Monday, November 21, 2005


You can tell a lot about somebody from their garbage.

No, I have not been digging through anyone's trash cans. I'm just making an armchair observation.

We are, after all, a consumer society. That means we consume a lot. And that means we throw away a lot of things, too.

Come on, admit it, you've noticed the boxes outside a neighbor's house a few days after Christmas. You might even have pointed it out to the person with you at the time. "Oh, look. I guess the Schwartz family got a new TV. And an X-Box."

I've been doing that too, just casually noticing the trash. And what I see here in Uptown New Orleans tells a sad story.

When I first returned to my battered city in late September, the curb and the neutral ground were filled with refrigerators. As fast as they could be hauled away, new arrivals would place their pungent appliances on the curb, too. It took about a month, but I think the trash collection folks are finally winning that battle.

Next came the construction debris. It varied a lot by neighborhood. Areas thoroughly soaked had very little construction debris. Homeowners in those areas are, like me, planning to tear down what little remains.

Areas that had moderate flooding produced mountains of construction debris. Doors, sheetrock, electrical wiring, cabinets, furniture and flooring all contributed to long ridges of refuse that lined many streets.

And areas that did not flood, such as Riverbend where I currently reside, generated the least amount of construction debris. Here, the trash is almost exclusively roofing and sheetrock from wind-damaged roofs and rain-soaked walls.

Now we seem to have entered into the next phase of trash, and this is, in my opinion, the worst of all.

What I have been seeing now is furniture, mattresses, desks and clothes being put out for trash. These things are not damaged by flood or soaked with rain. These are the belongings of renters who have not returned.

With high demand (and subsequently high rent) for rental property in New Orleans, landlords are putting people out at a record pace. Even people who are not here are getting put out.

No doubt some of these folks don't want to come back. They might actually be doing better where they landed so that there's no reason to come back to New Orleans. Not even to pick up a few hundred dollars worth of used furniture. It might cost more to rent a truck, for instance, than the total worth of everything they could carry in it.

But I am just as sure that many can't come back. They lack the money, the job, the transportation to come home. Some are too far removed to make the trip to rescue their meager worldly possessions. Or too ill, or too busy. They have probably stopped paying rent, or if they lack a lease, they can't pay the increased rent now being demanded in the Post-Katrina economy.

The landlords, whatever the case may be, deal with it with cool efficiency. They get permission either from their former tenants, or they get it in the form of an eviction notice at City Hall. They clean out their properties and they put up the FOR RENT sign.

The only clue that someone lived there before Katrina lies at the curb. The pathetic pile of discount furnishings sits as sad testimony for a few days, and then it is efficiently carried off to the dump with the rest of the weekly trash.

Those renters, those former citizens of New Orleans, where are they now? Will they ever return? Will they want to, once they find out how they have been treated?

We are, after all, a consumer society.

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