Thursday, August 2, 2007

Q & A- Jenny Heffernan

Yesterday, at 6 am, I jumped in a car with someone who, at the time, was a random stranger, Justin Tye. Six hours, 3 maps, and a few sighs of frustration later, we arrived in Jena, Louisiana to participate in a protest regarding the Jena 6. To catch yall up on the case, it involves racial tensions in small town Louisiana, culminating in the symbolic hanging of nooses from a tree, a response to the attempted integration by an African American high school student. After the demonstration, fellow protesters mingled and discussed the case, among other things. One woman I spoke with inquired as to my whereabouts and future plans; upon hearing that I hope to return to Nola post-grad, she responded with a striking question: “Why would you want to join a state where people hang nooses from trees?”

What a question. Without thinking, I gave the New Orleanian my heartfelt response: “Welll…. So it doesn’t happen anymore”. I admit, it’s a lofty goal, to hope to reverse discrimination, but, to be honest, my experience with Duke Engage has empowered me to aspire to such impossibilities. The mission of this program is to give us students an opportunity to, quote ““develop the valuable skills and self-knowledge that result from an immersive service experience”, and I believe that this goal has been realized. Thanks to the generosity of our employers, the encouragement of New Orleanians, the guidance of our directors, and the fellowship amongst ourselves, every student here has experienced the desired immersion- not only have we dipped into New Orleans, but also into ourselves. A lot of tough questions, similar to the one posed to me yesterday in Jena, have been presented to us through the course of our stay here, and, to be honest, it hasn’t always been easy to respond. Are we being useful? What is the best contribution we can make to New Orleans? Are we just getting in the way? Is our help and support meaningful? Is rebuilding New Orleans pointless?

Enter wise New Orleans native numero dos. Wearing a hat with the word “Answer” across the top, he approached me and said, as if reading my mind, “I’ll tell you what the answer is. It’s this. It’s us. It’s right here: look around, the answer is here.” While he was immediately referring to the rally gathered in support of the accused, his remark applies to the group assembled here. The answer to the questions we’ve all faced, students and employers alike, is staring straight at us in the community we’ve formed. While the effects of Katrina are still being felt throughout this city, not all of them are negative, I’ve found. From the disaster has sprung an opportunity for people of every possible background to unite in a common cause; as a coworker remarked, “it gives us a good feeling, hope”. Demonstrated here is the strength of the human spirit to perservere, and the potential for inter-personal connection and cooperation, regardless of race, status, or other social dividers. This lesson, among the others we’ve learned, are things that all gathered here can further apply to other aspects and situations in our lives, which is something we all appreciate as being something very special.

To close, I’ll quote one more New Orleans native I’ve encountered (the people here are just brimming with wisdom!). Larry, a Mardi Gras Indian, shared with me that which he has learned through his lifetime here in New Orleans: the greatest joy in life is knowing what life is actually about. New Orleans seems to have a solid grasp on this knowledge: its about people, relationships, and community; its about rebuilding, growing, and changing; its about helping and allowing yourself to be helped. I count ourselves lucky to have been able to glean some of this knowledge from the city, and believe we will all honor our responsibility to share it with those we encounter in our next adventures. Thanks so much to all of you who’ve made it possible- here’s to you, your continued progress, and a swift return to New Orleans !

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Mass Times Velocity. (7/25/07) ~JCW

4 “By the moon, we sport and play; with the night begins our day.”
- Unknown

My head jerked forward; I felt like I had just woken up from a twenty-one-year-long dream. How did I get here? As my eyes focused, I realized that I was sitting in the same place that I was 21 years ago, when the dream started: in a large, freezing, modular trailer. A man, reminiscent of a cross between Doctor Robotnik and Hellraiser, was standing before me. Or, rather, before us: we, the Engaged, were appropriately seated in a Usual Suspects-esque lineup, listening to a speech being made by M. Pfeiffer, officer of the New Orleans Police Department:

“…And the last thing you want is for someone to think their house is livable again, only to go home and find grandma drowned and plastered to the floor underneath her bed,” he was saying. Delicious. He continued:

“So then what happened? Well, they gave the go-ahead against my advice, and someone moved back into the city and found grandma stuck to the floor after their house was inspected three times by the military and marked as clear. Mistakes do happen, people.” He tried using his fingers to visually count off the points he was making, but since there was just one, his arms dropped awkwardly to his sides as he continued to change topics.

Seriously, though, where am I? I have never been this worn out in all my life. My body feels like it’s in pieces, and at this point I cannot remember what cerebral clarity actually ever felt like. It’s not that we go out too hard, because there isn’t such a thing, it’s that there simply are not enough hours in the day. Or night. Cutting out sleep seemed like the logical choice.

My state of delirium, fueled by excruciating exhaustion, crippling hunger, and the incessant thirst for daiquiris, somehow, at that instant, afforded me insight. What are we really trying to accomplish down here? Is it getting the most out of our internship, sometimes at the expense of everything else that New Orleans has to offer? Is it experiencing as much as possible of the city, and the people we meet outside of our jobs? Is it the nightlife? D. All of the above. I have been trying to do everything; I am running out of energy and still running out of time. My brain, rather hypocritically, feels like it’s so close to reaching an answer to this conundrum; is it obvious?

“…It’s obvious what you do with a nuclear bomb," our host continued, "You just close off the city, don’t let anything in, but most importantly, don’t let anything out. You have to figure, everything inside the blast radius is going to die, so just seal the citizens inside and wait it out. Natural disasters, however, are harder.” Perfect. And obvious.

Sometimes, I feel like my life can be defined by moments strung together by a common theme: the people I have been with each time I have been in the Duke gardens, the places I have been when I have heard the song “Amazing Grace,” or my general disposition during each successive reflection session. Somewhere in the middle, I was bit by a New Orleanian vampire; I lost the reflection I used to call my own.

Suddenly, my mind felt like it was stretched like a rubber band and quickly released. I’ve got it! It IS obvious. The answer is thus: that grandma must have been rather senile if she thought she could escape a flood by hiding under the bed.

I closed my eyes again, praying that, when I opened them, they would be staring at a daiquiri bar.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers. (7/13/07) ~JCW


”Lovin’ is what I got.”
- Sublime

“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.

Perspicacity. (6/27/07) ~JCW


“Music is my aeroplane.”
-Red Hot Chili Peppers

“Musician’s Village, this is Joseph,” I say into the corded phone.

“Hey Joseph, this is Steve,” a man with a southern accent responds. Steve? Steve… 84 Lumber. We are waiting on purchases for 3058 Law and 3225 North Galvez. He continues: “I am not going to be able to get you all of purchase order X1330 today, but it should be in by the beginning of next week.”

“Fine, we can reconcile it if necessary. Thanks, Steve,” I tell him, and hang up the phone. Before I even feel the phone hitting the receiver, it rings again.

“Hey, this is Roy, over at Ram Tools? Those orders you put in for the 1800 Bartholomew block are under-priced. This steel is coming from China, and the 16-D’s are gonna be more expensive.” 16-D’s. Galvanized Nails used for framing and porch work. My mind races for a solution to a problem without a previously recorded answer.

“Ok, I will contact our purchasing department. In the meantime, keep assembling the packages, you will be hearing from Ed shortly.”

A dangerously heavyset man walks into the trailer as my push-to-talk starts beeping. “Hey, do you have a place I can sit down? I have really high blood pressure, and need to take a break from the heat. Do you have any water in here?”

I stare at him blankly, but the push-to-talk connects and snaps me out of my gaze. “Hey Joseph, it’s Adam. Can you pull out the framing plans for a P5 and read me some dimensions?”

“Sure, give me a second,” I say, as I reach for the only black binder on my desk.

The man, flushed, sunburned, dehydrated and weary, starts to wheeze. Please do not have a heart-attack in our trailer, I don’t have the time.

The phone rings again. “Hello, this is Joseph. How can I help you?”

“Hi, this is Natalie Shelton in 1825 Alvar,” a woman with a deep, raspy voice explains. “Your electrician never came back to fix my house. It’s also got a leak in the roof, and I need a lock for my tool shed. I already signed off on the punchlist-“

“If you signed off,” I interrupt her, “then you need to contact family planning, not construction.”

“Oh, well they won’t get back to me,” she said tempestuously, “and you are not helping either. What I am going to contact is a lawyer.” She hung up. Better her than me, I guess.

I look at the stack of paperwork in my box, and realize that it’s only 10:30. I need to take a break. I jump out of my chair and out the door as the phone starts ringing again. Outside is just as bright as it is hot, but a slight breeze makes the outdoors much better than the office. An overwhelming sense of calm permeated the Habitat construction site.

Behind the field office, people were gathering for a ceremony that had completely slipped my mind. Jim, one of the directors, was standing in the middle house of an entire block of Habitat houses. The houses were just framed, so the only construction above the floor plan was simple, skeletal woodwork. Ten to fifteen people were in the center of each house, eagerly anticipating the event.

“What we are doing here is unprecedented!” he was shouting at the top of his lungs. “Today, we will raise the front walls of seven Habitat homes!” A cheer came up from the crowds both around and inside the houses.

“Count with me! One! Two! Three!” with each number, the group in each house lifted the preconstructed front of the house and nailed it into place. “Four! Five!” An American flag rolled down off of each front as rose to standing vertically. “Six!” These walls are going up fast. I was standing at the center of the block, and the sight was nothing short of surreal. “Seven!” Each group began nailing their walls into place.

“Listen to that sweet music!” Jim yelled, as the hammers pounded away across the entire block. Everyone was cheering. Like I said, surreal. Time felt like it had paused for all of us to enjoy this moment.

“You have to stop and realize the good we are doing here,” someone said. Stephan, a supervisor on site who was also enjoying the show, had walked up next to me without my noticing. “It’s pretty cool, right?”

“It’s pretty cool,” I responded. “It’s really cool.”

“The funny thing is, I didn’t see any of those volunteers glue down those front walls, which means, we are going to have to pull them all out anyway,” he informed me.

I couldn’t help but laugh. My push-to-talk started beeping again.

The Arrival. (6/12/07) ~JCW

“Let’s start by making it clear who is the enemy here.”
- Thievery Corporation

The Arrival. (6/17/07)

On June 14, 2007, the first definition of “Katrina” on was: Crazy-assed bitch. When she first arrives, she's wet and wild. When she leaves, she takes the house, car and everything else in a 100 mile radius. The user who posted the message, Aniseed, clarified the definition with the use of the expression in a sample sentence: I ain't paying that bitch Katrina a dime in child support, that's for sure!

If this is a reflection our of nation’s sense of obligation and sympathy for those who lost everything – family and friends, homes, cars, ways of life - in Hurricane Katrina, which I believe it is, then I also believe we are as morally bankrupt as Ken Lay. Uh-oh. Ironically enough, the first night that I was in New Orleans, a woman on the street stopped me with a similar conversation. “Excuse me, sir? Could you help me with something?” She asked. I obviously thought she wanted money, but it was my first night in the city, and I was interested in talking with as many people as possible. We were alone at night on a street that was not well-lit, but even so I could still feel her genuineness.

“Sure, what can I do for you?” I responded. I don’t think she was expecting a response because she was slightly taken back.

“Can you tell me how someone can get back on their feet in this town?” She asked. Now, it was my turn to be taken back. The desperation in her voice reminded me of why I had come here in the first place.

“I had a house, I had everything. But then, this pretty girl came and took it all away from me in a week,” she elaborated.

Unfamiliar with the joke, I fell right into it: “How did she do that?”

“Well, her name was Lady Katrina,” she told me. Ahhhhh, I get it. Wasn’t that clever? If she couldn’t already see the Best of New Orleans guide book under my arm in the darkness, the pace at which I walked, or my clothes, she just found out that I was foreign to this place.

I didn’t have an answer for her, but her condition made me realize, within a few hours, that things were certainly not fine in this city. To be fair, much of Louisiana was plagued with problems pre-Katrina. However, to claim that things are back to where they were is a complete fallacy. The fact that the status of New Orleans and other cities on the Gulf Coast no longer makes headlines because it will no longer sell papers, obtain ratings, or inspire internet readers is unacceptable, but it is a blatant and inevitable reality. If you don’t live it, if you don’t feel it, if you don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist. And I thought I was good at lying.

We have come here to make a difference, and it is both sad and selfishly gratifying that everywhere I go, I am reminded of our purpose. Entire neighborhoods have become ghost towns, uniformly stained with high water lines and marked with spray-painted rescue identification insignias. Infrastructure continues to fail relentlessly in the areas that are the most in need. The city perpetually exudes an overwhelming sense of abandonment.

Is it possible to change things here? To enact the Renaissance that New Orleans deserves, and that the rest of America must think has already happened? Some progress has already been made, and though it is slow, it is definite and it is real. A perfectly destructive girl came and took thousands of homes from some of the poorest neighborhoods in New Orleans, but only time will tell if New Orleans citizens will ever get them back.