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Malfaubourlgia September 22, 2012

Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Faubourg St. John, Fortin Street, Gentilly, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, The Odd, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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There is a discount outlet of Hell in my attic. I’m convinced. The rule is never to turn off the ceilings fans in my son’s room and the back kitchen, and more importantly not to turn them on late afternoon if you’ve forgotten and turned them off. Switching on the kitchen fan at three, even when the window unit is set to 72 degrees and you don’t break a sweat doing two sinks of dishes, is like turning on the oven.

There are more reasonable explanations for this if you insist. The house is old. I think the landlord said sometime in the 1920s, and I wasn’t sure if that was pride in its sturdiness or an excuse for its shortcomings. It seems solid enough in the main, and shook no more in the worst gusts of Hurricane Issaac than it does for a next-door, kettle-drum peal of thunder. The claw footed tub is charming, but the lack of a shower is not. The floor beneath the bathroom is giving way, the bathroom tiles fracturing for a second time in a year, and I moved the refrigerator from the small back room into the small kitchen when it began to list dangerously to port. The fourteen foot ceilings are a blessing when it’s warm, at least until you forgetfully turn on the fan you should not have turned off in the first place. Thespiders are quite safe in their high corners, although the flies from the track prefer to keep company with the groundlings and never venture up to spider height. Behind those 14 foot ceilings is an attic only accessible by the small vents at each end, and I am quite sure that what ever material once passed for insulation, horsehair perhaps, has turned to dust. The house faces north-south and as the long run of the roof captures the afternoon heat it’s attention Hell-Mart shoppers, special on boiling pitch just over the kitchen.

The flies are another clue to the Beezelbublian nature of the place. It could be the race track: all that horseflesh digesting all that fodder into horseshit that draws the crows in great droves when the tractor rakes the dirt, but there’s no point in letting rational explanations get in the way of those that go best with cold beer on dark, warm nights. It’s an old habit of mine. Long ago I told my children’s mother that the thunk she heard every night around 10 pm in my basement apartment on Massachusetts Avenue N.E. in Washington, D.C. was the ghost of the tenant who hung himself upstairs at just that time. Don’t tell me about the settling of an old row house as the last of the afternoon Potomac heat escapes. Give me a good ghost story instead. I never got much more out of that story than a look I found charming 20 years ago, but then she was raised from German-Irish stock in North Dakota where over the generations imagination became reserved for private worry over whether the corn and potatoes would last until spring, and suspension of disbelief was reserved for church.

I lived in a house of similar vintage in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, a beautiful old Craftsman style that would look right at home in New Orleans. It was The Norby House, once the family home of the owners of the local department store. I used to tell the children that the fertility of that shady place in back where plants grew rampant was because old Mr. Norby was buried there, even if I knew it had probably once been the privy. The windows in that houes were original, handmade glass with the ripples and bubbles of their forging. Everything was original including the cloth wiring, which hung from glass insulators attached to the floor rafters in the basement. One run ran up a pipe to a wall sconce my my daughter’s room, a line that I think was not conduit but perhaps had once been a gas line. seller’s The fresh coat of paint on that house peeled the first winter, as the heat leaching out of the house met the below-zero air outside. You could feel it along the walls: whatever had once insulated them floor to ceiling had crumbled to dust in the bottom third of the wall. The house came with not one but two oil tanks in the basement which together would make a proper locomotive boiler, and I still wonder how we managed to afford to fill them. I would do nothing about the gorgeous original windows except to drag out a 24-foot extension ladder twice a year, and haul up and down the original wood-frame storm windows, each about 20 pounds of wood and glass. They hung from hooks at the top, and I had to lean back away from the house with feet and knees interlocked to the ladder to get them on the hooks, realizing that the best I could hope for is that the ladder would follow me down and knock me unconscious so I wouldn’t feel the pain of my other injuries.

You have to have at thing about old houses approaching the clinically disturbing to stand at the top of a fully extended ladder and do that.

This is not a bad old house. There’s that stain on the kitchen floor that is traceable either to human sacrifice or someone rebuilding a motorcycle engine on the linoleum. The brown carpet would do any U.S. route motel proud, and the color hides most stains pretty well except coffee, the thing I spill the most. The windows are cheap aluminum which I discovered in my first week here can be jimmied with a screw driver using less effort than opening a jar of pickles. (I though I had perhaps left it unlocked, until I went to close it after the police left and noticed the latch was closed, and the small dimple in the frame.) Then again there are fans beneath those high ceilings in every room, and that claw foot tub I can actually submerge myself in. I passed on several places with the brutally-industrial, wall-mounted gas space heaters but when I heard the rent for something here on the Gentilly frontier of the fashionable Faubourgh St. John, I resigned myself to them. I have lived in enough old New Orleans houses to find the singing of the gas on a winter’s night soothing, even if I’d rather have the tremendously less efficient and more dangerous ceramic and iron grate sitting inside the bricked up fireplace. The flies are a bother but I would rather sit on my stoop and watch the horses at their morning exercise than than sit in a sterile granite kitchen staring out the window at a holiday-swallowing lawn. The mantles may just be mantles but the scrap of Krewe du Vieux-salvaged plywood hell fire that sits under the one in front is as much of a fire place as needed in New Orleans and goes well with the infernal commerce upstairs, where I like to imagine there are demonic bats in their hundreds waiting for evening, mosquitoes and a chance to get tangled in your hair.

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