Rainy Monday Morning Monday, Mar 11 2013 

All Souls Episcopal Church, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

All Souls Episcopal Church, Lower Ninth Ward, March 2013.

We’ve been in New Orleans about 36 hours and the weather has caught up with us. There are showers around this morning and there’s a good chance of thunderstorms in the area. It looks like our first day working at lowernine.org will be affected in some way or the other.

I’m sitting in a McDonald’s in Chalmette. The sun is not quite up. The service is friendly, but the term “fast food” is relative here. Fox is on TV; country is on the radio. One is reminded of being in Southern Louisiana when a patron crosses himself before eating his sausage biscuit.

Where to start: it has been an interesting and challenging weekend. Van number 2 got here first and settled into their accommodations at lowernine.org. I picked up my friend Kyle on the way in from the airport and got into the Lower Ninth about 6:00 pm in the evening. We went through the walk through at the All Souls Episcopal Church and Community Center just as Van number 1 arrived. The third van came in a couple of hours later.

IMG_0167The accommodations should be a challenge. Cots and air mattresses in the common areas. The problem is, we have to stow all bedding and belongings during the day because it is a community center. And more challenging: 33 volunteers (including 12 from the University of South Carolina) and two showers with spotty hot water, to say it nicely. We worked out a schedule for showers and kitchen use with the USC folks and the work week will tell how well it works.

I appropriated the privacy of the small library, which seems right. Group 1 stayed back a while to orient the incoming group, while Kyle and I headed into the City. The first agenda item was something to eat; the food court at the airport was but a distant memory. He wanted a poboy I wanted the briny taste of a muffaletta. Kyle told me he had read of a “new age” poboy place on Conti off of Bourbon. That sounded kind of like “military intelligence” of “jumbo shrimp,” so I had to bite, so to speak.

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Queen of the second line, March 2013.

It was in the back of the Erin Rose bar; the dining room as about 10 X 10 feet and the menu was intriguing to say the least. I had a “Hot Muff”, a cross between a Cuban sandwich and a muffaletta and Kyle had something that involved sucking pig, I think, but it looked as delicious as mine tasted. While we were waiting with a group Asian twenty-somethings with Texas accents, when in walked this apparition; what I can only describe as a tricked-out, professional second line dancer named Jennifer Jones. As weird as that was, I had just seen her on a repeat of Anthony Bourdain’s “Layover” a couple of nights before. Kyle ate as I tried to talk to her and eat my sandwich at the same time. I took her picture and ventured forth to find the St. Joseph”s Parade — and lost. By the time we were ready to stop and watch it, it seemed to have melted away into the quarter and the after parade dinner/dance.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tipitina's, Uptown, March 2013.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tipitina’s, Uptown, March 2013.

While most of my students explored the French Quarter for the first time (with the few blocks on Bourbon to find eats I had pretty much reached my quota for the trip), Kyle and I headed uptown to catch the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at Tipitina’s. And it did not disappoint. While the personnel had shifted slightly from the last time, the heart and soul remained the same. They started at 11 pm; right on time for a 10 pm show and played through to 1 am. Because of the time, I crashed on Kyle’s sofa in Broadmoor.

By the time got to the Lower Ninth, the students were slowly emerging from their sleeping bags. We went to the local Walmart to buy groceries and provisions. And things continued to move slowly. We finally headed out late morning, with two of the groups exploring Armstrong Park and Congo Square on the edge of Treme. Afterwards, we all met at the Parkway Bakery on bayou St. John. Yes, poboys again. This time we went old school. I studied the menu over and over to find something new to order. The choices were myriad, but when you’ve tasted near perfection it’s hard to waiver; I went with the shrimp, fully dressed and a Barq’s. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

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With New Orleans class veterans, Kyle Murphy (2009 & 2011) and Kendra Hanlon (2010 & 2012), second line, March 2013.

Afterwards, most of us caught the beginning of the Keep ‘n It Real second line. It was overcast, but warm. The music was hot and the growing crowd was fully engaged. The students, Kyle and I were joined by another former student, Kendra. We all went well beyond the turn onto Broad Street. The students eventually peeled off while the three veterans soldiered on to the first stop before turning back.

We took in some music on Frenchmen Street: the ceremonial first Sunday afternoon at the Spotted Cat. We sat in Washington Square Park for a while, taking in the playing children, passersby, and chatty homeless. We met the entire group at the Praline Connection where students were introduced to the Afro-Creole menu and warm service. Among the etouffee, the ribs, the fried chicken, the red beans, and jambalaya were many smiles and full bellies.

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Dinner, Praline Connection, March 2013

I dropped Kyle off and headed up to Gentilly where we had been invited to a concert by Paul Sanchez at the Gentilly Baptist Church. Sanchez, along with singer Arsene DeLay and a couple of others gave us an hour and a half of mostly his songs, including a number of tunes from his musical “Nine Lives.” The students were rocking with the message of love and renewal and I got here some of favorites like “Fine in the Lower Nine,” Rebuild, Renew” and “Foot of Canal Street.”

The students, of course, headed back downtown. I followed them only so long to take a short walk on Frenchmen. I was tired form the second line and the clapping and the people watching. But I was not hungry. I had wisely taken the key so I headed back to All Souls, took a shower that might have been a degree or two warmer than body temperature and took it easy until they returned. I have to pace myself.

Besides, today we start to work.

Warning: my posts during spring break are usually the product of short blocks of down time, combined with reduced access to the internet. Because of time limitations (and poor eyesight) I most assuredly do not catch all typos and misspellings the first time around.  I apologize and please bear with me. I do hope to get around to correcting them during a more leisurely period.

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Po’ Boy Dreams Wednesday, Apr 11 2012 

Parkway Bakery po' boy, March 2012. Sam Docos.

The suspense of the po’boy was killing. In the weeks leading up to our trip to New Orleans, Bill talked about the hype surrounding this mysterious sandwich and the weight that people put on their favorite po’boy shop. He even showed us a video of Domilise’s Po’Boys which showed one of the delicious looking sandwiches being made. I was hooked, I couldn’t wait to order my first po’ boy.

The opportunity came the first night we went into the city. We walked down Frenchman Street and found a welcoming club called Vaso where a brass band was playing inside. We sat down to order and as I read down the menu I came across po’boy sliders. My decision was easily made. I was so excited for my first po’boy, but I was soon disappointed when I realized that it was nowhere near close to a real po’ boy. I enjoyed the small sandwiches, but continued to long for the actual, full-sized sandwich.

Parkway Bakery and Tavern, Mid-City New Orleans, March 2012. Sam Docos.

A couple days later, Kendra, our group leader,  introduced us to her favorite po’ boy shop, Parkway. Although I felt like I was somewhat betraying Bill by going to Parkway rather than Domilise’s, I was none the less very anxious. I grabbed a menu and started to read the many options of po’ boys. There was everything from fried shrimp to caprese (tomato, mozzarella, and basil) po’ boys. I definitely felt like a tourist in a sea of experienced po’ boy consumers. Kendra informed us that Barq’s from the bottle is a must with your sandwich and I have to agree that it was the perfect compliment.

After contemplating which one of the many choices I would purchase I went with the fried shrimp and of course I got it dressed with lettuce, tomatoes, and mayo. After each member of our group of 9 had their po’boy in hand we made our way over the bayou to enjoy our “first real po’boys”. I must say it was an experience I will remember for a while. The bayou was beautiful and the po’ boy was delicious! Not one of us was disappointed with our choice.

A Parkway sub by Bayou St. John, March 2012. Sam Docos.

We were fortunate enough to visit Parkway once more before the trip was over and I’m pretty sure that most of us took the opportunity to try another type of sandwich. This time I tried the caprese since it seemed so different from the rest. It was much different from the fried shrimp but it was still delicious. Again no one was disappointed which shows that you can’t go wrong with any type of po’ boy. I must say that the wait was well worth it.

Beignets at Cafe du Monde, March 2012. Sam Docos.

The good food of New Orleans definitely didn’t stop with the po’ boy. Another one of the group’s favorite New Orleans hot spots was Café Du Monde. The Café is known for their delicious coffee and beignets. I’m pretty sure that we sat down for a fresh batch of sugar coated pastries late at night about five times. By our last night there the waiter surely recognized us.

The day we left the city my group mate Gabby and I couldn’t resist one last chance to enjoy a po’ boy. Both of us had been craving a fried chicken po’ boy so we walked down Decatur until we found a restaurant that could satisfy our need. We left New Orleans in our van as we savored our last po’ boy — that is, until our next visit.

–Sam Docos–

Last Day on the Job Sunday, Mar 20 2011 

I headed out to my Marrero office (McDonald’s) to check my e-mail and blog while 36 students awakened, got ready, and prepared lunches. All of this likely takes place in the span of 15 minutes.  It’s like making sausage – you enjoy the finished product, but it’s only possible because you don’t witness the process.

As I drove across the bridge, it was foggy and humid. Downtown New Orleans looked like San Francisco in June. I knew it was going to be a hot and sticky one. But we couldn’t complain. The weather has been spectacular this week. And humidity and New Orleans go together like beans and rice.

Last day on Hickory Street, March 2011.

We did hit a speed bump as our brushes ended up at another site, so Molly and I went back to St. Raymond’s for some others. When we got back, the painting at both homes was in full swing. After waiting all week, I got to break into the trim paint.  It was great for the students to see the result, as the trim really enhances the color of the siding. And even though we were only able to complete the first coat, they had a chance to get an idea of what the finished home would look like. And the wooden, often hand-carved embellishments on many of these old homes make the job even more fun.

Painting trim, March 2011.

As has become customary, we planned to work through lunch and break off an hour or so early, so that we could go for sandwiches and/or snowballs to celebrate a good week’s work. And by the time we finished at 2:00pm, students and owners alike could appreciate our accomplishments. The couple who owned our home came out to admire our work. The wife, who I assume is the captain of this ship, was thrilled at how the colors looked. Her husband took one look at the yellow and fern green and quietly opined: “this is going to take some getting used to.”

We designated a couple of groups to head over to St. Ray’s to wash brushes, but prior to that we went over to the Parkway Bakery and Tavern for some of the best po-boys in New Orleans. Most of us walked a block to Bayou St. John where we enjoyed them and a Barq’s root beer – again, I have to use the beans and rice analogy. We savored everything from hotdog and a lovely Caprese po-boy to the the more traditional roast beef and fried seafood varieties.

Po-boys on Bayou St. John, March 2011.

After our late lunch we went our separate ways. Some to finish cleaning brushes, others to find a much ballyhooed thrift shop, and others to a snowball stand. I took the opportunity to head back to Marrero for the first shower of the evening.

Afterwards, I went over to Frenchmen Street to catch the first set from the Washboard Chaz Trio, a traditional favorite of mine. I met a young couple from Boston who were down to sample some of the music and sites that they had enjoyed on the HBO series “Treme.” They were headed out to the Rock and Bowl to see Kermit Ruffins, where I was to meet the three groups from my class. So the three of us headed Uptown for an evening of good, decidedly New Orleans entertainment. I had not made to the new Rock and Bowl before (I was a big fan of the original) and didn’t know what to expect, but I was not disappointed.

Nikki and Sam with Kermit, March 2011.

The space was much bigger than before, but without losing any of the atmosphere. The food was much improved. And Kermit was, well Kermit. The students ate and danced and soaked up the sounds of their last night in New Orleans. The girls were invited to dance on stage, get their pictures taken with Kermit. All in all, I think everyone had a fun and memorable time. A couple of groups left there to go back into the City. Although I didn’t have a 25+ hour drive back to New Hampshire facing me, I’m old and  I went back to Madonna Manor to get at least a few hours of sleep. And after a week of working in the sun, I wasn’t aware when the others wandered in from their last night out. But…I know it was late.

Last Day: St. Joseph’s Day in New Orleans Sunday, Mar 21 2010 

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.