Riley Chapman: Katrina and Crack (memoir)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: Southern Legitimacy Statement: When I tell people where I’m from, I have to make sure I pronounce New Orleans in a way they will understand it, not the way I really say it.

I live in Idaho now and run a rehab after years of drug addiction and homelessness. This is an account of surviving Katrina with my father and dealing with my chemical issues.

Katrina and Crack

It is true that I survived Hurricane Katrina with my father in New Orleans, and that before our two months together were over, he threatened to shoot me with a nine-millimeter. But before I tell you about that, I need a few paragraphs to tell you about my girlfriend from high school, and that whole thing starts with a large shipment of blotter acid at the very end of 2003 in New Orleans.  It was printed with pink elephants on a purple background. Supposedly it came from the Lavender family, whatever that meant, and made an unlikely couple out of us.

My family and I were out of town for Christmas break of my senior year, but I can’t remember where we went. I think it was Mexico, and while we were gone, the captain of the cheerleading team from high school took some of that acid with two of my friends. They tried to come see me, but since we were out of town, they couldn’t. Somehow their journey to find me and my absence mixed with the LSD to simulate feelings of love and longing for me in her. When I got back, this girl I barely knew, the captain of the cheerleading team, wanted to hang out with me.

Towards the end of our relationship, I stole 200 dollars from our friend and disappeared for 24 hours with her vehicle.  When I came back we screamed at each other. Later she dropped me off at my parents’ house, and I hurled my cellphone at the pavement in the driveway under the oak tree. Its bark bloodied my knuckles, and bones might have broken in my hands and wrist. Inside of the house my parents and I screamed before they told me to leave and locked me out. They called the police. I stuck my fist through the window in a door on the front porch and turned the old knob to let myself in. When the cops showed up I was eating a hot dog.

“Put the hot dog down! You are under arrest!”

But it didn’t start out like that for us. The first time we hung out, I took two of those pink elephants, and the Jimi Hendrix coming out of her speakers caused my brain to leak out of my eyes and nose.  It puddled itself in an awkward Technicolor mess on my shirt. She kept her cool and comforted me as I tried to clean it up. We rode to school every morning after that and knew each other in ways that no one else did. The girl shed tears over my addiction and wrote privately in a journal about how much she loved me when we were out with friends.

After the overdose, which I already told you about, and the episode with Stanky, besides the rest of our miserable 18 months together, she had enough. She moved on, and the break up played out in my head every second. It left a smoldering heap of twisted metal and mental torment like a train wreck of my own emotions and the memories we created together. I staggered. I struggled to breathe. I fell to my knees.  Images of her smile and the love she once held in her eyes faded away from in front of me like smoke slowly dissipating or the mirage of a desert oasis, I would never reach.

I punched myself in the face until I had two black eyes. I called her 50 times a day. I wrote a poem to tell her how pathetic I was and left it on her windshield in a psychotic spider’s web of scotch of tape while she was at work once, but I never got her back. I lost her forever, and I only had myself to blame.

Anyway, that gives you an idea of how things were going for me around the time Katrina came to town, but I should also tell you about the job my uncle gave me. It was delivering trays of medical instruments and every kind of orthopedic implant to different hospitals for the company representatives and the surgeons they did business with. I disappeared into the ghetto in the middle of a delivery one afternoon and would not answer my phone. Somehow the 70,000 dollars’ worth of medical equipment ended up where it was supposed to go, but I disappeared to my friends’ house that night. In the morning, my uncle called to tell me he didn’t want me to give up on life.

My cell phones never had a voice mail message, but if they did, it would have said something like, “Hi, you’ve reached Riley. I’m not able to take your call right now, because I am smoking crack. Leave your name and number, and I’ll be sure to ignore it, until I need something from you. Thanks.”

That brings us right up to the account of the hurricane, because my friends only let me stay with them for a few days before they evacuated. My mom picked me up from their house and took me home to help my dad board up the windows. I stayed with my grandmother and Uncle after that.

The night before Katrina made landfall my cousin and I watched the satellite footage of the huge storm bearing down on the gulf coast just below New Orleans. My uncle had rented hotel rooms for his ex-wife, my cousins, my grandmother and me, and during the storm, the windows cracked on the 21st floor of the Lowes Hotel across from Harrah’s Casino. Raindrops could be seen ripping through the city in the currents of wind pushing through the streets, and the wire and plaster materials used to construct the exterior of other buildings fluttered in the air like pieces of tissue. There seemed to be a kind of divine wrath being poured out onto the city. At least that’s what people were saying.  There had been seven senseless murders in one night just before the storm.

Management fed us and moved us down to the 15th floor to another room, but the water didn’t work. Eventually the storming stopped, and we made phone calls to people we cared about. I tried to call the girl whose house I slept at before she evacuated and was happy to talk to her. After that I called my mom.

“Riley! The levees broke! I need you to come get me from the house and bring me back to the hotel.”

“Okay. Is poppa coming?”

“No. He has too many animals at the clinic. I tried to talk him into it, but I don’t think he will come.”

“Okay. Well I should probably stay with him.”

“Yeah. I think that would be best but come get me and bring me back to the hotel.”

My grandmother let me take her Camry to get my mom from the house, and I went up Tchoupitoulas to get there.  Houses sat abandoned and desperate and vulnerable prey to the looters and pillagers running around the city. I picked my mother up at the house and headed back to the Lowe’s Hotel down St. Charles.  Men hung halfway out of cars they did not own and sweated trying to get them started. All storefront windows had holes smashed into them, but everything inside was already gone.

Our dog had puppies during the storm, and my dad told me about how he went outside to see what it was like and got locked out. My mom couldn’t hear him knocking so he was out there for over an hour in the rain and wind. We slept on the roof of the front porch that first night, but somebody at the hotel had given me some Xanax. I had 20 dollars in my pocket and decided that I would sneak out the front of the house and take the Camry to go smoke crack.

He flashed his light on me from the front porch roof as I started the Camry and took off into the dark. No automobiles made any noise in the streets, and not one streetcar ran up or down the tracks. Telephone poles lay on the ground with their power lines tangled in messes of large live oak limbs that covered St. Charles Avenue from one end to the other. It was a dangerous prospect taking off like that into the desolate city in a small car, and it was almost impossible to get the Camry from Palmer Avenue all the way to ghetto by the parish line, but I did it.

When I got to the ghetto by Leake Avenue and Oak everyone in the neighborhood converged in the streets. An atmosphere of panic hovered over us, and they walked around like bees in a hive worried they would perish. Water came out of the drains and pooled in the streets. There was a man carrying a large box fan on his shoulder in the crowd, and he had the twitch in his walk I was looking for. I flagged him down, and he ran over to the car.

“What’s up, wodee?”

“Looking for a 20.”

“I got you. Let me put this in the car.”

He put the fan into the back seat of my grandmother’s Camry and took my 20 into a house. Historic buildings across town lay in heaps of ashes smoldering, and other buildings waited to be consumed by fire or looted. A deluge of black water destroyed whole neighborhoods where families once lived and kids once played. Pandemonium swept across the city. Those who remained realized that our beloved New Orleans was drowning, and it looked like the city might never recover even if it survived this catastrophe. I sat in the car waiting for the crack head to come back with my crack rock, and my father sat on the front porch roof of our house wondering if I would come back with the car or get killed trying to smoke crack in the chaos.

I lost the hit in the car before I could smoke it. There was nothing I could do to recover it, so I got out and tried to cut a deal with a guy who desperately needed gas. He said he would help me out, and we tried to siphon gas out of the car, but it didn’t work. Since I tried to help he waved his friend off who followed us around and looked like he had his hand on a pistol in his waistband. When I got back to the house my father gave me a Tylenol PM and begged me to sleep.

In the morning the crack had worn off, and we began to navigate our stay in post Katrina New Orleans. We parked the Camry at his clinic in Jefferson Parish and rode around in the old Landcruiser. Sometimes we picked up the displaced people walking up and down St. Charles and took them to Oschner Hospital. There was one lady who carried a bunch of cat carriers with frizzy, frazzled hair and looked like she had lived her life as a recluse in one of the nearby neighborhoods, but the flood brought her out. When we stopped and asked her if she wanted a ride or needed help she just turned around and walked the other direction. Sometimes we got calls at my dad’s clinic from people who wanted us to break into their houses and rescue their animals, so we did.

At night we tried to sleep outside, because it was so hot. Mosquitoes hung around us in softly humming clouds and bit hard even through sheets drenched in Adam’s Flea and Tick Spray. I cooked some steaks over a fire but had caked the seasoned salt on them in the dark so badly we could barely eat them. There was a silence that filled the air and gave us a dread we had never known about the future of our lives.

The destruction of the city matched the broken emptiness inside of me. It was fitting for me to be there and see it all. Not that either one directly caused the other, but the dire straits of the city mirrored the reality of my own insides. My childhood pediatrician hung himself over the city’s devastation, while my father focused on the litter of puppies our Italian greyhound had to get through it. As if everything happening at the time wasn’t enough stress for him, I gave him hell by smoking crack, stealing money and getting violent.

I found my sister’s Adderall prescription and took the whole thing at once. Then I chugged warm beers we had until I couldn’t talk or sleep, and I smoked crack with a pimply skinned lady and her boyfriend in a crumbling apartment building called the Studio Arms by Oschner Hospital. On the way back home the cops stopped me for being out after curfew but let me go.

We made trips to the house in Orleans Parish during the days and shot the trunk of a magnolia tree with the nine-millimeter out of boredom once. Two members of the National Guard robbed the house while we slept at the clinic. Both were arrested and received dishonorable discharges.

After a month my dad got me a job with a contractor who lived in Harahan, and on our first job we demolished the insides of a man’s house, whose wife had just divorced him and left with his daughters a few weeks before the storm. We carted mildewed art projects made of construction paper and Elmer’s glue and photo albums in wheelbarrows out through the front door and into a dumpster. Every single memory he had of his daughters’ childhoods had fallen under the chalky brown water line a foot below the ceiling. The man sweated and took pictures hoping his insurance company might pay him for his losses, for the things that have no price. I quit after a week.

Sometime towards the end of our time together in the shambles of a post-Katrina New Orleans my dad got on the phone to help me get the 2300 dollars FEMA gave to survivors of Katrina, and after that I got into it with my dad. It was over something stupid, but I got him in a headlock and rammed the top of his skull into the corner of a doorway behind the clinic. We struggled for a few minutes before we stopped, and he said,

“You attack me like that again, Riley, and I’m gonna shoot you. You hear me?”

I knew he meant it, and he would have been right to do it with the way I acted. It reminded me of the time he told me he wanted to fight me as a teenager but remembered how much he paid for my teeth to be straight. I tore off in the Landcruiser up to Baton Rouge where I stayed with my mom and sisters at my grandmother’s until I could figure out what to do.

Eventually, my mother and I devised a plan for me to go live in California, with my friends who had all moved out to San Francisco and planned to grow weed. They needed another roommate to make it work, so I told them I would be out there soon. My mom bought a ticket, but it would be a week or so before I could fly out. In that last week, my friend stole a car and picked me up in the middle of the night. By the time the sun came up we were trying to buy some crack in the ghetto with a fake 100-dollar bill, but when the dealer wanted the rocks back I rolled onto my back and kicked him in the face and ground his fingers under my heel before he fell out of the back seat. We may have run over him, but we definitely drove into a ditch before we escaped. All the while the kid in the back seat next to me snored and had a strand of drool hanging from his lip to the floor and his head between his legs. My mom had to come get me out of a crack house a few days later.  It was the morning of my flight to San Francisco, and my father hadn’t talked to me since we’d fought last.