Au Revoir, Chauncey

Chauncey, the much-traveled goat, opts for New Orleans.
Jill Hunter

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 their property value has 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 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. 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: leaves, paper, plastic bags. Also cigarette butts from New Orleans's dirty streets. Sometimes we give him a handfuls of sweet feed in unsuccessful attempts to try to teach him tricks, 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 of constant fried shrimp and afternoon beers -- has been much cleaner on this farm 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 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, he remains as close to the ladies as they will allow him, since our first week seeking refuge in the kindly farmers' empty house (before they'd returned from vacation, before we'd ever met them), he escaped the pen and narrowly survived a bloody wild dog attack. Days later, the farmers (who, like so many Houstonians, have been more parental to us than my parents) returned home to find a pack of five more wild dogs sniffing around outside their house. So, though Hurricane Rita left enough leaves on the ground to keep him round as a globe, Houston hasn't been as paradisiacal for Chauncey.

Not until the farmers moved us into our own cute little house directly across the street. The 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 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.

But this storm too did pass. And soon I realized that though Chauncey does seem more grown up after finally living with other goats, he is happier in smaller confines, living the same way he always has: alone. He's happier than I've ever seen him. He might not want to go back to New Orleans.

But we must go back, to at least see our home again, our belongings and make a hard decision.

On September 30 selected New Orleanians were finally, tentatively but officially, allowed back in. The following Wednesday, the Quarter opened for business. One month after the flood, as the ripped-open Superdome appeared in the distance, we suffered a giddy dread, ready for boundless sadness, but irrepressibly excited by the prospect of seeing more destruction than we'd dreamed we might.

In the Central Business District buildings untouched by floodwaters looked blown apart by the wind damage CNN claimed New Orleans had avoided. Missing windows exposed perfectly tidy eighth-floor hotel rooms with neatly made beds. Brick structures lay as rubble.

Then across now-haunted Canal Street, the French Quarter seemed arrogant by comparison. Among the many camouflage vehicles and teenage Texans with M-16s, Bourbon Street was as crowded with tourists as on any normal summer Sunday. We huffed and grunted and disparaged these callous people, who had to be out-of-towners, because how could any New Orleanian enjoy an actual good mood within these city limits, when the only fitting emotion seemed to be, as Chauncey reiterated, "Eh, eh, eh."

Rampart Street -- the Quarter's southern border and the vague line dividing the dry neighborhoods from the drowned -- morphed into St. Claude, where civilians were still not allowed. But no sign of the military; the Ninth Ward was a postapocalyptic ghost town. The neutral grounds, as New Orleans calls all its grassy medians, were strewn with the soaked and splintered guts of every building for miles, as if everyone on St. Claude had been suddenly, simultaneously evicted. "But the storm didn't break all those windshields," Mizzy pointed out, "or park that city bus on the steps of that house…"

At our street we masochistically turned the opposite way, in the direction of Lake Ponchartrain, and lost ourselves in ever bleaker destruction. Deeper and deeper into the Ninth Ward the brown shit stripe painted across dead cars and houses rose, until finally every car was completely frosted white with mud, the stripe no longer visible where water rose above the houses.

We were beginning to believe the flood had worked out just as the racists had intended: The French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, Uptown's Garden District -- in short, any place a tourist would want to see -- had survived. But our car soon wandered out past poverty, into gentrified middle-class family neighborhoods now gutted and shit-striped like any in St. Bernard Parish. Every well-manicured lawn had been completely drowned and poisoned an autumnal brown.

Grass was green around Bayou St. John, and our former, almost rich Mid City neighborhood -- which hosts the Fairgrounds and thus Jazzfest -- received relatively little water. But enough to ruin hardwood floors, propagate ungodly mold and make even the Hare Krishna post a "You Loot We Shoot!" sign outside their gorgeous orange mansion.

The levee at the end of our street looks exactly the same. And except for the army's strange graffiti code, some small roof damage and a mud-soaked purple and black bra outside our door, so does our house. The street is empty but for dead refrigerators, mattresses in various states of undress, a shattered glass table and a globe, still fresh in its package. The tar roof hangs down over the face of the little brick mini-projects across the street. But our shotgun's thick wooden New Orleans-style doors, like castle gates painted baby blue -- made more than 100 years ago with the express purpose of keeping out hurricanes and looters -- remained tight and silent.  

After all the destruction we'd witnessed, it was eerie to break the house's seal and find not a hair out of place, to walk right in and know where I'd tucked my pick, between the strings of the acoustic guitar my 70-year-old father bought at age 25, the same age I was when he passed the guitar on to me -- the only possession whose drowning would have broken my heart.

We celebrated out front, playing music, drinking beer in the street and patronizing the stream of National Guard kids who stopped us to recite Chauncey FAQs.

Then, before the sun could set, leaving us in total darkness, we decided to move the party to Molly's, a French Quarter bar that had remained open this entire time. Originally a "journalists bar" where press folks meet both for and after work, Molly's is again being used for that purpose. But among all the outta-towners, we were elated to see our friends! Many had returned weeks ago; some had never left. We all bought many rounds, hugged anyone vaguely familiar, laughed loudly about the beef enchilada MREs in the garbage -- partied harder than the Bourbon Street tourists who'd made us feel "Eh, eh, eh" that morning.

Everyone told their story of What I Did on My Summer Evacu-cation, and discussed the new bevy of local jobs. Everyone either asked or answered the questions "Who's moving away? Who's staying? Are you?" And suddenly living in New Orleans seemed a real, feasible possibility.

We drove away from Molly's with a new sense of hope -- but still couldn't answer the phone when the landlord called with a message reminding us that their property values had doubled. "Which doesn't make sense," Mizzy pointed out, "since the levee coulda broke right at the end of our street."

This morning, St. Claude's neutral ground is cleaner than yesterday. Already. Our gas works fine, and Entergy workers parked against our levee claim that our electricity will be restored in two days. Still, we're ready to leave New Orleans and go back to the farm, back to Houston. But we can't get Chauncey out.

The only other damage to our Bywater house was that our lone, three-story tree -- which Chauncey was previously barely able to nibble -- now lies on its side, filling our entire yard. And though the tree crushed the homemade fence around his shelter, Chauncey considers this "damage" a vast improvement. He has remained kickball-shaped our entire two-day visit. And when we go out to retrieve him and put him back in his carrier for the long drive, he is somewhere deep in the newly fallen tree, eating for dear life -- so happy to be back in hopeful New Orleans.

So happy, that when our landlords call again, we answer and agree to mail them rent, as soon as we can find a functioning post office. For now, New Orleans is still home.

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