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New Orleans is a town filled with grand mansions and doll houses, each with its own history and secrets. This I have learned in spades since having moved here about a week ago. I didn't have to look very far before I started exploring.
My story begins in my new home. I arrived in New Orleans on a Sunday and began looking for apartments immediately. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill, right now New Orleans is a renter's market. But I heard rumors that New Orleans is a funny place, and that a city street can go from quaint to questionable in a residential block. The rumor proved true during my survey of the housing stock.
At some point I ended up in Uptown which is located ironically in the southern part of the city, on the bend of the Mississippi River. This section of the city includes the Tulane and Loyola University campuses. Pulling some addresses off of craigslist, I explored and found myself a one bedroom apartment on St. Charles Avenue. The houses on St. Charles are all magnificent, varying both in architectural style and levels of upkeep. Many of them look like something out of Gone With the Wind, plopped right in the middle of the city. A handful are in a state of post-Katrina disrepair, but retain a withered beauty. My apartment is in the latter group.
The building I live in has seen better days. The parquet flooring is warped. The exterior paint is peeling and/or faded. Garbage is randomly strewn in the foliage out front.
But I liked it almost immediately. No serious attempts at renovation of any kind are apparent, revealing interesting details of a time far past: random stain glass windows, tall ceilings with fans, crown molding, creaky (and somewhat questionable) French windows with antiquated lock systems, iron radiators with ornate embossings, tile work from another era. All these things and a view out my window of the antique street car on St. Charles, the French windows opening up to trees, and the light, and the LIGHT! (Have I mentioned that I moved here from Alaska?)
All these perks were enough for me to sign a lease and put down the cash, even though it was at the top end of my price range, and despite the fact I had not seen the neighbors. But I had faith; Having lived in various tenement buildings in New York City, I knew that my power drill and sander could make the world turn. And, though I was now single, I knew that my lovable but seemingly vicious dog could protect me from harm's way.
Like many New Orleans landlords, mine owns several such buildings in the city, many of which he purchased shortly after Katrina. Though this part of town did not flood, the hurricane itself compromised roofs, windows, and walls all over the city. I've since learned that these lesser maintained buildings are typically occupied by students, whose budgets force them to accept an amount of disrepair they will never tolerate again upon graduation. But despite the notorious and dubious reputation of New Orleans quasi-slumlords, I had good luck. Over the span of a few days, I met a batallion of repairmen who fixed the plumbing, the gas, the window, put in another air conditioning unit, installed wood laminate in the only carpeted room, and replaced two ceiling fans of questionable durability. And that's how I met Thomas.
Thomas is the maintenance man/manager for the landlord's numerous units all over town. He is a character, and even before getting to know him one can tell that he has lived a colorful life. Thomas pulls up with his old grey tank of a pickup truck, an antique from the fifties era. Thomas and I chat about Alaska and I tell him that I love Cajun music and that I came to New Orleans to live a different life. He tells me he moved to New Orleans from Arizona prompted by a tv program in which a Katrina survivor spoke of the unearthing of her home. He decided that with his background in carpentry and building management, New Orleans was the place for him.
I ask Thomas about the building, having done some internet research the night before and learned that it was built in the 1800's and that the exteriors were used in at least one major motion picture. Thomas corrects me and says that there are at least three more movies to his knowledge.
On a lark I ask him if there are any salvage yards selling lumber or fixtures from old houses. I tell him about my plans to build a bed frame and headboard from salvaged doors. A big grin spreads across his face. He explains that after Katrina, he and other repairmen were ordered to dispose of the doors, windows, and other sundry items which stood in the way of quick repair. But the pack-rat in him couldn't bear to dispose of the items, and he and other staff salvaged much of the condemned objects, in the off chance that they could be used again. He tells me that the basements of these buildings are full of old wooden blinds, doors and other items I might find useful. We agree to meet the next day.
Thomas takes me into the basement of yet another beautiful but neglected old building near mine, owned by another landlord he works for. There I see dozens of doors, with old brass knobs, and skeleton key holes. There are antique stoves from the 1950's, French window units in spades, pieces of wrought iron from ornate fences, topped with fleur de lis. There is shelving wood, of real hardwood, mirrors with antique frames. I am reeling at the sight of all this junk. This beautiful old junk.
He takes me to his storage unit and his own apartment, both of which resemble a warehouse of old furniture. He tells me that with the exception of the few items he brought with him to New Orleans in his truck, every single object I saw was left behind by tenants or abandoned years ago. He shows me a beautiful piano body that was almost destroyed with a sledgehammer so that it could be easily removed from one of the apartments. The piano was missing the keys and pads on the keys (probably ivory), but the body itself was made of burl wood and dates prior to 1865.
Like a kid in a candy store, from all this I pick out four wooden chairs for reupholstery, a perfectly sized coffee table with Queen Anne legs, a piece of hardwood to be sanded down and propped on the defunct radiators like a bench, some funky old wooden blinds with antique metal keyholes, a small Chinese vase, an old salmon box with a Native Alaskan design on it, a heavy metal roasting pot and lid from the 1960's, a glass decanter and a couple of pieces of marble tile. I set my sights on three doors, two of which I will sand and set atop of casters, and the last one I will mount on top of the frame as a headboard.
I am gleeful and Tom looks pleased that he has found someone with a penchant for old stuff. He seems surprised, but he can tell that I too have an old soul.
The next day I twist brass hooks in the blind and mount it next
to my door to hang my hats. The vase I have propped by one of the French windows, the coffee table sits nicely in front of my futon, with a piece of black marble tile for cups and things. I finish hanging my pictures, sit down and look at all my new things. My new old things. I wonder what the roasting pot has cooked before and in which building, I imagine who used the coffee table.
The city of New Orleans is swirling with stories, and more than just the history you'll find nicely organized in a guidebook. Everywhere is a tale, with more of a past than any of the cookie-cutter houses one can find in the streets of Orange County, California, where I grew up. And little relics of this city are found everywhere, as if they were left behind without much thought or by accident, like crumbs of a sandwich eaten the day before. And now these little crumbs outfit my apartment.
I end my day with my computer sitting on my new coffee table, watching the Pelican Brief in my quest to watch everything remotely about New Orleans. I laugh out loud when I realize that Julia Roberts and Sam Shepherd were in the apartment right across the hall from me when they pretended to get it on.
Since moving here I feel both lucky and scared. I know I have found good luck meeting Thomas and the others I've met in my first week here. Before I left Alaska lots of people told me that I was crazy to have left a "good" state job and to relocate to a city still combatting the effects of hurricane and flood, and now dealing with one of the largest oil spills in history. One person referred to it as a wasteland. But I can tell already that New Orleans is a beautiful city and that there is a community here that loves it, both old and new. What the naysayers forget is that one man's junk is a Small Time Explorer's treasure.