Movie magician Francis Ford Coppola once admitted, “I like to work in a shop down in the basement and invent things and build gadgets.”
Wow, a basement can be that inspiring to the creator of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” classics?
When I go down to my basement, I see stifled creativity.
It’s a junked-up mess. It’s not the scattered tools or the gardening implements or all the assorted seasonal bird feeders.
The cases of Christmas decorations also aren’t the problem. It’s the boxes and boxes of “Katrinaed stuff,” the hurricane-ravaged possessions I packed obsessively with bubble wrap and newspaper to prevent more damage in transit from the Mississippi Coast to Virginia.
Without all those boxes filled with my former — or Pre-K for “Before Katrina” — life, it would be a lovely basement, complete with fireplace. It even has cabinets I salvaged from a kitchen makeover and topped with a great work bench. But you can’t get to them for all the leftovers of 2005.
When I bought the house, a fixer-upper on top a woody hill in the Virginia Piedmont, I was working full-time at the Sun Herald. It took 1½ years of sweat equity and some paid skilled labor to make the house livable after several decades of neglect.
Bringing such a wonderful place back to life was a salve for the Katrina losses, including my beloved Biloxi 1920s Craftsman cottage.
Gathering the stuff
After the hurricane and in between long newsroom hours, I, friends and family combed the Biloxi property for any bits that survived the storm surge. Muck-caked objects were next stored in a friend’s climate controlled storage unit. Then neglected for five years.
Thoughts of timely rebuilding were stifled by a court suit over property boundaries and rising insurance rates. Meanwhile, my sister in Virginia discovered this affordable fixer-upper. What a dream come true, to own property on the Gulf and in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Plenty of room
This place is two stories plus the full-sized underground, floored basement with concrete block walls that stay amazingly dry. The brick fireplace indicates the original builders intended the basement to be more than a storage area for the oil furnace, electric circuit box and wiring. Plumbing for a never-installed bathroom now make a convenient corner for a laundry room, complete with a sink I added.
Why even share this with you, Gentle Reader, as Ann and Miss Manners are wont to say? It’s because of the basement, or the lack thereof on the Coast. Growing up in Gulfport I only knew what a basement was because my Pennsylvania grandparents had one — an ominous dark, dusty place for storing canned goods, apples and scary, creepy things.
Another vague memory is of a basement turned imaginative playroom when I was a toddler and the family lived in a New Jersey one-story as my father did top secret Navy duty there. When we settled permanently on the Coast, my basement acquaintance ended. Because of the water table and a proneness to flooding, Mississippi’s coastline is not conducive to basements.
Basements vs attics
Big attics are what we have on the Coast, and we take advantage of them for storage. I certainly did at my cottage. The disadvantage is that attics get excessively hot, unlike basements that may get humid but stay cool in summer heat.
Some folks call basements “cellars” but I distinguish between them, a cellar being a dug out underground space or room not necessarily under the house.
Historically, the Coast has claimed a few cellars, including one at the Old Brick House on Biloxi Back Bay, built in the mid-1800s. I was told and read about but never saw the cellar there. One of the unconfirmed stories is that, once used for wine storage, the cellar was paved over in modern times for a street.
Friends of mine in Biloxi had a small lined cellar accessible through a floor trap door, but it had water problems. I’ve heard and read, but again not personally confirmed, that a cellar in Hancock County, on a bluff near the beach, was used for hiding contraband such as pirate booty and slaves.
Cellars are such an oddity that I suspect a grain of truth lies in these stories. During the atomic fallout shelter craze of the 1950s and ’60s, some Coast home cellars were dug, but that’s another story.
The ultimate storage unit
In no way can cellars and basements be commonplace because the Coast land makeup does not support them. And that brings me full circle to a basement as a depository for my Katrinaed stuff.
I eventually hauled the boxes from the Coast storage unit to the Virginia basement, then promptly neglected them another six years.
The other day when I needed a vase for a flower bouquet, a pretty, Pre-K, cut-glass, triangular vase popped in mind. My nieces gave it to me six years before Katrina. I was half-certain it had survived.
The next two days I dragged up several dozen boxes. My late brother’s outdoor knife with a leather handle wrapped by his own hand, now that was a find. How nice to have back my grandmother’s Victorian pedestal bowl and a ceramic vase my artistic mother painted.
Keep and throw
Much of the stuff was still caked in Katrina muck and my hands turned to prunes as I washed and washed. Some things I threw out, wondering what state of mind I was in back then that I couldn’t throw out the broken bits and pieces.
Voila! I found Erica and Heidi’s vase in the last box. Well, I made it the last box because I couldn’t take any more emotional roller coaster rides. Besides, I have a basement for continued storage.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.