We got a phone call a while back from a guy named Dan who was eager to help our cause, but he was not entirely sure how. He had significant skills as a builder and thought that he might want to volunteer, but he needed more information. He also had some power tools he was willing to donate, if we needed them. Coincidentally, Bridge To Biloxi’s John Page was just a few days away from leading a group down to New Orleans, and when he heard about these tools, he jumped, figuratively, if not literally, for joy. Dan generously delivered to tools to John’s home and two days later they were on a worksite in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Dan must have gotten the information he needed (or maybe he was pining for his old SkilSaw), because he was first in line for John’s next work-trip down to New Orleans, which was just a few weeks ago. This was our second John-led New Orleans adventure and it was another success.
On their return, I asked Dan to commit his experience to (virtual) paper, and here’s what he had to say:
Our family’s conversations were neither positive nor reaching a resolution. The bickering was becoming entrenched — gaining a life of its own. A change was needed, and I thought about what I could do to direct the conversations elsewhere — something attention getting.
Katrina revealed pervasive poverty in New Orleans and its somewhat corrupt underbelly. The current administration was consistent in its monumental self-righteous ineptitude. Families were living in trailers when, for us in Belmont, three bedrooms were barely enough. I wanted to do something political, but was concerned about the magnitude of the problem and my lack of political leverage. I wanted to work and see an effect. Rebuilding is as much about perseverance as it is about skill, and at the end of the day there is a result.
My business was perking along – retirement was a possibility but not desirable. The company provided work with meaning, yet there could be more. Perhaps I could do something to change the family’s conversation and have an adventure at the same time… what a concept!
How odd that I have reached this point in this report and have not mentioned the family in the Lower Ninth Ward whose home we sheetrocked and made ready for occupancy. Julian, the homeowner, had been cheated by three different contractors, thereby losing most of his insurance settlement. He used the remaining funds to purchase tools and took on the reconstruction himself. When we met him he was on the ‘heartbreak hill” of a construction project, and needed a good “tail wind”. Our efforts were person-to-person, but started to become political when we saw all the vacant houses in his neighborhood. Our work on his home was an example.
Our small and revolving team, with the exception of one member’s son, were in their mid fifties to mid sixties. Most of the time we just felt good that we could still do hard physical work — a young feeling that was challenged by our reflection in the mirror when shaving. Most of us had extensive home repair and building experience and some were actual professionals. The only way one could tell the difference was in the decision making speed and the rate at which the rooms took shape. We deferred to the idea, not the person, with leadership changing with different team mixes.
Julian and I had a great understanding. We made sure to agree on the tasks to be accomplished and the way to do something. Yet, if, after the agreement, we each thought it was better to do it another way, that’s how it was done and nothing was said.
He was a preacher and had designated one room as the saints-Saints room for his prayer meetings and watching the New Orleans Saints. We agreed to work on the room for the first saints, but being Patriots fans, not for the second Saints. Near the end of the week bought him a plant to keep in that room and think of us when he was watching the game, knowing there were Patriots fans present.
I like working alone and so took on the task of taping the drywall seams. Many people don’t like taping and favor more dramatic and less repetitive building. I agree, but still enjoyed working out the techniques and growing precision.
The day ran from 6:30 AM standing in front of the coffee shop hoping it would open on time. We wrapped up about 3:00 PM. This timetable avoided the heat that became stronger as the day went on. Most of the team stayed in common lodging at a local church but I opted for a bed a breakfast, just because my sleep patterns are so irregular and I am not in love with communal sleeping anyway.
The local bars were still open at 6:30 AM when we were across the street getting coffee. Unlike the Cambridge bars where conversation is focused and “smart”["not that there is anything wrong with that"], New Orleans’ bars are community affairs where people begin conversations with you and are welcoming. They are deeply appreciated the volunteers in an open an honest manner.
Finally there was John Page our trip leader. He was the host who knew how to find inexpensive lodging, building supplies and good restaurants. [Thank you John!] His larger contribution was to transform the concrete building work we did into a political statement through continuous networking – in a modest almost self-effacing way he made our work and hence accomplishments known, thereby creating respect for Bridge To Biloxi. John transformed the nail in the board, to bonding with the home’s owners, to the more abstract perception of our organization’s capability in support of a general reconstruction. John helped me bridge the distance between my need to see results from my work, to knowing that it had created potential energy that someday would be turned into a different and larger political result.
Oh and by the way, our family’s conversation has changed a bit. My son will be coming down with me early in December when we have planned a return trip.