New Orleans, day 5


Salvation can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

I’ve found it at the end of a crowbar, knocking down drywall and slats. And so have hundreds of other volunteers taking on the wrecked houses of New Orleans.

Rubble means progress. It means renewal.

It means a second chance.

[complete index after the jump]

I went with a team to a modest suburb on the eastern part of town. Like other neighborhoods, every gas station, supermarket, drugstore and fast-food place is abandoned, boarded up.

They are shells of what was.

At our assigned house, the drywall was out. All we had to do was pull nails, hundreds of rusty weak nails embedded in stud framework. The bonus was removing a couple of ceiling fans, several door frames and a water heater.

The homeowner, another lifelong New Orleans resident, had been in this house for 28 years. Floodwaters reached 8 to 10 feet high, engulfing the residences. He’s still negotiating to receive insurance or aid money to rebuild.

At lunchtime, I and another volunteer, Emi, stepped forward to relocate to another site to assist a shorthanded team. We lucked out: It was a gut job.

The work had begun the day before. Armed with sledgehammers and crowbars, we become an army of destruction. It is grueling, dangerous work, with risk of dehydration, concussion, suffocation, exhaustion and infection.

And it is one of the most sought-after assignments among Hands on New Orleans volunteers.

Pour all your frustrations, your anger, your mistakes into knocking down that wall. They want us on that wall; they need us on that wall.

Smash and tear. Pull and rip. Pile up the debris until the house becomes skeletized.

The dust thickens the air. Shards of drywall and broken boards riddled with nails cover the floor. And we must haul out hundreds of pounds of it with trash cans.

Emi worked like a rock star, tearing down walls with speed and efficiency. When we moved the surviving possessions outside, she’d casually grab an armoire by herself. She worked tirelessly throughout the afternoon.

I was sad to hear she was leaving my alma mater, Cornell, for new opportunities in Boston. She reached a point where the architecture school there wasn’t what she had imagined, but didn’t have it all mapped out for the next step.

But she’s smart, enthusiastic and easy going, so her future will work out soon enough.

Like Emi, more than a few nomads in our volunteer group have come down to New Orleans looking for direction in their lives. They’re not all college students stuck on what career path to choose — some have left their jobs, sold their homes or essentially run away from their lives to figure out a few things.

Helping others in need has given them purpose, at least for the here and now. They see our little camp as purely about the work: Go in, do your job, move on to the next one. The community represents various walks of life, but with little regard for wealth, class, gender or race.

You’re defined by your work ethic and your generosity.

Such a concept has even provided inspiration for an original musical, to be staged by volunteers Monday.

It’s not a utopia by any means. The personality conflicts and daily setbacks keep things interesting. And ultimately, serving others — not colonization — remains the true ideal.

As we looked out to the sidewalk where our rubble pile grew with each swing of the sledgehammer, we took satisfaction in a job well done. Yes, sadness permeates the work — it is, after all, the shattered remains of someone’s shelter.

But our spirits were renewed. We found our purpose for today. And whatever sins or hardships we had endured, we had achieved a measure of salvation through our gutting fury.

• • •

New Orleans 2006


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