. "It belongs to that Presbyterian church across the way," he explained.
"They should replace the carpet."
"They'll mow the lawn for you," he said, and we parted in a mood of mutual dejection.
In a slightly higher price range we found places that were nice enough on the outside, but never, never on the inside. We began to accept that, for another few months at least, we'd have to live in drastically reduced circumstances—if we passed muster, that is. There was a lengthy application process.
"We'll be contacting your previous landlord," they all promise, after showing us their crepuscular, paneled dwellings. "And if he says you're OK, we'll take it from there."
"Sounds good," I say, rather than, "Actually, we owned a house, a nice house—though before that, I'm very sorry to say, we did rent a place from a guy who d****d us out of our security deposit, and who I therefore called a big d***, in effect, so I doubt he'll give us much of a reference."
No, I didn't say that, nor did I mention my Guggenheim or the fact that my wife is the first person in the history of her prestigious doctoral program to win the Florence Shafer Memorial Award for Therapeutic Excellence two years in a row. Instead I stood there clammily shaking hands and composing a sh**-eating epistle in my head to our former landlord.
Roughly two weeks before this dark juncture, I'd gotten a very curious e-mail. It was about seven weeks old when I read it, having been sent to my old Excite account—the one I check every other month, sifting through herbal Viagra flyers, urgent messages from exiled cousins of Sani Abacha, and the like. My correspondent, one James Kennedy in California, had read my first Slate column and professed to enjoy it. He wanted to give me ("no strings attached") a new house in a subdivision he was building in Mandeville, across the lake from New Orleans: "This is not a gimmick, not a scam," he wrote. He explained that he'd been killed recently, then revived, and thus "forever changed": "I vowed to myself after that, that I would do as much as humanly possible to help my fellow man, and make myself a better person."
It sounded way too good to be true, and never mind its superhero-origin-story overtones. I replied thanking him for his "exceptional generosity," but added that we had no plans to move back to New Orleans or its environs—and besides, he'd probably changed his mind by now and moved on (like the rest of the world, I sighed subtextually) and for that we could scarcely blame him, etc.
"I still want you to have the house," he replied. "Keep it, sell it, trade it—it's yours." Attached to this e-mail were professional sketches of the houses he proposed to build in Mandeville, circa spring 2006. They were very nice. There was no orange concrete. "If you do decide to pass for whatever reason (i.e., 'Kennedy's a weirdo [so he knew],' 'I don't believe it,' 'It's a scam,' etc.), at least you'll have the pleasure of knowing that at one time during your life, someone did something to restore your faith in humanity, and God."
Throughout this whole ordeal, the kindness of family, friends, and total strangers has done a lot to restore my faith in humanity—hitherto a shaky business to be sure. (God, alas, is a goner.) And I began to suspect that Kennedy was at least sincere in his desire to help. Besides, I enjoyed corresponding with him: He had a lot of advice about what to expect from Chase Home Finance once we let them know that we didn't intend to spend 30 years paying off a mortgage on an abandoned house. When I mentioned our rental woes, Kennedy researched the local market and recommended a number of places out of our price range. He was happy to pay a year's worth of rent in advance, he said, which would enable us to keep paying our mortgage while we waited to see how, if at all, FEMA could help us.
We were still swooning over the prospect when I was e-mailed by another Slate reader. This one was a notable poet and critic who teaches at the University of Florida (and prefers not to be identified). He mentioned my Cheever biography and said he had a funny story to tell me about Cheever's time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop 30 years ago.
"By the way," he added, "I assume you're well set up with housing while you're forced to stay in Gainesville; but I'll mention that we are off to England for eight months in mid-December and our large Victorian house will be available at a reasonable rent. Nice yard, quiet neighborhood (the Duck Pond), lots of room. ... I'm terribly sorry for your losses."
As I write this down, I'm astonished all over again—but it's true. The poet's house is wonderful, the neighborhood is Arcadian, and the rent is comparable to what we would have paid for the stinky-rug place. And yes, James Kennedy in California—a heroic personage I may never meet—has paid our entire rent in advance. The check arrived by FedEx and has already cleared.
At this rate, my faith in God may soon be resurrected. The other day, following hard on these miraculous events, my wife got a call on her cell phone: FEMA! She shakily handed me the Samsung.
"Mr. Bailey, are you homeless?" a nice woman asked. "Because if so, we'd like to offer you a trailer."
A trailer seemed a good augury. Had there been no James Kennedy, no kindly poet living in the Duck Pond, still we'd be provided for, after a fashion, like the lilies of the field and the fowl of the air.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.