This Mold House redux: The mold queen retires
NolaVie editor Renee Peck wrote This Mold House for The Times-Picayune for four years after Hurricane Katrina. She is reposting a number of her favorite columns in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the storm. This article originally was published in The Times-Picayune InsideOut section on Feb. 28, 2009.
The Mold Queen is hanging up her crown.
After nearly 32 years of writing and editing features, I am retiring. This is my final ThisMold House column for The Times-Picayune.
In days to come, you may see my byline on the odd Living section article or InsideOut cover story, but those are merely the final floating bits of detritus from the final days of a career that has spanned three decades. A cleaning of my story closet, if you will.
I tell people I've done everything at the paper except work the cafeteria line. I've been food editor, TV Focus editor, Lagniappe editor and an assistant Living editor. I've covered beats ranging from parenting to the Internet and written a zillion or so features on topics both frivolous and serious, from water parks to teenage pregnancy.
But in many ways, my last gig at the paper has been the most rewarding. And the most exhausting.
In March 2004, InsideOut was launched as The Times-Picayune's first weekend shelter magazine, filled with lore on home design and style trends, gardening and antiques, and the local real-estate transfers, always high in reader demand.
In the magazine's first year, I poked around people's bedrooms and picked the brains of interior designers. I visited George Shinn in his skytop penthouse and Ronnie Lamarque in his lakefront mansion. I toured the "Real World" Belfort mansion with MTV.
I discovered that people like to talk about their houses as much as they do their kids or their dogs. We were all having fun.
Then Hurricane Katrina swept through town in August 2005, leading to massive levee breaches that inundated 80 percent of the city. My beat was literally washed away.
So we reinvented ourselves.
InsideOut became a voice for recovery -- a publication that had been created mostly to entertain suddenly became a publication meant mostly to inform. I wrote about hurricane clips, mold, panel construction systems, modular housing, mold, home elevations, mold, moisture barriers, flood maps and mold.
In short, I became the Mold Queen.
I could spot a budding Stachybotrys at a dozen paces and recite the recommended formula for mold remediation by heart (one part bleach to four parts water, plus 3 ounces of TSP, an ingredient used in pressure-washing, available in hardware stores).
Initially, This Mold House was created as a series of short how-to pieces, written by staff members and designed to help hurricane victims rescue flood-destroyed belongings -- waterlogged photographs, muddy christening gowns, even rusty golf clubs.
By January 2006, I was writing a lot of them, and segued into topics I was tackling at my own flood-ravaged home in Lakeview. Soon, This Mold House became a chronicle of my rebuild, as I faced the same problems as hurricane victims across the city. I dealt with roofing woes, brick choices, molding selections and varieties of wooden flooring.
When my rebuild was done, I kept writing. I often dragged my husband, Stewart, into the fray, outing him as a metrosexual when he got caught up in paint colors, or teasing him for his low DIY IQ. I thank him for his good humor.
Two broad types of columns have garnered the most attention from readers: ones that are universal, and ones that are offbeat (read: weird).
The former includes articles on things like tankless water heaters and paperless drywall, wireless doorbells and spray-foam insulation ("You saved my life with that one," a reader once told me in the grocery checkout line.)
The more offbeat pieces have covered everything from how to choose wall colors according to the zodiac to the life of the Upstairs Squatter. (Remember the days of gutted rooms and a dead kitchen downstairs?)
I've also written about Katrinkets (those things you didn't need but made you feel better after the storm) and Katrina Brain (which I'm still using as an excuse for increasing senility).
The Percy column probably got the most feedback -- Percy was the name of a floor worker who knew where we hid the key to our unfinished house; it seems he had been, unbeknownst to us, bringing girlfriends there at night and claiming the house as his own. I learned this one day at 5 a.m., soon after we moved back in, when I ran into a young blonde on the second-floor landing. "Where's Percy?" she asked.
Perhaps my most satisfying columns have been the ones about grassroots rebuilding efforts, the stories about spring breakers and local high-schoolers gutting houses; about Lakewood South resident's Denise Thornton's Beacon of Hope, where neighbors early on could borrow lawn mowers; about my college roommate, Gail, a New Yorker who brought her college son to town to work at Musicians' Village.
Writing this column has taught me much. We New Orleanians are resilient. We can laugh. We believe in ourselves and our community.
But the best thing about This Mold House has been the connection it created with readers -- a connection unprecedented in my 30 years as a journalist. Strangers frequently started conversations with me in schoolyards, at church, in the drugstore aisle, all telling me how great it was to read stories that mirrored their experiences, and expressed their emotions.
"That could have been written by me," I heard more than once from people commenting on an article about my hassles with carpenters, or my constant attempts to get more organized, or my delight in finally getting a grocery store in the neighborhood.
What a compliment: to capture the public pulse in a way that resonates. Thank you, all of you, for that.
I will miss you.
THIS MOLD HOUSE: A RETROSPECTIVE
These snippets, taken from three years' worth of This Mold House columns, are mileposts of a sort along my own journey to recovery. Call them excerpts from the life of The MoldQueen.
- Jan. 14, 2006: "I've discovered that mold is pretty gross stuff. It may, in fact, give the cockroach a run for its money."
- Jan. 28, 2006: "The Red Cross draws volunteers from across the country, but that organization has nothing on me. My painter/carpenter is from Kansas City, my drywall installer from Natchez, my contractor from Atlanta."
- Jan. 28, 2006: "Bids these days are like pollen spores. You know they're floating around out there, but try landing one."
- April 1, 2006: "Our kitchen designer has faultless taste, can measure off a perfect 30-inch cabinet drop-in with one eye and knows the difference between a mocha and pewter glaze at a glance. But even better: She comes paired with a plumber."
- April 8, 2006: "I tend to hug the painter, drop in on the neighbor's ongoing restoration and strike up animated conversations in the Walgreens pharmacy line. And my flooring guy has become my therapist."
- July 22, 2006: "In Lakeview we're living a sort of 'now you have it, now you don't' existence. 'Give them high-speed Internet,' some Machiavellian scientist is saying somewhere. 'Then wait a week and take it away.' "
- Aug. 26, 2006: "Aug. 29 is not a date for celebration, but contemplation ... a time to take stock of our hit-or-miss achievements. The house is substantially complete, but we have yet to buy downstairs furniture. The insurance company renewed our homeowner's policy, but my car is back in the shop getting its fourth (fifth?) tire fix from debris-induced punctures."
- Sept. 9, 2006: "One-day dry cleaning has gone the way of twice-a-week garbage pickup and weekly home magazine delivery. Welcome to the New Normal, an era divided into Pre-K and Post-K, with all sorts of small but important lifestyle habits caught on the wrong side of the divide."
- Sept. 30, 2006: "If the first year post-Katrina was a half-empty kind of time, then the second seems poised to be half full."
- Oct. 4, 2006: "The only route to marital serenity is division of labor. We've learned that good marriages are made when construction interests diverge."
- Nov. 25, 2006: "Those of us on the cutting edge of rebuilding have learned a new statistic: While it takes a year to complete 95 percent of your repairs, it will take a decade to complete the final 5 percent."
- Dec. 16, 2006: "Like 99.9 percent of the American population, I haven't read any of the manuals that arrived with my new appliances. Perhaps that's why the 'broil' function on the oven keeps reverting to 'bake,' or the reason the dishwasher chirps at odd hours of the night."
- Dec. 30, 2006: "I recall thinking, on Jan. 1, 2006, that this would be the hard year. Now I'm thinking that perhaps 2007 will be a rougher one."
- April 7, 2007: "I have become a big box-store junkie. Blindfold me, spin me around three times and push me through the front door at any Lowe's or Home Depot and I can unerringly zero in on a satin nickel shower head, an MR-16 long-life halogen light bulb or a rack of 3/4-inch fluted door casings."
- April 27, 2007: "A scary thing happened Saturday. Stewart arrived home with a jar of quick-set cement for repairing pool tile."
- May 19. 2007: "Urban youth haven't been raised, as I was, with critters. Katrina is changing this. Bugs, rodents, mammals, reptiles -- they all love the debris-laden carcasses of abandoned homes and public wastelands."
- May 26, 2007: "Will all future hurricane seasons be numbered, I wonder? Post-K Season 7, or 12, or 15? I hope so, since it will mean that another Big One hasn't hit us."
- June 2, 2007: "I have a recurring nightmare of driving home from work in five or 10 years time, and seeing Katrina Houses lining Canal Boulevard."
- Aug. 25, 2007: "As magazines and newspapers around the world focus on the city on this second anniversary of the storm, many will trumpet the big stories, but miss the smaller, more important ones. While they ponder the dangers of low elevation and the cost of higher levees, we'll continue quietly doing what we've done for 24 months: getting on with our lives."
- Nov. 24, 2007: "Two weeks ago, I drove along St. Charles Avenue and saw crowds of people waiting patiently to ride the first streetcars to run under the live oaks there. It signaled, I think, a desire to rediscover those small daily threads that, woven together, formed the fabric of a rich but routine existence pre-Katrina."
- Dec. 1, 2007: "When you're buying, ordering, calling, meeting, choosing, whatever, you operate at full tilt, just to Get Things Done. Then, when the rebuild is complete, the letdown is immense. Suddenly, you have time to grieve or regret or whatever it is we all do in this era of post-Katrina mental anguish."
- Jan. 22, 2008: "Since the storm, I've cleaned out a lot of spaces, from bedrooms to closets to carport. But somehow, my car trunk represented our post-K existence in a way that no other space had. In that shallow, claustrophobic, carpeted well lay an anthropologist's repository of detritus and debris that told the story of our recent lives more eloquently than words or photographs."
- April 26, 2008: "It's amazing what you can ignore when you've been through a renovation. Did we really think that hole (in the ceiling) would shrivel up and die, like the begonias in the urn outside our front door?"
- May 31, 2008: "For half the year, we live carefree -- or as carefree as one can be in a city where streets can break a car axle and insurance premiums cost as much as college tuition. Then June 1 arrives, and our off season begins. We postpone the home-improvement plans, cancel the garden tune-ups, and stock up on water and batteries instead of crawfish and strawberries. . . . For six months of the year, the H-word hovers like a thundercloud over a Fourth of July picnic."
- Aug. 30, 2008: "Wednesday morning, before work, I bought chocolate cake and thin-set. It was a New Orleans kind of day."
- Oct. 25, 2008: "Katrina was hard on all the stuff we hoard for the holidays. After the storm, I discovered that my lighted reindeer had shorted out and my dried-greenery wreaths bore the nibble marks of some critter that had sheltered in the attic."
- Nov. 29, 2008: "The last brick in the foundation of what I consider the good life was in place. Within a five-minute drive of my house, I have a grocery store, hardware store, gas station, coffee shop, fast-food franchise and, now, drugstore. Lagniappe is the new fitness center (I'll get there) and nail shop (ditto)."
- Jan. 17, 2009: "I was going to write a column on getting organized a couple of weeks ago, but, well, where did I put those notes?"
- Jan. 24, 2009: "Over the years, I've interviewed many people who came here for Mardi Gras and never left. Now, I'm interviewing young people who come to volunteer and never leave.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]