Friday, January 11, 2013

Stolen Homes

“You better arrest him right now for stealing my house, Detective Jurgis.” Cap Warner’s arthritic fingers knotted around the pistol pointed at Boost McClaine, “Or I’ll shoot him dead here myself.”

This wasn’t like Cap. People had been acting unlike themselves a lot in the year since the Storm.

I took in the situation I’d chanced upon patrolling:

Cap’s tears wet the wide collar of his cabana shirt. Boost’s hands high, tattoos drizzling down his arms in sleeves. Both with a defeated look hollowing their eyes to the core.

I took the longest look at that house.

I didn’t know what to say.

“Cap, I didn’t mean it like that,” Boost said, Adam’s apple grabbing at tears to keep them down. Not like him at all either—not bad-ass carjacker, Boost McClaine.

“How could you mean it?” Cap forced himself to look at the house. “How could you ever mean this to be right?”

He lost me there. Because standing in this trimmed Lower Ninth lot was a house everybody in the Upper Ninth knew as Cap’s. Just like everyone knew he had lost that house to Katrina.


Being lost on patrol is a familiar feeling.

Actually arriving in time to prevent a crime is what’s weird.

Most of the time in the Ninth, we don’t patrol at all.

Crime just happens. Like the rain. We just get sent in to dry up the mess.

Why patrol for the rain in a place like New Orleans?

When the Fifth District decides to sacrifice gas money, manpower and common sense to run patrols, we don’t actually expect to stop anything.

I don’t focus on the squalor: The houses cut in half, the corners’ surly pushers, the weed-trimmed chain link everywhere.

I just enjoy the sights:

Pale, Easter-color balloons that Carver High floats from the Desire District sign on Louisa. Hand-painted signs for wholesale pork knuckle, Hennessey and T-shirts. Houses with year-round Halloween decorations, with battalions of Saints flags waving, with pinwheels and flower gardens inside iron-caged porches.

Houses like Cap Warner’s especially.

Cap had this whole pirate motif going on. Lord knows why—he was a grocer. He put more cash into styling his house like the S. S. Minnow than he did into keeping fresh produce on his shelves.

He had a big wooden steering wheel under the portico. A sail above it. Figureheads in varnished gowns on the porch columns. Netting. Crow’s nest. The whole nautical nine yards.

Everybody loved that house. Especially the kids Cap invited over to play pretend there. So long as they played nice, they were welcome.

Boost didn’t play nice.

First year I was on patrol, Boost took playing pirate too far—staged a mutiny with a Saturday Night Special, leaving Cap tied up on the porch short two of his fancy figureheads.

Cap recovered the figureheads. Boost got the first in a long series of installments at Orleans Parish Prison.

Two years later, Katrina wasn’t so merciful.

She swept away the whole house. Not so much as a stuffed parrot was left.

The community wouldn’t have it. We need what pretty we can get. So when Cap came back, Desire District spent the next year and a small fortune replacing his whole house.

I even chipped in to have figureheads custom carved.

Cap almost felt at home. He’d just invited the first group of kids over the week before.


Now I was looking at Cap’s house: Figureheads, yard-arm, crows nest.

It was intact. Only, it was about five miles east of where it should be.

“I wasn’t trying to take it,” Boost said, little kid whine to his voice, like he might’ve sounded when he first got sent inside. “I was rebuilding it for you.”

“For me?” Cap only raised the gun. “By stealing it?”

“I loved that place,” Boost said. He looked on it fond as polish. “I got every bit back, hunted them all down in the rubble, pieced them back together.”

He was right. He even got the damned water-logged parrot.

“No, you stole it,” Cap said. The gun was angling down at least. “Everybody built mine back up. Then you stole it again.”

“No,” Boost said. He looked to me. “You tell him—you tell him I did right. Rebuilt it best I could. I’m a different man now.”

“You’re a robber,” Cap said. What hate he had in him glared at Boost. “Using a gun to take what you will. But I got the gun up in here now.”

Now what to say came to me. I could breathe again, not just drown in espresso and heartburn.

“Cap,” I said. I stepped forward. I reached a hand out, but not for the gun—for his shoulder. “You got that right. You’re the one with the gun now. Not the other way around.”

Cap looked adrift. The gun aimed at the lawn.

“The Hell that’s supposed to mean, Ma’am?”

“You decide who you are,” I said. “Is Cap Warner a shooter?”

It took him a moment to think it over.

I felt two lives straining on the line.

Then the gun went into the grass.

“I just want my house back,” Cap wept.

It was standing right there, looking down on us with its portholes and crows’ nest spyglass. But all the three of us could do was hang our heads.

“I’ll get you home.” I steered him for the cruiser. Boost cried as soon as Cap’s back was turned.

He went into his house with the washed-out expression of a marooned man.

Twenty minutes later, Cap went into his with the same look.

I completed my patrol, watching the corner pushers and the construction yards. I tried to enjoy the familiar sights breaking the surface of the devastation.

I tried not to worry about the rain.