The first place I stayed at after I moved out of my ex's apartment was Ginger's apartment. She was plump, immature and a vegetarian
. Her apartment was what the Times-Picayune
would define as having an "unfurnished kitchen
." This means it did not come with a stove or a fridge. It meant your rent was even dirtier than dirt cheap
and your address was less than 6 blocks from the Mississippi River
. People who lived in these places were either so poor or hooked on drugs
that having a normal kitchen was not really all that important. The neighborhood was flecked with either poor black families or single poor white 20 somethings
who had, like me, moved here to lose themselves in another chance and reinvention
I lived with Ginger for about 2 months. She had a hot plate and a small cooler she used to keep things cold for a brief time. Food never got left over; it was eaten on the spot or thrown away before it started rotting. We either ate standing up or sitting on the hardwood floors of her bedroom whose only furniture was a deflated futon surrounded by milk crates. We had no stove and no fridge, but we had an air conditioner.
I have been in many places whose priorities were equally skewed, ass backwards. One friend I worked with during a summer let me crash on his living room floor one night and the only circulation came from a window fan. It was so hot that I woke up every hour or so, drenched in sweat. He had simply gotten used to it. We all do, at some point.
The temperature of my kitchen right now is likely in the mid 80's, a flannel sheet dividing it from the bedroom where my only air conditioner sits, stuffed into a far attic window. I figured out recently why there were thick strands of wire nailed into the ceiling just above the window unit; the previous tenants hung a box fan up in front of it to better circulate what coolness it provided this one small room. I took the hint and did the same thing, propping it at an angle with the soft end of my mop to blow the air downward on me as I write this, a second box fan pointed at me from the other side less that 2 feet from my chair. I could buy a hundred fans but it wouldn't do much, just blow the hot air around.
Until now, I hadn't spent a summer in this apartment; I moved into it on the tail end of August. The apartment I shared with a roommate the summer before was in the French Quarter. It was a shotgun, room after room in succession with a bathroom and a kitchen in the back; you had to walk through every room in the house to get anywhere, so doors seemed almost obsolete. We had one window unit that could cool exactly one room, so we put it in the living room and pretty much stayed in there through the summer months. Rhonda slept in there every night, while I was able to sleep pretty well with just a fan on me, sitting at the foot of my bed. People tell me that I have the oddest disposition to temperature. I wear long sleeves inside when the A/C is on full blast and run the heat in the winters longer than anyone. As intolerable as my living condition is right now in the face of the sweltering heat, it's not that bad for me, as long as I don't do much when I am home.
I try to spend as much time as I can out of my apartment in my spare time. My office has central air, so I often go there even on the weekends to write instead of having to sit here in little more than a bra and boxers to keep cool. I go to air conditioned coffee houses or drive to the park and walk, where there is a breeze. The summers here in New Orleans are summers you make do with, you just try to get by until the heat breaks, which usually won't even happen until late September and begins as early as April, not far after Mardi Gras.
There really is no winter or fall here, no changing seasons, so that the summer really does seem to go on forever, so much that you have to work that much harder to not give it too much attention. I have seen enough dank and misty dwellings in the four years I've been here to know that there is some kind of bizarre Bohemian underground culture here for white youth. The sagging, sheetless mattresses that have likely had half a dozen owners, the paper pizza boxes and empty bottles serving as windowsill art work, the second hand stereos dusted with cigarette ashes and beer bottle sweat rings, the sparse thin, second hand clothes sagging on cheap wire hangers in closets with no doors. The romantic claw foot tubs with no showers whose enamel has been worn so that the inside looks like an oyster shell, the bathroom sinks with two separate faucets and basins that are hung too low for modern life to wash their hands with ease. When everything in your city is known for being old, and you are young and poor, your homes will reflect the poverty of dozens of generations before you who have struggled with the same summer heat and then some, since they had lived here before A/C was readily available (even though it's not always the case with you).
The apartments you find in the poor white heat are either immense single family houses that have been broken up in to tiny, oddly spaced efficiencies or slave quarters, the housing for the hired/purchased help that usually sat behind the plantation owners. From the get go, you are stepping in on someone else's struggle for stability. You can feel it in the walls without insulation, under the crawlspace that holds the building at least a foot off the ground in the event of flooding, in the shoddy partition that separates your space from the space of the neighbors next door. You see it in your one course meals and the empty soda cans tinkling around in the floor wells of your car, in the freezing cold bars that go on for blocks all over the city, the vein of sweat always trickling down your back, the places where you sat too long and melted.
When you have to stay in one spot, you stay as still as possible, keeping the blinds drawn in the belief that darkness will bring relief. When you move, you keep moving to keep the air clean on your body. You can't stop until you've arrived at a haven where someone else can afford to keep cool, a place you can hide in for a while until the sun goes down. Not that it's any better at night, but at least it's not so bright. It's not so embarrassing to be poor at night, since in New Orleans, everyone is looking to reduce themselves, to get lost a bit poorer than they would allow in daylight.