Saturday, May 30, 2009

What Goes Around...

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

It's time to take stock of where we've been, what we've done, who we've done it for, and who we've done it with and been inspired by.

In September of 2006, Ann and I made our first trip here to this richly-textured and wounded foreign land. At the time, we naively assumed we'd make that trip, and that trip only.

Over the past nearly 3 years, 10 trips and 10 months here on the ground, I've seen a lot. A lot has changed, albeit glacially when you look at the pace of the actual rebuilding. Nevertheless, over that period of time, even a snail makes progress. It's a lot like watching your kid grow. Each day, nothing is apparently changing. Add a few years, though, and wow--what happened?

On our very first day at work here, Saturday September 9th, 2006, Ann and I awoke for the first time in our bunkhouse at the First Street United Methodist Church on the corner of First and Dryades Streets. We had no idea where we were. "Central City", I heard someone call it. We wandered around the bunkhouse, meeting people and trying to figure out how this all worked. I walked out to our toolshed to see what it looked like. The first person I met there, whom I assumed to be a boss based upon his apparent knowledge of where everything was located and how everything should be organized (We later found out he'd been there two weeks ahead of us) was a foreign fellow (South African, we later learned) named Reggie Derman. In what I came to understand as Reggie's general high-energy and focused style, Reggie immediately got me involved in the gathering of tools for our job that day. When instructed, I got in the van with a bunch of other strangers, and off we rolled into the city. Our work that day was to gut a large home (I couldn't call it a double-shotgun because I didn't know what that was) on Robertson Street, just off Esplanade. I didn't know that "Esplanade" rhymes with "lemonade" here in New Orleans. All I knew was turn here, see a park full of FEMA trailers, turn there, see an entire block of homes with doors open and windows missing, jump on an expressway, see the Superdome and its huge sign "Superdome Reopening September 25th", jump off the expressway, see a huge homeless camp underneath I-10, turn again, pass empty storefronts, a shuttered car rental agency and an empty car dealership, then turn again, once more, and then once more. The van stopped, and we got out. My head was spinning. Red "X"s painted on every home, communicating messages I had no idea how to interpret.

That day I watched and participated in some of the dirtiest work I'd ever done. All the while, I soaked up, and then, like everyone else, radiated the energy that group generated. I heard laughing, loud music, hammers banging, debris crashing from the ceiling to the floor, and wheelbarrows bouncing down the front steps. I wore a Tyvek suit, a hardhat, and a respirator, just like the big kids, and I was doing my best to emulate their work.

That's all it took. At the end of the day, I was hooked.

I'll speed this up. Caliopie. Jamie and Alex before starting their freshman year in college. Jim and Lindsey. After that, Mr. Gibson's siding project. Sushi. Ann went home. Miranda takes her place at the saw. AmeriCorps NCCC. Amanda. Miss Rose's foundation. Troy came. Brian came. Team Nasty is born. .38 Special kicks ass. Sod busting in the Hoffman Triangle. Nic. Steve Gleason blocks the first Atlanta punt in the Saints' first post-Katrina game home in the rebuilt Superdome. Saints score. New Orleans erupts in joy. Chandra. Prez. Steve. Pam. Beers at Igor's. Emma. Melissa. Jim assures Richard we actually landed on the moon. Gunshots at dinner time on Dryades. Troy and I see the Lower Ninth for the first time. Brian goes home to Alabama. Troy moves to Biloxi to work. I head home. Ann meets Lana Corll at the Houston Quilt Show. Ann returns to New Orleans for trip number 2 and roofs a house. I return in March for my trip number 2. Kelsey comes with me. Mr. Carter's gut project and fried chicken. Kelsey and I learn how to eat crawfish. Kelsey trades kisses on the cheek for roses at the St. Joseph's parade in the Quarter. Juilliard arrives, along with VCU, Appalachian State and Florida kids. Jamie Tam's Dance Party. Davida Finger of the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic helps Miss Rose after Lana introduces us. Miss Peggy's rebuild gets going. Liz leads. So does Miss Jessie's. Sean leads. Bunkhouse Goodbye Nights get tearier. Renee' moves from New York. Reggie leads the New Orleans East Super Gut, and inspires us all by telling us that "Good work, hard work--that's important. But what I really want today is for all of you to do your work with love for this family you will never meet. Leave your love inside this home, and this family will use it to wash away their tears." He was 21 years old. We do 4 days of work in 1 and 1/2 days. Noah. Crystal. Ashley. Hands On New Orleans hosts the Hands On Network National Convention. Geneva tells us all to turn our Hands On shirts inside-out while we are drinking Hands On-provided beers at a Hands On-hosted private reception, to ensure that no one will know we are from Hands On. Alan. Ryan. Aaron. Todd. Red. Buck. Cat. Mary Ellen and her sister Lauren arrive to volunteer for a week. We all work at Miss Rose's, along with JJ and others. Eric stops Miss Rose's 5-month old water leak. I try to stop her $2,000 water bill. Mary Ellen (later "Teacher") and Reggie hit it off. Eddie. Chet. Public Enemy Number 2. I come back on July 31. Wyndham Resorts puts us up for the entire month without charge because the bunkhouse is shut down. Sad days leaving the old bunkhouse. The AB in the ME. Siding Miss Rose's home. Kudi. Jordan. Working to finish Miss Jessie's home. Teacher moves to New Orleans. Ann arrives and shows us all how to tile Miss Jessie's floors. Caliopie and Adam become the first Katrina Couple at Hands On when they return to marry. 2nd Katrina anniversary. We miss (by 5 minutes, when the police wave us through) a wonderful chance to tell President Bush how much we "appreciate" all he's done for New Orleans. Anderson Cooper joins us in Violet, LA with the summer bugs. Back for Halloween. Ann sends full-sized candy bars for the kids on Dryades Street, and Reggie, Teacher, Miranda I distribute them on Halloween night. Miss Jessie's FEMA trailer is bid goodbye, and Miss Jessie moves back into her home. The Hume Family and their seed company send 1,542 pounds of vegetable and flower seeds to the people of New Orleans. UPS ships 'em gratis. Ann, Kelsey, and Stephanie arrive, and we all help Miss Jessie hang curtains and assemble furniture. Miss Peggy feeds us Thanksgiving Dinner made in her FEMA trailer. The Tool Fund is born, and Kathie and Big Al anchor it. Ann and I, with Reggie and Teacher helping, lead a project in January to build the Douglass High School deck with our new friends from Kaiser Permanente. Doc. Nic. Teri. Shawn. Joe. Eddie. John. Edmiston Barriers. Our first real Mardi Gras. Small world as we meet Professor Philip Frohnmayer at our regular coffee place. Bill Goslin arrives again, and the NBA sponsors a number of service projects during All Star Week and we insulate a home in Gentilly under the leadership of Steve ("McStevey", if you get my drift, ladies). Davida asks us to see if we can help a family in Metairie finish up their rebuilding. In 3 days, Reggie, Emily and I complete it for Mr. Pat and Miss Laura, and the concept of The $500 Project is born. Sean and Eric install the cabinets and sink, and the Patterson's have their home back. Duke. Lucy. RIP Lucy. Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans East gets an external makeover. One year later, it's as beautiful as ever. Cousins' Creole Restaurant gets a paint job. Ruthie. Hanging with Teacher, Lana, and Reggie with Teacher's class at the Zephyrs' baseball game. Darryl and LiAnne banging it out day after day for United Saints, the Rev's rebuilding organization. People come and go, and come again, leaving their imprint on the lives of the people they serve. Amy. Sean. Erik. Liz. Chandra. Allison. Kristin. Bri. Teacher signs on for another year teaching at Audubon Charter School, and the school celebrates with us. Our son Kevan funds our work, and Baby Ray and Mr. Harold Bellanger's home gets a little help. Their home is the magnetic center of Gentilly. Others returned only after they heard Baby Ray and Mr. Harold had come home. Painting out their orange "X" with Baby Ray and Mr. Harold's help makes my Top 10 List of emotional highs. Gustav. John Jowers drives all night to get us to Baton Rouge from Atlanta. A Lady With a Chain Saw?!?! Road tripping in the Bayou with Ann and Reggie to clear trees off cars and homes. Bringing Jake home after another hurricane. Lana's lower level is completed, and Ann tiles her floor as only Ann can. Ann meets Christo Raines and his fellow Jesuit Volunteers who live across the street from Lana. Reggie and James Gandolfini. Miss Della's home gets tiled as Ann and I get introduced to Rebuilding Together. Kaiser puts $30,000 in to triple-match the $10,000 raised for the Tool Fund. Miss Fern. Ann. Miss Monique. Teacher. Reggie. The Humes send another 1,100 pounds of seeds to Parkway Partners for Macon Fry to distribute. FedEx ships 'em gratis. Back again in February. Our Jesuit Volunteers join Ann and me and do the Franklin Street Mini Gut for Miss Debra. Bill Goslin returns. Miss Pearson's home gets a lot of loving attention from the three of us and Reggie. Juilliard returns for a third year. Miss Antoinette K-Doe passes away on Mardi Gras morning. Todd and I button up the places at Miss Debra's where squatters have broken in. Ann, Reggie, Todd, Niko, and Niko's parents do some work and get Miss Cloud's home removed from a court-ordered demolition list. Mr. Ronald. Miss Wanda. Miss Anne. The faces and the names of people who still need help despite doing what they can to rebuild their homes and their lives. Mr. Hammond thanking God for help from Pennsylvania who saw his story in the New York Times and came to help him rebuild ahead of some FEMA functionary showing up to take his trailer. God Bless Davida Finger. Returning to join Rebuilding Together. Miss Janet's home in the Holy Cross. Miss Alice's home in Hollygrove. Reggie quits his job and joins the team for one last old-school workfest before he and Teacher move to Chicago. Tile a floor. Raise a wheelchair deck and ramp. Reframe a wall and fix the siding. The Finest Microwave Hotdog in the 1600 Block of Hollygrove Street. Rod Rian in the Morning on 104.1 FM, The Rock of New Orleans, live from Houston. Lots of water. Batdorf and Bronson Coffee all along the way.

I know paragraphs aren't supposed to go on that long. Thanks for staying with me.

On Friday, May 29th, Reggie and I finished up our work together in New Orleans. I was really happy that day. Reggie was with me on my first day in New Orleans, and I was with him on his last. There was something right about us being there, together, as it began for us and as it ended for us. Hopefully, we'll get a chance to work down there together again, but that Friday was the official end. What he's left and what he's taking away from his experience in New Orleans will live on, both for him and for his City. He is a true Son of the City. Someday, it will be my honor to attend the ceremony when he takes his oath of United States Citizenship. Reg, the Federal Courthouse is on the corner of Camp and Lafayette. We'll be there with you.

Travel safely, Reggie and Teacher. Good luck in everything that comes after this. You are loved, you are remembered, and trust me, you will be missed.

Go Cubs.

My love to all.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rebuilding. Together. Again.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

As many of you know, our last trip here was difficult and problematic in a number of ways. After returning home from that trip, Ann and I vowed to put it behind us and find a way to get back to the work we originally came here to do. I'm happy to report that it seems we've done just that. We joined Rebuilding Together, an organization that is focused on rebuilding Katrina-damaged homes primarily for elderly and disabled people. We've worked a bit with Rebuilding Together in the past, and found them to be focused, organized, and very capable. It's been a very refreshing change to simply show up at the assigned address at 8:30 am and go to work. The tools are already there. The materials we need are already there. The AmeriCorps team is already there. There's a porta-potty outside. There's cold water in a cooler. All we do is walk inside, get our work assignment and go to work. At 4pm, we close it up and head home. In the morning, we get up and do it again. Our kind of gig.

This week's work had us on Royal Street in the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth, working to finish one side of a double-shotgun home that belongs to Miss Janet and Miss Glenda, two sisters who have lived in that home for over 40 years. The Holy Cross neighborhood is at the southern tip of the Lower Ninth, up against the river and as far away as you could get from the Industrial Canal breeches that catastrophically destroyed homes closer to the breaks. Although the Holy Cross sits on some of the highest ground in New Orleans, homes there took water to the roofs of their porches.

These two ladies grew up in this home, and lived there with their mother before the storm. Miss Janet told me that the three of them were evacuated to the Superdome, where they witnessed, "Everything you heard about. It was hell. Rapes, murders, deaths from exhaustion, stress, dehydration. It shortened my mama's life, seeing all of that."

Miss Janet never wanted to come back home, afraid of what she'd find inside her childhood home. But her mama couldn't stay away, and one year after the floodwalls failed, they came home. With resources they had at hand, they had one side rebuilt, and the three of them shared it while they tried to figure out how to rebuild the other side, which the sisters would then occupy. Sadly, last fall, their mama died, having been the one who insisted they come home, but never seeing the rebuilding completed.

On Mothers' Day, the sisters decided to go see their mama and leave her flowers. At the last minute, Miss Glenda couldn't do it. It was just too hard, this close to completion, to kneel at her mama's grave and tell her they were almost done, knowing she wouldn't be there when we finally packed up our tools for the last time. Miss Janet made the visit for both of them.

Their home is very well kept, on a very well-kept street. This is a neighborhood in the truest sense. People know each other, look out for each other, and, dare I say, care for each other. This corner of the Lower Ninth got organized immediately after the storm, and there was never a doubt about what they'd do together--they were coming home. End of story.

Royal Street is beginning to look recovered. There is still work going on at a few homes, and there is one derelict home across the street from Miss Janet and Miss Glenda's home, but the paint on all of the others is fresh, and life is beginning to return to normal. Normal, I guess, if you can factor in the loss of your mama after huddling with her in a dark Superdome concourse, protecting her from the dangers and the sights and the smells of death, and then lose her so close to finally finishing the rebuilding of your childhood home.

That's what normal looks like now.

My love to all,



1) Ann and I arrived on Saturday. On Monday, our dog Boo went into the emergency room, where the vets recovered a piece of gravel she had sucked all the way into her lung. On Tuesday, Ann flew home to care for her, to administer her antibiotics to fight back the risk of pneumonia from the procedure, and to keep her quiet and warm. We sure do miss you, Ann.

2) Last Fall, we worked at the home of Miss Fern Kern. You can read her story in my November 9th entry, Falling Through the Cracks. Miss Fern has been away from her home for a couple of months, living in a convalescent center recovering from a fall. In advance of her return, Ann called Bill Goslin, our pal and fellow volunteer, and asked him to check the house out to see if everything was OK. Bill happened to be in New Orleans on his latest trip. Ann prepared him for the shock of seeing the condition of the structure, which is beyond basic repair. As we've come to expect from Bill, he didn't just fire up the water heater and make sure the fridge was cold. He saw the bathroom, and then brought another long-term volunteer over with him, and they spent days rebuilding the bathroom walls, ceiling and floor. Further, they decided that, with more help and some funds, they could do some wall rebuilding and roof repair throughout the house. Bill asked Amy Allen to see what could be done, and Amy got our friends at Kaiser Permanente involved. The Kaiser folks are arriving this weekend for their latest week of work here in New Orleans. They are going to provide time and money to help Miss Fern live in a bit more dignity.

Thanks Ann. Thanks Bill and friends. Thanks Amy. Thanks Kaiser. I love you all.