Monday, September 3, 2007

August Week 5

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From Olympia,

Ann and I arrived home on Saturday evening, September 1st. Our last week in New Orleans was a good one. We started out with the wedding of Caliopie Georgiadis and Adam Walsh, two great folks who met while volunteering down here last fall. I could take up the rest of this email with great stories about these two, but let me abbreviate by telling you that they came down here to be married because New Orleans meant that much to them. The wedding and reception--well, Ann and I have been to a few weddings, but we've never been to one this fun. It was a great evening to celebrate their love and our love for each other and for our adopted city. We ate a heart-stopping meal of New Orleans' delights, danced the night away first to Washboard Chazz and his trio, then to our headliners the Soul Rebels. As a gift for Caliopie and Adam, Ann spent part of the summer making a quilt commemorating their commitment to New Orleans and their Hands On experience, and she gave it to them at the reception. Everyone who had worked in New Orleans with Caliopie and Adam had a space on the quilt to sign and express sentiments, and it made for a very special gift. Ann and I went to bed before our younger, more late-night-capable compatriots closed the place down. Needless to say, Ann and I were up earlier the next morning.

We went back to work at Miss Jessie's in Gentilly on Monday, and finished the floor
and bathroom tiling on Tuesday. Eric installed her toilet, bathroom sink, and shower, which all work now for the first time since six feet of water inundated her home after the storm. Ann, Sean, Jordan and I finished tiling her family room, and Sean then began and nearly finished installing her Pergo flooring in the other spaces of her home. On Tuesday afternoon, she came into her family room when we were busy installing tile and told me, "This home is shouting. I AM SHOUTING." It was the most poignant moment I've had here in New Orleans. There she was, admiring her nearly-new home, two years after being routed from it and then kept from returning to it for two months after the storm, left only to guess the condition of her home and her life in New Orleans. She told us that her first look at her flooded home in October of 2005 was devastating to her. She found her couch in her kitchen and her refrigerator in her living room. Nothing was spared. Everything was ruined. She persevered, and here I was with her to see her home nearly completed at the hands of a bunch of volunteers who might work slowly, but goddamnit, they do good work.

On Monday night, Ann and I took Miss Jessie and three of our fellow Hands On volunteers to dinner at Commander's Palace. For those of you who haven't been to New Orleans, Commander's Palace is a world-class restaurant located in the Garden District and known for its impeccable cuisine and wonderful service. Reggie and Amanda, two Hands On volunteers who've been there since before Ann and I showed up last September now work at Commander's Palace, and joined us for dinner with Mary Ellen Bartkowski, the teacher I told you about last week. The complimentary appetizers flowed, the entrees were superb, the desserts were way over the top, and the evening was wonderful. Miss Jessie's first words to us the next morning were "I haven't enjoyed myself so much in I can't tell you how long." She then went to the doctor because her back had been bothering her immensely. The doctor diagnosed her with shingles, due to stress. Her home is nearly complete, the 2nd anniversary of the storm comes, and boom--the stress finds a way to do its damage.

Wednesday was the 2nd anniversary of the hurricane, and the city was full of remembrances. We weren't very productive that day. First, we attended the dedication of the Katrina memorial to the unidentified victims of the storm. Following that, we headed over to another gathering at Jackson Square which Arnie Fielkow, the President of the City Council, invited us to attend so he could thank Hands On publicly. On our way to that gathering, we were stopped by a police roadblock at an intersection near Interstate 10. We waited for several red-light cycles before we asked the police why we were waiting. He told us the President was coming through, and we'd have to wait a few minutes. The four of us looked at each other, and then all jumped out of our van like clowns jumping out of their wagon at a circus. We were right there to give our President our very best salute and take some pictures. Emma looked at us and said "Hey--we all have our Hands On shirts on--". We looked down at our shirts, and, without any discussion or hesitation, immediately pulled our shirts off and turned them inside-out. After a good laugh, we knew we were ready to "salute" the President without bringing any disrepute to our organization. The police officer, who had refused to let us through for the previous 10 minutes, saw what was up and immediately waved us through the intersection and told us to be on our way. We arrived on time for the Jackson Square event, but damn, we missed seeing the President. For those of you who saw him on TV when he was in New Orleans, you saw more of him than the rest of us in New Orleans did. Amazing how he can make himself look so among the people when he is so hidden. Mission Accomplished.

We closed Wednesday by attending Anderson Cooper's CNN show, which was shown live that day. He's been down here 25 times since the storm, and has continued to keep his viewers informed on the post-Katrina conditions in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. If you missed the show, you can catch it on

On Thursday, Ann, Reggie, Jordan, Kudi and I went back to finish the siding on Miss Rose's home. Except for an error estimating the materials we'd need to complete the job (thanks to your author), the day went perfectly. Kelsey, Ann and I will be back to bang up the 15 final pieces of siding in November. After work, Reggie and I went to Miss Irma's home on Stroelitz Street in Mid City. Her home is directly across the street from the 17th Street Canal and took about 6 feet of water. Miss Irma is on the custodial staff at the Audubon Charter School, and we met her when we helped Miss Mary Ellen get her classroom set up a couple of weeks ago. Her home is finished and looks wonderful. Reg and I provided good-neighbor services--unpacked her refrigerator, hung a TV, stuff like that. It was pretty amazing to look out her front door and see that canal, right there.

Louisiana is one of the states that participates in Powerball. The jackpot exceeded $300 million while we were there, and Reggie, Ann and I started buying tickets as the jackpot built. The talk among us was what we'd do to help people in need when we won. That alone was well worth the buck we each spent for each drawing. Reggie has a complete plan for what we'd do. He talked about it like it was a certainty, asking key members of his to-be strike force if they were "in or out". Who could be "out" when Reggie asked? We were, of course, all "in" and ready to go. We didn't win this time, but just you wait and see what happens when we do.

I always have a tough time writing to y'all after I've left New Orleans, because I'm no longer among the really great people who live there. I feel really at home in New Orleans, especially when I'm there with Ann. It's a very special place to me now that I've spent 3 of the previous 12 months there. It's not that I really know New Orleans, or that I understand everything about it. It's that New Orleans has gotten into my blood in a way a city never has before in my life. I love Portland, but when I say that, what I really mean is I love the people I know in Portland. There's a big difference between those two positions, I have learned. Portland to me is the people we know who live or who have lived there--Bryan, Kelsey and Spencer, Kevan, Mike and Catherine, Bobby, all of the Spiekers, the Follen family, the great people who educated me at Jesuit (some of them were teachers), the Morford family, Ed Israel, all of the great folks I worked with at CTR and Stoel Rives, and so forth. But, as I spent my three months in New Orleans this year, I learned that there's a difference between loving the people who live somewhere, and loving somewhere itself. There's something about the rhythm of New Orleans which adds to the deep feelings I've developed for many of the people down there.

A happy postscript to last week's email: Davida Finger, the attorney who runs the Katrina Clinic at Loyola Law School, went back to appeal the case of the blind woman who was told she couldn't have an additional three weeks in her FEMA trailer. This time she won. Three more weeks to stay in her FEMA trailer so she can look for permanent housing she can afford before she is evicted. I sure do regret not having had a chance to visit the President when he was down here last week. Here we were, doing what we do well, and I missed the chance to ask him to do what he could do with ease. He could wave a hand and make sure that needy, disabled, elderly, poor people weren't kicked out of their shitty-assed FEMA trailers just because people were tired of looking at them. I really regret missing the opportunity to speak with him. I was having lunch with Miss Jessie in her FEMA trailer. He was having lunch on Air Force One. I couldn't ignore the irony that we helped pay for both her trailer and his aircraft. His lunch probably cost more than Miss Jessie's FEMA trailer, but Miss Jessie's gumbo beat the hell out of whatever they served him up there. Pisses me off that we paid for his lunch, but Miss Jessie would not hear of us helping to buy the ingredients she turned into many great meals for us. January 20, 2009....January 20, 2009....I keep repeating it in the hope the day will come sooner that way.

OK. Enough ranting. Ann, Kelsey and I head on back down to New Orleans at the end of next month. Miss Jessie's place ought to be about finished by then, if not before. It's going to be a very good day when she watches her FEMA trailer roll away, and she turns to enter her home and close the door.

One nail, one screw, one board at a time. It's better for me to concentrate on what's getting done than it is to spend time steaming about what isn't getting done.

To those of you who contributed to the Tool Fund, and to any of you still considering making a contribution, thanks again. The folks at Hands On really can't believe how generous you have been. Let me tell you, they are in serious need of some new tools. Can't wait to have new batteries for those screwguns, and enough ladders to allow every crew that needs them to have them available for work.

My love to all of you.