The first day. Stowing belongings while half asleep. Putting together lunch with 30 fellow students and strangers. Getting to lowenine.org late because of erroneous information. Rain. Wind. Uncertainty. It had all of the makings of the worst start to the work week ever. But it was not.
From past experience, the worst thing that can happen is to get to work that first day to find that they are not quite sure what to do with you: “Well, we would use you on this and that, but we already have a crew on this and that. Wait a few minutes while we figure this out.” I understand that this is the product of spring break, when organizations are awash with volunteers, but it is hard to communicate to students who have anticipated this moment for months. Working with lowernine.org was not like that.
We huddled together in the cold by the banana trees, waiting for our assignments. Laura introduced herself and the Lower Ninth. I think the reality of what the people here have faced Katrina really became a reality to the students. A wall of water. Weeks of flooding. 100% of the housing in the ward ruled uninhabitable.
Within 30 minutes we were spread out around the Lower Ninth. Shoring up flooring in an old double shotgun house. Preparing to install insulation and sheet rock in a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood. We spent the day ripping up linoleum and carefully removing baseboards to make way for a base and a tile floor through one half of a home on Gordon Street. We were almost exactly a block over from Ronald Lewis’ backyard museum on Tupelo Street, which we will visit after work this afternoon. Happily, I think most groups will stay on site and task throughout the week, which should provide them a sense of what a week’s worth of work can accomplish.
Even after seven years and nine visits since Katrina, the abandoned, overgrown homes and empty lots are haunting. The Lower Ninth is only 30% occupied. Government neglect, corporate racism, shady contractors, and socioeconomic realities have combined to create a perfect storm of dysfunction. And the people here have to live with. Still, most of what happens, comes from agencies like lowernine.org with volunteers like us.
We got to know the homeowner immediately, which is an important connection with the neighborhood and why we are here. And more importantly, for the students, we got to meet his 92 year-old father’s dog, Oreo. Work went in spurts, but it is clear we are readying for more work intensive tasks down the road.
We took a short break for lunch. Visited the corner grocery across the street. And several snoozed in the van. Afterwards I visited the other groups to see how their day was going. Unfortunately, work was easy compared to the confusion of organizing shower opportunities, with limited access to belongings, because of the afternoon program at the All Souls Church.
To avoid the confusion, I decided to take a short trip over to the Chalmette National Battlefield and Cemetery. Sam, one of the leaders, and a couple of students in her group, Jenn and Anna, came with me. As it turned out, we arrived just before closing, but one of the rangers gave us directions to park outside of the gate at the cemetery, which we did. The weather had thankfully cleared and the walk under the live oaks, surrounded by the mostly Civil War-era graves was quite moving. And I reminisced about that first March after Katrina, sitting under those same oaks, reading, thinking, and coming up with the idea for the New Orleans course.
We came back to All Souls and I cooked a batch vegetarian red beans and rice while, Theresa orchestrated two beautiful salads. I think sitting down together and eating took the edge off of a frustrating post-work experience.
Most of the students went into the French Quarter for beignets and cafe au lait. I literally walked the Quarter. I took Royal from Frenchmen Street and crossed to Canal, returning by Decatur. It was cool and not very crowded, unlike the Spotted Cat, which was packed. As a result, I decided to head over to Kajun’s Pub on St. Claude. It was on the way back across the Industrial Canal and one of those places I’ve meant to visit for years.
From all appearances it is a simple neighborhood bar, which on the edge of the Marigny makes a very interesting neighborhood. Its story is one of those wonderful tales that flow through the pages of Dan Baum’s wonderful book, Nine Lives, which chronicles the experiences of nine very different New Orleanians from Hurricane Betsy through Hurricane Katrina. And beside Ronald Lewis, one of my subjects is bar owner Joann Guidos. I won’t go through the details of Joann’s life journey; you should read the book for that because Baum does a much better job of it. Suffice it to say, she has built an environment that is the triumph of acceptance and tolerance; one that stayed open through Katrina due to her grit and many gallons of fuel for her generator.
I talked to the bartender, a history major at the University of New Orleans; naturally, we do make the best bartenders. She asked what I did and I told her about my job and my teaching and this class and that we are using Nine Lives, and on and on. She turned away to wait on another customer and furtively called upstairs for Joann to come down and meet me, which she did. And it was a most delightful experiences.
We talked about her path, the bar, and the book. I hated to leave, but it was getting late. She offered to meet and talked to the students in the class, which I am seriously considering, and I promised to come back over the weekend.
Potholes and pitfalls notwithstanding, it was a good start to the work week.