in may of 2013, i drove to hernando, mississippi to buy this 34-foot anodized aluminum trailer. my intention was to start a "bed and breakfast" comprised of old trailers across the street from my house in uptown new orleans. here's how that's all shaking out.
like many new orleanians, i live across the street from a vacant, overgrown lot. my landlord gave me its history the first weekend i moved in: a two-story victorian owned by an old creole family with many children once stood there. it was the loveliest home on the block. her "dream home." once the kids who grew up there moved on and out, the matriarch ended up being the only one there left. once she passed away, her kids couldn't agree on how to divvy it up. they fought and fought. they fought so long that the roof caved in. it sat that way for a while in the wind and sun and rain. finally, one day back in the 80s, the city came, bulldozed the house, dug a hole on the property, and buried the rubble right there.
since then, the lot's been in various phases of overgrowth. when i moved in, it was an impenetrable field of grass taller than your head. i thought it was kind of pleasantly hypnotic watching it sway in the wind. one morning, i woke up to find my neighbor in a hazmat suit walking through the brush, spraying poison from a canister strapped to his back. a week later, it looking like a burnt-out battleground. only weeds and scrabbly tree stumps remained. the grass, eventually, would come to grow back in patches. sometimes my neighbors would try to cut it, until something inevitably broke their mowers. they continued to complain about the eyesore, but far worse were the cats.
the cat lady trudges into view in the wee hours of the morning, bearing large buckets of dry food to feed a colony of at least two dozen feral cats, who behave as though the property is their personal serengeti. she's a substantial, viking-like, battle axe of a woman. her nose is bulbous. frizzy, thick red hair falls down to her waist, and her gait is a loping one, like a linebacker's. lately her operation has expanded, and at least two minions sporadically come by in their SUVs to make quick cat food deliveries in broad daylight. the nerve! though i'm more bemused than anything by this situation, it makes most of my block furious.
i find myself more disgruntled by the waste of space. you see, i very enjoyably make the lion's share of my livelihood sleeping on friends' couches while renting my house out on airbnb. in may, i was also making peanuts by the hour at my "day job," working remotely for a dick of a boss at a local web design firm. naturally, i was growing increasingly interested in expanding my rental operations. i'd already dreamed of addressing new orleans' deep pizza deficit and slinging homemade pies on the lot, and by gosh, for lodging, it'd be perfect! i sat damn near every day on my porch and fantasized: it was like a sprawling blank canvas on which i could carry out all sorts of experiments. i'm fascinated by vernacular architecture, so first i looked into building "relax shacks," like these
problem is, i'm not very handy. so, naturally, campers followed. there's something about campers that, you know, sparks the american imagination. i come from the epicenter of american RV manufacturing in the middle west, am a road trip fanatic, and besides, they're relatively affordable used on craigslist. i could get four to six trailers, i thought, string up christmas lights, plant lawn flamingoes, fill up an above-ground pool, build a clay a pizza oven, and bam! i'm living the american dream, chilling in an old camper with my harem. successful similar operations had already popped up in marfa, tx
and bisbee, az
, and airbnb even has their own promotional page featuring airstreams
feeling lucky, i tried to hunt the lot's owner down. the NOLA tax assessor's website informed me that that person was one robert moreland, who owed some $10,000 to the city in health and tax liens. my neighbors said that the many descendants of that old creole grandma were legitimately crazy, mostly on and off drugs, and warring over the lot's fate to this day. if i, some punk computer geek from the midwest, talked them into selling it? well, that would be the day.
undeterred, i spent two months poking around craigslist. the trailer that would come to be mine was posted in memphis on a tuesday evening for $3000. these were going for $12-15,000 in perfect shape on ebay, and my horoscope was predicting big things. i began to freak out. by the following afternoon, i was piloting a borrowed ford F-150 to hernando, mississippi to see about purchasing it. two of my hipster friends from toronto came along, eager to see memphis and, you know, "the south." by the drawl of the camper's owners over the phone, it didn't seem like they'd leave disappointed.
it was near midnight when we arrived. after plunging three miles into the country off the interstate, we turned a sharp corner and there, off in the distance, it was: lit up like a christmas tree, sitting on top of a small hill. it was though a submarine-shaped UFO had landed in the middle of the missippi delta. we gasped. i slowly turned my car onto the property, passing beneath a ranch-style entrance bearing its name: SPEEDY ACRES. the beginning of a long driveway was flanked by an outbuilding bearing crudely painted illustrations: betty boop, the tasmanian devil, tweety bird, and the silhouette of the marlboro man leaning against a doorway. the owners had said they'd have the camper lit up, unlocked, and ready, and that they would come out to meet us when they saw my headlights coming up the drive. approaching the trailer in the dewy night felt like a scene from ET in miniature. it had been decorated with homemade stickers printed by inkjet: more taz and betty boop, checkered racing flags, a skeptical vulture peering over spectacles.
there was a noah's ark feeling about what transpired next: the owners, a retired couple, seemed to burst from the house, along with three dogs and at least four cats. their names were norma and GW catlin. GW approached on a four-wheeler, and i swear the brights were on. norma trudged outside wearing a t-shirt several sizes too large; three realistically drawn kittens with wet eyes looked out from an easter basket on the front. GW had a prodigious waistline and an even more impressive personality. if texan, he would've seemed like a cattle or oil man. norma, endearingly no-nonsense and peering over her glasses, looked like the subject of a william eggleston photograph. at least four of their animals excitedly followed us into the camper. as you might imagine, i was too awestruck to remember many details of our introduction, or the tour that followed. my city-slicker canadian friends, meanwhile, were feeling as though dropped into american reality television, unable to comprehend the catlins' southern english.
GW was telling dirty jokes within ten minutes. the first entailed a proctologist stretching out assholes and putting them on the highway in police uniforms. the rest mostly revolved around the female anatomy. i immediately liked the gatlins so much that all of my carefully prepared questions regarding the condition of the trailer immediately leapt from memory. i asked: how'd you two love birds meet? GW proceeded to tell me the story. they met at a nudist camp, where he held a contest. he put a a bunch of donuts around his crank, then offered them to all the ladies in the camp. the special lady who got to that last donut, he figured, winking at norma, was the keeper.
when left alone to deliberate, the canadians and i agreed: a deal too good to pass up. i told mr. catlin i'd drive back down the next day to see it, alone, in the daylight, to make a decision. the next morning, before nervously heading back down to hernando, i had to go to the bank and, whispering to the teller on the other side of the glass, deduct more cash than i've ever seen in one place. after again passing the catlin's outbuilding, i noticed what i had failed to in the dark the night before: two confederate flags flapping in the wind. i walked into the camper and opened the windows on all four ends; it pleasantly, immediately aired out. meanwhile, just outside, a cluster of fowl skirted to and fro, gobbling in a panicky manner. i walked up to norma and asked, what are those? guin-ees, she said. they were distraught because they had laid their eggs beneath the trailer. i'll take it, i told her.
i followed her to the house and into the kitchen, where i saw a decrepit shih tzu snoring in the corner. i love shih tzus, and immediately went over to pet it. it jumped, startled. she's old n blind, jeanne told me, nonchalantly opening the envelope containing my hard-earned money. as she proceeded to count it, the crusty old dog looked up at me through large, unseeing cataracts, leaned weakly into my hand, and flopped back down to sleep. then jeanne handed me the trailer's title and we shook hands.
GW, meanwhile, surfed through the channels from the comfort of an easy chair. i hung out for another hour, visiting. do you know how many faggots they got down there in norlans, on bourbon street? JW asked. "HOO! lord!" we were interrupted by the sound of the shih tzu blindly crashing into the lower kitchen cupboards. yes! i do, i replied. they've got a three or four block stretch of it. gets pretty crazy on the weekends.
eventually we agreed that i'd come back the next day, hook the camper up to my truck, and head back down to norlans.
when i returned the next afternoon, JW and two of his dogs met me on his four-wheeler. his younger, prickly-faced, able-bodied friend followed on another, smiling, spitting, wearing a dirty, faded shirt and hat each emblazoned with racecars. it took us about fifteen seconds to become buddies, and about thirty more for him to start calling me "sitty boy-h." he was there because JW was too large to comfortably get up and down off the ground. for the remainder of the afternoon, when exerting himself, JW would periodically yowl: ohh-hhh! JAY-sus! HOO!
i had planned to be on the road before rush hour, but as soon as we got the trailer hooked up to my truck, the electric jack that lifted it so conveniently up stopped working. then the tail lights wouldn't turn on. so spent at least an hour hand-splicing a number of wires to stretch from the back of my truck, through the front window of the trailer, thirty-four whole feet back through and out the rear window, and finally into a pair of magnetic tail lights we slapped on the bumper. there they conveniently blocked the camper's license plate, twelve years past expiry. (the truck i was driving wasn't in much better shape. the gear shift worked backwards, and so did the windows).
i have never towed anything in my life. this made JW--not to mention my friends, family, and truck-loaning neighbor--a bit worried. so, for practice, i followed the dogs following GW's four-wheeler in slow circles around speedy acres' large, recently-mowed yard. dusk was waning when i finally departed. i was tooting my horn and waving, but my palms were sweating. i might as well have been towing a rocket ship. i had no rear visibility and one functioning tail-light. accelerating to 55 miles per hour on the interstate, i was bouncing and rattling like a cat in a washing machine. this would continue unabated for the eight succeeding hours. every time i blindly switched lanes while curving through jackson was like a small prayer. i didn't know where i'd put the thing when i got home.
believe it or not, i drove that four-ton brick shithouse through the night and the entirety of the great state of mississippi, by the light of the full moon. at first i thought i'd leave it on the outskirts of town and have my more competent middle-aged neighbors help me drive it in the next day, but rolling into new orleans near 4AM, it dawned on me that tchoupitoulas street, a mere four blocks from my house, was made for semi trucks to bring goods to and from the great ships on the banks of the mississippi river. that's what i'd do! descending from the interstate below sea level and into town, i felt like a rookie pilot landing their first jet airliner. i nervously pulled into the parking lot of my neighborhood's grocery store, where my "investment" would remain for the night. upon finally turning the engine off i felt, perhaps for the first time in my short life, a little like Rocky. i briskly walked down tchoupitoulas street towards home, past odd drunken undergraduates stumbling like zombies out of F&M's patio bar, shaking my head and giggling. back home, food had spoiled in the trash.
when i woke the next morning and stepped onto my front porch with a cup of tea, morgan, my neighbor who'd loaned me his truck, was already waiting. so! he said, with usual mischief in his voice, squinting one eye. y'made it. yep, i told him. and you know, the funniest thing happened this morning when i woke up: when i went into the bathroom to take a leak, my nuts were twice as big as they were yesterday!
To be continued.