To New Orleans, With Love
I went because I had to. I do not recall it being a choice.
During nine New Orleans’ trips since January 2006, I have helped gut sixteen homes, build eight Habitat for Humanity homes and a playground, recruited 34 friends (many of whom returned up to four times), and helped launch another NGO (non-governmental organization) which has to date hosted another 3,000 volunteers.
However, I am but one of many who contributed as much, and more. A recent estimate put the number of volunteers at two million. A senior Habitat official estimated that 700,000 workdays have been donated to Habitat.
Most of my trips were linked with the St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Churches’ RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans) program.
Logansport high school classmates and fellow Up With People alums, joined me on my swan song trip.
Vivid memories abound. I have stood in horror upon entering my first ravaged home – then I smashed windows just to breathe. Two days later the gutted, reborn home was but a skeleton of its former self, its moldy, toxic, rotting core carted off by trolling garbage trucks to some unknown heap.
I have seen the endless ghost streets and blue tarps on roofs, sailboats on streets, and battered homes, some swept across streets and onto cars or other homes. I have winced at the heights of flood water lines stained onto homes, and the National Guard’s spray-painted cryptic survey summaries on doors. I witnessed the onset of refrigerator wasteland, FEMA-trailer towns, and trailer-lined streets.
I have left behind 20 contaminated, ripped, or paint-splattered jeans and shirts, and returned home four times with Katrina cough.
I am still challenged by friends and acquaintances perplexed as to why I would “waste” so much time recovering a city they view as a waste of time. My first rejoinder is always, “It is their home.”
The Times-Picayune ran a weekly series entitled “The Kindness of Strangers.” That series featured me one week, a pleasant surprise.
I have breakfasted at Carmellia Grill and Café Rose Nicaud, lunched at Willie Mae’s and Crabby Jacks, and supped at Galatoires, Emeril’s NOLA, Redfish Grill and Jacque-Imos. I have slid down dozens of Acme’s fresh oysters, and downed adult beverages at O’Briens and Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge.
I have ridden the circuit of the rickety, rejuvenated St. Charles trolley line, toe-tapped to Preservation Hall jazz, zipped around to Zydeco at the Rock N’ Bowl, and sipped wine in The Columns’ parlor as guitarist John Rankin strummed. Mardi Gras beads hang next to my home office computer.
I have drooled over countless columned St. Charles Ave. mansions, and stayed up to watch a phalanx of police clear and clean out Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras’ witching hour.
There is something about the crescent city. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Yes, there is the contextual, textural, rainbow history, joie de vivre, food, smells, and the jazzy live-in-the-moment rhythm. It is more, whatever it is. Maybe it is nurtured by a repressed sense that it all could be gone in a flash (or a flood), and Orleanians are driven to cram as much as possible into each day. Sort of like a Po-Boy sandwich with everything. Living in earthquake and fire-central Southern California, who am I to criticize or psychoanalyze?
New Orleans may not channel the Las Vegas slogan “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas”, but it’s close.
She can be an exasperating city to navigate, even over three years since Katrina. I still cursed at missing street and one-way signs, stop-and-go traffic behind late Friday trash collection, and trying to decipher the French Quarter traffic grid. And what’s with all of the potholes? I would think that the rental car companies would be suing for axle abuse.
I have revisited gutted homes and fought my negativity upon seeing them mostly as we left them two years ago. Was it for naught? Too often the road home (and The Road Home Program) is potholed with good intentions, along with an intimidating bureaucratic maze. I try to remember that each home is a story. I do not know the stories. I wish I did.
Yet, the heart soars when driving around Musicians’ Village, greeting the new owner of a home I helped build in RHINO’s Ferry Place project, or seeing Gertrude LeBlanc in her new digs just across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward. Her new home sits in the midst of homes sponsored by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Make it Right 9 Foundation.
Orleanians say without hesitation that the volunteers saved the city, not the local, state, or federal governments. As a candidate, President-elect Obama promised New Orleans Category 5 protection. I doubt that much is necessary but I do fear the current Category 3 fortification is not enough.
Now it is time to go. New Orleans can keep the clothes.
I will return, whether for Jazz Fest, or a culinary tour. You now have a piece of my heart, New Orleans, and I don’t know how to quit you.
Keith Frohreich, November 2008