I wrote this story for the New Orleans Times Picayune in the spring of 2006. I had intended to share it here, on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, as a sign of our progress and fortitude. But I fear I may not have electricity tomorrow so I’m posting it now … one day shy of the seven-year mark. I never imagined that I’d be sharing it while hunkering down in the midst of yet another storm. Back the hell off, Isaac.
My family is from New Orleans so we were one of the many, many, many families deeply affected by the storm. Months after the waters receded and the house was fully gutted of our personal belongings as well as ceilings, walls and floors, I visited it (we were staying about 90 miles away at the time) and, taken with the pin drop silence of my neighborhood and mostly just completely lost in the moment, I found myself needing an answer. A ridiculous one, mind you. But, considering the fact that this deadly monster passed through my city yet it was a manmade issue that ultimately destroyed her, isn’t this whole situation still completely absurd?
Flushing Out My Fears (written in February 2006)
I visited my house while in New Orleans over the weekend. I was by myself … a rarity … and I had to know if the toilet still flushed. My house is completely empty, except for my grandmother’s rotting piano which will probably have to be removed with an ax. And I, of course, won’t be anywhere nearby to see or hear it. The shell of my home has no walls, no floors and no ceilings in most rooms and therefore no fixtures, shelves, cabinets, etc. But my toilet is still hooked up in the middle of everything. You could use it and see the earth below you all the while. So, for the first time, I decided to travel through my gutted house. I gathered my courage and started on the long adventure from my front door to what was our bathroom to determine the answer to the age-old question of whether a toilet makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it.
I actually have a very good sense of balance. I’m not all that coordinated and have no real confidence in my athletic abilities, but I can usually balance as well or better than the next guy. Still, as I worked my way across each floor board, moving sideways like a crab with my feet running parallel over the boards, I couldn’t help wondering why I had to know about my toilet and, for that matter, hear the flush. I had nothing to hang onto and knew that I could easily fall between the slats of the floor thereby cutting myself on a series of rusty nails on the way down. And there I would be lodged, bleeding to death, thankful I had at least gotten a tetanus shot, but not heard or found in my ghost town of a neighborhood on a Monday afternoon for God knows how long.
I was thrilled when I made it to the “dining room.” At least there, I had wall framing to hang onto. Of course, I didn’t actually want to touch anything, but you make choices. I carefully navigated that room, passing over the fresh two-by-fours that made up the old doorway that Dave had filled in himself when we moved into the house. I couldn’t believe how different the wood looked. I entered my “bedroom” through that same wall and noticed that the ceiling fan pull that my mother had bought for me years ago from some plantation house somewhere was still dangling from the ceiling, and I thought about trying to get it. I didn’t. At 5 feet 4 inches tall and with nowhere to put a step stool, I would never reach it. I said goodbye and moved on to the hallway.
I had to step over a big hole in the floor that used to house a floor furnace. We’d had it filled in, beautifully I might add, soon after we moved into the house when Dean and Vivien were just tiny little guys. I still remember the former owner of the house (a floor guy) telling me it couldn’t be done. But I remember that day, as I looked at the enormous grasshopper that had gotten through the hole and was in the house with us, that I knew I would be filling it in.
Finally, I entered my “bathroom.” And I realized that as I had traveled from room to room in my house, I was back to my split screen reality again. Damn. I thought I had gotten past that. Everywhere I looked in the house, I simultaneously saw things I remembered and what was really there now. And as I was taking one of my saddest strolls down memory lane, I made it to the toilet. Eureka! I felt like I had reached the top of Everest. And reaching down to flush the commode, I noticed all of the toilet paper brought by the workmen who gutted my house could be seen sitting on the ground … I mean, the earth … through the boards of my floor. Had they actually used the toilet and reached down five feet through the hole for the paper? Well, at least now I knew why the toilet remained the only thing installed in the house.
As I pushed the lever and began to see the water swirling around in the bowl (filthy above the water line, but seemingly clean as a whistle below), I panicked and thought, “Wait, is this thing still fully connected?” I wondered if water was going to start shooting out at me and I wouldn’t be able to get away because you can’t run across rotten, old floor boards. Suddenly the lodged-on-a-rusty-nail-through-the-floor scenario didn’t look so bad. But I lucked out. The toilet flushed … normally … just like yours and mine (well, just like the one at my mother-in-law’s house where we’re now living).
And of course, I got back out of the house pretty quickly and easily. The trip back never seems as long or as arduous as the one there. I really hope that proves true of this whole, heart-wrenching journey.