My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part IV

Every New Orleans resident whose home was flooded or otherwise damaged by Katrina has faced wrenching decisions about whether to leave or stay, what to rebuild, what to abandon, when to do or not do anything and how to pay for whatever decisions are finally made. across-the-streetFrom the vantage of our group’s work site on Pauline Drive in Gentilly Woods, we easily found examples of many of the ways these decisions have played out.

Pauline Drive runs north and south, parallel to and west of the Industrial Canal. The house we worked on is on the canal side of the street and faces west. The house directly across the street, shown here, seems to be completely new, right down to its immaculately manicured lawn. I have no idea who owns the house or even whether there was anything on the lot before Katrina.

The neighborhood shows lots of signs of work in progress, but this house stands alone in its newness and completeness. My friend and fellow volunteer Tom has years of experience as a real estate appraiser. Who, he wanted to know, would build this house in a neighborhood so damaged that its survival may still be uncertain?

It’s a fair question, I think. The only plausible answer I can think of is that the house was built by someone who wanted to stay put in Gentilly Woods and who had first-rate insurance in force when Katrina struck.

The next door lot to the south tells a different story. It has been vacant since 2007 when everything on the lot except the cement slab and driveway was hauled away. Most people would agree that the lot is now an eyesore, slab-street-viewbut I have to wonder what happened here. Is this a case of a displaced owner, financial ruin, family quarrel, title problems or bureaucratic morass? Maybe the cause is just the owner’s despair.

That driveway visible on the left side of the photo is where I parked most days, but I didn’t explore the lot otherwise. I have a natural aversion to most insects and reptiles,  and I was pretty sure something I wouldn’t like was alive and hungry in those bushes. slab-next-door-150The smaller picture shows how the vacant lot and its driveway looked from the back bedroom of the house we were working on.

It appears that no one has done anything on this lot for at least two years. I say that on the basis of information I got from people in the neighborhood. It seems incredible to me, however, that those bushes could get that big in just two years. I have to admit that I don’t fully comprehend the incredible fecundity of New Orleans.boarded-up-nextdoor I remember joking to another member of our group that everything we saw had something else growing on it, even the mold.

The house on the adjoining lot to the north looked like a lot of the homes we saw in Gentilly, uninhabited, unrepaired and boarded up. In this case, the yard has been taken over by kudzu or something similar, although someone has paid enough attention to the property to hold back the bushes.

Across the street from the vacant lot, we saw a variation on the boarded up house theme. boarded-up-prideAlthough this house was also uninhabited, unrepaired and boarded up, there is something about that new bright blue paint on the blinds and window coverings that suggests this owner will be back. Restoring this house seems obviously a work in progress, perhaps even a labor of love.

The little corner of Pauline Drive where we did our work typifies the situation in New Orleans overall. Apart from and in addition to all of the big decisions made and to be made regarding the city’s future, there are the stories of individual properties and individual property owners.

The new house across the street is already inhabited. The house we worked on should have residents in time for Christmas. The vacant lot may remain vacant and overgrown for a long time to come. The boarded up house will probably be repaired and once again made into someone’s home, but it may remain as it is for several more years. The house with the blue paint will certainly be back, sooner rather than later. UCC-signWith the passage of enough years, Gentilly Woods will probably look more or less the way it used to, although by that time so many of the old residents will be gone and so many new residents will have arrived that those who remain from before Katrina may barely recognize the place.

I’m glad I went to New Orleans and proud that I got to play a part, however small, in the city’s recovery. For the six days I spent there I knew each morning, unequivocally, that just by showing up I was doing some good. Life is usually more complicated than that.

So I say again, if our church sends another group to New Orleans next year I will be part of it.

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part III

levee-viewYears ago when I practiced law, a truth of human nature became apparent to me: nothing is simpler than somebody else’s problem. The so-called helping professions, including law, counseling and social work, are all founded upon this principle. As a lawyer, I didn’t agonize much over my clients’ problems. Their situations seemed absurdly simple: Client X should get a divorce; Client Y needed to file bankruptcy; Client Z had to sober up and turn himself in. Sure, these were huge, life-fragmenting steps with frightening implications—but they seemed so obvious. People just needed to quit dithering and get on with it!

I think most of us apply the same kind of reasoning to groups of people as well as to individuals. Moreover, the larger those groups and the farther away they are, the easier it becomes to feel comfortable making blanket pronouncements about how other lives should be led. The temptation is great, therefore, to believe we can take in the nearly 300-year history of New Orleans at a glance and conclude that the place shouldn’t be rebuilt at all. People need to face reality and move to a place where things like Katrina don’t happen, right? It’s just so simple!

Except that it isn’t.

My own thinking has matured since I took the photo at the top of this post. I went to New Orleans, and I saw for myself. The picture shows the back of the house my group worked on as it appears from the flood wall at the top of the embankment that abuts the back yard. You are seeing in this photo, by the way, exactly what you think you are seeing. The wall that flood waters over-topped when Pauline Drive flooded is higher than the roof of the house. So, doesn’t this prove that rebuilding the house is a bad idea? That thought is at least part of the reason I took the picture in the first place.

But the picture doesn’t really prove anything. The seawall and other earthworks that make the Gentilly area habitable date from 1927 and have held back the water for more than 80 years. Most of the houses shown in the photo were built in the 1950’s and have stood where they are for half a century or more.

There have been storms through the years, but nothing like Katrina. This seems to mean more to the residents of Gentilly than to people outside New Orleans. Residents love their homes and for the most part want to stay put.

In the four years since Katrina, many people have had a lot to say about the folly of those in New Orleans. At least one writer, however, has had the perspicacity to note the recurring hazards some of them, in such disparate locations as Seattle, St. Louis, Reno, Torrington, CT, and Lewiston, ID, were choosing not to heed in their own backyards.

The irate resident of St. Louis in the article linked above is quoted as saying, “I am sick…of hearing how every taxpayer in America should pony up a couple grand to subsidize the rebuilding of a cesspool of a city that will just be wiped out again by the next ‘unlucky’ hurricane.” Yikes!

Somehow he does not acknowledge that huge sections of his own city were submerged and destroyed by flooding as recently as 1993. The Mississippi River is still there, Mr. St. Louis. It’s obvious that flood waters will come again. Do you really think it was a good idea to rebuild St. Louis?

The resident of Reno, no less irate than his St. Louis counterpart, is even more amnesiac and seems to have no memory of the 1997 flood in his city. Yet the Truckee River, like the Mississippi, is still there and will flood again, Mr. Reno.

And as for that cesspool remark, well, the FBI has a lot to say about St. Louis. Reno, as everyone knows, has its own well-developed reputation in that department. The God of the Old Testament may have laid waste to the cities of the plain on account of their morals, but it’s probably not up to us to make that decision about New Orleans.

The fundamental fact is that St. Louis and Reno, like the rest of America, do not build for the ages any more than the people of New Orleans. It’s easy to decide that other people should give up their homes and move to a new place, but even easier to believe that our own homes should be rebuilt.

So it is in New Orleans, and so we worked to make our own small contribution to that rebuilding.

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part II

house-markingOn our first full day in New Orleans, we traveled through the Gentilly and Ninth Ward sections of New Orleans. The first thing I noticed was how much of Katrina’s devastation remains. Then I noticed the spray paint markings still prominent on houses that have not been completely repaired.

The photo shows the marking on the house in Gentilly where I ended up working. According to the explanation I got, the story the spray paint tells is this: On September 16, 2005, more than two weeks after Katrina roared through the neighborhood, a disaster relief crew identified as “SCTR” (probably from a National Guard unit) finally reached Pauline Drive, perhaps by boat. Inspection of the property—probably cursory inspection—turned up no dead bodies (the Ø) and no dead pets or livestock (the N/A). It went without saying that the interior of the property was totally destroyed by lingering flood waters. For the inspectors, however, finding no cadavers and no carrion was good news.

The house marking shown is on the front of the house (behind the cypress tree in the photo below). The other significant “marking” in that photo is the line, up about three feet from the ground, where the cypress bark seems to change color. This indicates the level at which flood waters stood. The glass in the front window of the house is permanently clouded up to the same level.

flood-waterlineWe drove to the house for the first time after completing  our orientation at Little Falls UCC Church. The orientation itself was filled with surprises, at least for me. I didn’t know, for example, that the work of rebuilding New Orleans is only about half complete four years after Katrina.

I also didn’t know that most of the work being done now is in the hands of charities, other non-profits, the faith-based organizations like ours, private contractors, and people who simply come to New Orleans to volunteer. Federal and state governments, together with the most opportunistic of the private contractors (Blackwater, Halliburton, etc.), have basically declared victory and gone home. The FEMA trailers are mostly gone now, but recovery from Katrina is expected to set the course of events in New Orleans for the next fifty to one hundred years.

Homeowners seeking assistance in rebuilding have had to make their way through a dizzying maze of programs, eligibility requirements, restrictions of various sorts, and lots and lots of paperwork. Public and private bureaucracies all work to help people get the relief they need, but they must often appear to be doing the opposite.

Our group’s work was mentored and monitored by the UCC Disaster Response Ministry which helps people who meet what are mostly economic criteria. Other relief organizations operate only in limited geographical areas. Some help only certain groups of people. Some take on projects in a limited dollar range. Some handle only certain kinds of repairs.

A homeowner might therefore qualify for several programs and have to decide which is the best fit. On the other hand, that homeowner might not qualify for any program and have to keep searching. This is often the situation for those whose home ownership is based upon informal and undocumented transfers. Cash sales without deeds and inheritances without wills or probate fall into this category. Such transfers can pass unnoticed for years, even decades, so long as real estate tax and utility bills continue to be paid.

The house our group worked on belongs to two sisters whose ownership is fully documented. We were told that they had just bought the place and moved in when Katrina struck. The story was that they hadn’t even made the first mortgage payment. Katrina spoiled everything for them. Except for what they could carry at the time of evacuation, the sisters lost all that they owned. After the storm, their house had to be gutted. All that remained of the interior was bare studding and the naked cement slab upon which the house was built.

sanding-joint-compoundI don’t know the details of how the sisters have held onto ownership through the four years they have had to live somewhere else, but somehow they have managed it. Now they wait while team after team of volunteers, a new group every week, slowly restore their home.

Our group finished sheetrocking the walls and completed most of the taping and joint compound work. By the end of the week, the place was starting to look like a house again, but there is a long way to go. Tim, our project leader from the UCC Disaster Response Ministry, estimated that the owners may be back in the house in time for Christmas. This lengthy timeline reflects both the slow pace of the work, done mostly by volunteers without particular skills in the building trades, and the long wait for inspections by New Orleans’ harried and over-worked code officers.

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part I

I am not the person you would expect to see jetting off as part of a church mission group. I can point to a lifetime’s worth of non-participation in such activities to back up that statement.

But there is something about what Katrina did to New Orleans that has gnawed at me for the last four years. Our church sent a group to New Orleans last fall. I had planned to go with them, but Marge’s surgery kept me in Portland. So when I heard that another mission trip was planned for this year, I signed up immediately.

St. Paul's UCC, New OrleansWe left Portland early on the morning on Sunday, October 4th, and were in New Orleans by mid-day. After we had settled into the bunkhouse at St. Paul’s UCC Church, it was time for our first meal in the Big Easy. Somehow the group decided on a place called Parasol’s.

If you are a middle-class New Englander like me, you have to adjust to a lot of things in New Orleans. Parasol’s was, to be frank, the filthiest restaurant I have ever been in. If I had been traveling alone, the peeling paint, the sagging roof,  and the raucous noise from the bar would have convinced me to turn around without even going inside. By the time any of this began to register, however, we were already through the door and our group had taken over the small “dining room” in the back of the place. The cook was also serving up po’ boys that looked and smelled delicious. I was hungry.

After a long moment, during which I did my best not to focus on the fact that the metal-topped table where I sat was sticky to the touch, I made the decision to order one of those po’ boys, a roast beef with swiss. Served on a cheap paper plate, it turned out to be the most wonderful roast beef sandwich I’ve ever had, and I ate all of it despite my fear that by the middle of the night I would be sick as a result of it. That fear became conviction when I headed into the men’s room and found myself in the foulest, rankest public accommodation I have ever seen. As I recall, the three New Orleans cops who ate at the next table did not go near that men’s room. A woman in our group spoke to the cops and got one of them to show us the half-sleeve of tattoos he had on his right arm. We were not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

my-bunkAfter the cops left and as soon as I could get the group to move, we left Parasol’s and headed back to St. Paul’s. Before long, I was sitting on the edge of my bunk wondering how illness would manifest itself and how bad it was going to be.

Hours passed. I called home and talked to Marge. I organized things for the next morning. I waited and I waited. Finally I got into bed and fell asleep.

One of the other guys in the group was a snorer. My father was a snorer, and Marge has mentioned to me that I snore from time to time. I thought I was pretty much impervious to snoring, but I had never heard anything like this. This snoring sounded like a  piece of heavy equipment in the process of self-destructing. It went on for hours and woke me up again and again. By about 5:30 in the morning, I had had enough and I got up. It was dark, and I didn’t have a flashlight. I was still grumbling to myself when I realized that I had not been sick! In fact no one in the group was sick.

We all felt great, and we ate breakfast.

When everyone in the group was dressed and ready to go, we got into our three rental vehicles (a minivan, an SUV and a sedan) and drove to Little Farms UCC Church for our orientation and instructions for the week.

As for Parasol’s, would I recommend the place to anyone visiting New Orleans? Absolutely. Just remember a few simple things:

  1. Use Purell liberally
  2. Order the roast beef and swiss po’ boy
  3. Don’t touch your table
  4. Stay out of the restroom

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

Reflections on “My Evil”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent part of a Saturday at Portland’s Sidewalk Art Festival. I was there as a member of a team of political volunteers working to get people to “Take the Pledge” to vote No on the upcoming referendum to repeal Maine’s new law that allows same-sex marriage.

The morning began at campaign headquarters, and we volunteers were asked to introduce ourselves and say a little about what had motivated us to volunteer. When my turn came, I said something like this.

I am exactly what I appear to be: an aging, straight, white dude, pretty much conventional in every respect. I’m here because the folks on the other side of this have worked long and hard on me to explain how same-sex marriage hurts me, my state, my country, my religion and even my own 41-year marriage. The angrier and more frantic they become, the more I don’t believe them. So here I am.

We all expected that the Art Festival would draw a largely sympathetic crowd, and for the most part we were right. After and hour or so, however, I was approached by a woman who looked as if she might have a question for me.

When I said hello to her, she stuck her finger in my face and practically shouted, “You will burn in Hell for Your Evil!” She pronounced it ee-ville and drew out the word for emphasis.

Somehow, I had the presence of mind not to react at all for a moment. Then I smiled at her and said in the most pleasant voice I could muster, “We’re going to have to disagree about that. Now, you have a wonderful day.” Then I turned away from her and wouldn’t talk to her anymore. I didn’t appreciate being threatened with Hell for following the dictates of my conscience.

The debate, of course, becomes increasingly shrill. Actually, it mostly stopped being a debate long ago. Well-funded groups that claim to be “conservative” have fought same-sex marriage all over the country. The arguments they raise are mostly emotional rather than logical and echo the campaign, a few decades ago, to preserve laws banning interracial marriage.

Then, as now, those seeking to deny marriage relied on a mostly unspoken “yuck” factor. In the case of interracial marriage, the term used was “miscegenation,” a word that contains the notion of mixing different species! The appeal was to the immoral, irrational, inaccurate and downright stupid idea that people of color are somehow subhuman–a different species from white folks. You wouldn’t allow people to marry dogs and have sex with them, would you? Yuck!

The “yuck” factor in the current conflict is even more blatant. Again and again, our attention is directed to the nature of homosexual acts. This must be to stir up the homophobia that is still rampant in our society. Do you know what homosexuals DO? You want to allow people to  call that MARRIAGE? Yuck!

To my knowledge, however, voyeuristic prissiness has nothing to do with either genuine conservatism or any religion worthy of respect. What consenting adults of any orientation do in the bedroom is nobody else’s business.

In the past, marriage was about preserving and controlling money, property and power. Somewhere along the line, people began to recognize the legitimacy of love as a basis for marriage.

In our time, we are finally asked to consider the implications of marriage for love. On what basis do we decide who has the “right” to fall in love with whom? Should we really let the “yuck” factor make that decision for us? If love really is a good reason to get married, then isn’t the “yuck” factor on the wrong side of history as well as morality and common sense?

But I’m not a religious scholar, so maybe the “yuck” factor people really do have a lock on Heaven. If so, I probably wouldn’t have a good time there, away from all my friends. Mark Twain’s thought about this  comes to mind: “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”


The headline here is an ironic acronym coined by my daughter Elizabeth and me. It stands for Triumph Of The Human Spirit. We use it to describe a particular kind of fiction in which the hero or heroine overcomes incredible adversity, all the while remaining almost inhumanly Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent.

Books like Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True come to mind. Elizabeth, by the way, refers to that particular novel by the name I Know This Book is Long. She’s right. I waded through the thing myself—all 912 pages of it—and I’ve been on a strict Wally-free literary diet ever since.

My wife Marge just finished another TOTHS novel a day or two ago and noticed a couple of surprising typographical/grammatical errors in the thing.  When she told me about this I assumed that she had been reading a cheap edition, but on second thought I’m beginning to wonder if the problem was that the proofreader kept nodding off. There is, after all, a limit to how much TOTHS anyone can take.

In Praise of Bobby McFerrin

There’s more to Bobby McFerrin than that inane pop tune Don’t Worry, Be Happy, although I have to be careful how much thought I give to that song. I suspect that it still helps him to pay the bills, but I don’t want to end up with it stuck in my head for the next 36 hours.

And there’s more to him than the wonderful a cappella reimagining of the
23rd Psalm that a group of my friends and I sang in church yesterday.

The guy is a genius about the way music works. Check him out here, using his audience as an instrument and “playing” them amazingly.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

I’ve watched this video again and again. The more I watch, the more amazed I become at how little direction the audience actually gets. It seems to be that this is stuff we, as human beings, just know. Bobby McFerrin is the guy who noticed that simple, compelling fact.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

We did it! Although our efforts weren’t broadcast, we sang the national anthem and “God Bless America” at the Red Sox game yesterday. The adrenaline rush was beyond description, and I am still basking in the memory of 35,000+ cheering fans.

The fact that they weren’t necessarily cheering for us is pretty much beside the point. Red Sox fans love to cheer, and they gave us everything they had. When we sang to them, we did our best to return the favor.

When I finally crashed last night, it was as if someone had dropped a brick on my head. I slept like a stone, but I’ve still been tired today. The truth is that I’ve spent most of the day in a state somewhere between coma and outright death.

The Grateful Dads on the JumboTron at Fenway ParkRed Sox home games are rich with tradition and ritual, a lot of it musical. Since shortly after 9/11, for example, live performers have sung a verse of “God Bless America” at every game during the seventh inning stretch. Since 2002, fans have sung along with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” before the bottom of the eighth inning. “Sweet Caroline,” in fact, has evolved into a sort of performance art piece where audience participation is necessary to complete the song. In some ways it reminded me of the audience participation material that has developed and evolved in midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Baseball being what it is, of course, the antics at Fenway are a whole lot more wholesome.

But not necessarily more sanitary. The way vendors sell hot dogs in the stands, for example, was enough to turn my stomach. Here’s the deal: If you’re sitting in a middle of a row in the grandstands and you want a hot dog, the vendor takes the hot dog and bun and wraps a single cheap paper napkin around it. Both ends of the bun are completely uncovered. The vendor gives the hot dog and bun to the person at the end of the row who then passes it to the person beside him. And so it goes. Hand to hand to hand, until it reaches the customer. The customer then sends money back to the vendor, hand to hand to hand. Change, if any, then goes back to the customer, hand to hand to hand.

A young couple with two little boys sat at the end of our row. As we passed hot dogs and money back and forth, I said to her, “Isn’t it fortunate that all the people in in this row just washed and sanitized their hands.” The little boys looked puzzled. The young mother blanched.

The boys did not get vendor hot dogs, and neither did I. Make no mistake. If the Red Sox ask, we’ll go back to sing at Fenway Park again in a heartbeat, but if I want a hot dog I’ll go to the concession stand.

The Grateful Dads on Fathers Day

If all goes according to plan, The Grateful Dads (the quartet in which I am privileged to sing lead) will offer up the national anthem and a rendition of “God Bless America” at the Red Sox-Braves interleague game in Fenway Park on Sunday, as the Red Sox observe Maine Day and Fathers Day simultaneously. MPBN Radio, prompted by the first press release I’ve written since 2001, interviewed me yesterday. The interview now resides on the MPBN website with the headline Local Barbershop Quartet Lands Gig of a Lifetime.

This being New England, however, the potential fly in the ointment is the weather. The forecast for Sunday afternoon changes frequently, but it’s been nothing but variations on the theme of rain, rain, and more rain. As I write this, the forecast reads, “Cloudy with a 50 percent chance of showers.” Until I got the telephone call from the Red Sox on Tuesday afternoon, I didn’t care at all what Sunday’s weather might be. Ah, but what a difference an appeal to my vanity has made!