saturn return i: an avion named pequod
in may of 2013, i impulsively 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 when 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 years in the wind and the sun and the rain. finally, 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 property’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 to watch it sway in the wind. one morning, i woke up to find my neighbor bernel in a hazmat suit, traipsing through the brush, spraying poison from a canister strapped to his back. my landlord bossed him all the while. a week later, the lot looked like a burnt-out battleground. only weeds and scrabbly tree stumps remained. it wasn’t much of an improvement. the grass would come to grow back in patches. the neighbors continued to complain about the eyesore. some would try to cut it until some log inevitably broke their mowers.
far worse than the eyesore were the cats. a colony of at least two dozen bedraggled ferals had moved in and behaved as though the property was their personal serengeti. their human ally, the neighborhood cat lady, is a substantial, viking-like, battle-axe of a woman. her nose is bulbous. frizzy, thick red hair falls down to her waist. her gait is a loping one, like a linebacker’s. she’d lumber onto the scene late at night, bearing two pails of dry cat food to disperse. lately, her operation has expanded, and she collaborates with at least two minions who sporadically come by in SUVs to make quick drive-by cat food deliveries. in broad daylight! my landlord, a fearsome woman herself, descends into fits of rage at the nerve. her and the cat lady have had words, but i was not there to witness it. i’m more bemused than anything by the situation, though it makes most of my block furious.
i find myself more disgruntled by the waste of space. i see nothing there but opportunity. you see, i’ve very enjoyably been making the lion’s share of my income sleeping on friends’ couches while renting my house out on this new sensation, airbnb. i was an early adopter when the site rolled onto the scene. i’d been working for a sociopath of a boss at a local web design startup. though i was hired to work remotely as a designer, i somehow ended up being a project manager working onsite in a godforsaken 70’s office building owned by his wife’s family. our main hustle was making comically outdated websites for insurance firms in rural canada. i sat alone at a desk in an empty room before my laptop all day, developing a case of trichotillomania. my boss’ room was also empty and smelled of man. he is one of two people i’ve met who listen exclusively to ryan adams. i made it ninety days until telling him i couldn’t stomach the office. he wouldn’t compromise. i quit. he re-hired me back four days later, working from home. then our work dipped off, and i only got paid when actively working. i was like a grocery store cashier without any customers to check out. i had to sit at my computer full-time, but was making peanuts by the hour.
naturally, i was becoming increasingly interested in expanding my rental operations. i’d long dreamed of addressing new orleans’ deep pizza deficit by building a homemade clay oven and slinging homemade pies from my side alley or off the vacant lot. and by gosh, for lodging, it’d be perfect! i love vernacular architecture, so first i looked into building “relax shacks.” i’m from the RV manufacturing capital of america, so i was soon trawling craigslist throughout the deep south for cheap used models. there’s something about campers that, you know, sparks the american imagination. i could get four to six vintage trailers, string up christmas lights, plant lawn flamingoes, fill up an ironical above-ground pool, and bam! i’m living the american dream, chilling in an old camper with john waters and my harem. never mind that i had no money. successful similar operations had already popped up in marfa, tx and bisbee, az. even airbnb has their own promotional page featuring airstreams. free publicity! i sat every day on my front porch and fantasized. the overgrown feral serengeti became my own sprawling blank canvas.
bolstered by my wish-fulfillment mechanism, i tried to hunt the lot’s owner down. the NOLA tax assessor’s website informed me that that person was named robert moreland, who owed the city some $12,000 in health and tax liens. moreover, my neighbors said that the twelve or so descendants of that old creole grandma were legitimately crazy, on and off drugs, and warring over the lot’s fate to this day. if i, some punk white boy computer nerd from the corn fields, talked them into selling it? “ha! hahahaha!” i can still hear the laughter of my neighbor, lucky, who’d lived on the block all his life, trailing him into his house as the screen door slammed behind him.
undeterred, i spent two months poking around craigslist. the trailer that would come to be mine was posted via memphis craigslist on a tuesday evening for $3000. similar models were going for $12–15,000 in perfect shape on ebay, and my horoscope was predicting big things. i convulsed with spasms of fantastical optimism. by the following afternoon, i was piloting my neighbor’s borrowed ford F-150 to hernando, mississippi to see about purchasing it. two uber-hipster couchsurfers from toronto came along, eager to see memphis and, you know, “the american south.” by the drawl of the camper owner’s voice 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. there, off in the distance, it was: lit up like a christmas tree and sitting on top of a small hill. it was though a submarine-shaped UFO had landed in the middle of the mississippi delta. we gasped. i slowly turned my car onto the property, passing beneath a ranch-style entrance bearing the property’s name: SPEEDY ACRES. 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 for inspection, 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. the trailer 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 couple well into retirement, seemed to burst from the house, along with three dogs and at least four cats. their names were norma and GW catlin. GW closed the twenty yards between us on a four-wheeler, and i swear the brights were on. norma stomped behind wearing a t-shirt several sizes too large; three realistically drawn kittens with dewy 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 camper tour that followed. my city-slicker canadian friends, meanwhile, were slack-jawed, feeling no doubt as if 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 them so much that all of my carefully prepared questions regarding the condition of the trailer immediately leapt from memory. instead i asked questions like: how’d you two love birds meet? GW proceeded to tell me the story. they met at a nudist camp where there were so many beautiful girls, he decided to hold a contest. he put a a bunch of donuts around his “crank,” then offered one 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, at high noon, 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 under the SPEEDY ACRES gate and their festive 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. the UFO 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 they were? “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. a decrepit shih-tzu was snoring in the corner. i love shih tzus, and immediately went over to pet it. it jumped, startled. “she’s old n blind,” jeanne said, 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 in the adjacent living room. i hung out for another hour, visiting. “do you know how many faggots they got down there in norlans? on bourbon street?” JW asked. “HOOO! 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. i take photos of the drag queens.”
after more pleasant dialogue, we agreed that i’d come back the next day, hook the camper up to my truck, and head back on 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 “city boy.” 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! JAAY-sus! HOOooOOO!”
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 up so conveniently up stopped working. then, the tail lights wouldn’t turn on. to rectify this, we spent at least an hour hand-splicing a number of wires to stretch thirty-eight from the back of my truck to the back of the trailer: through the trailer’s front window, back through and out the rear, and finally into a pair of magnetic tail lights we slapped on the bumper. these conveniently blocked the camper’s mississippi plate, which was 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 concerned JW, to say nothing of my friends, family, and truck-loaning neighbor. so, for practice, i followed the dogs as they followed GW’s four-wheeler in slow circles around speedy acres’ large, recently-mowed yard. dusk was waning when i was finally ready to depart. i was tooting my horn and waving with sweaty palms: 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 around like a squirrel in a washing machine. this would continue unabated for the eight succeeding hours. i stopped at an arby’s because its entrance was built for semis and told all the employees about my adventure. they laughed, took pictures with their cell phones, and gave me extra curly fries. every time i blindly switched lanes while curving through jackson was a small prayer. i didn’t even know where i’d put the thing when i got home.
but believe it or not, i drove that four-ton brick shithouse through the night and the entirety of the great state of mississippi, and under the light of a full moon, no less! 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, i had a great idea. 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 i would park my “investment” 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 typical mischief glinting in his squinted eye, “y’made it.” “yep,” i replied, “and you know, the funniest thing happened this morning when i woke up. i felt for the first time like a real man towing that thing in your truck. and sure enough, when i went into the bathroom to take a leak, my nuts were twice as big as they were yesterday!”
it is surely obvious to you, gentle reader, that an endeavor such as the one related above could only lead to peril. the trailer was indeed an albatross in its most classic sense. this toy to end all toys was an emissary of saturn, an unearthly warning that it was time to put aside childish things. what followed immediately in the camper’s wake were the most difficult years of my young and privileged life, a relentless sequence of tragicomic calamities that to this day i am still attempting to dig myself out of. these are so numerous and interconnected that time has not nearly allowed me the leisure to commit them to writing. the few tales that do follow are but bookends, composed during brief lulls in this ongoing period of folly. forgive me as each ends abruptly; each is a prelude to roughly another full year of misadventure.