The End of the Week Friday, Mar 16 2012 

Los Islenos and Baratarians in Slidell LA, March 2012

You can take all of the cliches about returning home after spending a week away and boil ’em up in a pot and pretty much get the point of this post. Between Thursday night and Saturday morning, the students here are already preparing for the separation; the trip, the thing they’ve looked forward to since pre-registration is about to be over. No matter how much we talk about their experience in an effort to place this great, yet peculiar City in context; it won’t be enough. And then they’ll get to drive the 26-28 hours back to Durham NH. I think they’ve really begun to understand this place, warts and all. And they understand the small contribution that they’ve made to the lives of the people in this region. They’ve certainly gotten the food. They’ve adapted to the slow pace. And they understand that this place sweats music. And they have already begun ignoring the sunburns, and blisters, and the aching muscles that they never realized that they had.

UNH Students on the Canal Street/Algiers Ferry, March 2012

Thursday night, everyone got up from dinner and a surprise birthday cake from home, and ventured into the City. One group had already gone in to eat at the Praline Connection on Frenchmen. I met the other two groups for a round-trip on the ferry to Algiers Point. I didn’t even get off the boat. The night was balmy, almost summer-like. We’ve enjoyed it immensely, but I’ve heard several locals worry aloud: “if it’s this hot in march, what is it going to be like in July?”

Young Fellaz Brass Band, Frenchmen Street, March 2012

After the ferry ride, the groups went their separate ways, although most ended up listening to some sort of music. I caught the up-and-coming Young Fellaz Brass Band for a short, yet-spirited set at the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen, before ducking into one of the nearby clubs for a set of cafe jazz. I had early morning plans to visit with the group working across the Parish, so I returned before most of the students.

Friday brought the last day of work and the last night in the City. I drove through the morning fog to meet up with the Wild Magnolias, who are putting the finishing touches on a couple of homes outside of Abita Springs. Both are scheduled to close before the end of the month. In the process, they have picked up such skills as pouring cement, building steps, and playing with local canines. They have plans to work through so that they can go to Uptown New Orleans for a Parkway Bakery po’boy. I would be jealous, except for the fact that I have found a couple of very, respectable po’boy shops right here in Slidell (As of this writing: Jocko’s and Kenney’s Seafood. I’m sure if I return in the future, I’ll discover others.).

Wild Magnolias, outside of Abita Springs LA, March 2012

The Los Islenos and Baratarians continue to toil away on Maple and Tupelo Streets,  painting and laying flooring. And they so without the benefit of the shade enjoyed by their cross-Parish classmates.The volunteers next week will be left with a nice platform upon which to erect walls. Yup, students from UNH-ABC did that. Nevertheless, you could feel the energy level drop like the air released from a balloon. And the fact that it was humid and above 80 degrees before 11 a.m. didn’t help. They too, were heading out for po’boys, but I warned them to leave room for dinner (fried catfish, okra jambalaya, salad, etc. And I’m throwing in 10 pounds of boiled crawfish, so that everyone will have a chance to try them).

I don’t think there’s a soul who’ll stay put or retire early tonight. Most plan to meet up at the Blue Nile to see Kermit Ruffins and his band, the Barbecue Swingers (Kermit is know almost as much for his cooking as his effervescent music). I might try to catch Dr. Michael White, who is playing over in the courtyard of the Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street a little before. From the Blue Nile, I suspect they’ll fan out to have cafe au lait, listen to more music, or just enjoy walking the streets on a warm night. And again, even though I don’t have a long drive ahead of me, I think there’s a good chance that I’ll be among the first back in Slidell.

Or, as the old crank in “It’s a Wonderful Life” said: “Youth is wasted on the wrong people!”

“Scruffy,” Abita Springs LA, March 2012

“Root Beer,” Slidell LA, March 2012

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Abita Springs Thursday, Mar 15 2012 

I deeply miss the opportunity to have my students work in New Orleans with Operation Helping Hands. It’s not that the work is far different from what we are doing this week, but for the purposes of the New Orleans course, the chance to work in the neighborhoods and learn the streets, meet and talk to the people, and have them stop and thank you (and talk some more) is very important. And the young, full-time volunteers, most of them just out of college themselves, were fun to work with and provided my students with good role models.

Habitat for Humanity homes outside of Abita Springs, LA, March 2012.

That said, the experience of working with the two Habitat agencies in St. Tammany Parish and the housing at the Peace Mission Center has been great. The volunteer coordinators have been informative, helpful, and welcoming. And as always, I am amazed at the construction heads, crew chiefs, etc. that Habitat is able to put on site. They are born teachers; they are patient (to a remarkable degree), quick to assess skill levels, and always looking to make the experience a meaningful one for the volunteers. And it helps that I have a cracker jack group this year who are threatening to leave next week’s volunteers with nothing to do.

And, as anyone who knows me can tell you, I love visiting and learning about new places. For fear of online retribution, I will not list the handful of places for which this is not true. I’ll just leave it at that. Slidell has been a pleasure. The food is good, the people are friendly and almost as welcoming as those down the road in New Orleans, but we’re talking gold standard here. The terrain is pleasant, although I could do without all of the strip malls. I realize that this is, for the most part, a national epidemic, but it does seem that my native-South has perfected the blight.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to follow one of our groups over to their work with Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany–West. The work site was just outside of Abita Springs, which until then was just a name on one of my favorite regional beers (their Turbodog, to be exact, but their amber is good, too). It is a beautiful little community, just north of Mandeville. They’ve preserved much of their downtown, complete with tin roofed buildings, undisturbed trees, and locally-owned businesses.

Painting trim, Abita Springs LA, March 2012

The Habitat build was just to the west, and as you pulled off of the main road, you see a whole community, largely built by Habitat for Humanity. One of the crew estimates that nearly seventy homes in this area alone have been built by Habitat over the past two decades. That’s right. Before Katrina. We sometimes forget that events like Katrina, this spring’s tornadoes, etc. do not cause a shortage of quality, affordable housing in the richest country in the world, they only exacerbate it. And such events hopefully highlight the need for those who would rather forget about that fact. Habitat for Humanity does not forget. Their mission is to alleviate it, one house and one deserving family at a time.

Installing sub-flooring at homesite on Tupelo Street, Slidell LA, March 2012

The students were working with a wonderful crew of professional builders, young people, and those unable to truly retire, not becuase of economic need, but because they care. And the students, whether they realized it or not, had been paid a very high complement. The house they were working on was about to be turned over to a family, who had also had to put in considerable sweat equity — a Habitat requirement. There was a punchlist of items that had to be done before the papers are signed and usually, becuase these tasks can seem rather random, yet time sensitive, a crew member usually completes them. However, our group so impressed on Tuesday that they were there completing the punchlist: touching up trim and walls, installing screens; removing debris from the yard and shed; and pouring cement landings in front and back. It will be interesting to see what they are allowed to do the rest of the week.

The two groups working for St. Tammany-East Habitat for Humanity are not being left in the dust by the other. They are laying sub-flooring at one site, painting porches on completed homes, and power-washing in preparation for future paint jobs. The construction manager is complaing that they are moving so fast that he is worried about having work to do for the 32 volunteers arriving next week. He is giving them a late start on Friday; 10:00, rather than 6:45 a.m. I suspect it is both reward and an attempt to slow them down a bit. Needless to say, given the performance of this year’s class, both volunteer coordinators are eager to have us sign on for next year. And I just might.

After work, students returned to the Peace Mission Center for warm showers, some online time, to write in their journals (remember those journals!) and to shoot baskets or throw a football. They had very satisfying chicken pot pie and for those so inclined, veggie burgers, for dinner. For dessert was angel food cake with freshly made blueberry or strawberry sauce.

Left to right, Dr. Michael White, Kerry Lewis, Gregg Stafford, and Detroit Brooks, Xavier University, March 2012

After dinner, we drove across New Orleans to Xavier University of Louisiana for our annual fix of traditional jazz. There we met with Dr. Michael White, jazz clarinetist, composer, bandleader and holder of the Keller Endowed Chair in the Humanities of New Orleans Music and Culture. He and his quartet, which includes Kerry Lewis on bass, Detroit Brooks on banjo, and Gregg Stafford on trumpet and vocals, led us on a musical journey from the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans, up through one of Michael’s new compositions in the traditional idiom. I was especially taken with White’s channeling of Sidney Bechet while playing Gershwin’s “Summertime” and the ensemble’s performance of a newer composition “Give it Up” (Gypsy Second Line), a traditional-style tune with a hint of Eastern European flavor. One of my favorites. It was fun to see the recognition on the students’ faces when they played “Basin Street Blues” with Gregg Stafford on vocals. It was one of the ten tunes they had to learn for their mid term, just a week ago back in Durham.

We were joined by Joonhyung  and Desiree Cho. Joon has a masters degree from UNH and works in the intellectual property division of the LSU Agricultural Experiment Station. They had attended the conert with us before, but Joon, is known to the the class as the guy who provides us with a king cake during Carnival season. Last night, he also brought each student a small package of LSU-licensed rice. All he and Desiree got was good music and a pair of “UNH–New Orleans” tee shirts.

Walter "Wolfman" Washington, d.b.a., March 2012.

After the concert, you could see that the fatigue of the past two days had really set in. A small group of intrepid cultural warriors headed into the City, but most chose to make their way across the lake to the relative comfort of our base in Slidell. I went to Frenchmen Street where I caught a long and enjoyable set by bluesman Walter “Wolfman” Washington at d.b.a. It was tempting to stay for another, but as with the others, the Northshore beckoned.