When Peter sold marijuana in New Orleans, he sold mainly to Tulane University students like himself, white kids with plenty of extra money to buy drugs since their parents covered tuition and most of the cost of living. Once, a friend of Peter's, a cocaine dealer, introduced him to a black man from a poorer part of New Orleans who said he was looking to get a bag of weed. When this man showed up he surveyed Peter's operation—stashes of money and weed—then claimed he didn't like Peter's prices, and after an argument he left. Later the man called the mutual friend, the coke dealer, and asked if Peter had a gun. Had the friend said yes, perhaps the man would not have come back, or perhaps he would have gone in shooting. But the friend said no, and the man returned, stole several hundred dollars and Peter's computer.
Peter learned his lesson, he says: "Don't ever sell to locals."
* * *
For now Peter lives in Seattle near the University of Washington campus, not far from the Ave, in a house with nine other students on leave from Tulane, which shut down for the semester after Hurricane Katrina left it without electricity, running water, students or faculty. Five of the 10 students, including Peter, enrolled in classes at UW more than a month ago. Two of the five have since dropped out. (The housemates asked that their names be changed.) UW accepted about 100 students displaced by the hurricane, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 44 of them from Tulane.
In the house near the Ave, past the federally-assisted badminton net, the three-foot hookah on the patio table, the vomit-spattered porch; past the plush couches, the coffee table, the dining table, the stereo, the juggling pins and Hacky Sacks, the glass pipes, and the eight identical copies of a book called Filling the Void: Six Steps from Loss to Fulfillment (by Seattle author Dorothy Bullitt); past the recycling bags loaded with empty beer cans, the magnetic photographs of vaginas on the fridge, and the green Goosebumps sheet rigged to curtain the stairs, I found these 10 Tulane refugees huddled in the darkened basement on a Tuesday night several weeks ago. They were watching the film Adaptation.
Onscreen, Meryl Streep wades through a mucky bayou.
The cellar is ornamented with psychedelic tapestries and pages torn from Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. It's furnished with two more couches, an easy chair, and a huge beanbag. Much of the stuff in the house, like the coffeemaker and dishes in the kitchen, were paid for with money collected from FEMA and the American Red Cross for recovery and relief after the hurricane. The students say they got their furniture for free on Craigslist. In December these students will leave Seattle and most of these acquisitions behind. Everyone wants to get back to New Orleans, and so this time in Seattle is hardly productive, even for those enrolled in class. "Time stands still," Tessa says, "we're just waiting."
"Hey, I want to show you something," says James, a 20-year-old with a beard and wool cap. He produces an eight-inch glass pipe. "How much do you think this cost?"
The bowl looks elaborate, like a mini-bong, with a bubbling water filter and long stem, and I have recently lived in New York City where a simple pocket piece is usually at least $50, so I guess high.
"No way! Twenty bucks!" James says. "Pipes are ridiculously cheap around here!"
I can't judge if this is good news. James has a talent for blowing glass. When I met him several weeks ago, he told me many glassblowers like himself were struggling to find "legitimate" uses for their skills, that is, something other than blowing weed pipes. So I can't tell if he's excited about getting a new pipe so cheaply or if he's distressed that the market for his skills is no good here in Seattle.
I met James and Peter on the road in Wyoming in September. They were driving from their hometown to Seattle where some of their Tulane friends migrated after the hurricane. It was a few weeks after the storm and the newspapers were filled with photos of people fleeing Houston ahead of Rita. I was excited to see real live refugees from the famous storm, and eager to hear about their extraordinary circumstances. James was calm and seemed willing to make the most of a semester off. Peter was angry.
Some young people might be overjoyed to abandon the anchors and structure of daily life, but Peter fretted about having to replace his wardrobe and music. He also left some money behind. That man who robbed him did not get everything. When he evacuated New Orleans he left behind a safe with $13,000 inside, his drug earnings, on the floor of his first-story bedroom. Peter told me he wasn't too worried about looters getting the money. He was worried because the safe wasn't waterproof.
But his chief regret, Peter said, was that the hurricane was interfering with his graduation track. A senior computer sciences major, Peter had been preparing a project that should have been a culmination of his college years: a robotic vehicle. Missing the semester at Tulane meant he would have no time to complete it in the spring. I asked him why he did not just take the year off and start over in 2006.
"I'm a college student," Peter shrugged. "It's what I do."
James and Peter told me they could get into any university they wanted because of the hurricane. Why not go to Harvard, then?
"Harvard only accepted 50 kids from Tulane," Peter said. "So they wouldn't have taken us. Besides it was like, why would I go to Harvard, take Harvard classes, work all hard, and then graduate from Tulane?"
Ever the salesman, Peter matched value with receipts.
* * *
A house with 10 people has as many stories as residents.
Jolene, a redhead originally from Spokane, told me she left New Orleans just before the storm, camping and swimming along the gulf coast. She had her swimsuit and a small bag of clothes.
"We've evacuated for so many [storms] and it never ends up being a big deal," she said. But after the storm Jolene found herself barred from the city. She made her way to a nearby state where she had family, and watched events unfold on cable news. Ready for "a perfect senior year," the last thing Jolene expected was to find herself back home in Washington state, "[but] it kept getting worse," Jolene said.
Initial reports of damage at Tulane called the wreckage "extensive," and many students live off-campus, closer to the flooded areas. Not one of Tulane's 13,000 students was killed by Katrina, however, and Tulane's campus escaped major damage. The university has said it will resume classes in January. Its administration expects most of the students back, but it's harder to imagine many of the school's lower-income employees—cafeteria servers, groundskeepers—will be able to return then.
Sal, a young man sporting a full beard who lives at the house, managed to reenter New Orleans after fleeing the storm to Missouri. But he found his home unlivable, so he went back to New Mexico where his parents live. There he called his local parish and told the pastor he wanted to help collect money for Katrina victims. Sal said he gave nine speeches around Albuquerque, helping raise more than $44,000 for relief, which Catholic organizations used to supply food and shelter in New Orleans. Later he moved on to this Seattle house share.
* * *
In the basement, during my visit, Meryl Streep snorts an orchid.
Sal returns from a phone conversation and trips over someone's glass, spilling beer on the carpet. He rights the glass, then sprints upstairs. I think he's going to get a towel, but he comes back with a bottle of beer he then drinks himself. No one sops up the spill.
Why bother? They are only living here eight more weeks.
When the movie ends the housemates stir. It's 11 o'clock.
"This is when it usually gets crazy around here," says James. "But I don't know if anything's happening tonight."
A few of the housemates, confused by the ending, discuss the movie. Others debate where a friend from Tulane ended up.
"He's at Cornell," someone says.
"No, I heard he went to Indiana," says another.
Meanwhile they take turns as the $20 glass bowl gets handed around, and they share evacuation stories.
Peter is in better spirits than when I met him in Wyoming. He has already flown to New Orleans to check on his money. His apartment flooded, but the damage wasn't as bad as he had feared. Peter's cash was soaked and moldy and he had to put it in the dryer, which damaged the cash further. Banks in New Orleans hesitated to accept his money at first; the ones that were open were inundated with people turning in soggy, moldy bills. Peter said that he could see piles of biohazard sacks behind the bank counters, all loaded with rotten cash.
Halloween was coming up in a few days on the night I visited, and Seattle's Tulane refugees were delighted. Peter and Joni, pretty with long brown hair and a coy smile, discussed their costumes. Joni is from northern Wisconsin and in the uncertainty after the hurricane she actually enrolled briefly at the university in Madison before withdrawing to join her friends going to Seattle.
I shake hands with Cedric, tall with a broad curly Afro and beard. He offers me a beer and some manicotti fresh from the oven in the kitchen upstairs. The baked pasta smells delicious, and it is. We move to the living room: tables, couches, carpet strewn with magazines, newspapers, beers. The house is as messy as any college apartment, but not soiled.
Peter kneels before a fireplace stuffed with fake logs, manipulating an Apple laptop on the coffee table. He has promised to download his MP3s to Joni's iPod and she sits patiently beside him. Peter seems to be the house's technical handyman.
"We've been getting violent," Jolene says, showing me a bruise on her forearm. "I've got 'em all over. Everyone does. We never used to hit each other. But now whenever we get drunk we're wrestling and choking, even biting."
"Everyone?" I ask. As many girls live here as boys.
"I don't know what it means," she says.
Behind Jolene on shelves next to the mantle rest the copies of the crisis-coping manual, Filling the Void, jacket spines the color of cooked corn. These are gifts from the Red Cross. There are college textbooks on the shelves, too, and I can see Hegel and Capote as well.
Theodore sits on an easy chair in the corner reading Tom Wolfe's latest bestseller, concerning life at a big Southern college. "I'm just reading it because I figure I'm not in school now, I should read something," he says.
James fills another bowlful of weed.
"Your iPod's not working," Peter says.
"I told you," Joni says.
"It's because you left it on the floor overnight and it got too cold. You can't let these things get below 50 degrees."
"Our iPods keep breaking," Jolene tells me. "Sal's fell off the counter," she points to the mantle, "and landed on these tiles."
The Red Cross gave each of these kids $360 and they can apply for $2,000 in FEMA relief, deposited directly to their bank accounts. Only half the house requested the latter, but some of those who did mysteriously received an extra check.
"I didn't apply for the FEMA [money], but Zack got it twice," Cedric tells me, referring to another of the housemates. "The weird thing is the second check wasn't for the same amount as the first, it was for more, so they didn't just duplicate it. I don't know why.
"But then he did the last thing I would do if I got an extra two grand," Cedric says, "he got a job."
Zack says he hasn't cashed the second check; for her part Tessa tells me she tried to return her FEMA money, but when she tried to call FEMA she could only get a recording.
The Tulane students understand their peculiar position. They needed some money, they say, just to pay for their evacuation travel and clothes. They are, however, uncomfortable with being charity cases. Jolene, for example, is sick of having strangers dump bags of clothes on the porch. When she spoke with some friends from high school who live in Seattle, they offered condolences and sympathy and joked about the poor black people left behind. She says she had to hold back both her tears and her fists.
The Red Cross also provided many in the house with vouchers for Goodwill so they could buy more clothes. Cedric was pleased to find a suede jacket that fit well. According to the Red Cross, of the more than $2 billion it raised for Katrina victims, $1.56 billion went to such "emergency financial assistance." The many copies of Filling the Void in the house, which retail at $21 each, presumably fell under "physical and mental health services," composing another $11 million of the Red Cross's costs.
On September 1, Congress approved $10.5 billion in federal relief funds and then a week later approved another $51.8 billion, with $50 billion going directly to FEMA.
By now this money has trickled down to Seattle's University District, to shops that sell badminton nets and glass pipes. A reader might be offended. Are these kids smoking your Red Cross donation?
Sure they are. But you can't blame college kids for acting like college kids. A college student who can refuse money, whatever its source, is a rare creature. When parents offer money, students may hem and haw and try not to appear greedy, but they take the cash and get drunk that night. It's not the fault of these students that the government decided to throw money at them instead of helping the poor or using the money to shore up the levees before the storm. And compared to the large-scale fraud and cronyism that came in Katrina's wake—from Carnival Cruise Lines to Halliburton—a few college students spending their federal assistance checks on what are, for college students, necessities seems comparatively benign. In Houston, people got caught using their FEMA credit cards at strip clubs before the government started just dumping the money into bank accounts so it couldn't be traced. For the most part, those kids bought nothing they wouldn't buy if there had never been a Hurricane Katrina.
Still, it could be argued that the government made the same mistake Peter did back at Tulane: It showed us its money. America is drowning in debt deeper than any putrid floodwaters, yet Congress produces $60 billion dollars out of nowhere, just like that. It would be a greater surprise if people didn't take advantage.
As the night winds down I start saying my goodbyes. Jolene quickly tells me about her job search. She has leads on a few families that need nannies, and she might do that for a while. But she worried that it wouldn't be proper to take a job like that when you're leaving town in two months.
Peter and Cedric announce that they're leaving to play pool and grab a few beers at a nearby bar. They invite me to join them. Guess who's buying?
* * *
Last week an 11th housemate arrived.
Willard was gregarious and seemed happy to have rejoined his friends. The students all agree that having their friends spread out all over the country is depressing. They don't like being separated from each other. This house in Seattle has helped these friends regroup—and work on perfecting a game they've invented. In their yard they play a game they call "Woobanger." One player serves a Hacky Sack over the badminton net to another, who defends with a badminton or tennis racket.
Before the storm Willard evacuated New Orleans to his home in Miami. He found his mother evicted from her apartment there, unable to pay rent, and they struggled without a home briefly before finding another shortly after. "It was a sweet house," Willard says.
But Hurricane Wilma displaced him again. Even this late after Katrina, Willard's house in New Orleans remains flooded "up to here," he says, holding his palm flat by his waist.
Katrina destroyed most of Willard's property. His dresser fell onto the floor and the water took his clothes. Then Wilma ruined his shelter. Willard has already spent everything FEMA gave him and he does not know what he'll do.
Tulane opens in January. He waits like everyone else.