leave for the airport at 5am, under the kind auspices of Rebecca Leuchak, our advisor, guide, and friend, who is the director of the global studies centre. After some flying, we reach new orleans at 11:45am. Wait till 2:00pm for Raju and Khalifa to join us from Dickinson, Carlisle PA. Another hour or so is spent in figuring out how we get to the camp site. Al Roderiguez a.k.a Big Al is the nice guy who drives us down. On the way, he tells us how he now lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, since his house in Slidell was ruined. We also get first hand accounts of how FEMA messed people up with their promises of trailers.
We reach the camp with big signs that proclaim jesus as the way, the truth, and the means to rehabilitation. Hm. Surrounded by baptists and go-cans, we dump our bags and fear the worst. Tulane University, who we were supposed to work with, abandoned us due to "space issues". De profundis. For those who dont know about go-cans, they are these darling little plastic booths with a plastic hole in it that the masses "go" in, creating every level of hell till some samaritan comes by and hoses it out. I thus began to understand how bad bad karma could get. That night at a camp meeting of the "campus crusaders" [yes, thats what the group was called] we were told there was a house that needed gutting. 4758 Gawain Drive. Her name's Ruth Hayes. The night was cold, the camp cots noisy, and our fate, sealed. Was this a good idea?Night 1:
Raju, Khalifa and I make a break for freedom, sin and a working flush system. Get a cab. Go down to the French quarter
. There is fresh pizza, live music and our first jazz bar- Fritzel's
. We also meet Peter for the first time-- We heart bulgarians.
We all wake early, coz we all didnt sleep. Go-cans avoided with a shudder. A strong bladder was thanked. We left at around 9 with a group from Shippensberg, another university who had sent their students down to new orleans to help out. Such groups were common, just that unlike us, most had a religious focus to their shovelling and clearing. Morning prayers were said. At this time, we silently thanked our gods that at least our loved ones had working flush systems. Armed with shovels and dust masks, we set off.
Ruth's house hadn't been touched by anyone, yet. The water mark was at about 3.5 feet. Inside, rotting wood held clues of who this woman was. Mouldy nursing certificates. Disneyland memorabilia. Elvis records. Old crystal. A shoe. Lots of medicine tied up in now water-logged bags. An old couch that used to be a different colour before Katrina. We began shovelling.
We did good work that day. Pushed out the rotting fridge, the furniture, broke down some of the wood work. Khalifa the curly one took many pictures and ruined his back. Abdel opened the rotting fridge, causing the Shippensberg students to almost descend to epithets that wouldve jeopardized their salvation. Yours truly ripped her jeans. Talk about the learning curve. We returned to a frugal meal and more go-cans. Night 2:
Desperate for debauchery, inspite of a delay, we (Khalifa, Siwar, Maya and I) took off to India House
, the hostel that Peter was staying at. The goal was a clandestine hot shower. The entire group gradually landed up at the hostel. We collectively decide that we love the place. We then head out with Peter leading the way. Discovered a mediterranean cafe. Met up with Khalifa's friend, Peter, who's from Bulgaria. Much hookah was smoked. Much hummus eaten.More hookah smoked. Khalifa got the closest thing to stoned. We returned happy, driven back to the camp by a Bosnian cabbie. Got stared at suspiciously by the campus crusanders who were on night duty. Laughed.
Woke with the decision that morning shovelling and nightly debauchery is a good combination. Went to house. Shovelled. Wheel barrowed. wore mask. Ruth came over, and picked over her stuff with youmna, khalifa and I. She brought no anger, despair or frustration. Instead, she brought a calm smile and two weak knees. Wheezing a little because she has only 50% use of her lungs, she watched with us as the government's clean up crew came for the rancid fridge. We carried baseball trophies, old albums, and a teddy bear to her car. She wanted the crystal. Left a gary larson coffee mug for me. We were moved beyond measure. We also discovered the neighbours abandoned backyard as a happy alternative to the nearest go-can, which was about a mile away. Long live third world inventiveness!Night 3:
The night post reaching Bourbon Street is a happy blur. Let it be known, one can walk in the street with a 20 ounce glass of beer for a dollar or two. There is live music in every bar. After the first two steel guitars, the night is a happy blur. Fritzel's, a jazz club, happened again, as it did that first night. 1930's smooth european jazz sound. Khalifa, as usual, got some great pictures. Raju and I, as usual, got some great jack and coke.Day 4:
Ruth's house again. Breaking down of walls. Pulling out of kitchen fittings. We are all into the groove of destruction: wood beams, broken flooring, roaches-- all, all find the dump pile out in front. The government's cleaning crew come by. Almost every person who drives by has a wave and smile for us. This is good work. We could stay here for a month, or two, or three. Night 4:
By now, the brilliant shower plan is a daily affair: an intrepid few of us travel to Peter's hostel and take a shower silently, quickly. Ninjas on a mission. The hostel as a beer vending machine. Raju and I are in heaven. The resident cat is old, black, aloof, and goes by the name of Tandy. Short for Tandoori.
Tonight is St. Paddy's day-- this means drunk white people, green t-shirts, funny hats, much mardi gras beads, and green coloured beer. We avoided the funny hats, t shirts and coloured beer. Raju figured out that the smartest way to get the most beads was to dance and yell in front of the floats. That he did. Success. We went to a cuban music place called blue nile. Went to frietzels again. Or was that the next night? Great jazz, and a green blur. Happiness. Also went by tropical isle
and funky pirate: pirate got some incredible live blues-- Big Al and the Blues Masters
rock every night.Day 5:
We have moved into India House. Go back to the house for one last day of cleaning up. Ruth came by and said bye: hugs, numbers, and good words were exchanged. She fed us pizza. Yes, Khalifa took pictures. Good work done. The day is spent in happy quiet. Night 5:
The night saw Siwar, Maya, Abdel, Raju and I take to Bourbon. Never again will that happy street witness such an international invasion. They will tell the tales of it to their grand-children. Suffice to say, there was much dancing and a strip club involved, the latter for a mere 15 mins. Experiences, all. We think Abdel had more fun at the strip club than anyone else, but this is open to comment. Arf arf.Evening 6:
The final evening, at least for me, since yours truly woke only in the late afternoon. We listened to Steamboat willie play in the jazz garden. Walked Bourbon one last time, with comradely glances. Heard Jamel Sherif play the cornet like a god. Danced final dances.
The next day, we found the airport shuttle and left.
Meet me in new orleans. I'll be there again, boots, beads, smile and all.