Desperation is a funny thing.
Push people to the edge, and they react in all sorts of ways: Some pray. Some plead. Others lash out in anger or flee in fear.
Anne Courtney apologized.
“I’m sorry,” she said, again and again. “I’m not a complainer. I don’t want to sound like one.”
The restaurant she runs in Orange Beach is dying, a victim of BP. The decline of the North Shore Grill has been slow, painful and profoundly frustrating.
“I’d take a hurricane over this in a heartbeat,” Courtney said to an audience of empty bar stools and vacant tables. “At least in a storm, you know tomorrow is a better day.”
The oil spill killed tourist business here just as it did across the Gulf Coast. Now the fate of the North Shore Grill rests in a file controlled by claims czar Ken Feinberg. Without immediate assistance, the restaurant will close for good on Friday, Courtney said.
“The worst part is the empty promises,” she said. “You fight and fight, thinking that help is just around the corner. But then you get there, and it’s gone. It just knocks the will out of you.”
The end would be particularly bitter after the restaurant’s hopes were raised by Feinberg’s arrival last month.
The blunt-talking lawyer took over the claims process from BP on Aug. 23, a move that was cheered by Courtney and restaurant owner Joey Ward. After filing an initial claim on June 21, they’d spent weeks fighting BP bureaucracy with little to show for it. Feinberg promised to cut the red tape and get the checks flowing.
“We were so relieved when he got here,” said Courtney, the manager and unofficial mother to the restaurant’s college-age staff. “We had a small claim. He promised to take care of us. We thought everything would be OK.”
The business, situated on Cotton Bayou at the San Roc Cay Marina, had received a single payment of $35,000 from BP for June. Then nothing, as the restaurant slumped through a torpid July. On Aug. 1, it received a second payment of $4,195 — hardly enough to pay the utilities, much less the payroll, Courtney said.
Ward and Courtney cut every possible expense. They dropped breakfast service and trimmed the staff from 20 to 14 employees. They added chicken sandwiches to a menu full of seafood.
Rumors about claims payments consumed the small beach town.
“You’ll hear that so-and-so got paid or somebody else got a new truck,” said Courtney, a lifelong resident of Orange Beach. “Meanwhile, the rest of us are just trying to survive. People get paranoid. I’ve seen best friends stop speaking. It’s tearing the community apart.”
The restaurant kept bleeding cash. Courtney said she and Ward dipped into their personal savings to help meet expenses. If they could just make it to Labor Day, she told herself, then the tourists would return.
The holiday came and went on the island. There was little to show for it but a silent cash register and a stack of unpaid bills.
The condos are not occupied. The beaches are deserted. The fishing boats rock vacantly in the neighboring marina.
“It really hit home for me when I went into Wal-Mart and saw the school supplies on sale,” Courtney said. “I cried. I can’t explain it. Summer was over. I just lost it.”
Today, Courtney will be among the hundreds of Gulf Shores residents who trudge into a town hall meeting with Feinberg at the Orange Beach Community Center. She will go there with dwindling expectations and a rumpled folder full of records documenting the restaurant’s slow collapse.
She will try not to yell. She will try not to cry.
Desperation is a funny thing. It may be all around us, but it is not always obvious.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m tired, and I’m sad, and I’m just emotionally exhausted. If this is the end, I’m willing to accept it. Just give me the honest truth.”