In the months after Katrina, finding a decent apartment in New Orleans was approaching impossibility. Tenants were hanging on to anything that had no damage from the storm. And the stuff that wasn’t occupied, wasn’t much to write home about. During the end of my semester in exile [Editor’s Note: A future Storytime, for sure], I started searching. I hit a ton of dead ends. Too many to mention. My former landlord was no help, as all their properties were damaged. The internet was kind of a mess with some random offerings, but nothing that seemed decent or even legit.
I can’t remember how I got there. Maybe I went down the yellowpages, old school style, but I found a realty company (that shall remain nameless for the purposes of this blog, as they are still around and still just as shitty).
They had a primo apartment available in a house that was owned by the actual owner of the whole company. The original plan was, apparently, for his son? cousin? some shit to live in it, rent free. But, I guess having a paying tenant was a more lucrative proposition.
This is a classic example of taking a closer look at things on your first pass. Because the apartment actually looked very impressive. A ton of space for a one bedroom. Huge living room. Huge kitchen. Small bathroom, but fuckin big bedroom. This apartment in question was the front part of this old house that was divided into 4 separate apartments. I was in the front. There was a couple living in the back, who I never heard or met in the two years I lived there. And two apartments on the second floor that were supposedly rented out (more on this later).
I didn’t look deep at anything. It was cheap. Good location. Neighborhood was fantastic, not far at all from Tulane. Good deal all the way around.
Dear congregation, consider this a cautionary tale. Cause this is a series of stories on how I lived in a slum for 2 years.
After I had already paid the deposit and was moving my stuff in, I had Entergy come out to turn on the power and heat. I was told there was central heating, but window units for A/C. I was totally fine with that, as I had window units for A/C in my last apartment. However, I never actually looked around for vents or anything that would have said “central.”
Turns out, central heat meant an old natural gas coil system from the 1950s that was built into the wall. The Entergy guy takes a look at it. Spends like 20-30 mins kind of playing with it. And says to me, “Well, I can turn the gas on, and this thing could work. But, if I were you, I would never touch it. I have no idea if this is intact or if it will explode or set the house on fire.”
Being as naïve as I was, I asked what to do, and he suggested getting some space heaters. Which I did. However, there was another problem with that….
Turns out there was only like 1 outlet per room. And the reason for that became clear very quickly. I moved into that apartment in December, and it was already cold. So I turned on my space heater, while my computer was on, and the power went out.
I call the landlord…and after a series of conversations, I find the panel for the house. Fuses. Old school fuses.
I had never dealt with fuses. I was from the breakers generation. Every place I had been to had circuit breakers. Well, on a cold and wet day I learned about fuses and almost shocked myself once or twice.
My grandfather was super clutch here. Bought me a cheap radioshack electric tester (that I still own) and taught me the basics about power. I spent a good chunk of my next paycheck on 3 grosses of fuses for the house (cause I was informed by the landlord I had to furnish my own). My grandfather also gave me some old extension cords he had.
That apartment, for the next two years was a giant mess of extension cords. I learned the fridge was on its own fuse (which never tripped while I was there), so the outlet in the kitchen was actually on a breaker by itself. So, if I wanted to watch TV or play a video game AND be warm in the winter, I had to run an extension cord from the kitchen to the bedroom. On a rare occasion, during a thunderstorm or something, there would be a short and I would have to go out there in the rain and change a fuse. But once I got the system down, it became rarer and rarer. Turns out the 3 grosses was the right amount to last till I graduated.
Speaking of thunderstorms, the roof of the house needed to be replaced many years ago. So the very front of the house would leak. To the point where if there was ever one of those classic New Orleans downpours, I would have to put a bucket right behind the front door to collect the rain. Those celling tiles next to the door fell out about a month after I moved in, and they never got replaced. On occasion, the landlord would patch the roof and we would be good for a few months.
But the Lowes bucket always came back out.
There was a family of stray cats who lived under the house. During the day time, totally quiet. You would have to sit on the front porch for a while to see the cats. They clearly were ok with people. Someone was feeding them. But man, at night.
Fucking. Fighting. Foolishness. Sometimes all night long. Sounded like someone had a burlap sack off cats and was just swinging them around.
One washer dryer for the 4 apartments. And they were super gross. Rusty. Cobwebs. I just went to my local laundromat for my entire stay.
Next to the leak in the front door, was a classic 3 panel french style window. Classic New Orleans. Only problem was the middle panel was totally blown out by Katrina. So they had a piece of plywood nailed there to keep out the elements. They always promised to replace it. Never did while I lived there.
It had an outlet right under the window, so I put a little lamp and table there. Added more light to the room.
Oh, the apartment had no light fixtures. So everything was lamps.
Anyway, one particularly gnarly rainstorm, I am playing video games in the front room (which I did alot of, in that era). I had my laptop on an extension cord from my bedroom. Was playing on the PS2. And then a GIANT fucking gush of water started pouring through the plywood. Some horizontal rain. Turns out they never caulked the plywood shut. Water poured over my lamp and the table and the outlet.
To prevent a fire or some shit, I yanked the fuse for that outlet from the box and never replaced it.
One morning, I took my usual run down the St. Charles street car line, came back to my apartment. Took a shower. Finished. Turned the water off…then I noticed water still dripping from up top. I look up and the celling tiles were swollen. I took a literal leap. Both feet. Out of the shower onto the hallway outside the bathroom.
At the exact moment I landed, all the tiles came down in one gush of mold, mildew, and mush.
After much yelling at the landlord and threats to go to some higher authority, a full repair team came out to see what it was.
A few hours later, I got the full scoop from the head superintendent (who clearly gave no fuck).
TURNS OUT, the tenant above me had paid cash for a full year. Well, during Katrina, like many others, they had 1) skipped down 2) left all their stuff behind 3) Left their tub on a slight drip…for 4) their 4-5 cats that were in there. Those cats had long ago clawed a hole through their balcony and assimilated with the wild cats under the house. The tub had been overflowing for months and was a full tear out.
They took out the tub and had placed some temporary flooring.
They never replaced my tiles above my shower though, so for the rest of my time, I stared at the bare flooring above me whenever I showered. Wondering if a cat could find away into the sub ceiling and jump on me in the buff.
I just remember my last January there (before I graduated in May) being very cold and wet all the time. Just alone, sitting on my futon, kept warm by a decent space heater with the extension cord going all the way to the outlet in the back of the kitchen.
In my last month there, I guess they were trying to get tenants for the summer or the next fall. Cause things changed rapidly.
They knew I was out right after graduation (I moved up to Chicago about a week or two after graduation). So, shit started getting fixed. They had crews there all day long. New roof. Brand new washer/dryer complex with several new washers and dryers. Renovating all the apartments. They fixed my window. The second I was leaving, they were going to install a legit natural gas furnace. Redo all of the ceilings.
I only found this out when some clearly rich, clearly New England parents brought their kid in to tour the apartment. They were explaining all the things that were going to be done before the fall.
I still wonder if this was all crap or if they actually finally fixed up that apartment.
In a weird way, the whole thing felt transitory. Like the apartment was in an inbetween state. I was in an inbetween state. By the time I graduated, it was clearly time to move on. I remember turning in my keys in an envelope in the drop box and headed north….
2 years later. By then I had just moved from Chicago to California, forgot all about that apartment. FORGOT that I put down a month and a half of rent as security deposit. Given everything that happened, I assumed I wouldn’t get that back. Never gave it a second thought. Never asked. TURNS OUT, there was a whole fucking lawsuit about that company not paying its security deposits. So, my grandparents (where I left my forwarding address) got a check in the mail for my full security deposit and a months rent.
Definite silver lining.