New Orleans over the Mississippi

It’s spring break 2010 and I’m cruising around New Orleans in a big white van full of friends.

“And I think that was our turn that we just passed…” I yell as we whiz by a modest looking side street.

This isn’t just any spring break trip. We may hit up Bourbon Street at night or catch some jazz in the French Quarter, but, during the day, we are doing what we can to help the community of New Orleans. As we turn the van around, we get to the side street and continue on our route to our destination for the day, a food kitchen.

Our road abruptly ends as we face the Mississippi river.

I stare at the directions in front of me. They say you will see the ferry straight ahead. Then the next line says to take a right. I look over my right shoulder at the grassy riverbank. Hmm…

“So I guess we are supposed to take the ferry…”

After some quick Google mapping, we sort out the ambiguous directions and get into the line of cars for the ferry.

Greg, our driver and trip leader raises his hands in consternation.

“Well this certainly is an interesting route.”

We are about halfway through our week-long trip. We’ve come down here as a group of graduate students and young Humanists. Humanists are basically people that think it is possible to create an ethical life without any beliefs in the supernatural. As the name implies, most of us generally care about other humans, and hence, the service trip made a lot of sense. Our group of eight brought together people of very different backgrounds and cultures and we all had very different expectations for the trip.

Sarah, who basically organized the whole trip, decides to make sure we are actually going the right way before we cross the river Oregon Trail style. As she is on the phone, the ferry appears in the distance. Watching the boat lazily drift towards us, I’m distracted by Sarah’s conversation.

“Oh…I’m so sorry to hear that. They never told us.” She has the ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ look on her face.

The ferry has docked and the cars all start their engines.

She covers the receiver and leans forward to Greg, “DO NOT GET ON THE FERRY!”

Twenty minutes later we are sitting in a coffee shop. The leader of the food shelter had to cancel because of a family emergency and had told the center in the morning, but the information had never reached us. Now we had nothing to do for the day. Greg and Sarah are on the phone calling our center to demand an explanation and see what else we could do. Some are complaining about the lack of organization and the waste of time while others are enjoying a nice iced coffee. Finally, I’m struck by an idea. James (fellow volunteer) and I had spent a day working on the house of an older woman, Miss Gwen. (Miss Gwen, Miss Kathy, Mister Tony; I love the titles in names that show respect to your elders. I’d missed it since leaving South Africa, and rediscovered it in New Orleans.) Unfortunately, we had not been able to complete many of the projects we had started at the house. There was more than enough work for all eight of us to do, so James and I suggested we go help out at Miss Gwen’s.

We spent the afternoon and our last day of volunteering working at Miss Gwen’s. Five years ago, the flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina had filled her house up to ten feet high with water. She had to move to Chicago to stay with family. After the floods, she had tried to restore her house but had been the victim of contractor fraud. Then as she built up the will to come back and finish things off herself, she became ill and had to have transplant surgery. After that she got cancer. Now, she had even beaten that off and was finally back to be in her home. We fill in holes in the walls, install appliances, clean out the yard, install molding, and paint. We talk to Miss Gwen and soak up her serenity and wisdom. The first time someone read to her was at the age of 40. She was completely illiterate but decided she should get herself an education. At the age of 52 she started with the basics and went from grammar school to a masters degree in social work in a little over a decade. She has always been involved in the community and set out to help motivate young black women and empower them to fulfill their potential. She has taken a lot of hard knocks and has faced many frustrations, but she is still standing and still fighting to not only live her own life with dignity, but to enable others to do so too.

Greg and I cut some molding down to size
Installing a fan at Miss Gwen's

New Orleans is a Jazz city.”

Quo Vadis is a commanding black woman. She runs the volunteer program that we have come to help with. She, along with the assistance of two AmeriCorps volunteers, Maggie and Dakota, help farm out eager volunteers to local community projects with a need for hands. But New Orleans faces a glut of volunteers and sometimes it means you end up spending a day filling holes in the ground. In the evening after the ferry incident, Quo Vadis is facing a lot of questions about how such a miscommunication could have happened.

This city runs on Jazz time. It’s not going to follow your schedule. Sometimes, it’s best to improvise.”

The volunteers with Miss Gwen

For me, the time we spent with Miss Gwen was potent, not only in and of itself, but because it helped put the rest of the week and all its surprises and frustrations into perspective. You often don’t get what you expect. New Orleans has been dealt a bad hand lately, but despite it, the city keeps going. The Quo Vadises and Miss Gwens are our interpreters, letting us join with them in some little way as they carry the meandering tune that is New Orleans.