Within twenty four hours of landing, I have already eaten an alligator po'boy, drank an Abita Lite out of a paper bag, had a to-go hurricane while walking through the French Quarter, and seen a kick-ass zydeco band on Bourbon Street.
Actually, all of that was within the first handful of hours.
And then, before nine o'clock this morning, I was balanced on scaffolding putting up siding on a house.
On this trip, there's no waiting around.
We arrived on-site by 8am this morning for "orientation," which last approximately fifteen minutes, and then were divided into two groups: those afraid of heights, and those not afraid of heights. I, apparently, am not afraid of heights.
Twenty minutes later, I was balancing siding with two other team members as we gauged the appropriate spot and measured to make sure everything fit flush. The houses we are building are meant to withstand 135-140 mph winds, and to wick heavy rain water away. They're built on pilings the height of telephone poles driven into the shifty sand. Should another Katrina blow through uninvited, these houses will stand.
But there's a certain degree uncertainty involved with building a house, especially when you've never built one before, and, in my opinion, a very high level of trust from our site coordinators. As I beat nails into the side of the house, caulked the edges, and made sure everything was level, I couldn't help but wonder where I'd suddenly acquired these skills. I suppose if you stick anyone fifteen feet up in the air, hand them boards and point to the appropriate places, things will get done eventually.
And this job site is no place for doubt or uncertainty. Measure twice, yes, but don't stand around wondering if you're capable. Just do it.
Our site coordinators are watching us like hawks, knowing when we're apt to make a mistake. It's not that they're waiting for us to mess up, it's that they deal with hundreds of volunteers coming through each week, most of them as inexperienced and hopeful as we, and they know precisely the areas in which we'll falter.
For the most part, however, they're not asking us to do anything we're incapable of doing. It's not as if they are going to point out a misplaced nail and cry, "YOU! YOU THERE! CEASE IMMEDIATELY! YOU HAVE RUINED THE HOUSE! YOU HAVE RUINED EVERYTHING! PEOPLE WILL DIE BECAUSE YOU FAILED TO MEASURE CORRECTLY AND MISSED THE STUD BY 1/16ths OF AN INCH!"
Still- there is something, a fear, a phobia, an area of extreme difficulty and insecurity for me, that I have had to confront on this trip.
Building a house is nothing more than placing the right things in the right areas according to minute mathematical logistics. Everything is measured in 16ths of an inch. 1/16th too far, and the board of siding won't fit. 1/16th too short, and water can leak in. It has to be done right. A board placed just a tiny bit too far to one side creates a negative balance that only increases. Where a problem begins as a quarter of an inch, it soon becomes six inches off. It adds up.
We aren't in the Ninth Ward, but in a similarly distressed area just west of downtown. The levees held in our area but many of the houses were damaged or destroyed due to the high winds on top of what is termed "generational neglect." The brightly-painted Habitat houses stand out against the rows of abandoned houses in the neighborhood like Easter eggs; bright little spots of hope where progress is being made.
And I could see progress by the end of the day, which is something that surprised me, and although I broke out in a major case of hives from the insulation (and got a stupid sunburn on the back of my neck despite the fact that I swore I put sunblock on this morning), I'm tired and achey in all the right places. With this program, however, there's never a dull moment. I'm blogging in the few snippets of time I have between showering and a group dinner and discussion, and then (because my group is, fortunately, a party group) there are bars to be hit and beers to be drank in celebration of our first day.