Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Wrap for May 2009

As I write this, I sit in my living room back 'home' in Seattle (I got back earlier this afternoon), thinking about how quickly the past two weeks went by. It seems like we just head down to New Orleans.

The road trip officially ended on Thursday afternoon. We left Vicksburg around 9 am, and headed east on I-20 towards Jackson. That took all of 45 minutes, and then we were on I-55 heading south. We did have one funny sidetrack. Ryan swears he saw a sign for the "Tomato Museum" in Crystal Springs, and if you had seen our rental car, well, you'd understand our interest in getting a photo of our car at the Tomato Museum...we never did find it, but it turns out that Crystal Springs has a Robert Johnson Blues Museum. How do you like that?? Unfortunately, the sign on the door said they'd be "back at 3ish". Okay, it didn't say "ish", but we didn't feel the need to stick around. Mark it down for the next trip!

We rolled back into the Big Easy around 2, and promptly headed to the Buddha Belly to do some laundry and touch base with Ray and Marshall about our housing arrangements. We eventually met up with Marshall and his GF, Joy, at the good ol' Friendly Bar, and found out that our volunteer services were once again needed. Our site host, St. Jude's, got a huge food donation, including some frozen items, and didn't have anyone to help unload the Ryder truck. Enter Patrick and Ryan, who just happened to get back into wasn't that bad, just unexpected. But we were happy to help. I was a little jealous that the next round of volunteers would be getting salami, etoufee, and fresh turkeys, though.

Ray took us to Gordon Biersch for dinner to thank us. We were both pretty exhausted even though we had an easy driving day, so I at least was happy to hear Ray say he wanted to head home. Turns out he needed to pack for a trip to Florida the next day. So Thursday night turned out to be probably the quietest night of the entire trip.

We took the day on Friday and simply wandered around the city. Surprisingly, I had never really done that on any of my previous trips. We had breakfast at the French Market Cafe, gave some directions to a few folks, and made our way over to Canal Street to hop on the streetcar. A walk through some of the beautiful neighborhoods on the western side of the city, then making our way back up Magazine Street--a stop at the French bakery La Boulangerie, a drink at Ms. Mae's, photos at Slim Goodies and Juan's Flying Burrito--then back up to St. Charles Ave to have a piece of "Slice", the best pizza I've had in NOLA. After lunch, we hopped back on the streetcar and made our way over to Louis Armstrong Park, a newly restored area that is serving as a centerpiece of pride for the community. I took lots of shots here, and nearly fell asleep on the bench near the entrance.

Of course, Marshall made sure we went out and had a good time on our last night. Joy quickly achieved super rockstar status in my book, if only because Marshall is a boy who needs some happy in his life and I can totally see she provides that. We made it back to the house at a decent hour, and Ryan and I were on the road to the airport at 4:45 am.

And here I am, back "home". Hmmm.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Top 10 Peeps from NOLA May 2009 Trip

Not counting my Seattle teammates, because they do count of course, but would take up 70% of the list...

10. The woman that Marshall tried to take out with the van.

9. The cashier at Wendy's off Claiborne Ave (bless her heart) who really needed more training.

8. Ray Thomas, Field Director of Katrina Corps, part-time Van Driver, full-time Playah, and co-star of the upcoming film "A Man and His Bluetooth". AND one of the most committed men I've ever met. Sic 'em, Ray.

7. "Mack" McClendon, Executive Director of the Lower 9th Ward Village, for putting the truth out there, making shit happen, and asking questions that frankly needed to be asked 4 frickin' years ago.

6. Marshall Goschenour, Worksite Coordinator and Volunteer Guru of Katrina Corps, Van Driver Extraordinaire (usually). AND also one of the most committed men I've ever met. Sic 'em, Marshall.

5. The Seattleite cashier at the tiny grocery store across from Bennachins off Royal Street.

4. The waitress at Deja Vu (no, not the strip club...come on, people!) off Conti and Dauphine. After eating breakfast there four days in a row, I am disgusted with myself. Not because I kept ordering chicken fried steak and eggs...because I DON'T KNOW HER NAME.

3. Justin, Brooklyn middle schooler, community volunteer, stud. I never actually met Justin, but apparently he was the cause of much heartbreak among the middle school girls at Chez St. Jude's. He made at least two girls cry, and apparently was much more preferable than Michael. Kudos, Big J!

2. Julia, our Connecticutt rep (seems we Seattle groups need one), Education Consultant, IPhone Guru and St. Jude's 'commandment' breaker (thou shalt not break the seal of the boys dorm).

1. The waitress at the Old Absinthe House who 'accidentally' gave me an extra mind-eraser. I don't remember why she's number 1 on this list, but she is...

Live from Vicksburg

Tonight, I think I'll do a road-by-road synopsis:
  • State highway 78-South, Memphis to Holly Springs, MS. In search of the elusive (at least on the internet) R.L. Burnside Blues Cafe, at the crossroads of Highway 78 and SR 4. It proved to be even more elusive than we thought. It wasn't anywhere near the "crossroads" of the two highways, so we actually drove into Holly Springs. The nice woman at the Chamber of Commerce had no idea what we were talking about, so that was basically that. So we hit a local diner, Beezer's, for breakfast. Conversation was much better than the previous two mornings at Waffle Houses...
  • SR 4-West (with a detour on SR 7-South) to I-55 South, Holly Springs to Senatobia. We drove through 'towns' not even on our map (and it's a map that people in Mississippi gave to me), towns like Harmontown. Harmontown even had a water tower and their own church, so how they're not on the map is a little insulting if you ask me. We saw a few Union Jacks flying, and several yard signs with American flag backgrounds asking us to 'Honor God'. We didn't stop to say 'hello.'
  • I-55 S to Hwy-278 W/SR-6 W, Senatobia to Batesville. Absolutely nothing interesting happened. We were on the Interstate, so we drove like bats out of hell.
  • Hwy-278 W/SR-6 W, Batesville to Clarksdale. Clarksdale is the home of the Delta Blues Museum. Once again, no photography was allowed. Dammit. Definitely worth the trip, though. Unlike the museums we visited in Nashville and Memphis, this was not in some larger metropolitan center of commerce. Clarksdale can best be described as 'easygoing', at worst it can be described as 'depressed' least economically speaking. We saw empty storefront after storefront as we drove into town. The museum was small, but they are trying to expand into a new space. It's very low-key, with lots of guitar displays, photos and album covers, and the best harmonica collection I've ever seen. All of this is viewable while a video of the Muddy Waters story plays in the background. After the museum, we backtracked to Abe's Bar-b-q, a tiny place I noticed on the way in. This was by far the BEST, and I do mean B-E-S-T, barbecue of the trip, hands-down!
  • SR-322 W to Rte 1 S (along the Mississippi River), Clarksdale to Rosedale. This is what I'd been waiting for, a chance to visit the infamous 'crossroads' where legend says Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for playing the guitar like no other blues player. There is some debate as to where the actual crossroad is, but we were able to narrow it down to a spot about 1.6 miles south of Beulah on Rte 1. There's a tiny turn-off, and if you go about 30 yards up the dirt road (it's actually two dirt 'wheel' ruts, like for wagons), there's the cemetary, the tree, the stone that Scratch (aka, the Devil) supposedly was sitting on, and if you look closely, the "crossroads"--four dirt wheel paths leading away from the spot. It's kinda creepy, but it was very cool to see it. You can totally imagine being there at night, walking along what passed for a road back then, with a guitar strapped to your back...and suddenly some guy calls out your name in the moonlight. Again, it's very low-key, no signage or anything.
  • Rte 1 S to St Highway-61 S, Rosedale to Onward. The only exciting thing here was our adventure with a Mississippi highway crew, who closed Rte 1 to just one lane but failed to put a flagger out to control traffic. I guess they figured that so few people were driving on the route that they didn't need one. By the time we got to the end of the construction (didn't see anyone coming the other direction, so I guess it was "our turn"), there was a guy standing behind a truck picking up cones, motioning his fingers at us in a 'go ahead, go ahead' manner...yeah, that works just fine. Thanks for your help, dude.
  • St Hwy-61 S, straight into Vicksburg. Vicksburg was actually my second stop on the road trip last October, described earlier in this blog. We're basically just crashing here, but did go downtown a while ago for dinner and took some cool shots of the Mississippi River sunset, along with storm clouds in the background. Hope they come out (had to use my cell phone)!

Tomorrow, we head back to New Orleans, on I-20 E to Jackson, then dead south on I-55. I might be able to post one, maybe two more times before we leave on Saturday. But just in case, I'll try to put everything out tonight.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Live from Memphis

Managed to get out of Nashville at a decent time, and avoid rush hour traffic (people are working??...), but not before this morning's Waffle House conversation included our waitress Tequila and the topics of pap smears and at what age 'we' (the waitresses) were when 'our' periods started. What the...?

I slept most of the way to Memphis, but that didn't stop me from texting back and forth with a former United Way colleague of mine who now lives there to see if we could meet up for lunch.

If you've never been to Memphis via I-40 from the east, it's an interesting drive, particularly if you have ABSOLUTELY NO INTEREST in finding yourself in Arkansas. The highway keeps telling you that, to get to "Downtown Memphis", you should stay on I-40 W to Little Rock. For those of you keeping up, Little Rock is in that state. If you miss exit 1A, you end up on the bridge...and head into West Memphis...which also just happens to be in that state.

So, we did make it. Headed straight down to Beale Street and the Rock & Soul Museum (boo, for not being able to take pictures, but props for the exhibits and music experience!). You walk around with a headset, and play different parts of the exhibit at your leisure, including some of the best music ever made!

Afterwards, we met up with Roger (my former co-worker in Seattle) for lunch, walked around Beale Street for a while, and got my picture taken outside BB King's Club...priceless.

I think we're going to just do one night here instead of two. We have more to do in Mississippi than we thought, and want to be back in New Orleans on Thursday night. Tomorrow (Wednesday), it's the RL Burnside Blues Cafe in Holly Springs, MS, then the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, and finally the infamous crossroads between Beulah and Rosedale. Then down Hwy 1 along the Mississippi River into Vicksburg, where we'll probably stay overnight.

Monday, May 25, 2009


When I showed up at work on August 29, 2005, I wasn't expecting anything all that different from the usual. But within 48 hours, I'd been asked to coordinate incoming information from various media and government resources regarding a Hurricane named Katrina, to try to determine the most appropriate response for United Way in Seattle, particularly if evacuees did end up coming to our region.

Of course it didn't happen on the level that we initially expected. And as things 'calmed' down in my office, I joined everyone else watching CNN in complete and utter our collective inability to do anything but watch CNN in complete and utter disgust.

Fast forward to January 2007: I was on the board of directors for Seattle Works, and was asked to join the first group of volunteers being sent out of King County by the organization. The destination? Biloxi, MS. The reason? The local Hands on Network affiliate was recruiting other HON organizations to send volunteers down to help in the rebuilding efforts from Hurricane Katrina. (Katrina, I thought? Wasn't that, like, two years ago?) After initially hesitating, I decided it would be an interesting trip to a part of the country I'd never visited.

I was horrified by what I saw. You can view some of the photos here (you need to sign up for a Kodak account), and read our blogs here. I swore I would return.
Fast forward again to January 2008: Thanks to Seattle Works, I did return, this time to New Orleans. Unfortunately, the experience with our host organization and base site soured the experience somewhat, but it was still inspiring and sobering. Whether we were working at the "school" (you could hardly call it that) or helping at the animal shelter, we all understood the magnitude of what had happened. And more importantly, the magnitude of what wasn't happening. Twenty-eight months had now passed, and several areas still looked as if the storm had occurred mere days ago.
Then, in October 2008, I brought a third group down, again to New Orleans, but Seattle Works hooked me up with a different host organization--Katrina Corps. They'd had good success placing groups with them, so I thought it might be a good change of pace. I wasn't disappointed. Not only were we set up at a quality project to help establish a community arts center at a school all but forgotten after the hurricane, but the project coordinator and field director made sure we had a chance to see the devastation of the Lower 9th Ward as well as experience the true spirit and magic of New Orleans. To a person, each of us fell in love with it.
So much so, that 5 of us returned again last week, this time on our own (with Katrina Corps, but without troubling the great people at Seattle Works to organize us). Again, we had challenges with our host site and the project logistics. But I look past that now. Having mediocre food for lunch or having to leave one job to help with another site midway through the day...those things are relatively minor inconveniences to me. I help where help is needed, and that's a sense of spirit and giving that I so appreciate about each and every person I've had the privilege to volunteer with down here.
What I think I've finally realized this last time, is that in order to see the change I want to see, and help achieve what I perceive to be the most basic of goals--getting people back into their homes, period--I need to be here for more than 5 days at a time. I mean, I knew that. I really did know that. But when I look at the photos from this latest trip, and see what it still looks like just blocks away from the levees, I desperately want to know that things are happening to help get people home. I want to see improvement, and experience hope alongside opportunity, and I don't have any sense of that in my current 'role'.
I don't expect everyone to understand how I feel, and I don't expect people to react the same way as me. A vast majority of people in the country have moved on from this. Quite frankly, a lot of former residents of New Orleans have moved on from this. But there's still a neighborhood there, a community there, without services...without schools...without coherent and consistent hope and opportunity. We may have moved on, but they can't. And if I can help house by house, block by block, to get these people back into their homes, get their children back into schools, onto playgrounds, get these families back into their churches again, then I need to do it.
"Because it's all I can do."

Live from Nashville

This was an excellent day. We pulled into Nashville around 1 PM, and promptly found our way to the Musician's Hall of Fame and Museum, located just blocks away from the Convention Center and Country Music Hall of Fame, but in one of the most nondescript places you can imagine. If you didn't know what you wanted to find, you could probably miss it. I guess that's part of the charm.

The exhibit itself was pretty impressive. The museum is divided up into different cities like Memphis, Detroit, etc. I had no idea how many musicians have been involved on hit recordings for people as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra, or Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello. They also have a music school, which I think is a cool idea.

After checking out the MHFM, we walked a few blocks up to Broadway, got some decent BBQ (on a scale of 1-10, I'd give it 6+) at Jack's, then had a few beers at Rippy's while chatting up the bartendar who had just moved here from Greenville, SC. All in all, it was a good afternoon in Music City, USA.

We checked into the hotel, took a quick nap, then headed back into town the hard way. Instead of getting back onto the interstate and going back the way we came, we decided to head down Dickerson Lane right outside the hotel. After all, we could see downtown straight ahead, how hard could it be? :) Hmmm. Needless to say, we had some issues. It wasn't that bad, though. The funniest part was having to cross two different bridges over the Cumberland River--twice.

Now it's back to the hotel, and a good night's sleep before heading to Memphis for the Rock & Soul Museum and couple of nights to hang out on Beale Street. Nice.

Near death on Memorial Day

While Ryan is up visiting his grandmother about a mile up the road, I need to share this little episode from breakfast at the Waffle House this morning.

When was the last time you laughed so hard you cried? For me, it was a little while ago, listening to Mamie the waitress talking to what I can only assume is a regular customer, and going through the list of 'who's died lately...and what they died of'. I know my behavior was completely inappropriate, particularly given the fact that it's Memorial Day, but she pretty much decimated her entire family tree within a couple of minutes 'with just a few leaves dangling in the breeze'...I lost it. A combination of waffle and grits lodged in my throat for a good 30 seconds while I tried to breathe.

It's going to be a good day, hitting Nashville and the Musician's Hall of Fame!

PS--After last night's Cleveland-Orlando game, I need to know--is there something wrong with Zadrunas Ilgauskas' shoulders? He seems to be unable to lift his arms above his head. How many 7-3 centers in the NBA are unable to at least challenge a tear-drop layup from a 6-4 guard? Does gravity have a greater impact on tall people?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Live from Athens, part deux

My internet connection at the hotel is weak, so I may or may not be able to finish this post. I'm sitting watching a very un-inspiring Cleveland-Orlando playoff game (especially after the excitement of the last game). Hedo Turkoglu is an overrated hack.

Starting the road trip off in Alabama this time was a good idea, even if things haven't gone as smoothly as I'd hoped. This has given Ryan and I a chance to at least catch up on our rest, and he's had a chance to see some of his old stomping grounds. Being a U of Alabama football fan myself, it was pretty cool to drive through Tuscaloosa yesterday and seeing the stadium. The campus itself was a ghost town, since classes have already ended. But it was still fun to actually be there.

My friend Allison, bless her heart, couldn't stop suggesting things that we could do. I think she's afraid we're going to be bored in northern Alabama, but we honestly needed to take it slow for a few days. And no, Allison, although I did see the exit for the Ava Maria Grotto, we decided emphatically not to stop...maybe next time. :) So we just came straight to the hotel after our barbecue plans fell through, mainly because the doppler radar looked like a brain MRI loaded with tumors.

Tomorrow, we head to Nashville, then Memphis for a few days on Beale Street. We'll be hitting loads of musical museums and trying to catch some jazz. Then we head back into Mississippi to the famous 'crossroads' to see if I can buy my soul back from the devil, and then drive down the River to check out some small but highly recommended blues bars. That's why I'm sleeping so much now. :)

Which is good, because this game is boring the crap out of me...

Top 10, version 1

In honor of my May 2009 NOLA krewe, here's my top 10 (v. 1.0) moments and phrases of our week:

10. "We ask that you just take two sandwiches. Just two, please. Is that too much to ask?"

9. "Whoa, Monsoon! Door, open, chop chop."

8. "We awright back there?"

7. "Bill's in the store...Bill's in the store!..Put it in 'park', Bill's in the store!...Marshall,!"

6. The $15 hand wash.

5. Seeing Lebron James' game-winning shot live at Boondock Saints off Bourbon Street.

4. Blinding myself with salad dressing at Mona's...and proceeding to do what had to have looked like an impression of a drunk baby moose stumbling over a log pile.

3. Bill's 'shoulders of seduction' moves...coming soon to YouTube! I'll also do an 'honorable mention' here for Scott and his strip tease act. No video of that one, though.

2. Tina and the 'salsa bottle incident' at Juan's Flying Burrito. And wouldn't you know it, Ray happened to be wearing white?

1. 'I think (or don't think) there's an app for that.'

Live from Athens, Alabama

This morning in Birmingham started off much better, as first thing I took the car over to the gas station across from the hotel to fill it up using my debit card...and it worked. Then I used it again at lunch...and it worked. I'm still done with Chase, as soon as possible after I get back to Seattle.

Speaking of lunch, it was actually breakfast, Creole-style. Ryan Rye and I met up with my friend Allison again (have I mentioned that she's one of my favorite people on the planet?), and followed her up into a fairly ritzy part of Birmingham. We had to maneuver our way through the post-church crowd (and traffic cops...for the post-church crowd), but eventually we sat down to a great breakfast and some hilarity.

Eventually, though, we needed to get on the road. It was sad to say goodbye to Allison again. I don't know many people like her, so I always feel lucky to see her in person. She led us back to the highway, and we were off to Pinson and some Ken's Roadside BBQ!

Umm, not so much. We eventually found Ken's (I'd stopped there in October), but turns out they are closed on Sundays. So we took a quick picture with our mascot, Pete, and headed back out towards the Interstate...which meant we looped back to Birmingham. So after almost 90 minutes of driving, we found ourselves right back where we started. :)

Barbecue stop # 2 in Madison was also closed. *&(%$@#! Seriously? I know it's Sunday in Alabama, but church ended at noon for most, no barbecue this time. Apparently, Memphis has some kick-ass 'cue, so I'm looking forward to that.

We raced thunderstorms the rest of the way up I-65, and made it to our hotel just in time to get dumped on while we ate dinner. It's sunny outside right now, but there are dark clouds all around us. Very, very cool.

For the NOLA crew, keep an eye out later tonight for the first version of this trip's top 10...been working on it all day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Live from Birmingham

I guess I could say this isn't exactly what I had in mind. After almost not being able to leave New Orleans with clean underwear, Ryan and I managed to get on the road around 1 pm after a quick airport run, and were happy to start the 2009 Music, Mayhem, and Mischief tour, aka Two Went Out, One Came Back. We're off to a bit of a rocky start, what with it raining the entire time through Mississippi and my card getting declined at the hotel in Birmingham (apparently, Chase's method of letting customers know there might be a disruption in accessing their money while 'data conversion' is taking place is purely telekinetic). But some classic rock stations and good memories of the week gone by (a top 10 list will be coming shortly) are keeping us upbeat...if it's possible for both of us to be that way simultaneously.

After taking a few wrong turns en route, we met up with my friend Allison (one of the nicest people on the planet) for a late dinner in the Edgewood neighborhood of Birmingham, and are now settling in for some much needed rest. He's already snoring.

Here's hoping my debit card is functioning again in the morning. If not, someone's going to get a really nasty phone call.

Road Trip!

I'm about to head out to pick up the rental car, but here are some final thoughts on the week. I definitely think we could have done more, been more productive, that kind of thing. We were needed on other things a lot this week, so were never really able to get cracking on that house. And to be honest, the house itself wasn't ready for us...if that makes sense.

But five days is not enough. And when I say that, I don't just mean in terms of 'finishing' something, or working on it from start to finish, that sort of thing. Maybe why I feel something lacking each time I come down and volunteer is because I end up leaving at the end, and nothing seems any better. Five days is not enough.

It was a good last night with the team. After not feeling well most of the week, I finally was able to get my drink on last night. :) I don't think I disappointed. But I should have gone to bed a few hours sooner...

Next post will be from the road!

PS--Becca, Bill, Julia, Ryan, Scott, Tina, and Tyler, thanks for making this a great week! Let's do it again in October. I love y'all, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

PPS--Marshall and Ray, I'm looking forward to the future...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Day 4

Today was pretty much a wash. We managed to put up 4 (count 'em, 4!) pieces of sheetrock. Turns out a majority of the joints are non-existent in this frame, and we would basically be creating a corner for the wall using the two pieces of drywall...not the best idea. So tomorrow, we are going to bring a shitload of wood with us to create the proper ties so that we have something to actually hang the drywall from...hopefully we'll get a wall or two hung. Sigh.

Tonight we tried to go see the Rebirth Brass Band at Preservation Hall, to re-live one of the best nights from October. Unfortunately, the band didn't show up. Apparently, a family death is involved. Anyway, our evening didn't pan out, so now I'm back here at the base camp site with my new buddy Julia. I can say that about her, because she's right across the room. Technically, she's not supposed to be up here in the boys section, but with all of those middle schoolers running around the girls dorm, you can't really blame us for breaking the rules. Just don't tell Sister Beth...

Speaking of middle school, probably the best part of today was a childhood memory I just remembered (thanks, Julia) about my first crush. Two girls asking me out, and me not knowing what the fuck to do, and asking everyone I could think of who might have an opinion...and then telling my friend to tell the girl I turned down how sorry I was, and how I really did like her, and not to hate me...but Christy was hot! I wonder whatever happened to Christy Colvin? Hello, Facebook!

So there you go, people. A fairly random post, practically having nothing to do with the journey down here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Drywall Day...almost

Today, we were supposed to finally get in and do some honest to goodness rebuilding work, continuing a complete renovation of a home in mid-city. I'm thinking, finally, I can hang me some drywall, which I had so much fun doing in Biloxi 2 1/2 years ago...but as it turns out, the groups that had come through before us to start the project actually did a horrible job. I mean, I know they're volunteers, but that's no excuse for doing a piss-poor job of putting up a wall for someone's home. It's their home, for crying out loud. Pieces of ceiling drywall were screwed into...air! Held up only by the perpendicular piece of sheetrock on the wall...seriously? Other places had gaps as wide as an inch that needed to be fixed...we spent the entire morning taping, mudding, taping, and oh, yeah, mudding. Never even took a piece of drywall off the pile for cutting.

Then we got pulled off that for the afternoon to help move some bunkbeds from Camp Hope, the Habitat for Humanity volunteer base site about 40 minutes outside the city. This entailed us following the Ryder truck out to the site, loading about 25 metal bedframes and mattresses, then hauling them back into New Orleans and unloading them into what I guess is the warehouse of a retail business (I'm not sure how that all worked). Anyway, the entire process took over 2 hours of drive time and about 90 minutes of manual labor. I took a nap on the way back. :)

So, no drywall today. But I did spend 30 minutes on the phone with a reporter for the New York Times "student edition" (I think she's legit) tonight, being interviewed about my thoughts on voluntourism. She's going to try to come out to the site tomorrow to see us at work, and I put her in touch with Mack at the 9th ward community center to talk about his fashion show. Hopefully some much needed exposure will help the cause over there.

Tonight was a quiet night, in comparison with the rest of the week. Couple of people got fleur de lis tattoos, and I just got back from Frenchman's Street. The middle schoolers are running amok, taking their showers and trying to avoid getting cooties.

Tomorrow night is Preservation Hall for some jazz, and I'll be giving my team some drywall lessons. :-)


Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Today, I had a long and productive conversation with Mack, the ED of the community center in the lower 9th. He's really trying to lead a comeback of the neighborhood, FOR the people who lived there prior to Katrina. This was something that came up way back on my first trip down here. In terms of rebuilding here, it's important to plan for who you are rebuilding for. Maybe you've heard of Making It Right, a green development initiative launched (at least in part) with help from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. These houses are remarkable...but the problem relates to property taxes. These homes aren't given to people. Even if they previously owned their homes (and the lower 9th had one of the highest rates of home ownership in the nation prior to Katrina), they need to pay for their new MIR home. And many cannot pay the the property taxes...two people are now in danger of losing their new homes because of that.

Prior to Katrina, 65% of the ward residents were seniors (and again, homeowners). Four and a half years later, 5% have returned. One high school has reopened. City officials question why opening a school should be a priority, if there are no children. But there are children in the lower 9th ward! And when you ask people who were displaced to Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, etc, the number one reason they haven't moved back (if they have kids) is because of NOLA's dysfunctional school system...sigh...

And now I sit here wondering, after my conversation with Mack, where we hashed out a lot of things around community building, asking people to craft a vision together and stick to it, giving up their own agendas in the process, and why the fuck was it so easy to evacuate all of these people to different places around the country but without any plan on how to get people back home afterwards...and why is it up to a neighborhood ED of a community center to lead the effort in helping people track down their neighbors, and ask simple questions like 'what's preventing you from coming back?', and having to photocopy these questionnaires on a xerox machine?

"How do we do it?" Mack asks. When someone falls back into the mindset of 'my needs, and my organization, and my this and that', hit them with it again...keep the vision in mind, keep the vision in sight, hit them with it again, and again, and again. And be willing to tell people when it's time for them to leave the group. This is way too important for any one person or organization to be pissy about turf or credit. And the money that's been poured into this area? Well, it hasn't really happened. What money, I ask? Home after home, block after block is still a freaking disaster area. As far as people like me and Mack are concerned, if the money isn't helping people directly get back into their homes, the homes that they owned, then what's the point? Keep it. Everyone I've met down here working on this stuff (really working on this stuff, not looking for a media event) made less than $10K last year. These are the people out every day mowing lawns at empty houses to keep the City from being able to take the property. People like Mack, who simply wants people to take a block-by-block attitude to rebuilding this area. Thousands of volunteers have been here, billions of dollars were supposedly spent on "rebuilding" after the hurricanes. It has been the greatest failure imaginable. Four and a half years later, we've forgotten.

And now I am sitting here watching the news, and New Orleans was just awarded the 2013 Super Bowl, and the legislature approved $84 million in stadium renovations at the Superdome...are you fucking kidding me?? Oh, my GOD.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Middle Schoolers

Take it back...don't like 'em.

Day One

Today, we got to visit our site from October, Colton Middle School. Ladies from October, the blue doors have indeed withstood the sands of time. :) They look great, the whole place looked great! If I could figure out how to put pictures up on this thing, I'd show you right now!! Damn it. Artists are in house, conducting classes, exhibits are up, the auditorium looked awesome! was nice to see the finished project.

Then we headed over into the lower 9th ward, and spent part of the day working at the community center. They're hosting a fashion show at the end of the week, and needed a bunch of stuff moved out of some areas in the back. We did quite a bit of landscaping, and cleaned out a few work rooms. If that wasn't exhausting enough, then a few of us went deeper into the ward after lunch to help Ms. Elizabeth, just one of the nicest ladies you could ever hope to meet. Apparently, the city government has decided to fine people $500 if they aren't able to care for their lots (cut grass, weed, etc)...well, I didn't ask how old she was, but let's just say she could use a little help in this regard. I think you get two warnings before they serve a lien on your property, and it's gone. It all seemed pretty arbitrary when I tried to get an explanation. Anyway, we were able to get her entire lawn cut, front and back, and Scott the weedmaster was able to whack those into submission. Becca, bless her heart, was a real trooper in the heat today, doing things that she fully admits are outside her realm of expertise ("is that weed? What about that?...")

After a few hours of pushing around what has to be oldest and most ornery power mower on the planet we were finally able to call it day. I just finished washing off about thirty pounds of grass. And now I'm ready for some West African food and Bennachin's! Woo-hoo!!

Oh, and promised some people I'd do injury updates...nothing serious yet, although I did manage to burn my fingers today. Cuz I'm a dork. Other than that, we're all okay.

But the group of middle schoolers staying here starting today just walked in...this is going to be a good week. :)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

We made it

First mission accomplished. We all made it, despite the fact that we had 4 different arrival times among the 7 of us. The airport was exactly like last time, you'd never know you had just landed in a majoy city. Everything was closed, and we were the only people in the terminal. Then another plane landed, and we felt better.

Ray, Katrina Corps master, picked us up "right on time " ;-) Then we hit the Denny's across the street from the airport, and waited for Scott to get here. Poor guy was traveling all day (started around 7 am, got here at just after 11 pm). Pretty sure he had to switch planes in Tokyo...

The only real adventure so far was watching the lightning show from our puddle-jumper plane on the way in last night. I've never seen lightning from a plane before. It's awe-inspiring, and a little freaky.

Today, it's sunny with a chance of thunderstorms (woo-hoo!), and a day to walk around the Quarter, grab a beignet, and enjoy the heat and humidity which is the South. We're staying just off Canal Street, 3 blocks up from Bourbon Street. I like.

Friday, May 15, 2009

May 2009 New Orleans Trip, Chapter 1

Actually, it's more of a "preface". Tomorrow, seven Seattlelites are heading back down to New Orleans to do more heavy lifting. Five of us are from the October 2008 crew that Seattle Works sent down, and we've got a couple of newbies joining us. I want to give a special shout-out to my friend Becca for signing on literally at the last second...I think she's probably out buying work gloves as I write this.

This is my fourth trip down to the region since Katrina. And as much as I hope things have gotten better and there aren't entire blocks just sitting there rotting in the wind...I know it's probably not the case. But as one of the members of that October team said, in response to the question 'why did you go, then?': "Because I can't do anything else." I can't stop going, not as long as help is still needed and I can still lift a hammer or a paint brush. And this group rocks:

Becca Gluck, Bill VanDyck, Ryan McCrory, Scott Burrell, Tina Smythe, and Tyler "t-bone" Bosma!

As Bill put it, we just have one more "ups", then our next one will be in NOLA! Onward...