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Refrigerators become a magnet for art, political commentary

NEW ORLEANS—With duct-tape swirls, painted-on political statements and Mardi Gras-feathered crowns, the icebox brigade cometh to New Orleans like the street-art painted potato heads of Providence or the cows of Kansas City.

Katrina-inspired art or political discourse is sprouting on ruined refrigerators dumped at curbsides throughout the city, and the noxious vaults are turning heads and noses.

In the French Quarter, artist Matthew Nesbit, 41, couldn't resist the 6-foot white canvas. For several nights, he sneaked out after curfew to apply duct tape and gallons of red paint, dabbing impressionistic profiles of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Nesbit's refrigerator—topped with a Mardi Gras crown—is the Quarter's latest tourist attraction.

"Dealing with the whole trauma and just being angry about everything, well, it made me feel better," he said. "It's been there three weeks. Now it's making other people laugh, too."

Some refrigerators bear jokes worthy of late-night TV monologues. "I went looting in New Orleans and all I got was this stinkin' fridge," one says.

The exiled refrigerators are powerfully affecting. The fumes from rotting food make some people retch from just a whiff, said Jason McRae, 29, the owner of A+ Appliances in suburban Kenner. He gets 25 calls a day from people asking for repairmen to check whether their fridges can be saved.

"But some people just can't bear the smell and want it out of their house," he said.

When it's time to shuffle off their mortal coils, the refrigerators head to Gentilly Landfill, where new workers learn fast: Stand upwind in a refrigerator graveyard.

"New guys usually lose their lunch around here their first day," said Travis Houston, of New Orleans, who earns $14.24 an hour to bear the stench. "This is one of the worst jobs you could imagine."

At the 200-acre landfill in eastern New Orleans, 1,600 dead refrigerators a day are put to rest on 15 acres of crushed gravel.

Rancid food, some still sealed in colorful plastic containers, is shoveled out. Freon is purged and environmental protection engineers dismantle mercury switches.

Once the innards and motors are disgorged, the thousands of Whirlpools, Hotpoints and Admiral appliances get high-pressure baths. A 30-foot Knuckle Boom looms over their hulls, jabs their plastic skins and lobs them like rag dolls into a crushing machine.

All that remains is the stench of what was.

"We learn that if it's not moving, it's rice," said Houston, who wore a white haz-mat jumpsuit, a double-filtered mask, gloves and boots. At his feet was a clear plastic bag filled with something white and ricelike, spilling out of packages. But on closer inspection, this "rice" moved. "When it moves, it's maggots."

From dusk to dawn, convoys of trucks canvass the city searching for discarded refrigerators.

The contractors who are picking them up try to be gentle when hoisting the weighty appliances: No one wants to clean up the goo that could ooze out if a door opens. They also don't want to damage coils containing Freon.

It's an odiferous workplace, said Ron Fields, who was working at the dump. He's a minister from Memphis, Tenn., who's also a retired mortician. "But if you've ever exhumed a body, man, this is nothing," he said.

The work may be stinky, but to John Ingram, also of Memphis, it smells like money. He came here when he heard Jesse Jackson say there were jobs in New Orleans.

Frustrated that so many New Orleans evacuees were getting Memphis jobs, he decided to come with Jackson and a large group of employees with the Rainbow Coalition.

"I'm single and the money is good, you know," he said. He's planning on buying a house in New Orleans, with a picket fence, and two border collies.

"I'll be coming to work every day, faithfully. And I'll be coming with a smile on my face."

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(Kavanaugh reports for The Kansas City Star.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-FRIDGEART

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