Goodbye Old House
A personal odyssey to Academy Park by Faith Dawson
As the van pulled away from Chantilly Drive, my mother marveled that the last 33 years of her life could be contained in several Rubbermaid bins and a few heavy-duty garbage bags. She had collected a few odds and ends, dishes, knickknacks — remnants of what used to be a perfectly ordinary suburban household in a perfectly ordinary suburb. One month before, in fewer than 24 hours, ordinary had morphed into bizarre as 6 feet of water rushed in and swallowed not only the house but most of the 70126 ZIP code. Her house, you see, is located in eastern New Orleans, an area located uncomfortably close to the broken Industrial Canal. We had returned to eastern New Orleans on a salvage mission.
She didn’t cry, but it didn’t matter. “What do you feel?” I asked.
“I don’t think I feel anything,” she replied.
Built in 1972 in the Academy Park subdivision, the house was not a historic one championed by preservationists or architects. It wasn’t even in a socially acceptable neighborhood, if you’re inclined to consider those things. It was a modest, one-story brick house with a backyard and a carport. It was my childhood home and housed at times, myself, my parents – William and Adonicia Dawson – one grandmother, and several dogs and turtles. It was the location of parties, arguments, family dinners and question-and-answer sessions about the opposite sex. I
hadn’t lived there for years, but I still felt like it was mine.
Yet after Hurricane Katrina, it was a broken shell with runny memories spilling out of it. I had always known that my affiliation with this house would eventually be terminated, but I had envisioned a slow and well-prepared-for parting of the ways, probably involving an act of sale to another family, hopefully with small children. Boys. And a dog. (Let me emphasize – these are not my own kids of the future, but nameless kids who would pursue happy childhoods where I had done the same.) On second thought, make that two dogs.
To use a standing but nonetheless accurate cliché, low-lying Academy Park looked like it fell under a smart bomb. The toxic flooding had killed everything it touched, leaving not a blade of grass, not a single leaf unscorched, crackly-dry and bleached out. Cars were upended on the sidewalk; in a pine tree hung a black brassiere and a kitchen chair. A traffic light had floated into a vacant lot, half a mile from the nearest intersection. A Dumpster wedged itself between houses. The only indicator that these residences were not located in Tikrit or Ramallah was that everything inside them was wet and heavily colonized by mold.
In early October, the neighborhood was still empty; the only other people traveling Chantilly Drive were lost claims adjustors, sightseers and animal-rescue workers. A dusty breeze blew through the empty street. A dried fish was stuck to the front door. No rescuers had entered my mother’s house, as its iron security gates were unbreakable, and the locks were corroded. This was a surprise, as other houses on the block had no doors at all, much less doors that were still closed and locked. Even in its greatest moment of crisis, the Dawson house would still offer privacy, a noble mission in this time of belongings and emotions laid bare.
I flagged down every passing car – “Hi. We live there. Got a crowbar?” – and finally, in one of those social twists that only New Orleans holds claim to, a young man who turned out to be a distant relative stopped and tried to break the lock for us. After he hammered away at the stubborn deadbolt for close to an hour, I used sad eyes and outright begging to waylay two insurance adjustors who possessed the crucial crowbar. One good lick from the crowbar, and one purposeful shove from the heaviest of the three good Samaritans, and the door gave way.
It is true what they say of a flood-ravaged home. You simply cannot comprehend the extent of the damage until you witness it with your own eyes. Struck mute and slack-jawed, we gaped at the furniture that had floated from one room to another, and collapsed in heaps of bedposts, armrests and slats. Upholstery was in tatters. The refrigerator had fallen over and relocated to the living room. Shiny red and silver soda cans, lying around like Katrina had helped herself and discarded the empties, punctuated every room. Suddenly our Samaritans were gone, and we slogged alone through 2 inches of foul-smelling mud, wondering where to begin looking, not even sure what we were searching for. We beat down swollen doors, climbed over dressers and lifted soggy mattresses. We reviewed every piece of clothing in the closets, most of which had rotted in the stagnant saltwater. We took whatever wasn’t broken or mildewed past the salvation point, even if it wasn’t valuable. By now, we had redefined “valuable.”
It took seven trips to pluck random belongings from the mud. After every visit, I was seized with the desire not to return and loudly declared my intention to stay away. I couldn’t bear seeing the house in this way. For 33 years it kept my family safe, cool, warm, dry. It protected and entertained us. It contained our belongings and served as a backdrop to memorable events. And now it was wrecked.
But there has always been one more reason to go back, one more object to look for. Sometimes we find that object, and sometimes we decide it’s too far gone to keep. But we always go back – just to check.
For her part, my mother has gamely returned every time. Wearing a pair of boots two sizes too large, a baseball cap and a respirator, she repeatedly braves the decaying house, waving away clouds of flies to survey the ruins, always mindful of the tremendous decisions that she faces. Rebuild? Buy again? Rent? What to do?
Meantime, Mom carted out three sets of pots and pans (she doesn’t even enjoy cooking), an extensive Depression glass collection, gold-and-white Noritake china (service for 12) and antique crystal stemware that miraculously didn’t break past the china cabinet’s doors. For every day we spent scavenging, we – well, she – spent at least two days washing and disinfecting, wrapping with newspaper and sealing in boxes. She’s 70.
During the third trip, her brothers suggested we leave the doors open to air the muddy house out. This seemed the biggest slight of all. It seemed undignified – not on the part of the people who had lived there, but undignified on the part of the house, as though it deserved better than to be left open. After all its steady and loyal service to my family, I intended to do justice to it. And so, not knowing if the neighborhood would be razed, raised or left as is, we closed the door and locked it, as we have done every time, a final, ordinary act that gives us at least a semblance of control over our surroundings.
More than 30 years ago, my parents chose Academy Park because they deemed it safe and neighborly for families. Now no one is left to mourn the loss of this house except my mother and myself. I saved a loose brick, though, and thanked her for choosing a home that served us well.
Cole Porter wrote the lyrics “Ev’ry time we say goodbye, I die a little.” I still feel that way after seven visits to what FEMA calls the “damaged address.” This inanimate object had been revealed to have a personality and a vocation only after it was no longer available to us. Funny that you can take away what’s valuable in bags and boxes, but part of your soul can still be left behind.