Trip Start Feb 10, 2009
Trip End Aug 19, 2009

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First Street Peck Wesley Chruch

Flag of United States  , Louisiana
Monday, April 27, 2009

    The story of New Orleans starts even before I got there. Our tale begins in sun-drenched, barbecued-beef filled Austin, Texas where I was finishing up crashing on the couch of a student co-op and looking for rides to New Orleans. I put a post on Craigslist - as had been fruitful numerous times past - and received precisely no replies. I did, however, contact someone else who was looking for a ride to New Orleans so we could team up. Turns out she got four offers for rides (not that gender ever affects how likely strangers are to offer you things...) and after the first three rides flaked on us at the last minute the fourth pulled through and we climbed into the car of _____, an epic computer technician out of Houston whose name I have utterly forgotten. He was a nice guy, mid-forties by my estimate and having nothing if not a wandering spirit and good intentions, but his car was a bit of an old junker and had all the back seats removed. This meant that Meredith and I had to switch off who got to sit on the floor of the back of the car amidst all of our intrepid driver's assorted less-than-fresh smelling computer supplies and various flotsam. This would not have been so bad if it were not for the fact that it was storming ungodly torrents of rain and the nice, calm weatherman was telling us that drivers were encouraged to wait through the storm and only drive if necessary and urgent. Oh, and he was blasting hair-metal and chain smoking and pounding energy drinks the whole ride. All in all, it made for quite the harrowing - but quite entertaining and exciting - ride: him telling us stories of building motorcycles out of scrap motors in his back yard while growing up and using a string looped around the handlebars as a throttle; all of us taking a break at an incredibly Texan barbecue meat pit for lunch to wait out the worst of the storm; and him telling the story of how he ended up doing some work for a mafioso - fixing a computer with some "business records that he should do his best to not to look at", chatting with the man after finishing the job in his stunningly ornate house, hearing the doors busted in and finding himself staring at the patent leather boots of an FBI agent brandishing an automatic weapon, somehow managing to convince the FBI he had nothing to do with what they were after and that the data-recovery hard drive he was carrying out had nothing to do with the computers they were confiscating, telephoning his client after a few months (and a served sentence) to inform him of the still-unviewed but most likely relevant contents of a certain external hard drive, a sudden over-the-phone realization of the true meaning of the phrase "deafening silence", and finally a rather extravagant dinner at an Italian restaurant complete with a traditional gift exchange - in this case a ratty old hard drive for a top-of-the-line sparkling new one. Our driver had nearly as many good stories as he had energy drinks and, needless to say, he was quite animated in telling them.
    Eventually we get to New Orleans. I, being the skilled traveller that I am, had no place to stay that night and no friends in town. Thankfully some friends of Meredith's that we met up with offered to let me crash at their place for a few nights. Thus did I sleep on a torn up leather couch propped up on two empty kegs in a room festooned with graffitti thicker than wallpaper. I avoided using the bathroom for fear of leaving it less hygenic than when I entered, and we never did quite figure out what that black jello-like stuff growing on the pile of dishes in the "wash" side of the sink was. But nonetheless, it was a place to crash. I soon remembered an old friend who had cashed in on the subprime lending bonanza to get a loan she totally didn't deserve and buy herself a duplex in the Marigny, the up-and-coming cool part of New Orleans. After crashing at her makeshift co-op for a few nights I found myself a volunteer position with United Saints over in mid-city New Orleans working out of the United Methodist First Street Peck Wesley Church.
    Volunteering there was a great, and interesting, experience. It was incredibly eye-opening to meet the people whose houses and lives got destroyed both by the hurricane and by violence and city neglect and abuse afterwards. Talking to the people as we worked on their houses, smelling the ever-lingering mold and decomposition burried in the corners of some of these houses, not understanding if all of the seventeen people regularly coming in and out of Ms. Moten's house actually lived there or not (we suspected they all did in some fashion), and ofcourse, having Ms. Williams interrupt our work on her house every few hours to irrefusably offer us more of her homemade fried chicken and red beans and rice. (Absolutely delicious, ofcourse. It is curious though how nearly everyone down there drinks almost exclusively bottled water. Not five-gallon jugs of water, but endless little plastic bottles of mass-produced water.)
    A good chunk of the experience was meeting the other volunteers. There was Sean, my eternally jovially chipper Scottish roommate, who had been a lorry driver (noun, s. chiefly British - truck driver) for the past six years working six to seven days a week and not bothering to have a home to pay rent on and who had just been let go and decided to take his metric crapload of saved-up cash and for a jaunt 'round America. There was also Big John, an eternally shirtless 6'11" behemoth of a man who was constantly smoking pot, doing a master cleanse (10 day juice-only fast), or sun-gazing (getting his nutrition and energy by staring at the sun in place of eating). He had lots of problems with the government and would eagerly share them while talking of his days in the Bay Area thirty years past. Then there was the incredibly quirky Americorps team with us which seemed to be made up nearly entirely of people custom selected to be of different and incompatible personality types (eg. the party girl Minnesotan and the insipid and clueless militant vegan).
    Then there was the Rev. He was the reverend of the church we were based out of and he was quite a character. A smooth, calm talking early thirties guy whom even his family called "Rev". Since he was so gracious in facilitating the volunteer group's use of his church space as a headquarters we decided to help him out with a day's labor to clear overgrowth from his home that was destroyed in the hurricane so that he could begin rebuilding it. Me and a dred-locked black Honduran named Cuzzo headed out to do the work. After chatting with the Rev while working all day he told us that we were in for a treat - he was going to take us to his momma's house for dinner.
    We set the scene: 40 miles outside of New Orleans in an all black community (and we're talking solidly deep-southern cultural black community here) in Slidell, ten or so people sitting around the yard drinking Bud Lites, pickup truck pulled up the curb blasting 80s funk and soul, and a couple "yungstas" across the street dancing and dealing crack to eachother. Up pulls our van. A drunkenly pointed finger indicates us from the recesses of a lawn chair: "Hey! We got ourselves a white one!"
    Welcome to momma's house.
    We walk in and momma proceeds to say hello, aks (yes, we're in the South. People aks eachother how they're doing.) us how we're doing, and aks us if we've eaten. No? Well here, I've made some corn bread, some rice, and chicken and gravy eat up. What kind of portion is that? Take some more, honey. Come on sugar, you can have more than that. (Stomach on verge of exploding. Intestines preparing to give birth to a full-size elephant some time in the near future.) Have you ever had boiled crawfish? No?! Well damn, honey! Let me go fix you some right now. (10 minutes.) Here you go, sugar. Go ahead and polish off this massively mountainous pile of crawfish as your fifth course in this overly hearty and comfort food filling meal. [This last line modified to indicate quantity of food served. Actual connotation remains entirely factual.]
    I will say that that food was some of the tastiest, most hearty fixins I have ever placed in my belly, but I would be lying if I didn't say that they sat there like a sack of bricks in my digestive tract impeding any sort of functional activity for the rest of the night. So I mainly played the role of an observer in the rest of the evening at the Rev's momma's place: trying not to watch the TV that was constantly blaring in the corner of the living room while everyone ignored it and talked away, trying not to guess whether the average weight in the room was closer to 200 or 300 pounds, trying not to laugh as an utterly utterly drunken and innebriated woman clumsily tried to flirt with (paw at) Cuzzo, not knowing how or whether to chime in as momma and gramma and friend sat on the glassed in (and tinted glass, at that) front porch commenting on all the party goers outside - "Hooowee, the Johnson boy has picked himself up a fine gal tonight!", "When did that Kensey girl start dealing sugar? Some one ought to tell sugar momma to stay away from that rock.", "Ooh, look at him dance! That's a cute one right there, that is." And apparently this was not a special event. This was a Friday, so things were slightly more festive than normal, but apparently this was a daily occurence at momma's house - same number of people and intoxication all afternoon and night every day of the week, just different levels of roudiness. I've got to say, the deep South just seems to have a bit more culture than us coastal city folk at times...
    There was one part of volunteering with the United Saints that opened my eyes in an entirely different way. While the group is an entirely donations based charity organization, there are some ways to pull in cash. One of them is having volunteers work concession stands at the New Orleans arena during events. So, I volunteered to be one of the volunteers to work a basketball game selling hot dogs and beers and such at the stand. I never knew how intense the infrastructural capitalism working behind the scenes of sporting events was before working this game. Two hours before the game an army of service workers shows up to the garage entrance about two hundred strong and dons assorted pre-washed and differentiated uniforms - certain shirts for the diner themed concession stand, certain shirts for the peanut vendors, certain hats for the classier snacks vendor, etc. All stands naturally selling the exact same items at the exact same prices and all run by the arena itself. We get into our assigned stand, #109, and immediately set to work steam heating pre-packaged nacho cheese and bean dip and hot dogs and all manner of over-salted plastic-bagged "foods". I then spend the better part of the next three and a half hours with no more than a ten minute break intensly taking orders at the register and serving patrons all manner of carbonated and high-fructose corn syrupped crap. It would not have been so bad if I hadn't had the realization that if had been a normal worker there (the majority of stand workers were paid temps) I would be nearly every minute of the whole game selling, handling money, and serving beers costing more than I would make each hour. Federal Minimum Wage (since Louisiana is one of only five states with no minimum wage law) = $6.55; one "large" Miller Lite = $9. It was pretty sickening wearing the uniform, steam heating the processed crap, charging way to much money for it all, and then walking the back infrastructural hallways to exit the building so as not to mingle with the normal public-use walkways. Hooray for capitalism equitably offering even the lower classes the chance to burn themselves out on overly exhaustive and mentally atrophying labor in order to earn less than every person they serve with a smile.
    And, at the risk of writing for far too long about a mere two week experience, I'll quickly recall some of the high points of Southern urban culture. Namely, breaking in to Jazz Fest. Jazz Fest is this huge 4-day concert event every year in New Orleans featuring everyone from Doctor John to Bon Jovi. Not wanting to spend sixty dollars to enter an over-attended festival I decided I would take the easy way in, and after biking to the fair grounds I scouted out the fence-line for an easily hoppable section. I had gotten halfway around before I decided to ask a random resident enjoying a beer on his front lawn what the best way to break in would be. He suggested breaking in to the cemetery bordering the festival and hopping in from there since there would be less security on undead trespass prevention duty. So, I follow his directions to the graveyard, reconnoiter it for a bit, and hear from behind me "Hey! You thinking of breaking in to the festival?" The greeting came from a couple of, well, for lack of a better phrasing, a trio of some of the friendliest and most welcoming rednecks I have ever personally encountered sipping beers and selling parking off their front lawn. I sauntered up and started chatting with them: "Yeah, I am trying to break in to the festival. Got any tips?" "Aw yeah, I used to do that all the time until I started working for them and just got myself in free. Here, you want a beer man?" And thus began a few hours of swapping construction stories and travel tales with some well traveled and thoroughly rootsy southern folk while drinkin' beers and smokin' bud. By the time I managed to part ways I was thoroughly feeling the grain and greens in my system and after seeing the security guard on the other side of the cemetery fence decided not to go all Mission Impossible past him in my stuporous state. However, a bit further around the festival I found a nice stretch of fence with an adjacent tree providing easy hopping access and a big trailer screening observation on the other side. So, up I go. "Hey look! That guy's breaking in!". Oh shit. The neighbors across the street are going to blow my cover. "Go for it man! Do it!" So, now with the encouragement of the neighboring masses, over the fence I go. Land on the ground, collect my slightly spinning head, and suavely saunter up to the inside gate where security glares at me, and proceeds to check my bag like everyone else without asking for a ticket. Sweet! Needless to say, festivals are pretty over-intense for my taste in smaller, more intimate music settings, but it's hard to argue with a free afternoon spent watching Southern gospel, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Irvin Mayfield, and the Midnite Disturbers. Good times indeed.
    After a jam packed two weeks my next stop on the trip was a little less obvious. Rewind nine months to Burning Man, middle of the desert, Nevada. It's dust storming so bad you can't see past the tips of your fingers, the rain only serves to help the stinging alkali dust stick to your skin, and it's generally unpleasant to be outside. Standard procedure is to duck in to the nearest tent, no matter whose it may be, and spend some quality time riding out the storm getting to know them. So there I am in Camp 11:11, chatting with a 65-year-old ex-Berkeley physics professor wearing nothing but a gold cape and assorted other folks, including some girl named Laurel. Over the course of four or five hours of storm based captivity her and I chat a fair amount, make some preposterous plans to go farm in Argentina over the winter, exchange emails, and never see eachother again. Somehow we did manage to swap occasional emails over the course of the year telling stories of travels and such, so when I told her I was traveling around the country and was heading by the southeast she insisted I swing by Sarasota, Florida and come visit for a bit. Thus, with no expectations (or clues what to expect) do I head down to the western Florida coast to spend a few days in the liberal arts bubble that is New College.
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