Blanche Dubois couldn’t have summed it up any better: “I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers”. That’s what I experienced this week, from not knowing my wonderful team members, to: Mo, our taxi driver who drove us to and from the site everyday, and took us through the Lower 9th Ward to see the notorious levee on the Industrial canal, now skirted by empty lots and ruins of foundations; Angelamia Bachemin, creator of the Jazz Hip Hop Orchestra and her sweetie, vocalist GinGin, who took Juliana and me on an extensive tour of their city, and brought us to Tomi, owner of the Juju Bag, who honored us by describing every special memory represented in her Juju Bag Cafe; Ben, our ever patient Habitat leader, teacher, and motivator; our other team members from NY: Chris , Christina, Michele and Catherine, there on their own on break from college; Stuart, who skipped out on his convention to come to work with us; Troy, with his brand new kidney, Rhonda, and Trina, locals who work on the weekend in the 9th Ward; Paul Scali our drummer and homeowner, who worked alongside us donning his straw hat; Trish, Barry, and Laverne, the kitchen staff at the French Quarter Chateau LeMoyne on Rue Dauphine: Trish brought her bench-sized cooler in on her day off so our picnic lunches would stay edible in the heat, Laverne who made us the home cooked breakfasts, Barry who got us coffee and gave me a hug on the last morning when I was so sad to be leaving; and all the unknown and silent partners who help in the huge rebuilding process. The resurrection of New Orleans is not just physical but also spiritual. To listen to the stories of destruction, survival, and perseverance begins to awaken spaces in your heart that you forget were there.
Musically, the week was more educational than I ever imagined it would be. Everywhere is music, the air sings an Ivesian juxtaposition of a multitude of styles. The city has a soundtrack all its own. From the morning big band classics at breakfast, to the eccentric Nola radio stations that kept us “jukin'” at work, we were serenaded by music. The Zydeco band at Mulate’s had accordion, fiddle, bass, and drums, and reminded me of the band in the old black & white Andy Griffith show. With their female bass player dressed in casual conservative slacks to the genderless drummer, they appeared completely disconnected. Yet in the back where we sat, the music came together as a wonderful joyous ensemble, letting the good times roll. The jazz trio at the Crescent City Brewery was so clean and sophisticated, was it live or Memorex? The quintet at the bar on the corner of St. Peter and Bourbon, near Preservation Hall, had a hot New Orleans bop style reminiscent of Satchmo, with the suited trumpeter/vocalist, sax sideman, female stilettoed pianist, solid bass, and Buddha-esque drummer planted firmly on his drum stool. The surreal vocals of Micaela accompanied by her smooth Brazilian guitarist at the Juju Bag, GinGin occasionally harmonizing; drumming with Angie, GinGin, and Juliana, Angie’s lilting voice rising over the beat. Our musical tour culminated at Margaritaville watching Paul playing with the legends: the 76 year old bass player, the hopped up singer, and the Motown legend on guitar, stoically playing solos behind his back. He gave new meaning to playing “off the top of your head.”
The food! Where to begin? We had many excellent meals, beginning with lunch at Oceana, and dinner at the Acme Oyster House on Monday. Tuesday we walked over to one of Gile’s favorites, Mulate’s across from the Convention Center, where Linda swears she had the best pork chop she’s ever had! I had the Mulate’s crab-stuffed catfish with the twice-stuffed baked potato (stuffed with sausage and cheese). Wednesday, we returned to one of Linda’s favorites, the Crescent City Brew Pub, to try the BBQ ribs, so tender and meaty. Janelle found the 50 year old Gumbo Shop for Thursday night, which has a well earned reputation for tourists and locals. The Gumbo Shop’s crawfish remoulade salad was a perfect cool dinner after a hot day of working in the sun. Friday was the Juju Bag Café with Angelamia & GinGin, sitting on the patio, listening to Micaela, and watching the Ibis fly overhead from the lake to the river. Tomi’s fresh fried catfish with her sides of potato salad, mashed sweet potatoes, mac & cheese, and peas was lite and delicious! We finished our culinary tour on Saturday night with a feast at the Red Fish Grill, with their succulent blackened catfish. We tasted fresh oysters at Acme and Red Fish Grill’s signature barbequed oysters with a hint of blue cheese and cayenne sauce. How many ways can you eat catfish? And the Cajun delights abound: jambalaya, gumbo etouffee, red beans & rice, crawfish remoulade. No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stop at Café Du Monde for coffee and beignets, where powdered sugar is all around. Thanks to Noah’s fondness for desserts and his spirit of sharing, we tasted many delicious sweet things. The prize winner was Mulate’s bread pudding, the recipe can be found in Alton Brown’s “Feasting on Asphalt” which is sold on the premises!
Philosophy lessons learned: teamwork relinquishes ownership. It took a year to build Paul’s house through Habitat for Humanity. Every week, every day, a different team does their best to quickly learn new skills or share knowledge in order to build a home. We work together, literally building upon the recent past. We do our best effort to push beyond the barriers to create something larger than ourselves. Through the kindness of strangers, the Upper Ninth Ward Musician’s Village has one more finished home and one happy drummer!