Second Day of Work…..And All That Jazz! (March 14, 2012) Tuesday, Apr 24 2012 

Painting in Slidell, March 2012. Bill Ross photo.

Today we returned to Maple Street to work on the houses some more. We’ve got more painters than we have things to paint, so we have down time. A few of us used this time to explore the area. We walked around the neighborhood and realized just how many Habitat houses there are; aside from some stone houses that must have made it through Katrina, nearly every house in the neighborhood was built by Habitat. It’s sad, but also wonderful that such a progressive non-profit exists, and that people are continuing to persevere, even after losing so much.

Root Beer, Slidell, LA, March 2012. Lily O'Gara photo.

On our walk, we saw so many flowers and realized how much we missed them! Everything is already lush and green here, so returning to NH is not going to be easy. We also saw a few abandoned houses, all boarded up. Apparently, abandoned houses cannot be worked on or sold or anything; the local government has to wait until the house falls down to take any legal action. Many people didn’t come back after the hurricane, and looks as though the government will be waiting for a while. In the meantime, the houses stand there as a stark reminder of Katrina.

We also walked through Slidell’s “projects.” They certainly did not look like low-income housing and did not feel dangerous; but we were told not to go there again, as there is a lot of violence that takes place over there. The people we passed were very friendly and tipped their hats to us, so this seemed not to fit together very well. Guess we still have a lot to learn about the area!

Habitat homes in Slidell, LA, March 2012, Bill Ross photo.

I also had to take care of Root Beer today (the name of the neighborhood pit bull has now been confirmed), because his leash allowed him to climb up the stairs that we were painting. After he succeeded once in getting dirty paw prints all over the stairs, and blue paint all over his paws, I took him for a little walk around the neighborhood to let the group paint in peace. He had a ball; it was like watching a young child on Christmas morning! He rolled in the leaves for five minutes, tongue out and tail wagging, and then went mud puddle jumping (dragging me through the mud with him and also tipping over a bench in the process). He was filthy after this field trip, and I tried to give him a bath but, as it turns out, he hates water and ran away immediately. He then rolled around in the sand under the porch, all while watching me as if to say “Ha! I win!” It was pretty funny!

Dr. Michael White Quartet, Xavier University, March 2012, Lily O'Gara photo.

After showering and eating another hearty dinner (meatloaf and potatoes and green beans), we headed to Xavier University in New Orleans to see Dr. Michael White and his quartet perform. Dr. White is a jazz clarinetist, and also a professor at Xavier. His quartet consists of a trumpet player, a bassist, and a banjo player. The four musicians were absolutely phenomenal! They truly delivered everything anyone could want from a jazz concert. Dr. White took us through the history of jazz and the musical techniques used through lecture and demonstration. The four played songs from each period of history to illustrate the changes, and also played different types of jazz, including the blues, ballads, jazz funeral dirges, Spanish-influenced jazz, etc. They also performed the “Basin Street Blues” (one of the tunes from our midterm) and the trumpet player sang. That was probably my favorite part! Watching their fingers fly over the keys/strings and also taking in the intense, passionate body language/facial expressions was awe-inspiring! It also made me miss my clarinet, though I will never be as good as Dr.White! The musicans were just talented, genuine people, and I am so glad that I got to experience traditional New Orleans jazz!

After the concert, we thanked the musicians, and most of us headed back to Slidell to catch up on some much-needed sleep!

— Lily O’Gara —

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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

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.

On Site Wednesday, Mar 14 2012 

Painting a porch on Maple Street, Slidell LA, March 2012

After weeks of anticipation, the students and leaders were excited to finally get to work. I went with the Baratarians and Los Islenos groups to work with East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity in Slidell. The Wild Magnolias had a 45 minute drive to St. Tammany West. It would have been an early day, even if it weren’t their spring break. The morning yielded slapped together lunches, yawns and sleepy eyes, and a 6:45 a.m. reflection time, all prior to heading for the the work sites.

Cutting floor joists, Tupelo Street, Slidell LA, March 2012

After some struggles to find work placement for the class, it was heartening to see them all put to work within a few minutes. In a fine example of self-selection, the ones who wanted to use power tools and build a house went to once site; the ones who were just fine with prep work and painting porches went to another. While it proved to be a fine day weather-wise, the preceding rainy days left yards of wet sticky clay and mosquitoes the size of sparrows. A quick run to the store for bug spray and the emerging sun  solved the mosquito problem. The clay didn’t go anywhere — besides footwear.

Home site on Tupelo Street, Slidell LA, March 2012

The third group, was over north of Mandeville; it split into two groups. The larger worked on the punchlist for a house outside of Abita Springs. The smaller group stayed behind at Habitat and their adjoining ReStore to work on small projects.

The students seemed very satisfied with the day, clay and all. And it was clear from the Habitat folks that I have talked to that they are quite pleased with the students’ work ethic. As a result, the students will be given more and  more complicated projects to work on as the week rolls on.

Stephanie, making cookies for St. Joseph's Day altar, March 2012

For me, there were mixed feelings. Even after seven years, the prospect of students using power tools terrifies me. They receive great training, are eager to learn, but… In addition, I am nursing a bad shoulder that is going in for surgery later this month. Thus painting, hammering, and much lifting are out of the question. And that is driving me crazy. I can only watch the students working for so long. To make up for it, I’m volunteering in the kitchen at the Peace Mission Center. It’s fun working with Stephanie and work like chopping and paring doesn’t generally require holding your arm above shoulder level. And, I might learn something new.

"Uncle Lionel" Batiste, bass drummer for the Treme Brass Band, Frenchmen Street, March 2012

After a meatloaf dinner (as much as I cook, I’ve never had the opportunity to put my hands in thirty pounds of ground beef), students gathered for a trip into the French Quarter. They had taken the night before off, and there was shopping to be done on Decatur and Royal, music to e listened to, and beignets to be eaten. I had the chance to see the Treme Brass Band at d.b.a. on Frenchmen. The music was great, especially their versions of “I Ate Up the Apple Tree,” “Big Chief,” and “Bourbon Street Parade.”  The crowd seemed well lubricated, as well, which offered entertainment driven by somewhat morbid fascination. A couple of women, in particular, seemed to defy gravity as they lurched in front of the stage. However, by the time I left after the second set, they were still, amazingly, upright.

Treme Brass Band, d.b.a., Frenchmen Street, March 2012

Most of us were back around midnight. And lights did not stay on long. Morning, and another day of hard work, would be coming soon enough.

A Quiet Day in Slidell, LA Tuesday, Mar 13 2012 

I have probably driven through the Slidell area a dozen times, but only stopped to buy gas once or twice  — that is, until this past Saturday. Since then, I have joined my class as guests of the Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Slidell, Louisiana. Initially, the impulse for us to beat a path to the City, but the long van trip trip and late nights caught up with the group on Monday.

Students boarding the boats swamp tour, March 2012.

Some of the other groups began working for various agencies in the area, but our work week starts on Tuesday. After a somewhat slow start, students gathered for breakfast in the dining/meeting hall; then we went through orientation. Afterwards students had a couple of hours to go online, write in their journals, or just chill after three hectic days. I advised them to take advantage, because the next six days would bring hard work AND the long drive back to New Hampshire.

Our intrepid and extremely knowledgeable guide, Pearl River, March 2012.

We all got together in early afternoon a few miles east of Slidell along the banks of the Pearl River. There, we embarked on a swamp tour of the Pearl River basin. It was overcast and showery; the water high from spring rains and still a bit chilly for optimum sightings of large, scaly aquatic reptiles, i.e., the main reason we were there.

Time would prove that we were in the hands of knowledgeable and skilled guides. Over the next two hours, we were enlightened about local history, culture, and the insights of folks who are the antithesis of the fanciful caricatures presented by “reality” shows like “Swamp People.” And we saw some magnificent scenery, centuries old cypress, wild blue iris, and, most importantly, swamp critters.

Great blue heron on the Pearl River, March 2012.

We passed turtles trying to squeeze some sun out of the showers, water snakes, egrets, ibis, a broad winged hawk, and great blue herons. We took a narrow bayou up to an oxbow, the former, now bypassed  channel of the Pearl River. There, the water was warm enough for some gator activity. Not monsters by any means, but large and lively enough to entertain a bunch of students from New England. Our guide, with tremendous eloquence called them to the boat. A hot dog on a stick helped in the task, but only after he got there attention with his gatorese. Each alligator ate and swam back enough to get a good view of our departure. A fun and highly educational way to spend the afternoon. And certainly not something that I can replicate in the classroom.

Pirate's Alley, off of Jackson Square, after a rain, March 2012.

We returned to the Peace Mission Center for traditional Monday fare: red beans and rice prepared by Chef Stephanie. They were delicious and we did our part to make sure they did not have to deal with leftovers.

The students clearly took me seriously about resting up. They retired to the lounge for movies, quiet talk, and relaxation. The guys’ quarters are, to say the least, not lounge-worthy, and I did not want to infringe upon their social time. For that reason, I was forced into town to listen to music, walk about, and take some pictures of the rain-drenched streets. Nonetheless, it was still an early evening for me , too, as our work day on Tuesday begins at 6:45 a.m sharp.

Again, something of a public service warning: these daily posts during spring break are often done on the run, usually in a McDonald’s. I generally don’t have the time to review or edit them as I might usually, and the chances that I’ll go back and catch things is limited. In advance, let me apologize for typos (especially this year since I am using a netbook) and missing words. It goes with the territory, but if I can, I ‘d rather post as often as time allows, albeit imperfectly.

Things to Do in New Orleans — Part 1 Thursday, Mar 1 2012 

We’re about a week away from heading down to New Orleans. In addition to working with Habitat for Humanity in St. Tammany Parish, we will be experiencing the history and culture of New Orleans. And in looking ahead, we will have plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Lower Ninth Ward, March 2010

You’ll be arriving in Slidell next Saturday. If you arrive early enough, we can go into the City. If it a little later, there is a fire pit where we are staying. We can can hang out. Rest after 30 hours on the road. And be well prepared for an action packed Sunday.

On Sunday morning we will head down to the Lower Ninth Ward, ground zero for flooding from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. We’ll head to the intersection of Tennessee and Galvez, once the center of a vibrant and close-knit community.  Much of it was washed away in August 2005 and of the all the neighborhoods hit by Katrina, it has been the slowest to be rebuilt.  Many of the houses near the levee are the product of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right initiative. The houses are innovative and sustainable. And other charities have built houses in the Lower Ninth.  Development has been slow, but it is being recognized as a model of sustainability.

Kendra and Ronald Lewis, House of Dance and Feathers, June 2011

After that, we’ll head over to 1217 Tupelo Street, also in the Lower Ninth. There we will visit one of the most personal museum collections anywhere. We are going to visit Ronald Lewis’ home grown museum, the House of Dance and Feathers. Long before Katrina, Lewis, who spent years repairing street car tracks, began collecting Mardi Gras Indian and Second Line memorabilia from the Lower Ninth of his birth. Remarkably, much of his collection survived the flood. And since, he has built a place for people to come and appreciate his handiwork and the work of others.

Afterwards, I’ll turn you loose. I suspect most of you will head over to Metairie for the St. Patrick’s Parade. There you find beads and catch cabbages. As fun as that sounds, I’ll likely be off chasing a Second Line parade (I plan to catch the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade on March 17th). In the evening, we’ll meet with our friends from UNH Intervarsity for a concert  by New Orleans born singer, song writer, guitarist Paul Sanchez. I saw him for a brief set with John Boutte several years back, so I’m looking forward to hearing him again.

St. Patrick's Day Parade, March 2010

Uncharacteristically,  we have Monday off, so we will make full use of it. I’d like to hit the City early so we can visit some of the cemeteries. Afterwards, I’ll leave it up to groups. Whether you want to kick around the French Quarter, take the ferry to Algiers, or ride the streetcar uptown — it’s up to you. All I know, we have to back out in Slidell by 1:30pm for a swamp tour on the Pearl River watershed.  Hopefully, it will be warm and sunny so that we get bored seeing alligators and other reptiles.

Afterwards, I suspect we’ll head back to the Peace Mission Center, have dinner, gather around a fire, and call it a day. Stay tuned for Part 2. I’m still looking at what music is playing week after next.

Spring Break 2012: St. Tammany Parish, LA Saturday, Feb 11 2012 

After three wonderful years of working with Operation Helping Hands in the neighborhoods, 2012 brings a change of scenery for the New Orleans class. Certainly we’ll be visiting the Crescent City as often as we can, but on this trip run by the UNH-Alternative Break Challenge, we’ll be working and sleeping across Lake Pontchartrain in St. Tammany Parish. Through the years, I had the pleasure of working/staying  in St. Bernard and Jefferson, so for me, it will nice to experience another part of Southern Louisiana.

Two thirds of the class (the Baratarians and Los Islenos groups) will be volunteering for  East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity in and about Slidell, LA. The third group of nine, the Wild Magnolias, will commute over to Mandeville to work with Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany West. We will all be staying in Slidell at the Peace Mission Center, which is operated by the Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church to provide housing for those volunteering in the area.

And while we will be taking I-10 in and out of the City,  the leaders and I are planning outings near our home base. In addition to a swamp tour in the nearby Pearl River basin, it look forward to sampling life and meeting good people in a place that is new to all of us. And if the experience is half as enjoyable as communicating with them long distance, we are in for a great experience.