A Door on Tricou Street Tuesday, Jan 27 2015 

Door on Tricou Street, June 2011.

Door on Tricou Street, June 2011.

In June 2011, I was scheduled to speak at a conference in Baton Rouge, LA. I flew down early and met up with a student advisee, Kendra, who was in New Orleans researching Mardi Gras Indian traditions.  In the two days before my conference, we decided to volunteer for Operation Helping Hands, an offshoot of Catholic Charities that my class had volunteered with for three straight spring breaks. The first day we did some work on a home in Treme, but on the second day we worked on a home in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was my first day of many volunteering in the Lower Ninth.

It was a non-descript shotgun house on Tricou Street, about halfway between St. Claude Avenue and the river. We were working on the punchlist for the home that was being turned over to its owners the next day. Most of the tasks were fairly mundane and towards the end of the day, Kendra and I were asked to paint the front door. Kendra, who had spent the previous summer volunteering with Operation Helping Hands, walked me through the process. As I painted the base coat, the door revealed itself to me. It had designs carved into the door panels, and I as I worked I began to see the chisel marks where a craftsman, perhaps even the original homeowner, had hand-carved them, one by one. And, as I applied the trim coat, I realized that I was not just painting a door, I was working on a living, functional piece of folk art.


Five Ways People in New Orleans are Different from Us — 2014 Update. Tuesday, Feb 25 2014 

I posted the following nearly three years ago. It was an attempt to inform my students of the different attitudes and sensibilities that awaited them in New Orleans. It has been instructive for my students, but it apparently struck a nerve. It is far and away the most viewed posting I have ever made. Happily, most of the comments, especially from those in Southern Louisiana have been extremely positive. And then there are those who will never see anything positive happening in Orleans Parish. I am reposting with a few minor changes and some new photographs, but it remains largely the same.

A note to my students:

Most of you have never been to New Orleans. I grew up in the South, but only geography makes New Orleans part of the South. The people are different and that is wholly a good thing. Most of you are New Englanders. The differences between the two are about as far apart as the 1600 mile van trip you are about to undertake.

I am still learning, but I’m willing to share some of the insights that I have gained over the years. I may not be entirely fluent, but let me try my best to interpret.

Jennifer Jones, March 2013.

Jennifer Jones, March 2013.

People in New Orleans are naturally polite. It’s not artifice; it’s who they are. They smile. They hold doors for you. They call you “baby,” or “shug,” or “darling” because that’s the way they were taught. There’s nothing in it for them, but consider it a good thing for you. Picture a situation in Boston’s North End. You park your car a bit too close to the car behind you. When you come back, the other driver says: “Hey asshole, why’d you block me in?” And there would be gestures. In New Orleans, that exchange might translate to something like this: “Hey bro’, would you mind pulling forward a little so I can get out?”

People in New Orleans are seldom in a hurry. That does mean that they don’t speed on I-10, because they do. But at the same time, they will slow down to let someone merge. At a traffic signal, they might linger a moment – while the New Englander behind them is laying on the horn. The checker at the Rite Aid may be a lot more interested in telling a co-worker about her date, than in ringing out your order. And the more impatient you get, the slower she’ll get. In New Orleans, Friday lunches can take all afternoon. Don’t expect the smaller aspects of life to move any faster.

A conversation on Hickory Street, March 2011.

A conversation on Hickory Street, March 2011.

People in New Orleans will talk to anyone at anytime about anything. In New Orleans, speech is not a mode of communication; it is an art. New Englanders are famous for their economy of words. New England produced President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge. Enough said. New Orleans produced Danny Barker, jazz musician and story teller. He returned home to help carry on the jazz traditions, as much through his words and stories, as his banjo and guitar. In New Orleans, when people ask you “where y’at?” i.e. “how are you?” they really want to know. It is not a pleasantry, it is a conversation starter. And you have to do your part.

People in New Orleans never apologize for having a good time. Remember the Friday lunch. Life in New Orleans can be like that. It’s unmistakable and I think it stems from New Orleans’ precarious existence on the edge. From the beginning, whether it was from spring flood, summer pestilence, fall hurricane, or the threat of attack from another world power, life was fragile. “Hey 8,000 people died of yellow fever this summer, have another drink!” Let’s parade, let’s dance — let’s live for the moment.  This sensibility hasn’t always served New Orleans well, especially in the eyes of the puritanical nation in which it resides. In March 2010, I was at a second line parade on a brutally raw and windy Sunday afternoon in a struggling part of the city. As we waited for the procession to come to us, I asked the woman next to me why she out on such an unpleasant afternoon. She opened her eyes and arms wide for expression and said: “this is what we do!

Mazant Street, March 2009.

Mazant Street, March 2009.

People in New Orleans still appreciate the work of volunteers. When I first came down in 2006, there were few residents to talk to. It was like a war zone and it was clear that any effort was an improvement. Over the years, I’ve been waiting for the welcome to wear off, but at least through August 2013, it has not. In New England, be prepared to be asked: “why are you going down there? What do you mean they haven’t fixed it yet?” On the other hand, people in New Orleans know that 80% of the city was covered in water. The city has lost nearly 30% of its population since 2000, and that is largely from the lack of affordable, livable housing. Be prepared, because New Orleans people will still stop to thank you for what you are doing.

The New Orleans Course Tuesday, Jan 22 2013 

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2006

Today marks the beginning of the seventh spring I have taught the New Orleans class. I’m having some difficulty with that realization, which may be because the course helps me mark the passage of time – there’s Christmas, then New Year’s Day, then New Orleans. Moreover, six classes of students and hard-working volunteers have become friends, graduates and colleagues.

Because I have a short attention span, the class evolves from year to year. The bones, the basic structure for the course remain the same, but from year to year there are changes in assignments, readings, and volunteer opportunities. The class dynamic likewise changes. And, as Hurricane Katrina grows smaller in the rear view mirror, New Orleans and the way we approach the storm have been witness to substantial changes, as well.

Removing drywall, March 2006

Removing drywall, March 2006

My first volunteer trip to New Orleans was in March 2006, a little over seven months following Katrina. I worked with some 1300 volunteers out of a FEMA camp in Chalmette, LA.  We were fenced in. We had armed guards. Lights out at 10:00pm. A Dollar Store was the only retail establishment open in all of St. Bernard Parish. We were surrounded by thousands of homes, virtually all unoccupied, most still damp from flood waters, and many permanently soiled by oil and petrochemicals. Trees and shrubs could not shake-off being submerged under brackish water for weeks and failed to emerge that spring. And one had to strain to hear a song bird or witness life of any sort.

We worked in teams of 10 to 12, gutting homes in and around Chalmette. Collapsed ceilings and insulation, moldy walls, fetid refrigerators and freezers, and the waterlogged belongings of once proud homeowners were removed, and houses stripped to the studs. With masks, gloves, and goggles we worked in the filth and humidity, revering breaks during the day and racing to the showers and laundry in the afternoon. The homeowners, who cared, came and cried. We piled what porcelain, photographs, or other belongs that could be salvaged in a pile for them to reclaim. It was the worst and hardest job I have ever loved.

Chalmette Battlefield, March 2009

Chalmette Battlefield, March 2009

To escape the confinement and crowds of the camp, I discovered the Chalmette National Cemetery and Chalmette Battlefield a short walk away. They, like everything else, were damaged by the federal flood and closed, but there was nothing to stop me from visiting. I walked through the graves of generations of soldiers, many of them African-American soldiers from the Civil War. I sat among brick walls crumpled by the flood. I stood behind the redoubt where Andrew Jackson led a rag-tag army of frontiersman, local militia, free blacks, pirates, and Native Americans into battle on January 8, 1815. On the plain that lay between me and our camp, that force defeated the British army that had months prior forced Napoleon into exile. It was there, nearly two centuries later, of course, that the New Orleans course was conceived.

Cafe du Monde, March 2006

Cafe du Monde, March 2006

On a couple of evenings I hitched rides into the City where I discovered Frenchmen Street, a musical antidote to the commercialized sleaze of Bourbon Street. Even as the City struggled to recover from the storm, traditional music was rising above the devastation.  On Mondays, red beans still boiled on the stove. Café du Monde had a banner proclaiming “Beignets are Back.” And as I sat on a bench on the battlefield and revisited the week in my mind, I thought: how do I share this profound experience, this new found realization with others?

I got back to Durham. I read everything I could find. I listened to musicians and genres that were foreign to me. Together with the rawness of my experience, the New Orleans class was born. A year later, in the spring of 2007, the inaugural class had to suffer through my attempts to share everything that I had learned using dense and wordy PowerPoint slides and drawn-out lectures. It was an act of love for me, but the mode of delivery must have been frustrating to them. At the same time, I worked with UNH-Alternative Break Challenge to organize several trips to work with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans over spring break. I invited my students to apply and join us.

New Orleans class students on Bourbon Street, March 2007

New Orleans class students on Bourbon Street, March 2007

Five of my students did just that and joined me with UNH-ABC; two others went to New Orleans separately during spring break. We stayed in Violet, LA and worked in the Upper Ninth Ward in and around what would become Musicians’ Village. I watched them work hard during the day. They met and talked to residents. They tapped their toes to music, they caught beads at parades, and they ate Creole food. They combined what we had learned in class with experience. It stuck. It had meaning. And they gained knowledge and understanding in a way that the other students in the class could not. A year later, I asked if the trip could become part of the class, half expecting for the answer to be no. But, I was pleasantly surprised; the trip has been a central part of the class ever since.

Mazant Street, Upper Ninth Ward, March 2009

Mazant Street, Upper Ninth Ward, March 2009

Now, the trip defines the class. Before the trip, I give them informational markers to provide reference for them once they get there. And while none of us have attained the fluency of a native, students have just enough history, culture, music, and language to be able to communicate. And boy, do they communicate. They talk to folks in the neighborhoods, the former gang member who recounts mayhem, as well as the great-grandmother who in late 2005 returned to a home in a neighborhood without power; to a City without an operating grocery store. They talk to the musicians about their craft, the waitress about her late, unfortunate incarceration, and they bring all of those conversations back to class. They process. They try to make sense of those threads and combine them with what they read in books and see in film. They make their own judgments. And ultimately, they learn.

And I get to watch the whole thing unfold; and learn with them.

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.

Our Mark at St. Raymond’s, June 2011. Saturday, Feb 25 2012 

My hand print, which joined the gallery of volunteers at St. Raymond's Center, Gentilly, in March 2010. It, and many hours of scraping, painting, and light construction, represents three years of students in the New Orleans class working with Operation Helping Hands. Taken June 2011.

Spring Break in New Orleans Monday, Jan 16 2012 

Gutting houses, St. Bernard Parish, March 2006.

The title of this post might suggest youthful drinking and exposing body parts for beads, but since Katrina, thousands of college students have gone to New Orleans during spring break to help rebuild a broken city. While much of the country wonders why the job is not finished, anyone who has been out in the neighborhoods in New Orleans knows the extent of the damage wrought by the flood. And that doesn’t even address the fact that New Orleans was in need of quality, affordable long before anyone had equated the name Katrina with a devastating storm.

Since March 2006, a few months after the waters receded, I have worked with dozens of  young people who have selflessly given their break from school to help others. They have gutted homes, cleared brush, landscaped, framed walls, spackled, scraped, caulked, primed and painted. And in the process of helping Gulf residents, they have learned about others far different from them…and I suspect they have learned a good deal about themselves.

House painting, Gentilly, March 2010.

Since March 2007, I have had the pleasure or working side-by-side with students from the University of New Hampshire. And from that year forward, students in my New Orleans course have been there; initially only a handful, but since 2008 almost every student in the class has made the trip. We have worked in St. Bernard Parish, Waveland, Mississippi, and in neighborhoods throughout New Orleans (Upper Ninth, Faubourg Marigny, Treme, Gentilly, and Carrollton). However, this year is going to be a little different.

We have very happily worked with Operation Helping Hands, a program of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans for the past three years. Alas, they have phased out their volunteer program.  So this year, the students in the the New Orleans course, in conjunction with the UNH-Alternative Break

Cutting soffit for eaves, Upper Ninth Ward, March 2007.

Challenge, will be moving across Lake Pontchartrain to work with Habitat for Humanity. Mind you, we will be a presence in New Orleans, but during the day we will be working with two different Habitat for Humanity  agencies in St. Tammany Parish. Our work will be centered around Slidell and Mandeville, Louisiana. And we’ll be staying at the Peace Mission Center in Slidell.  By the way, the volunteer accommodations and meals come highly recommended.

So on this day, as we celebrate a life of Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent his short time with us peacefully advocating on behalf of others, I look forward to working with another group of students who will generously give their time and creature comforts to move his dream forward.

End of the Road for a Katrina Relief Agency Sunday, Jan 8 2012 

Mazant Street, Upper Ninth Ward, March 2009.

On Friday, January 6, 2012, Operation Helping Hands completed its last post-Katrina home renovation.  Under the auspices of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the agency had been one of the largest organizations established for rehabbing storm-damaged homes in the City, but reduced funding has forced it to phase out it operations.

Set-up in the wake of the 2005 flooding, Operation Helping Hands helped coordinate rebuilding efforts in conjunction with the myriad of volunteers after Katrina. Over the years, they coordinated the work of some 30,000 volunteers, gutted 2,000 homes, and painted/rebuilt about 600 others. The agency intended to shut down months from now, but with dwindling government grants and the high cost of replacing contaminated Chinese drywall used in some renovations, it came sooner.

Dinnertime at St. Raymond's, March 2010.

Students in the New Orleans course began working with Operation Helping Hands in 2009. And we returned to work with them in 2010 and 2011.  The commitment shown by its administrators, staff, and  long-term volunteers had a tremendous impact on student volunteers, as did the chance to work at the street level in a number of New Orleans neighborhoods. The class had been scheduled to work with them again in March; however with the early shutdown, we will be working with a Habitat for Humanity organizations in St. Tammany Parish instead.

Hickory Street, New Orleans, March 2011.

The memories of working with Operation Helping Hands are great and the closing of such a fine program, bittersweet. From Miss Kathy’s fine dinners at St. Ray’s in Gentilly, to the supposedly haunted housing in Marrero, LA, to the reward of getting to know homeowners, their neighbors, neighborhood children, and local pets, students will all look back fondly on the time spent volunteering with Operation Helping Hands. And regardless of the opportunities  and rewards of such service in the future, there will be a hole left where Operation Helping Hands used to be. Thank you!

For more on the closing of Operation Helping Hands, click here.

Over the Years Wednesday, Nov 2 2011 

Black Team 12, St. Bernard Parish, LA, March 2006.

It has occurred to me that I am preparing for my seventh spring break trip to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In 2006, I traveled down for the first time to work with FEMA and Habitat for Humanity. We spent a week gutting homes in St. Bernard Parish. I was with a group of a dozen strangers, but by the end of the week, we were a pretty close-knit bunch. And it was the most disgusting, most arduous, and strangely satisfying work I’ve ever done. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. From that time on, I have made a point to take photographs to record  my experiences, as well as the the destruction, the progress or lack thereof, and the beauty of the Gulf Coast.

UNH Students, Islenos Parade, St. Bernard Parish, March 2007.

UNH Students, Musicians' Village, New Orleans, LA, March 2007.

Inspired by this experience, I created an interdisciplinary course on New Orleans. It was offered for the first time in 2007. At the same time, I was working with the University of New Hampshire Alternative Break Challenge to send students to New Orleans during spring break. Seven of  the students in my class accepted the challenge to spend their spring break in Louisisana. We worked with Habitat for Humanity constructing homes in and around Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. And they had the chance to absorb the local culture. I watched the students from my class and realized that they would have a distinct advantage over their fellow students…and I was right.

UNH Students, near Waveland, MS, March 2008.

A year later, I petitioned to make the trip a part of the course and much to my surprise it was accepted. As a result, in 2008, I took the whole class of 20 honors students and six leaders to work in Waveland, MS, about 60 miles from New Orleans, In spite of high gas costs, we made the trip into the city almost daily. More importantly, the students had the opportunity to participate in the Mardi Gras Indian parade on Super Sunday.

Stu and MeAghan's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2009.

In 2009, we began a three year run working with Operation Helping Hands, which is part of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It was a good fit for us, as classes in 2009, 2010, and 2011 stayed in

Trevor and Conor's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2009.

Marrero, LA and had the chance to work in the Upper Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Treme, Marigny,and Carrollton sections of New Orleans. Alas, all good things must come to an end and we’ll miss our friends at Operation Helping Hands (especially Miss Kathy’s cooking), as they close shop to volunteers in 2012.

Next spring, we’ll move across Lake Pontchartrain to work with Habitat for Humanity in St. Tammany. And once again we’ll add to the gallery of UNH students who spent their spring break working for others.

Brittany and Brad's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2009

Carol and Petter's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2010.

Bill's group, March 2009.

Trevor and Sasa's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2010.

Trevor and Ben's and Chelsea and Tom's groups, New Orleans, LA, March 2011.

Kyle and Maddie's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2011.

Jake and Mandie's group, New Orleans, LA, March 2010.

Scraping By Tuesday, Mar 15 2011 

The carnival ride that can sometimes describe the first day of work went surprisingly well, especially with such a large group. I thought that they would have some trouble finding jobs for all of us or, at least, have to divide some of the travel/van groups. Instead, they put all 35 of us on two sites and the homes were less than a block apart. I think it could prove to be a very accommodating work situation for us.

Instructions on removing lead paint, May 2011.

The houses were in a new area for me – Uptown just a couple of blocks near Carrollton. Close enough to nearly see the mansions, but in other ways miles apart. The Baratarians and Los Islenos groups worked on one house, while the Zulus and the fourth UNH, led by Blair and Ryan worked on the other. And since the Zulus were short a person due to illness; I did my best to fill in.

As usual, the long-term volunteers were a pleasure to work, although they have the ability to be light-handed, while getting students to do the work that needs to done. Between the two sites, we’ll be working with Molly, Duncan, and Christina, from Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Virginia, respectively. And Molly is a recent grad from St. Anselm’s; making this the third year in a row that one of groups has worked with a long-term volunteer from that institution.

Lunch on Hickory Street, March 2011.

We unloaded ladders, plastic sheeting, paint, brushes, and other gear. Both houses have grants to be painted. Of course, the one that I didn’t choose was further along, meaning that it required minimal scraping, so the groups there spent most of the day applying primer. Ours was a double shotgun, in need of a thorough scraping before it could be primed and painted. And parts of it had been painted in led paint, which meant we had to lay plastic sheeting, spray the siding to control lead dust, and wear protective glasses, gauze masks, and latex gloves. Oh, and did I tell you that it was a sunny and humid day.

But the students were troopers. Even though local painters are not fearful of undue competition, they kept at it from shortly after nine until 4:00pm. And it was nice that the proximity enabled some visiting back and forth and the opportunity for the class and leaders to eat together. All in all, it was a tiring, but rewarding first day on the job. I suspect we’ll enjoy this situation for several days, but with so many people on the job it’s hard for me to calculate how long it will take us.

Hickory Street, March 2011.

We returned to St. Raymond’s for one of Miss Kathey’s signature meals; and she didn’t disappoint.  After a long day in the sun, we were able to enjoy homemade Salisbury steak and gravy, herbed mash potatoes, and green beans. Before we went to bed last night, I heard several students wondering aloud what would be for dinner tonight. On top of that, Bethany, the volunteer coordinator gave out group four tickets to the Hornets’ game, so that after a very scientific and equitable selection process four of our group got to attend an NBA game.

Like most cities, New Orleans can be a city of contrasts; however New Orleans embraces its textures with a considerable amount of unselfconsciousness. And this extends to the landscape and environment. The proximity of urban to the wild is taken for granted here. To highlight this, the rest of the students fought through rush hour – I-10, the Mississippi River Bridge, and increasingly busy Jefferson Parish interchanges, to go back in time and enter the Louisiana wilderness. Only ten miles from Madonna Manor is the Barataria Preserve at Jean Lafitte National Park. The bayous and prairies where Lafitte’s pirates once stashed their contraband and illegal slaves, now houses alligators and various other swamp life; and it is only 15 miles from the City. Most students got to see their first alligator and a pretty nice sunset, to boot.

Somewhat surprisingly, even after a hard day of work, most students decided against going back into New Orleans. Most were satisfied to chill out, swap stories, and rest for another work day.


New Orleans in March, i.e. preparing for the trip Thursday, Mar 3 2011 

A note to my students:

New Orleans is not New Hampshire. If you moved the compass 180 degrees from New Hampshire, the point would lie somewhere near New Orleans. But that is not a bad thing.

We will be leaving a pretty sizeable snow pack. Yes the temperatures are improving, which means we are moving wildly between single digit wind chills and days approaching the fifties. Maddening, pneumonia producing weather. But it is what New Englanders are taught to expect and glorify.

Madonna Manor, March 2009.

Last year, New Orleans was weird. They had had such a cold winter – deep freezes – meaning below 32 degrees. But it was cold enough to kill off the olive green of the live oaks so that we were greeted by chilly weather, no azalea blossoms, and a brown back-drop. Not your usual March, New Orleans experience.

New Orleans had cold weather this year, but not like last. We should see flowers and daytime temperatures in the seventies. The nights will cool down to the fifties, but that is the way it is supposed to be. New Orleans in March.

So, what should we bring? As we look forward to a week of sightseeing and working in the outdoors, how should we dress, what should we expect. And how do nine of us fit all of this stuff in a Ford van?

This will be my sixth trip since Katrina. Hard to believe, but it has almost become commonplace. But I’ve also learned to expect the unexpected. You can have days approaching eighty and a few hours later, a twenty mile an hour wind can come across Lake Pontchartrain making you wish you had your winter parka.  Here is a list of my packing suggestions:

We will be working with Operation Helping Hands, renovating and painting homes. This is hard, physical labor and appropriate clothing is required. Remarkably, the answer is something that should with which New Englanders should be familiar: layering. Yes, there may be days where shorts and tee shirts feel just fine, but mornings can start in the fifties. I’d recommend bringing long sleeve shirts and long pants.  These are useful not just for warmth, but if you are working with insulation, you’d rather not have a lot of skin exposed. I have found it helpful to bring a canvas grocery bag in which you can store a lunch and have a place to store layers that you shed during the day. It is better to have long-sleeve shirts and pants and not need them, than to need them and not have them.

Beginning of trip home, March 2010.

The most important thing you need to bring would be suitable shoes. You should have work boots, hiking boots, or some closed/sturdy shoes that cannot be penetrated by exposed nails and debris. Please avoid open-toed or athletic shoes when working in such conditions. If you end up painting, fine, but if end up walking through nail-filled rubble without proper shoes – it is not fun.

And finally, what to bring when you are not working? We will not be staying at the Hilton or even the Days Inn. You will need bedding, toiletries, and the limited comforts of home. Most students bring sleeping bags and pillows, not just for the stay in New Orleans, but for the 3000 mile round trip between New Hampshire and New Orleans. I usually pack a fleece bag and an extra fleece blanket, but I have to admit, there have been times when I have been a bit chilly. You’ll need towels, bath cloths, and the stuff that hotels generally leave on the vanity. In addition, you’ll be sharing quarters with 35 of your closest friends, so gym shorts, robes, or whatever you need to walk amongst everyone else on the trip are necessary.

It sounds rough and it sometimes can be a test, but such experiences make memories. And memories are good. So be prepared both concretely and emotionally. It is not your normal travel experience, but that in itself can be special.

Check with your leaders, because all of them have spent a week or more at Madonna Manor, Operation Helping Hand’s housing on the West Bank. It is an experience, but one that should be embraced and not fought. It is a necessary part of the trip. And the experience will be much more memorable than your last trip to Holiday Inn Express.

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