Once upon a post-college wave of optimism, I decided to move to New Orleans.
I was first introduced to New Orleans on a trip with my college jazz band in early 2008. I wasn’t terribly excited for the trip – 25 hours on a bus to go to some place down south that I’d never even considered to be a desirable place to visit? The trip sounded questionable at best. But ultimately, I decided that it would be worth it to head to New Orleans for a week in January, which is the most soul-crushing time of year in the Midwest.
I ended up loving it. The sights, the sounds – I couldn’t get enough. (The same can’t be said for the smells.) Though I was only there for five days, I knew that New Orleans was the place for me. I had to go back, and I had to do it soon.
“Soon” ended up being the fall of 2009. I graduated from college in the spring of that year, holding degrees in English and Art History, thinking that the world was my oyster. I had been applying for internships at museums, and I had accepted one in Denver. Shortly after I had accepted that internship, the New Orleans museum offered me an internship, as well. I decided to go ahead with Denver for the summer and make New Orleans my home in the fall. It’s just as well, since a Midwestern wimp like me probably couldn’t have weathered the Deep South in July.
While I was in Denver, I stayed with my aunt and uncle, so I didn’t have to worry at all about housing. New Orleans would be my first experience hunting for a place to live. “Well,” thought my 22 year old naïve brain, “Craigslist would be a GREAT way to do this!”
Looking for a place to live is no walk in the park, especially when you currently live 1300 miles away and are on a retail salesperson budget. I searched Craigslist high and low for my new home – more legitimate sites like rent.com were out of my pauper-level price range.
Finally, I found what I thought was the Craigslist jackpot. It was a room in a newly remodeled house, just a few miles away from the museum where I’d be interning. It was in a safe neighborhood (or, safe-looking, thanks to Google street view), it had a pool, and it was a paltry $400 per month in rent. I emailed the landlord, and he was happy to give me a room. He sent me pictures of the house, and it looked wonderful. It was a little weird that he included a picture of himself in the middle of pictures of the kitchen and the backyard, but I quickly dismissed the thought. The landlord said that he lived in the house next door, and the two other rooms in the house were occupied by other twenty-something women. Sounded harmless.
When my time was up in Denver, I drove home to South Dakota for a week before embarking on the hellish 22 hour drive to New Orleans. By myself. I arrived in New Orleans exhausted, but ecstatic. I couldn’t believe that I was finally there – and there for three months!
My long-suffering Mercury Sable and I rolled into the driveway, and I loved what I saw. The palm trees, the POOL – it looked better than the pictures. I was greeted in the doorway by the landlord, just your average 40-something Southerner. He gave me the tour, showing me where my room was to be. “And this is my room,” he said, leading me through a curtain of beads into a bedroom on the main floor. I did a double-take. “I thought you said you lived in the house next door?” I said with some alarm. “Oh, what I meant was, I’ll live there eventually,” he explained, shrugging it right off. That was my first red flag.
Despite my initial trepidation, I went ahead and unloaded the car. As soon as I was finished, the landlord came and peeked in my room. “Hey, uh,” he stuttered, shuffling his feet like an awkward 13-year-old, “Did you want me to show you around the neighborhood?”
Clearly, I need to work on saying ‘no.’ I accepted, so off we went. The first stop was Lowe’s to get me a copy of the keys. The landlord didn’t seem to want to leave Lowe’s; he dragged me through the paint section, asking my opinion on new colors for the kitchen. “Well, have you had dinner? Let me buy you dinner!” he said excitedly, steering the truck towards a little bar. It was nice gesture, sure, but after two days of non-stop driving, I was ready to just relax. He would hear none of it, so into the bar we went. I ordered my first shrimp po-boy, which the landlord thought was the funniest thing – “You’re from where? The Dakotas? Don’t they have shrimp there?” He spent quite a bit of dinner giggling to himself.
Finally, we were back at the house, and I could start unpacking. I left the door to my room open while I settled in – mistake. I turned around and suddenly, the landlord was standing in the doorway. “Just checking on you,” he said, shuffling his feet again. “Do you need any help unpacking?” Now, it’s one thing for your mom or one of your friends to offer to help you unpack. It’s another thing completely for a weird 40 year old man you just met to make the same offer. I politely turned him down, and as soon as he was down the stairs, I promptly locked the door.
The next day was the Sunday before Labor Day, and I planned to venture out to the French Quarter. I was in New Orleans, after all! I was halfway down the stairs when I heard, “Calla? Calla?” coming from behind the beaded curtains. I stopped short and considered running back up to my room, but would that be any way to spend my first full day in New Orleans? I braved up and continued down the stairs. The landlord met me at the bottom, asking about what my plans were for the day. Because I’m an idiot, I mentioned that I was going to the French Quarter. “Oh, let me show you around!” he practically begged. “I know the area so well; I can be your tour guide!” Again, since I have a problem saying no, I reluctantly agreed.
We arrived in the French Quarter in time for me to realize that it was no ordinary weekend. Labor Day weekend in the French Quarter is host to a festival called Southern Decadence, which is New Orleans’ Gay Pride. What a fantastic way to start my time in New Orleans! There were drag queens as far as the eye could see, and the Mardi Gras beads were flying. There were parades and big bands; everything I could’ve hoped for on my first day.
It was extremely crowded, as French Quarter festival days tend to be. The landlord was antsy and didn’t want to stay in one place too long, so we were always on the move. We squeezed through the hordes of people, and he kept pressing me to take his hand so we didn’t get separated. I quickly responded by assuring him that I was good at navigating crowds – I DID NOT want to take his hand.
The landlord wanted me to meet one of my roommates, who worked at a bar in the French Quarter. We found her and said hello, and I thought that’s all we came to do. However, the landlord decided he wanted a drink. The beers were 3-for-1, like they tend to be in New Orleans. He offered me one, and I declined, as I a.) did not like beer and b.) would not ever want to drink with this guy. I used option a as my excuse, and he said, “You can’t live in New Orleans without liking beer! We’re going to get you drinking beer, just you wait and see.” I did not want to wait and see.
He finally finished his three beers, and I was more than ready to leave. The humidity was approximately one thousand percent, and I was really wondering what I’d gotten myself into when I decided to rent from this guy. He tried to persuade me that I needed to stay and drink with him, but I countered, claiming I had a lot to do before my internship started on Tuesday.
I spent most of Labor Day Monday finding things to do that didn’t involve being around the house and the weird landlord. I found where the museum was, I bought groceries, I took a walk through the neighborhood. While I was out of the house (and out of earshot), I updated my parents on the last few days. I told my parents that the landlord was either “really nice or really creepy” which they were less than pleased to hear. When I got back to the house later that night, I sequestered myself in my room. The landlord ventured up the stairs shortly after he heard me come home. He knocked and knocked on the door, but I pretended that I was listening to music and couldn’t hear him. I was very much questioning my judgment, but I decided to power through it. It was only my second day, after all.
The next day was my first day as a curatorial intern at the museum. I had a great day there, and I knew I was really going to enjoy it. When I got home at the end of the day, the landlord was there. He invited me into his room to see pictures of his kids, but I bowed out, claiming that I had a lot of reading to do for my new internship. I headed upstairs, and he followed about a minute later, knocking on the door. With a hangdog look on his face, he said, “Well, we’re still going to have time to hang out, right?” If I hadn’t been so uncomfortable, I might’ve felt bad for the guy. His only “friends” seemed to be people that pay to stay in his house. I informed him that my free time would be limited since I had so much museum work to do (not 100% true). He said, “Well, since you’re so busy, do you want me to cook you dinner?” I said I wasn’t hungry (and later snuck out to KFC).
The next few days consisted mainly of me going to the museum by day and trying to figure out ways to avoid the landlord by night. When I was back at the house, I always shut and locked my door. Whenever I would leave, I would tiptoe down the stairs and pray that he wouldn’t be waiting at the foot of the stairs for me. He tried his very best to get me to come and hang out. He would knock at my door asking me if I wanted to come and play with my second roommate’s dog in HER room– and I’d never met the second roommate. I’d hear him prowling around upstairs, even though the only rooms on that floor belonged to the three young female renters.
One day when I came home from the museum, he ambushed me. “So you were on the newspaper in college?” he said as soon as I walked in the door. I stopped. “How did you know that?” I asked slowly. “Oh, I Googled you,” he said. “You were on the radio, too; that’s cool!”
The final straw came at the end of that week. This was a Thursday: I was supposed to meet my family in San Antonio the following day to see my sister graduate from basic training. I came home from the museum to find a note under my door. It read: “The landlord is a sicko pervert. Get out while you can.” My blood ran cold. I didn’t know who wrote the note; I had only met the first roommate once at the bar where she worked, and I never met the second roommate. I wrote them each a note and stuck it under their doors, asking them to call me as soon as possible. The bartender roommate called me the next morning. She said she hadn’t written the note, but she was thinking the same thing – she was in the process of moving out and recommended that I do the same.
Unfortunately, I had no time to make a game plan before it was time to leave for San Antonio. When I got there, I told my parents about the last few days, including the note. “Get out,” they said. “Get out right away. Stay in a hotel until you get a new place to live; whatever it takes.”
After I got back from my weekend in San Antonio, I Craigslisted like there was no tomorrow. My parents were convinced that I would end up tied up in a basement dungeon if I didn’t move fast, and honestly, I was pretty convinced of that too. Within two days, I had found a new place to live. Now, the trick was getting out of that house. Luckily, I had signed no lease and paid no security deposit. I quietly loaded my things back into my car, hoping that the landlord (who, it seems, had no job) wouldn’t come out of his den and ask what I was up to. Unfortunately, he caught me on my third trip, holding an armload of clothes. I gave him a flimsy excuse about how I was storing things in my car that I didn’t need, and I was going to spend the night at a friend’s house. I promptly left for the night, planning on coming back over my lunch break the next day to retrieve the rest of my things.
I came back the next afternoon, and sure enough, he was waiting for me. He gave a big sigh and said, “We need to talk. I just think that things are really weird between us, and I’d like to know what you’re feeling. I want you to know that you can come to me about anything you’re thinking, and we can work it out.” I gave him yet another flimsy excuse about how I was going to move in with a friend (not true) who lived closer the museum (also not true) with cheaper rent (again, not true). I got the last of my things and put them in the car. The landlord followed me to the car and handed me a goodbye letter. The letter said, among other things, that he was sorry it couldn’t work out between us and I was welcome to come and stay on the couch any time. I drove away, a little worse for the wear, but certainly wiser because of it.
And that’s the story of my first week and a half in New Orleans, and how I ended up living in a shed in someone’s back yard. But that’s a story for another time.