"Wait a second," I find myself saying, rubbing my fluorescent-light-weary eyes. "Let's go over this one more time. OK, just humor me."
Nicole laughs a little laugh, glancing at the customers in line behind us: A middle aged black woman in a jogging suit and aviator sunglasses and a young redneck looking couple, all of whom couldn't look less amused. The clerk behind the counter rolls his eyes, sighs and says flatly, "okay." This particular clerk, John, has been a fairly regular fixture in my life over the last year and, in the last week has become someone that I've had the unpleasant experience of dealing with two or three times daily. He's a memorable dude, not because he is the grumpiest clerk at the downtown Asheville Post Office (though he is that), but because he is almost completely unassuming looking, a husky late-middle-aged guy ? gray hair, bald on top, deep trenches around his eyes that if they were bird's feet would be a turkey's. Then there's the moustache. It's a fairly famous moustache, talked about all over town: a thin, meticulously maintained little pair of antennae that shoot straight out to the sides of John's nose then curl up like the toes of elf shoes. Like I said, if it weren't for the moustache, John would be pretty forgettable, just another dissatisfied bureaucrat slowly going mad from too much multiplying in multiples of 41. With moustache, though, getting talked down to and given the runaround by this guy makes one feel like an extra in the movie Brazil.
Nicole and I had been getting to feel like that a lot this week. After over a year of dating, we were now more or less breaking up, and I was moving away from the little North Carolina town that neither of us could stand and back to my former home of New Orleans. For the last couple of weeks we'd been going through the whole fight, make-up, crying jag bit of disentangling ourselves from one another emotionally, and now we were disentangling ourselves logistically. This was, in many ways, more painful than the jaggedy ups-and-downs of the emotional part ? just the long days of separating records, clothes, returning loaned items, and now, dealing with my withdrawal from our shared P.O. Box. These mundane chores were really driving home the break-up, like that point when you're quitting smoking, and after several days when the tremors, chills and intense, ripping-out-your-hair cravings have subsided, you have to face the boring nothingness of just not smoking. Forever and ever.
And John wasn't making it any more pleasant for us. In fact, he was making me want to smoke for the first time in four years.
"So," I said, starting again, "we share the P.O. Box."
John looked at me, unmoving, not even blinking.
"And I'm moving."
Still no reaction from John.
"And she's not."
"I'm not," said Nicole, shaking her head as though explaining something to a toddler.
No reaction. It was like we were creeping out onto a frozen lake, expecting it to crack and drop us at any moment.
"So I need to take my name from off the box, and leave her name on it ? and still be able to get my mail forwarded."
At the last part, the moustache twitched and John's head batted back and forth.
Sploosh! We were in the icy waters. Sinking.
"Nope. Can't do it. No way," John said.
"Arrgh!" said Nicole and I at the same time, covering our eyes as though we'd just watched a friend wipe out doing a skateboard trick.
"Why not?!" I snapped, causing Nicole to pinch my outer thigh beneath the level of the counter.
"That's not how it works," John said.
"But it could! It could be how it works. You could just switch the names on this sheet of paper." I gestured frantically at the form I'd filled over a year ago. "And put a little yellow post-it note on the box with my new address! Voila!"
The trio of waiting customers behind us looked as though their higher functions had all but shut down, their brains just sending off the slightest of electrical impulses necessary for maintaining a standing position. I did see the woman in the jogging suit grimace ever so slightly, though, as John again launched into his explanation of just why it was impossible, absurd, even, for us to keep the box open, which had something to do with the Patriot Act.
"Okay," I said when he'd finished, and started to explain myself again, changing the wording as much as I could. I'd played a similar game dealing with cops, the game where you know that you can talk your way out of guilt if you can just pull from the stratosphere the right combination of words that will turn the rusty pins of the lock in the cops' minds, and open them. John was a tougher case than most cops (with a proportionately more flamboyant moustache), and it seemed like I might need the Rosetta Stone to find the combination.
This time Nicole, who is much more patient and diplomatic, interrupted. "We just really need to keep the box open so that I can get my mail, but Ethan is going to New Orleans, so he needs his mail, so it needs to get forwarded to this other P.O. Box, which he already has, see?" She held up something addressed to my new P.O. Box, which I would be sharing with my friend and soon-to-be-roommate, Shelley.
John blinked. "I just can't do that."
We almost repeated the skateboarding-trick-gone-awry "Arrgh!" thing, but were cut short. "BUT," John said, "I could do this." We perked up. "I could close the box right now."
"Uh huh," we both said, or at least nodded so as to imply.
"I could refund you the remainder of your fee," he said to me.
"Uh huh," we said.
"She could pay for the box," he said.
Nods again from our team.
"And I could reopen it in her name."
We stared at him, slack jawed. My head spun. I glanced at the clock. Had it been a pizza, the big hand would've swung over the breadth of three slices in the time we'd been dealing with this, dealing with John, and here he was suddenly having the breakthrough that he could do exactly what we'd been arguing about for the last twenty minutes.
We filled out the proper forms, which took about ten seconds, Nicole paid the man, and we were out of there. Free. Pupils struggling to adjust from fluorescent mode to September summer sunlight mode.
After making plans to meet up later, I drove down to the U-Haul store, the other bureaucratic melee of almost John-esque proportions that had been consuming me. At least there, though, there was a big pile of broken down cardboard boxes that I could sit on while the employees tried to figure out my deceivingly simple request: a hitch for my car. The manager had a pretty normal moustache.
Lounging on the boxes, I thought back over my past couple of years in Asheville. Normally things went pretty smoothly. Too smoothly, in fact. The town was in the latent death-thralls of total gentrification, "The steady march toward total homogeny," I'd heard my editor at the local weekly paper call it, and everything worked so well there (if you could afford for it to), that everyday ran into the last, the boring whoosh of well-oiled gears.
Now that I've decided to flee back to New Orleans, I thought, it's as though New Orleans sent up some of it's trademark seemingly-easy-situations-turned-into-total-catastrophic-ordeals. In New Orleans, doing pretty much anything is like this. Like if John were everywhere, in every low-totem position of power, behind every well-worn plastic-coated counter, beneath every fluorescent light fixture. "In New Orleans," my friend Asia says, "you can spend your day either going to the post office or going to the copy shop, but you can't do both."
At the U-Haul place, I glanced at the clock. It was the same swooping second hand, slightly yellow-faced clock that the Post Office had had, and that every office, school, hospital and jail has. I'd managed to make it to both the Post Office and the U-Haul place that day, I noted, but only barely.
When I finally got all my loose ends tied up, all my possessions packed in the U-Haul (right down to the three-by-four-foot sheet metal ampersand I'd found in the garbage, not to mention the four identical plastic ducks that an estranged aunt had mysteriously mailed me out of the blue), my frightened Chihuahua mutt curled up in a nest of dirty laundry on the drives seat, my teary goodbyes said and gotten my ass down to New Orleans, I realized that through all of this moving, I'd still, foolishly, been acting like I was going to the old New Orleans. While sitting on those boxes at the U-Haul place I was still, in my head, cracking the old jokes. Before the storm, I always thought that New Orleans was kind of like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. After Wile runs off a cliff, he keeps running until he looks down. The city always seemed like it was in that grace period between leaving the cliff and looking down. But that was before. And now I'm too scared to commit to updating my analogy.
I'd been back to New Orleans since the storm a lot. I'd logged hours tarping roofs and hauling rotting fridges out to the curb. I'd seen the marks on an Esplanade Avenue retirement home indicating that nine people had died there, seen the spray painted pleas for water and food, seen dead dogs lying bloated, pregnant with maggots in the gutter.
But after two years, I suppose that I expected things to be more civilized, some of the kinks worked out. Instead, it felt like I was moving myself, my little dog, all my stuff, into the Wild West. Biking around, the city felt wrong. There was still the entrails of houses being renovated everywhere, a dozen downed stoplights flashing lamely on the neutral grounds of major streets, boarded-up, forgotten about buildings ? there were even two hundred people living in tents on the lawn of city hall.
My first week back there were eight murders. Just before that, a contractor had slashed the throat of a total stranger in the bar up the street from my house. She'd looked at him, holding her gaping neck, and said, "Why did you do this to me?" Then died. All around town there are wanted posters up trying to find the murderer of Helen Hill, a local artist, activist and loved member of the community. She was killed a year ago in her own house, where she'd been sleeping with her husband and baby. Every day it was another atrocity in the papers, which I quickly stopped reading. I also gave up sleeping, but not voluntarily.
One day I ran into Leslie as she was unloading groceries from her car. She and her husband, Alex, both do work in the non-profit sector and are about as committed and entrenched in the city as you can be. She asked me how being back was, and I told her. "I mean, there were eight murders this week!" I said.
"Oh yeah," she said as she hefted plastic Sav-a-Center bags off the backseat. "We do this every time someone comes back."
It may seem like a tasteless joke, but I was grateful for it. Grateful that she used the word "We" because the simple inclusion of that all-encompassing pronoun made it feel as though, maybe, just maybe, we are all a part of this thing, this New Orleans. Because if we aren't, then that means that there is an "Us" and a "Them," or a million "Thems" and that means that everything is lost. But if everything, every tent on the lawn of City Hall, every one who can't come home for lack of funds, every one who's shot down randomly, every one who has just moved here, or just moved back, if we are all still part of some sort of "We," then there's still a hope.
Meanwhile, my mail never came. Never got forwarded. I didn't care too much, except for some erstwhile paychecks. So I called up the Asheville post office, talking to yet another bureaucrat giving me even more rigmarole. It took three conversations over three days before he even found my paperwork, which he didn't even want to do. "Sir, since I don't know who it was that helped you, I can't?"
And I had him there. "It was John! John with the funny moustache." There was a silence, probably to allow time for the question: Goddammit, why does John have to have such a memorable moustache? to run through the guy's head.
He had me call back later.
Again and again.
I thought back to my youth, my teenage years when I'd sit in cafes and argue with people about anarchism, drawing from the snippets of books that I'd read. Inevitably, it always seemed, someone would say, "Well, if we lived in an anarchist society, how would we make the post office work?" And it would always stump me. Now, however, I realize that the answer is, of course, that the goddamned post office doesn't work anyway.
One day I pleaded with the faceless voice from Asheville, "Could you just go and look in my P.O. Box and tell me if there's anything in there?"
The guy was as irritated with me as I with him, but he agreed, returning a moment later. "Yes sir, there is. It's from your bank." Then he added, in a voice that smacked of self-satisfaction, "Looks like an overdraft fee."
It became a daily ritual to call the P.O. Box, even after I got new copies of the paychecks sent. It wasn't a matter of even getting my mail at that point, it was just that every time I left the house I felt so confronted with new fears, new horrors, that the runaround of the Post Office, even the hold music, became somewhat comforting. Every afternoon I could curl up on my bed, or recline in the front seat of my car, cell phone pressed to ear, and listen to that hold music, pretending that I lived in the old New Orleans, and that dealing with an incompetent Post Office was the pinnacle of my worries.