”Lovin’ is what I got.”
“You are doing a great job, don’t get me wrong, but keep in mind that you are operating on a punch clock. We would all act differently around here if we were working on a clock running downwards,” Jared said to me. His southern accent was thick, and though he at times had the tendency to mumble, his thoughts were coming in completely clear. He was driving the two of us to 1824 Congress, a Habitat house a few streets off of Musician’s Village, to inspect some subcontracted work. I had no response; should I be offended, or understanding?
“Sometimes I wish I had a punch clock,” he continued.
“Well then, make one,” I threw back at him. We hit a nasty bump in the road, which shifted the lumber in his flatbed and temporarily threw my thoughts off track.
“Decide when you want to leave, and work towards it.”
“It’s not that easy, dude, this is my life. This isn’t a summer for me,” he informed me. We were silent for the remainder of the short ride, but as we got out and Bob Marley’s voice was extinguished, I felt like I had to vouch for myself in some way.
“Well, I don’t look at it like you think I do. So what? It’s eight weeks. It’s two months. It’s nothing, you think- but that’s exactly my point. I only have eight weeks to make a difference down here. I want to help, and I am not giving up. I am not looking at this place and saying ‘Screw it, I am out of here soon, why try to make a difference?’ I refuse to pretend that I cannot do anything.” The last sentence I spat out confused even me, the speaker, for a second, but I think my sincerity came across. So little time is not tantamount to so little progress.
We opened the house, and Jared went inside as I unloaded some lumber into a pile on the side of the house. We were still silent as we hopped back into the truck and drove back onto Habitat’s main site, the location –ultimately – of eighty homes of New Orleans residents. The entire staff of forty or so was in front of the field office, slowly forming a rough circle in the dusty heat of the afternoon. The volunteers had gone home, and we were the only people on site.
“Who wants to go first?” someone called out of the crowd. “Who wants to tell their favorite memory of working at Habitat?”
Was it Friday already? In the busyness of the office, I always forgot the most important things. Today was the last day of the majority of the AmeriCorps volunteers, who had decided last July to make a one-year commitment to work with New Orleans Area Habitat. I had only been there six weeks, and although goodbye’s were frequent, I could tell that they were still unwelcome.
“I will go first,” said Tara, taking a small step into the circle. “I remember, working on the West Bank, when the entire site flooded, and Brian, Dan, and I were stuck in our tool trailer for what seemed like hours.” Everyone cheered as she continued, “there’s even like a ten second video of us in there.”
“When I came,” David, a clean cut, twenty-something-year-old followed, “Kelly was my house leader on my very first day.” It probably felt like it would never end.
“I remember that!” Kelly, a genial blond girl from Colorado exclaimed. “You were wearing that exact same t-shirt!”
“I only own like three!” he shouted back. Everyone laughed, barely holding back tears.
“I think for me, it was the day I realized that we don’t just build homes anymore. Homes were the beginning; we now build neighborhoods,” Ann, a former teacher, continued.
We all looked at the non-Habitat houses across Alvar Street. People were moving back in. Bring homes, bring hope. “People aren’t moving back in everywhere, but they are coming back right around the village.”
“I think, those of us who are leaving, know how much they have done down here,” Terry, a native New Orleanian relatively new to Habitat, explained. “Seriously.”
I looked around; nothing but laughter, tears, and sweat. Good times under the lazy, sun-filled, limitless Louisiana sky.