Between Is And Was
A satellite map claims that our corner of the Ninth Ward, back by the naval base 200 feet from the Mississippi River, is somehow dry. Four of five friends who remained — and say they’ll fight to stay — concur. Our house survived: our huge, gorgeous, rented house. We own nothing, except Chauncey, our pygmy goat, who is with us now in Florida.
For $800 a month, Chauncey had a thousand-square-foot backyard behind a huge double shotgun with an attic renovated into a comfortable hardwood bedroom in what was the most enigmatic, creative neighborhood in the United States. It hurts to say was, but the present tense sounds wrong now.
We moved off Esplanade Avenue a year ago, when that idyllic area began turning from a neighborhood into a Monopoly board. The Bywater’s laid-back neighbors remained its big draw. Nobody would rat you out for selling food out of your bedroom window, or hosting a noise music festival in your backyard. Or harboring a farm animal. Chauncey, in fact, was a beloved Bywater celebrity. Walking down Royal Street, munching tropical plants and cigarette butts on his way to Sugar Park Tavern and past Vaughn’s, Chauncey brought down racial barriers and introduced us to every one of our neighbors.
Our favorite old, loud neighbor, who sold Viagra from his apartment, would, like many black New Orleanians, make barbecue jokes whenever he saw Chauncey. On the morning we fled Katrina, the old man laughed and told us no way was he leaving New Orleans for no hurricane. Most of our old black neighbors stayed. Months ago, when the oldest Mardi Gras Indian, 89-year-old Big Chief “Tootie” Montana, died, the papers loudly mourned the loss of the man and the vast historic knowledge he took with him, and it is old-timers like Montana who did not flee the storm, and thus, Katrina peeled the epidermis off the city’s history.
My girlfriend and I wouldn’t have left, either. We almost chose to tough out Katrina inside our huge, wonderful house. But another neighbor forced his car keys on us. I grew up in Florida and the false alarms, the stockpiling of canned goods, the window-taping every year all for naught, had steeled me against panic. It only happens to the other guy. Then last year, after we bought Chauncey for $75 from a farm on New Orleans’ West Bank, Hurricane Ivan threatened, and I evacuated, for the first time ever. We drove eight hours to Baton Rouge with Chauncey in our laps — normally a 45-minute trip, but I-10 from New Orleans is not suited for mass panic. And then, Ivan turned away.
Still this time we grabbed our neighbor’s car keys and crept along I-10 to Tallahassee, where we sat with friends of friends, eating pulled pork and roast beef and fried chicken like some inverted Thanksgiving, and watching our favorite thing in the world drown on live TV.
Chauncey, despite living in a carrier, remained a peppy prince. Our friends of friends loved him, squealing with laughter as we punched Chauncey in the head. (It’s how goats play. He loves it.) We are refugees, sir. Take us in, please. Our goat will do tricks for your amusement.
After five days in Tallahassee, Chauncey’s transport instinct kept him calm for another 15-hour drive: My girlfriend lost the argument, so we drove through the wounded South all the way to Texas, rather than flying over it, which to me would have seemed very wrong. We filled the tiny gas tank in Florida and hung north of the disaster areas, but still witnessed enough downed power lines, uprooted trees, brick buildings knocked off their bases — but not another drop of gas until Natchez, Mississippi. When our only cell phone died, she lost her cool and yelled at me. Chauncey kept quiet all the way to Conroe, to my parents’ gated community.
After three days in Conroe, Texas, Chauncey’s ears are drooping. By now, our initial shock has worn off. I think of all our supposedly dead neighbors in Bywater, and somehow I see and feel it all less clearly than I did at first. Shock almost felt better. There was electricity running through us then, at least, even if it was a negative charge. Now we’ve deflated. We’re puddles. And we’re in Conroe: the exact opposite of New Orleans. Chauncey doesn’t like the manicured grass, the sterile uniformity of my parents’ neighborhood — located somewhere along the 15-mile stretch between Wal-Mart and Super Wal-Mart — any more than we do. His movements have visibly slowed. He seems as lost and despondent as his owners.
Everywhere we’ve landed since the evacuation has been another attempt to accommodate the goat. As if just being New Orleanians hasn’t gotten us enough free meals and drinks, Chauncey has been, as always, the Great Ambassador. He’s finally led us here, to this goat farm! An older, hippyish couple own the whole neighborhood: a large clump of houses and small farms – and on a bayou! The area is called the Fifth Ward (I hadn’t known the world outside New Orleans divided itself into wards). “Fifth Ward also has Houston’s highest crime rate,” informed my new editor at Houston Press, who found us this situation. “It’s where I figure you’ll feel most at home.”
The farm’s owners will arrive home in three days. We’ve yet to meet them. Their goats are not here either but at a separate location while their owners vacation in Colorado. As I type on their computer, however, two huge prehistoric sheep stare
in at me through the window, a chicken resting atop one’s back. I don’t see Chauncey anywhere underhoof. He’s closer in size to the chickens; a clean little toy compared to the sheep; no balls, no horns. The breeders sawed off then cauterized Chauncey’s horns at birth, without asking our preference. We snipped his nuts later.
My girlfriend, Mizzy, has been at her parents’ in D.C. all week while I’ve holed up alone in this big house as if in a writer’s colony, an artist’s retreat, an insane asylum. Mizzy and I have little responsibility. Nothing is expected of us refugees, for now. Our boundless cell phones roam free of charge; our rich, kindly landlords will have bigger concerns; Entergy will have stopped knocking on our door (painted with its big orange X) about that past-due $300. And all this while our bank accounts are stuffed with FEMA and Red Cross money. When this couple return, they want us to rent a two-bedroom house across from the goat farm for just $475. No lease. Month-to-month refugee special. With a Jacuzzi. And cable Internet. On a goat farm. The exact situation Mizzy and I have often dreamt of, aloud.
But though Chauncey is meant for a farm, he looks small and lost in that vast gray pen built for beasts four times his size. The currently absent goats have eaten every stitch of green, mowed the pen down to just gray, so I have to take Chauncey on eating walks around the neighborhood — like taking a dog to pee, except eating takes more time. I lead Chauncey down to the thickest roadside weeds and hide in the shade reading The Bonfire of the Vanities (drawing my own comparisons to the recent governmental reaction in New Orleans) and watching Chauncey munch for the length of one chapter before walking him back “home.”
But even a Tom Wolfe chapter’s never long enough to give a goat his fill. And so, hungry and small, Chauncey slips out of his new pen, evacuates the gray in search of green. Goats are famous masters of escape that learn to work latches with their tongues. We shifted Chauncey into a smaller chicken-wire enclosure within the big gray pen, but still, every morning when I step outside, Chauncey comes trotting up the road on hooves like tiny high heels, like he’s been out all night.
What can I do? Just hope he doesn’t get mugged.
One Jack-and-Coke into another slow refugee afternoon, I heard a shriek like a hawk. “Chauncey!” I sprinted through the big house and out to the pens. “Chauncey!” My simultaneous first sights were a medium-sized black dog rushing away along the fence, and Chauncey scrambling toward me, squealing, bleeding. I snatched up all of his 27 pounds and gripped his muscular throat to plug the pencil-thick red stream. “No, no, no!” I shouted in response to Chauncey’s hot tragic screams in my face. And suddenly, not having a car didn’t seem so bohemian, so cute. I could only carry this bloody armful out onto the dirt streets, bleating, “Help me! Help me!” The farmers were all gone. Chauncey’s legs straightened out, back at an angle like he was diving — like death throes. “Chauncey’s dying! Help!” I cannot imagine the first impression my teary, red, anguished face and shirt and shorts painted with blood and the screaming goat in my arms, made on the pale young man who finally piled us into his Mustang.
Our young driver didn’t know of any animal hospital. His Mustang idled as I watched him rack his brain, calmly, but with his fists up on either side of his head, like thought conductors revving and revving and: “Okay! Yes! An emergency vet!”
“A close one?” I asked, knowing that in Texas anything “close” is still far away — another reason to miss New Orleans. After 20 minutes on the freeway, Chauncey’s transport instinct kicked in and he lay still, squealing only when I released the pressure on his throat — the bleeding had stopped. Chauncey remained a civilized beast, while in my panic I harassed our driver: “He’s gonna bleed to death!” I shook Chauncey to keep him from falling sleep. “Is the vet actually close yet?” Our driver’s continual Shh, shh, shh, shhhh was meant as much for me. But I couldn’t help believing that Chauncey was about to become another of Katrina‘s after-the-fact fatalities. I couldn’t stop blaming myself: Why did I let them cut off his horns! Why wasn’t I out there spending time with him? I spend more time writing about Chauncey, and talking about him at parties with strangers…
By the time we reached the other side of Houston, I realized Chauncey would have already died if he was going to die. He breathed through his nose, normally, relaxed. He probably would have eaten a branch, if offered (goats are so hardwired to just eat, eat, eat that as Chauncey’s mother lay on her back screaming, giving birth, I saw her lips stretch back over her shoulder to nibble hay). I was slightly less worried by the time our young driver parked outside a strip mall under red block letters: VET EMERGENCY.
Which I immediately realized was some sort of Vietnam veterans health insurance place. “No!” I cried. “NO! AH! This isn’t a…a real…”
“I know,” our driver sighed, gripping his temples. “I can’t think of anywhere else. They can at least stop the bleeding here.”
I froze. Is he right? “They can? Okay, I’ll, uh, just…take Chauncey in, and uh…”
Chauncey squealed when I lifted his head, and our driver studied the building more closely and suddenly realized: “Oh, shit! Veterans?”
“Yes! See? They can’t help us at all! Oh, Christ! Christ! Christ!” I climbed back into his Mustang and looked across and down the street: “A cat hospital!” We skidded directly over.
The calm doctor shaved Chauncey’s throat and found four puncture wounds. She said I’d done an excellent job of stopping the blood and sewed no stitches, just thoroughly cleaned the holes, suggested we buy a spiked collar to protect his throat, and after some goat research, administered a fat white penicillin shot over which Chauncey did not cry — all on the house, since we’re from New Orleans. Chauncey slept clumsily in my arms on the way out, as the doctor assured me he would be fine but that his neck would become very sore from the bites, in that particular way a puncture wound stiffens and spreads out after its first piercing pain. “Like how this whole Katrina experience has been,” I testified.
Twenty-four hours later, Chauncey is back living in his carrier. He stands stone-still behind bars, semicatatonic. We are befuddled. Even this ideal world is not ours, we’ve decided before we’ve even met its owners. Alone now in their big empty house we wait, and wait, wondering, What now? What next?
Weeks into our Houston “evacu-cation,” our New Orleans landlords call, wanting to know if we’re coming back. Their phone messages (we haven’t been brave enough to answer) claim that since their properties didn’t flood, their values have doubled, and though they won’t raise our rent, if we are coming back to New Orleans, they need money for October.
This Fifth Ward Houston goat farm has been paradise (I’ve also made more money writing in one month in Houston than I would’ve all summer in Louisiana), but Mizzy and I don’t want to lose our huge, gorgeous, cheap house in New Orleans, with its elaborate pygmy goat pen.
Hoping to further avoid this hard decision, we take Chauncey for a walk through a Houston park (so much cleaner than anywhere back home) and end up answering the same old goat questions from interested passersby. In our depressed state we’re not really in the mood. We’ve always joked about typing up an FAQ pamphlet.
Q: Oh, my God, a goat! How did you end up with a pet goat?
A: Our wonderful rented house in New Orleans had a giant yard, so Mizzy wanted a dog. But I love animals too much to want to be in control of when one can and can’t poop. So we joked about getting a goat, who would live outside all the time, pooping little odorless black beans wherever and whenever he pleased. We then jokingly found the Web site of Rosedale Farms on New Orleans’s West Bank, and drove out to visit the goats. When the pygmies, like fat, knee-high seals with stubby legs, all silently approached us, questioning us with many calm, kind-seeming eyes, urban goat husbandry suddenly didn’t seem so esoteric. “And with a yard y’all’s size,” the married farmer couple promised, “y’all wouldn’t even have to feed him.” Then moments into our visit, a mother goat gave birth. After witnessing the miracle of life for the first time ever (and after the lady farmer said she would have to find homes for the two newborn boys quick, before her husband sold them for food), we put down a $75 payment on a baby boy goat, to be picked up one week later.
Q: Goats eat anything, right?
A: We’re not sure if it’s because Chauncey’s so small, or so spoiled, but I’ve never seen him glance twice at an aluminum can. He eats only what will give him sustenance — and also anything that is flat, thin and crinkly like leaves, paper, plastic bags. Also cigarette butts from New Orleans’s dirty streets. Sometimes we give him handfuls of sweet feed even though our vet ordered, “Don’t feed him anything. Just let him eat the yard.” This same vet also claimed the cigarettes were actually good for cleaning out the internal parasites goats inevitably contract from always eating off the ground. Chauncey’s diet, like ours, has been much cleaner in Houston.
Q: Does he live indoors with you?
A: We might bring Chauncey in when he’s tired enough to pass out in Mizzy’s lap. But because God wired goats to never stop eating — and because many important things are made out of paper — Chauncey is not a very fun houseguest. He lives outside all the time here, in Houston, with a dozen chickens, two spooky sheep and a trio of female Nubian goats five times his size, who treated him as Santa’s reindeer did Rudolph.
These floppy-eared Houston girls — Lisa, Latte and Mocha — rammed and butted and bullied tiny Chauncey. The one time he stood up for himself (literally stood up on his back hooves, to a full height of two and a half feet), lanky Latte reared up in response and towered nearly seven feet above Chauncey. Still, Chauncey remains as close to the ladies as they will allow him.
The farmers who, like so many Houstonians, have been more parental to us than my parents, returned home finally to find a pack of five more wild dogs sniffing around outside their house. Though Hurricane Rita has shaken enough leaves onto the ground to keep Chauncey round as a globe, Houston hasn’t been as paradisiacal for him.
The farmers moved us into our own cute little house directly across the street; they own 16 houses in the neighborhood. Our house is smaller but almost nicer than our New Orleans home, with its own diminutive fenced-in yard.
Unfortunately, the first memory Mizzy and I created there was an argument, when I did not approve of her “trapping” Chauncey in our new yard. I vehemently believed that, though he didn’t get along with the other goats, he nonetheless felt safer around them. But Mizzy wanted him closer to her. “Despite what he wants!” I shouted for all our new neighbors to hear. We ended up crying on opposite ends of our new cute house.
It was just that neither of us had freaked out since Katrina. Not once. Our sadness has been mellow. But now our New Orleans landlords are pressuring us with ultimatums, and Mizzy’s been offered a temporary job in Rhode Island placing Katrina victims in artists’ residencies — they would pay her rent, plus 20-something dollars an hour (unheard of in New Orleans!), and though it’s only a nine-month job, I fear I might never see her or Chauncey again.