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The Deliveryman's Story
He brought two chairs and a tale.
A week ago we reluctantly discarded two sofas and three rugs which, even after repeated steam cleaning and saturation with deodorizers, still carried The Smell. It stubbornly clung to the old fabric, even the wood. Five weeks sequestered in a sealed house with a leaky refrigerator full of rotting food and a neighborhood surrounded by sewage and waste insured that nothing could remove or overwhelm the odor, or the message, or the mechanics, of death and decay.
So with no small amount of effort and the repeated use of a bent, creaking dolly, we carried the banished household goods out to the common mid-block trash pile, and left them. The next morning they were all gone, on their way to a new home, obviously appropriated by someone with a monstrous head cold.
The odor diminished, then left, but with the reduction in furnishings the living room was obviously missing something essential, especially when we had one of the more-and-more infrequent post-hurricane guests. It was not as hospitable a space as it had been before with the comforting secondhand sofas and floor coverings. In a burst of energy somehow linked with redefining ourselves and the City, we made a conscious decision that we would buy something new. Not something that, in our 23-year history of thrift stores and consignment shops, we have often been able to do. Luckily, I have kept working throughout our displacement, and we had the financial wherewithal for a single splurge.
Thus this weekend we went out to H&M Inc., a venerable century-old New Orleans firm famous for overpriced but honest decorative furniture. The closest store, a French Quarter outlet in an aged and appropriately welcoming building, had lost its roof and most of its merchandise had been ruined, so we drove out Airline Highway to the company's larger warehouse facility, a three-and-a-half-story behemoth which had only been flooded by two feet of water on its bottom floor.
Amazing the building was open at all, but there it was, workmen still painting and sheetrocking, wiring and vacuuming.
The purchase itself was relatively painless and even somewhat entertaining. After a solid half-hour of intent browsing and fabric ruffling, Faun eyed the chairs she had selected as finalists. She squinted. She scanned the room, came to some sort of resolution, then walked over to a well-dressed woman and spoke persuasively to her. My partner is ingenious. She had espied a stranger who was wearing a blouse approximately the color of our living room walls, and convinced her to be used in our search.
Faun asked the red-clad woman to sit in the chairs. She willingly did so. Faun squinted again, and the woman watched as Faun held up a single finger, peered over its top, pointed to her left and made her decision.
We'd take two of the rust-colored chair with the checks, she said. Two matching chairs.
My treat, I told her, a healing from the storm.
Since there is limited space in the VW bug convertible she drives, Faun asked that the rather massive chairs be delivered. The salesman -- an amicable gent identified as Billy via his brass name tag -- said he'd have them at our door three days later.
Billy was true to his word. And in that banal manner, the deliveryman, the two chairs, and his story came into our home.
He was already on the front porch speaking with Faun when I came around from the back house. He was a head taller than I, a bit over six feet, with short hair, an engaging smile and a shirt embroidered with the H&M logo and his name: Andre.
I'd heard the loud diesel truck drive up, and come out to see the unloading of the new purchases. Andre had just introduced himself and remarked on how remarkably well our house had weathered the storm. Katrina is always the first conversational coin exchanged between locals these days.
I inquired back with the appropriate response, asking how he had done.
"Not too bad," he said, with only the slightest hesitation. "Well, we lost our house, but we're all here and OK now. I got a picture here," he said as he pulled out a wallet and began searching the various pockets, "a picture of my wife and baby." He found the photograph, a rough trapezoidal fragment cut out of a larger Polaroid and then laminated with thick clear plastic. His wife looked quite young and content in the snapshot. "Alisha," said Andre. Alisha was wearing a shiny satin blouse and had a large well-shaped head of hair, glowing brown eyes, and a tiny smiling infant in her lap. A boy in a blue t-shirt, reaching for the photographer. "Andre Junior," Andre pointed. "There they are," he said, looking admiringly at the picture himself. "We came out together."
"Have a hard time?" I asked.
"Well," he paused, a life mentor hesitating at the onset of teaching of an honest, necessary, and ultimately painful lesson.
Then he told me.
"We stayed. My fault. Gotta say that first. We got a solid two-story brick house out in Gentilly. Had it for six years and it never flooded before, never got the least bit of water since we been there. Plus I laid the new shingles myself, and the roof's solid, three-quarter-inch treated plywood underneath, so I figured we'd be fine. We was, until the levees broke, then the water started coming up so fast we had to scramble upstairs from the first floor before we could even get stuff out of it, the TV and all.
"That water came right behind us, waltzing up the stairs like it owned the place, and quick as a wink got to swirling around our ankles on the second floor, acting like we was nothing but unwanted visitors.
"Then the lights went out. Flash of light and popping of sparks when the transformer down the block blew. I was stacking stuff in the dark on the beds and chest of drawers, and hauling stuff to the attic best I could, thinking it would never stop.
"But the water finally topped out around my waist. Just stopped. I kept watch. It filled my pants pockets and then stopped like it had what it wanted.
'"Bout midnight, it was. I waded out onto the upstairs balcony from our bedroom to get a look. The water was running by my house just below the balcony railings, and I could see this black oily surface going all around the block, filling streets and yards, with my neighbors' rooftops sticking through. For blocks and blocks. People was yelling, banging on the roofs of houses from the inside. They'd climbed up to get away from the water and got themselves stuck in their attics with no way to break out. Two days earlier the mayor had told everybody what was staying to make sure they had an axe in their house, especially in their attics. The news people, and the president even, had acted like the mayor was some sort of farm boy for saying such things.
"'Take your axes upstairs,' he'd said, and those news folks had laughed. But here it was a-flooding, and that nasty water was drowning folks like rats in they own houses, and you better know them folks wished now that they had them axes.
"I couldn't tell where exactly the yelling was coming from, because everything was echoing off the water and spinning from every which way. But yessir, hollering and screaming was all around us. I went inside to make sure Alisha and Junior was OK. They wasn't, but I talked to 'em for a bit and they calmed down. We drunk some water out of the upstairs bathroom sink, figuring the water hadn't had time to get bad yet, but knowing we could be stuck here for a bit.
'"Twadn't that bad. Not that part. Because late the next morning a motorboat full of guys in uniform come along and got us out of there. I still don't know who they was, but got us out of our house and they took us to the Broad Street overpass, where there was maybe 200-300 folks already waiting around. Nothing to do, no food no water no blankets, but I figured somebody would come directly.They wouldn't just leave us there, nossir.
"But they did, they left us. Then they up and forgot us, and that's when things started to get bad. Really bad.
'"Cause there was some no-account folks up there, and they were hassling the people who looked weaker and taking their money and food if they had any. They didn't bother us, at least for the first two nights, but I know they was looking to. Especially after that second night and into the third morning with no food, no water at all, more and more folks just wading and swimming up there and floating in on rafts and plastic swimming pools and wheelbarrow tubs and all kinds of stuff. Folks were getting desperate and mean.
"Now all this time I been calling my sister uptown on my cell phone and it's going down and she's saying 'Get on up here right now. There ain't no flooding and I got running water and electricity and a working real phone.' But I've been looking down, and the water is deep at the end of the overpass. I know neither my wife nor baby can swim, and I ain't in the best of shape. So up to then we was sitting it out, just waiting and hoping and trying to stay invisible to The Bad Guys.
"Then about middle a the morning, it happened. Some baby, maybe 8 years old, climbed up on the overpass railing, and as soon as he got to the top, he just slips and falls right over. Down maybe 50 feet and into the water. Everybody rush to that side and look for him, but he don't come up. And nobody goes down to try and get him, because even if you jumped off and didn't get killed, you'd have to swim a good half-mile to the ramps to get back where you started. So we just saw that baby die and nobody did a thing. I could see the faces of the people that was stealing and robbing from folks. They saw that baby go down, and you could tell it didn't mean nothing to them. Not a thing.
"That's when I decided we had to go.
"I had seen this man down toward the end of things, toward the water on the west end of the overpass, sleeping on an air mattress. Lot of plastic tubes in a row, about three feet across, like one of those things you use to float in a swimming pool. I took the wife and baby and I went to him and I says, 'Look, man, I got to get my family out of here. I got to get to my sister's house uptown where it's safe for them, and I want to ask you to loan me that air mattress. Please,' I says. And he looks me in the face and looks at the wife and child, and he gives me that mattress, not saying another word.
"So we go down to the water and I get Alisha and Andre Jr. on that mattress and I start pushing and wading. It don't take 50 feet before I am up to my neck and they both are crying and wanting to go back. But I keep on, not wanting to see no more of that overpass.
"We making good time until maybe three hours later, about halfway uptown, I feel the mattress bump into something big floating in the water. I tell Alisha to move it out the way, and she holds out her hand and pushes and it turns over and it's a dead man, mouth open, face all puffed up something bad, and he bobs on up to the mat. She starts screaming and pointing and she falls off the mat into the water right by this dead guy. I quick get around to the side to hold Junior on, and push that dead man away. And then I grab Alisha and holler at her to stop and try and get her up on the mat again so we can get going. For a bit there I think I am gonna have to tie her up with my belt to get her calmed down and lying quiet on the mattress, but finally she gets better and we make it to my sister's place.
"About a week later we all got evacuated to Charlotte, North Carolina, and I got no complaints about that. Folks was nice to use, took care of us and made sure we was OK. They went out of their way to make us feel like we was worth something. I figure I owe 'em for that.
"So ever since I been back and on the delivery truck again, I go out of my way to find somebody what needs something, every day. And I try to help, help somebody every day. Makes me feel good.
"So where did you want these chairs, ma'am?"
© Jim Gabour
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