Lo and Behold

... the diary of one Chicago guy pointing his car South and traveling to New Orleans to work, gut homes and not mess up the recovery efforts in New Orleans USA April 2006 ...

Location: shivering

Please check out mark-guarino.com or wordpreserve.com.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Group power

People can say one person can make a difference. I don't believe that true. If the game is fixed, it's fixed. If you live a country with a ruling class, it doesn't matter what you try to do, you can't sit down at the table. I wish they would stop telling kids anyone can be president. Unless you get into the Ivys, had a father on the board of a certain company or simply shit gold coins, in the U.S. -- home of the free, no less -- you will not be able to affect much change. It's simply the truth. One of our nation's great myths is the power of the individual. It matters in art and sports. It doesn't matter in the era of corporations and a White House run by CEO's, especially now that the gap between rich and poor is astronomical.

I don't think I am making much of a difference myself. However, as part of a group, we are making a difference. To at least two families — three by the end of the week. To those people, we -- as a group -- did something. As an individual, not much.

I learned the importance of the group, not the individual, today. But let's start last night. After all, this is New Orleans and good food and drink must be had. Both still thrive.

Winding down from the Lower Ninth Ward tour, on Wednesday night I went to this restaurant in the Bywater, a great neighborhood I would love to live in someday:
It's called Jack Dempsey's and their specialty is fried seafood. Look at this happy table:
They're not drunk, they're just blurry.
The Bywater is what Wicker Park in Chicago once was and is no more. A true bohemian enclave with cool old homes that open up to opulent lush gardens. Here's the local wine shop. If you didn't know it was in New Orleans, its exterior is easily France.
After eating fried pecan pie with ice cream at my host's home (thanks for accomodating the request, guys), I went to the Quarter to meet up with Rob and three team members who had been drinking all day. They also caught a movie. We went to One Eyed Jacks, a music club/bar.
They're not blurry, they're drunk. Not really. They're a fun group. We are already proficient with gallow's humor based on what we've seen -- dead cats, snakes, etc. -- I can only imagine how far the people who live here full-time have gone in trying to make light of absymal conditions you see every day.

This morning we showed up at our house. It was two hours from finished. Those were fast two tours. My duty became pulling drywall from the bathroom and then a teammate and myself shoveled muck from the tub. Yes, muck. It was filled with broken drywall but underneath -- rotting black wet muck that smelled worse eggshells. It smelled like death. When we uncovered it, noxious fumes released. My stomach felt it for an house. Nasty.
Here are some photos of our house. We swept the floor clean, too. Now this house -- once mired half way up with mud, soiled possessions, glass, mold, etc. -- can be officially rebuilt. We did a damn fine job. In fact, a Habitat person later came by and said our's was a "model home" for Habitat.

You're looking at the bathroom and laundry room and behind it, the bedrooms of the two girls.

Here's that other bathroom with the muck tub.
Living room with kitchen behind. Check out the porcelein cat we rescued on the fireplace.
The kitchen leading out to the sunroom.
Personal possessions we were able to salvage and set aside.
Look at all the complete and utter shit we hauled outside. Sad to say but we know a lot about this family -- what they ate, what movies they liked, what clothes they wore, what schools they went to, how much money they made, what they did on the weekends, etc. -- simply from handling, and ultimately junking, their possessions.
We were so proud, we took a photo. Notice the shirts. Don and Faye -- from San Diego -- brought us a bag of cheap French Quarter T-shirts so we would have team apparal. They say ridiculous things like "I'm with stupid" and "You better buy me another beer cause your (yes it read 'your') still ugly." We then wrote stupid stuff in marker on each other's backs.
Then we made the plan for the next house.

It happened to be just across the street. The owner is in Texas. She hired a contractor to gut it, but he got injured. Plus -- as we discovered -- he did a horrible job. Everything was random and poorly done. We ended up having to correct his mistakes. Sad that a group of strangers can do a better job than a contractor but we have the sense that people are being royally screwed left and right here. Rob plus two others go in first to check it out.

This was the hardest day of the week. I am fatigued, almost numb as I write this. I just want to nod off to sleep. I spent the afternoon choping away at drywall and then on a ladder taking down ceiling. We had to shove the debris down the stairs, someone had to load it into a wheelbarrow and truck it outside. It was laborious. Yet by now our team is an oiled machine set for action. We worked very hard. In the process someone scooped up a dead cat without knowing it (the cat had obviously died underneath debris). It took the wheelbarrow person to notice the cat in the trash.

The new house:

Side of the house. FEMA has a rule tht you can't have more than one debris pile. So our debris pile snaked from the front to the garage.
I am so bone tired from today I have to quit for now and finish up later. Stay tuned.

I'm back. It's 6:30 a.m. and I have ten minutes.

Last night we went to a bar in St. Bernard to eat and generally mingle with locals as well as get to know each other more as a team.

There was a lot of hard living at this bar and it was evident all night.

The locals knew we were volunteers and continued to come up to us to thank us for our efforts but also, they were curious why we cared. One guy kept asking, "are you doing this because you care or is it more for the experience?"

One guy said he watched nine feet of water rise in his house in 30 minutes.

One guy, while playing pool, said he frequently leaves his truck outside the bar purposely rigged so it can be stolen easily. And so it does. But it always gets returned. People have lost trucks in this area and need the equipment to do any number of things right now. This last time it was "stolen," it was returned with the oil changed, a wash and (of course) a pound of crawfish sitting in the back seat.

One guy and his wife have gotten to know our team over this past week, simply from their presence in the bar night after night. He was a big guy (see below) but actually had to get up and walk away because he started crying, talking about how essential it was for volunteers to come here.

Not just to work, but to show the rest of the country how devastating it is down here right now. He's a contractor and joked around, giving each of us a creole name and promising us to take us to the swamps fishing.

But like most of the conversations in the bar that night, black humor and general silliness would suddenly stop and there would be this pathos. Someone would mention that, by the way, they lost their home. Or that, by the way, someone they know is lost and they can't find him.

You leave here wishing everyone you know could be sitting on one of those cheap bar stools, drinking Corona and listening to bad country music, just like you were. Here's what is happening down here and if you can't imagine what's like, this bar would be a good starting point.


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