Gidley Gumbo

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Vacant lots and squick

Thurs, Oct 9, 2008

7:00 am

I've been up for an hour and have laid out all the breakfast fixings and warmed up a couple of quiches. I notice that each morning, people come down later and later. The first morning, there were half a dozen people bopping around at 6:30 am.

Now it's 7:00 am, and there's two people up and they're kind of squinting at the coffee trying to remember what to do with it.

I don't mind. It's nice to have some quiet time at the beginning of the day. All day at the job site I'm around people—which is weird since I usually work by myself sitting in front of a computer—and it's nice to just drink coffee and read yesterday's paper. Since this is New Orleans, most of the newspaper stories are about various types of scandals going on locally. One bright boy (a legislator) suggested that we ought to just sterilize the poor to keep them from reproducing, which didn't go over too well with anybody.

7:50 am

We're supposed to be assembled and doing our little worship service at 7:45 am, but it's been sliding later and later each day. One of our three work crews though, has to head cross-town to the Gentilly District for their project and they are tired of showing up late.

So I start the worship service (heck, I've already officiated at a Memorial Service, I ought to be able to run a "Howdy God, we're ready to work" service). We start with just the five folks in the work crew and me and pretty quickly we're up to full strength. Maybe we need to sing a processional hymn to gather the faithful...

8:15 am

We pull up to our work site, and for the first time, we're early! We beat Amy and her coworkers who know what they're doing and have the tools and the key to the house. We congratulate ourselves on our timeliness!

8:45 am

Hmmm, maybe our timeliness isn't the only reason we're here by ourselves. Chuck phones home (his wife is our Den Mother Kathy, who knows how to fix everything) and tells her that we're running low on coffee and stuff to do.

Chuck and Carl wonder where our crew chief is

9:00 am

The dispatcher for the Diocesan Office of Disaster Relief calls and fills us in about what's going on. Seems that Amy has had car trouble and is having her car towed but she'll be here by 9:30 really.

We decide that since we have a car and some time, we might as well drive around the neighborhood, which is about two blocks from where one of the levees broke.

At first glance, it's a nice neighborhood, with lots of pretty grassy lots and brick homes. And then you begin to realize: before Katrina there were no vacant lots. Every lot had a house on it. Where you see a vacant, grassy lot is where a house was destroyed and the land bought by the City (under the Road Home program) and they planted grass.

There's still a lot of gutted homes around here, but maybe 50% of the homes standing have been fixed up (and remember that's not all the homes that were here before). Some of the houses are very nice—like the big house with a fountain in the front (gated) yard. But most of them are just modest brick homes like the one we're working on.

What the neighborhood looks like--and this is one of the "recovered" areas

Vacant lots and empty houses

A very nice house with a fountain in the front

When a house is rebuilt from scratch, it has to be up on stilts at least as high as the water was

More shots of the neighborhood

9:20 am

The two ladies who are working with us, Sandy and Mary, had wandered off on their own tour of the neighborhood (they had been here a couple of years ago when the damage was much worse and were trying to find where they had been before, based on where the houses were, but since so many of them are gone they had no luck). We pick them up and drive out to Lake Pontchartrain, which is a BIG lake.

I live on Lake Washington, which is no weenie lake, but Pontchartrain is BIG. You can't see the other side from where we are and there's a big causeway across it that looks like it goes over the edge of the earth (it does go off the edge of the map, so we don't know where it ends up).

Lake Pontchartrain (you can barely see the other side)

They're still replacing the sidewalk along the edge of the lake. The benches are already in (or survived whatever took out the sidewalk) and are patiently waiting for the return of the sidewalks.

This bench patiently awaits the return of the sidewalk

9:50 am

We're getting bored. We've done the touristy thing and gotten lattes and we're running out of things to do (although I suggest trying to find a drive-through daiquiri stand might be a fine way to spend our time).

But wait—it's Amy! Yay! She's here! Today she has a new assistant, since Lindsay has the day off (she gets to work Saturday). This is Mike's first day and he's here from Texas and is another young person. Young people today are WAY more involved that I was at that age (or anybody I knew). I'll be much happier once they get older and take charge of things.

10:30 am

We're back to doing corner bead, which is the thin strips of metal that go on the corners of dry wall. The nails that you use for corner bead are special nails, with heads made of extremely flimsy aluminum foil-type metal. If you don't hit them exactly square with the hammer, the head bends and when you try to pull them out the head bends and if they are already nailed in, then it is really hard to get them out because the head bends or the dry wall breaks.

Yesterday, I goofed up these nails so many times that I am now an expert at removing them without damaging the corner bead or the dry wall (and sometimes, I can extract a still usable nail).

Which means that within five minutes of Chuck and I starting in on corner bead, I am called upon three times to extract other people's mistakes (including one by Amy who drove in FOUR nails before realizing she had positioned her corner bead incorrectly).

There's some kind of lesson here—an expert is somebody who's made enough mistakes that they know how to fix them.

11:30 am

Amy has been fretting about her car all morning. They asked if she had the timing belt changed and she hadn't (only 16,000 miles overdue) and they were mumbling about busted valves and broken bank accounts (if the timing belt breaks, evil things happen).

As a result, Amy's been on the distracted side and checking her cell phone every few minutes and needing to have goofed up screws extracted. Finally, they call and--yay!--it's just the thermostat and it's only $120! This makes Amy much happier (and me, too, since I don't have to pull as many nails).

Mary and Chuck get ready for lunch break

New Guy Mike in the front (later that night, I pointed out that he will always and forever be "New Guy" to us), with Amy and Sandy

Carl's ready to get back to work, and he hasn't even had lunch yet


Lunch time shows up pretty quickly when you don't start work until 10:00 am, but we're hungry and happy for the break. Billy-Bob (the owner) comes over and sits and yaks with us.

He says, "It's been really hard to be excited the last three years. But seeing the dry wall go up--it just feels good."

He brings out a photo album that's full of pictures he took when they first returned to the neighborhood. (He lost all his earlier photo albums in the flood. His family photos are now flood aftermath shots.)

It's kind of amazing seeing the damage. There's boats sitting in roads. In one picture, you can see a pick-up truck in the front yard of the house next door. It floated over the house without damaging the house.

Billy-Bob's family album: what the neighborhood looked like when they returned about a month after Katrina

Billy-Bob's daughter, a charming 19-year-old, joins us and shares her memories, too. She had just started her senior year when Katrina hit and when you look at her graduation picture, it's like looking at a war veteran. She has a shell-shocked look on her face.

"When we first came back, it looked like a nuclear blast had hit. You couldn't tell the difference between the road and the yard--everything was covered with mud, this awful mud covered everything. Stuff stayed wet and it went 'Squick' wherever you stepped."

The inside of their house looked like a whirlwind had hit it, with everything all whirled around.

The inside of their house looked like it had been run through the blender

"And the smell. The smell was awful. Everywhere smelled just dreadful. For months. Even now when it rains, you can still sometimes smell it."

After we went back to work, Billy-Bob came over with a picture he had salvaged from the house next door (with the permission of the owner). It was in a rotting old frame, and it was a two-foot high picture of Jesus, with most of the color washed out of it. It was the only salvageable thing in the house.

3:00 pm

Chuck and I have spent most of the afternoon doing two sheets of green wall, which is the special mold-resistant dry wall. The first piece had a notch in it to fit in with two other pieces that had already been hung (the problem with getting lots of different volunteer crews working on a house is that some of them drink more than others).

Chuck and Robert carefully cut a piece of greenwall

Chuck installs one of the goofy pieces of greenwall (nice job on the upper pieces, Previous Crew!)

Amy screws down some greenwall in the too-crowded bathroom

Here I measure out a piece of greenwall before cutting it

The bottom piece was the real challenge. Not only did we have to cut a very wide piece, it had to have holes in it for four pipes to come through (a sink was going there). And just about the time we had that handled, we noticed that two of the big drain pipes stuck out from the wall about half an inch, so we had to add shims to push the dry wall out so it didn't look like demented chipmunks had installed the dry wall.

It took longer than we wanted it to take (especially since this is my last day working on the house).

Chuch puts the last screw into the amazing sheet of greenwall (look how many pipes are coming out of that thing!)

Amy is heading home to Baltimore for the weekend, so she won't be there tomorrow either. She says that we were cool folks to work with (hey--all people from Seattle are cool!) and she'll miss us and we say we'll miss her (she knows what she's doing) and we promise to write and name our children after each other.

Amy yaks on the cell phone while I enjoy sitting and not cutting greenwall (those shoes are ready to be bagged and locked up!)

4:00 pm

My feet are about ready to go on strike and it's all I can do to persuade them to take me to the outdoor showers and let the rest of me get clean. I have to promise them that they can wear sandals all day tomorrow before they relent. I'm waiting for my arms to complain about all the upside down hammering. Maybe I better start hoisting beers now before they decide to quit working...

Back at the Day Center, relaxing with some beers: Tiffany, Sandy, and Denise

Carl and our Den Mother Kathy (who also procured all the snacks!)

Beth and Mary Lou (the doctor) in the Day Center dining and socializing room

6:30 pm

Tonight we're on our own for dinner, and it's suggested that we might want to eat out in the neighborhood because there's "tons of places to eat."

This is one of those weird things about New Orleans in its recovery phase. On the surface, everything looks sorta normal. But then you realize that there's still a lot missing.

By "tons of places to eat" they mean a sandwich shop (closed at night), a Starbucks (mmm, lattes for dinner!), two fancy restaurants and a burger joint. Oh, and a snowball stand, but I can't get anybody to go for snowballs for dinner. ("But look how many flavors they have!")

And this is the dining area of Lakeview. It's where all the restaurants are.

So we end up at the burger joint primarily for budgetary reasons, but at least they have a seafood menu, so I get some fried catfish and have a corn and crab soup that's to die for (the soup anyway; the catfish is pretty much run-of-the-mill catfish, but it's fresh and freshly fried).

By the time we leave an hour later, people are standing around waiting for our tables (our group of four arrived first, and all the other small groups reached the same conclusion that we did and chose the burger joint, so about half the people here are from Seattle).

At dinner, I find out that I'm really lucky in terms of where I'm working. Two of the folks are in a work group that's at the end stages of finishing a duplex for a little old lady (and daughter and granddaughter). But she insists on having the original trim from her windows, which involves stripping off 80 years worth of paint using nasty petrochemicals that eat through latex gloves.

They've only seen her a couple of times and have never met her and the place is full of her stuff that they have to work around.

Being able to talk to Billy-Bob and hear his story has really made this trip a personal connection for me. It's not "some town full of people," it's "this guy I know who makes killer jambalaya and is really friendly and good."

It would be lots harder to be sort of the hired help. Guess I got lucky.

Oh, and I never did find out what that "mudding" thing is.

That's it for today. Tomorrow is Friday and that's my day for making sure that nobody leaves New Orleans without having gumbo, which takes three and a half hours to make and requires some pretty screwy ingredients. I'm hoping to also make a vegetarian version of it (which you could NOT find in New Orleans for love or money). Will I make it?

Tune in...



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