While it does not have the notoriety of St. Patrick’s Day, St. Joseph’s Day is big in many Italian-American communities. According to tradition, St. Joseph interceded on behalf of Sicily during the Middle Ages as the island suffered through a prolonged drought. Faced with mass starvation, rains came to Sicily and the resurgent fava bean crop saved the population. A hundred years ago, the French Quarter was commonly called “Little Sicily” because of the large immigrant population. And in New Orleans, Italian residents create altars to the patron saint in churches, private homes, restaurants, bars, etc.
However, as this was going on around us, we faced the last day of our work with Operation Helping Hands. I’ve always found the last day to be bittersweet; you’ve accomplished a great deal, but no matter how hard it gets, you’re going to miss it. You know there is a lot more work to be done and at least for the time being you are no longer going to be a part of it. And I think the students felt that as well. They were fatigued, but they felt a sense of urgency about the work. And when they realized that they could not complete painting the house on Bruxelles Street, their intensity began to wane and they were ready to let go. The same was true for the other groups in the Marigny and at the new house in Gentilly. As a result, I suggested that groups forgo a full lunch break so they could break off a little early. And given that many volunteers leave on Friday, the crew chiefs agreed.
Trevor and Sasa’s group accomplished a variety of tasks to help bring a new, energy efficient home to completion. Petter and Carol’s group became masters at drywall. When I visited them on Friday morning, they were sanding and adding new coats of mud; as a result, many walls on their home in the Marigny were ready for painting. And when I got to the house on Bruxelles Street, Mandie and Jake’s group had completed painting one long side of the house, and had primed both the front and other side. Before we left, we had come close to applying one coat of paint to both. And I was happy to see that a crew of students from Arizona State had begun painting the home of the woman down the street.
After we unloaded supplies at St. Ray’s, I drove to Midcity to join Petter and Carol’s group for a late lunch of po-boys. We gathered at the Parkway Bakery and Bar for yet another version of this ubiquitous sandwich. Along with their crew leaders Nikki and Mike, we took our sandwiches over to Bayou St. John to eat. And it is like comparing your children. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best po-boy is the one that you are eating at the time. Afterwards, we lay on the bank to soak up the sun and a week’s worth of accomplishments. And to punctuate the week, Allie was on the receiving end of a deposit from a passing seagull. I won’t describe the scene beyond her first words: “something just happened…”
While two of the groups cleaned up back at Madonna Manor, Mandie and Jake’s group packed up to head into town and hit the road. They had arrived in new Orleans early and wanted to do some sightseeing on the way back. The others wanted to stretch their visit as far as possible.
I returned to the city to listen to some music and to scout for Mardi Gras Indians. For some reason, these African-American maskers have adopted St. Joseph’s night as the time to carry out their colorful, mock combat. In full regalia, they meet other tribes to chant, play music, and show-off their feathered finery.
It was still very much daylight when Burt called to tell me that he and Jeannie had spotted some Indians near St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater. I rushed over on foot and we followed them down St. Roch, to St. Claude and into Treme. When we got to St. Bernard Avenue just below Claiborne Avenue other tribes joined in. I was able to direct the students to where we were located and we enjoyed this strange and beautiful spectacle. And as it grew increasingly dark, we decided to spend most of our time on St. Bernard and not to follow them into the depths of the surrounding neighborhoods. The evening was marred only by the appearance of an intentionally threatening motorcycle gang and some rather brutish behavior by the NOPD, who exhibited rather heavy-handed efforts at “crowd control.”
As it approached 9:00pm, we all decided it was best to head to the better lit parts of the city for dinner, music, etc. But I suspect memories of that singular experience on St. Bernard Avenue will long survive whatever took place afterwards.