Saturday, May 03, 2008

Baby steps into Bywater

With much preview notice and little actual information, today was my first scheduled day to do something with Habitat for Humanity here in New Orleans. Jimmy Carter's coming in a week for the start of one of those marquee events when everyone wields at the very least a hammer, if not tremendous self-satisfaction. But for me? Work in an out of the way warehouse, teamed with two other out-of-towners, a three-legged-dog and a single employee that wanted nothing more than to shut up shop and head to JazzFest ("Steel Pulse plays at 3, and I'm so out of here before then.") Not to mention that a true thunderstorm front bore down on the City starting around an hour before our designated "start time" for "work". I'd planned to walk there. I decided to take a cab to expand my carbon footprint while avoiding an accidental drowning. My friendly cabbie asked lots of questions, all with a disbelieving tone seemingly meant to echo a belief that I was either lost or should be questioned further for heading to said address. I finally convinced him that I had the right address, which as it turns out lies in an interesting arty neighborhood known locally as Bywater. Bywater is actually in the Ninth Ward, but it didn't suffer much flooding at all during the post-Katrina period (or "post-K", as I've seen it termed here in the Times-Picayune - a great paper, by the way). The warehouse was a well-organized tangle of stuff torn out and donated by builders to Habitat for Humanity. So well-organized, as a matter of fact, that there was nothing for us to do. Except talk for a while about what it's like to be on the opposite end of the PR spectrum from the Musician's Village, or Bradgelina, or anything dealing with new showcase construction projects. What you have in the ReStore is a place for people to get greatly reduced prices on generally good but somewhat ramshackle items. Some cherries were in the mix - the employee pointed out a brand-new kitchen stove that "some a**hole" donated that was nicer than our own back in Seattle. McMansion upgrade, we mutually surmised. But all snark aside, it was mainly an operation that amazingly facilitates building supplies needed at a cut-rate for those that couldn't otherwise afford a renovation.

There was nothing for me to do. I thought about taking the three legged dog out for a skip around the block. But not even Tripod (not his real name) wanted to venture into the rain. One couple eventually came and walked around the aisles of windows, screens, doors, cabinets, tiles and random crap. They thanked us and left. Pretty soon I ran for coffee and a cinamon roll on a drive-by recommendation from my cabbie for a great neighborhood bakery at the corner of Spain and Chartres Streets. The crowd in the cafe was decidedly arty. And conversant. White. But, hell, even Jeremiah Wright would have felt at home given the energy in the room. I read some of the local paper. Including the Saturday Real Estate section that features an absolutely astonishing extended listing of transactions they call "Transfers". Broken down by Districts of the City and bordering Parishes, you can see how many homes were bought by whom and for how much. It wouldn't have caught my eye were it not for the prices. $50K was about the norm. A few over $100K. Many around $30K. For homes in a metropolitan area. I don't know enough about it (yet) to judge. But there's a story there that I'd not heard of previously. An exodus. And not a happy or chosen one by hundreds of families, just this week alone.

After a healthy linger, I took my cinamon roll and walked back through the French Quarter toward our hotel in the Warehouse District. I didn't return to ReStore, which is just as well. I was an out-of-towner looking to cleanse my soul in some way. And that doesn't fly when there's JazzFest to get to. Even I can understand that aspect of the local mentality. As I approached the French Quarter, tourists decked out in garbage bag-quality rain slickers festooned with French Quarter street signs began to appear with alarming regularity. I can only imagine how many of those plastic sheets will end up in Louisiana's landfills now that the late afternoon has turned sunny and the forecast is for a number of consecutive days of summery weather. On a different note, I've decided to rent a car one day and drive out to the neighborhoods I know I need to see. Then I've got another Habitat for Humanity volunteer day on Wednesday. JazzFest ends tomorrow, which I hope to attend. Please check back for more observations. Or don't. No worries.

Hope your own days brighten as considerably as the afternoon here has today. Rock on.

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