usernamenumber: (marquis-de-me)
Instead of trying to write out detailed acounts of the last few days I'm going to finish my New Orleans journal by piecing together, in no particual order, all of the thoughts and vignettes that have crossed my mind lately. This trip has been such an experience. We worked hard in St Bernard and we played hard in the city. I really grew to know and like the Hatters on my team plus some new friends we picked up along the way.

Cut for lots of text and pictures )
usernamenumber: (kitsch)
So, umm.. wow. Someone who'd gone to NOLA in the previous group said it was "surreal", but I don't think this is what he had in mind.

See, we don't have 'net access at the camp, right? Now, the thing is, the geeks, they needs the net access. So after work today we headed downtown for dinner and email. We found a good place for dinner and afterward the first order of business was to find a place where we could use the net. Now, one of our number said that last night as he was wandering around bourbon street he'd noticed a bar with free net access. The idea of 'net and booze at the same place being of no small appeal to most of us, off we went.

We walked down bourbon street for a while and were just about to give up when we found it: a little place called "Napoleon's Itch", with a big sign in the window advertising free wifi. Entering the door, directly to one's right is the bar. A young fellow who wasn't the bartender smiled and gestured for us to head in that direction, which seemed odd, but hey, New Orleans is a friendly city, right? Anyway, directly in front of you is a large flat TV playing... Law and Order. But what really caught our attention was what lay to the our left. Biiiiig comfy looking couches and chairs, power outlets and pumping techno music. Rock on.

So in we headed, sat down, and then noticed the two other huge, flat screen TVs hanging on the walls, which were playing... gay porn.

The whole group takes an enormous double take, notices the couple sitting on the couch across from us ermm... watching tv and then, almost as one, shrugs, sits down and plugs in because, damn it, we need our email.

Classic.

So here I am sitting in a gay bar on Bourbon street with three other Hatters clustered around a table each typing away at their "guess where I'm blogging from?!?!" posts while, just to my right, well sculpted men undress on giant flatscreens. The award for best moment of the evening goes to the time when the soundtrack for the video switched to "son of a preacher man", to which we all sang along. While sitting around a table in a gay bar. Blogging.

Have I mentioned that I freaking love my job?

Oh, and then my dad called. That was... interesting. I tried to be as vague as possible and keep a straight face while a certain Red Hat higher-up, who shall remain nameless, started doing what can only be described as an obscene mime routine across the table from me. I finally ended up explaining the whole thing because he actually asked where on Bourbon street we were. His reaction:

"...ok."

And then proceeding to explain that the reason he'd asked (lest I think he was prying into my gay-bar-frequenting habits) was that I have a relative who lives on Bourbon street. Yup. That's me dad.

So yeah. I was going to write an update about how work was going and I promise I still will, but I hope you can understand how the immediate surreality of this demanded that it be recorded. In the meantime you can read the blogs of some of my co-workers at:

http://iwillbeeatenbyanalligator.blogspot.com/

and

http://redvoodoo.org

Also, there are pics here:

http://people.redhat.com/pgraner/katrina_relief/

For more information about the bar that inspired this post, visit

http://www.napoleonsitch.com/ (the more worldy of my flisters can quick snickering at our collective naivette now)

Ok. That is so all for now. Gotta check my email. No, really.
=== Written Sunday, June 11th ===

I've lost count of the number of lucid, insightful commentaries I've composed in my head while traveling but then never gotten around to writing down. I think my life (or at least what goes on in my head) is significantly more interesting than what actually makes it to this journal, but then everybody probably thinks that (and everyone is hopefully right).

Anyway, since this coming week is going to be relatively eventful, as well as for other reasons I'll elaborate on momentarily, I'm going to take some time to write about things now. I'm at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Two questions: Why am I in NOLA and why am I hanging out at the airport after ariving at my destination? I'm in New Orleans because some months ago Red Hat asked for volunteers to come down here and spend a week doing debris removal with Habitat for Humanity. Actually this is the second group from Red Hat to go. By the time I found out about the first group I was too late, so when they announced this one I jumped on it. I figured I'd been giving lip-service to charity for too long and it was time I actually did something. Granted getting flown to New Orleans, housed and fed for a week isn't exactly feeding starving children, but it's a start. Preparing for the trip has been... humbling. I've never felt like such a bourgeous twit as when, upon being told that it would be too hot and humid for jeans so I should get work pants instead, I had to ask "Umm, what are these 'work pants' of which you speak and where might one purchase such?" After a trip to dickies.com (hey, it's what they recommended. apparently actual working people wear these, not just suburban punkers) and another trip to copshoes.com, the only store on the net that has the steel-toe, steel shank boots that H4H requires in my size, the charity work was beginning to get expensive. I realized that I owned pretty much nothing suited for manual labor, at least not in an environment like what we're going to be in this week.

The sysadmin for our Boston office, along with several other Boston Hatters, was in the first group and he says that the place is surreal. Even after all this time there are whole neighborhoods abandoned and rotting. I haven't seen anything first-hand yet, but I'm going to spend the next week living in a FEMA tent city in the middle of it. Intense. My colleague, Robin Norwood, will also be blogging about it here:

http://iwillbeeatenbyanalligator.blogspot.com/

...speaking of which, nobody said anything about alligators. Yeesh.

So anyway, that's the answer to question #1, but why am I sitting here in PJ's Airport Coffee Shop instead of heading out to the camp with my co-workers? Well, see, it's like this: I detest checking baggage. I have lugging around a huge suitcase, I hate waiting at the baggage carousel and I hatehatehate the constant fear that my luggage is going to get lost or damaged (both of which have happened in separate incidents previously). Thus, I've gotten packing everything I need into carry-on luggage only down to an art. But this time I needed to bring extra stuff like a sleeping bag, bedroll, and such so I figured "what the heck", and put everything into our ginormous red suitcase (the one the airline gave us when our previous suitcase came off the plane with a huge gash cut through the back).

Well, sure enough, I got to the baggage carousel and waited. And waited. And waited. My flight arrived a good three hours after most of the other Hatters had arrived, so everyone was waiting on me. We ended up agreeing that they would go ahead and I'd catch a cab once I'd gotten the luggage sorted out. See, normally you give the airline an address and they deliver your luggage as soon as it arrives, but the camp I'm at is literally a tent city in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood in St. Bernard parish. It has no address. So my options were to either go ahead and hope that I or someone at the camp could get a driver out to the camp.. if I even had cell reception there, or to wait for subsequent flights to come in and hope that my bag is on one of them. The next flight arrives in about 10 minutes and there are a few more coming in between now and 4 this afternoon. Here's hoping.

And, of course, all my work clothes, bedding and my bedroll are all in the suitcase. I don't know if they'll be allowed to let me help tomorrow if I don't at least have pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Sigh.

Oh well. As long as I get the bag today I'll be fine. Truth be told I really like a good layover. Airports are great places to work because you can usually find a power outlet if you know where to look and, though there is endless activity and no shortage of opportunities for people-watching, you are more-or-less guaranteed that no one cares about you in particular. No one is ever going to need you to answer a question, handle a project, go to dinner with them or whatever else. You are completely anonymous and un-demanded of. It's like a vacation.

And so here I sit. I've got some Jason Webley bootlegs on and I'm checking out the airport. I bought some disposable cameras for the trip and have already used a few exposures on the airport. There is this enormous mural of Louis Armstrong playing his trumpet surrounded by angels while watching over a gathering of all the other Jazz greats. Then, on the other side of the hall, is a sculpture of Icarus suspended over the escalators. With Webley on the headphones, I took this as a sign that my winged friend wanted his picture taken, so I did.

My biggest complaint about the place at the moment is that New Orleans' airport is _not_ veggie-friendly. My choices food-wise are basically coffee-shop pastries (if I have any more sugar today I'm going to vibrate into pieces) and hush puppies (while I am sometimes in the mood for deep-fried cornbread, this is not such a time). Lucky for me I always carry a couple of bags of trail mix with me for just such an occasion. =:)

Ok, well, the next flight has arrived, so I'm off. Here's hoping my bag is there waiting. They say we'll have net access at the camp so I'll update when I get to actually post this.

*later*

...well, it wasn't on that flight. Since the next flight is, contrary to what I'd thought, not coming in until 5 and camp registration ends at six I'm just going to take a cab into the camp and hope my luggage gets here by tomorrow. The airline rep theorizes that my bag just didn't have time to make it from flight to flight during my connection through Dallas. Personally, I'm really worried because there was about an hour between flights, which I would assume to be enough time. The alternative explanation is that my luggage arrived correctly but someone else took it. I'd neglected to put a nametag on the suitcase, which I'm kicking myself for now. Ugh.

A quick side-note about New Orleans bathrooms. I have now been in three of them so far. In one I found a not-quite-finished bottle of Bacardi Gold behind the toilet. In two of them I found needle disposal stations (as in wall-mounted, plastic containers for safely storing used needles). They were each about half-full. I've tried to think of legitimate medical explanations for this but am drawing a blank. The alternatives are... yeesh. I mean, I'm glad people have a place to dispose of needles, but they both looked to be in active use! If anybody knows what these things are really for, please set my mind at ease.

*still later*

I always enjoy chatting with cabbies when I travel. The guy who took me from the airport to our base camp was a younger fellow from Tunisia. We talked about America vs other places he's lived, which was interesting. He's lived in Tunisia, Spain and France and he says that he likes the US best. He says that because of the "melting pot" phenomenon he experiences far less racism here than in, say, France and that our economy benefits from a relative lack of corruption when compared tosome of the Arab states. He says that in America people basically mind their own business and are willing to let you do what you're going to do to succeed on your own merits. It was an interesting perspective not laden with the cynicism one tends to get from people (such as myself) who have only lived here. He also defended the NSA wiretapping program, saying something like "Well, this is a thing with two faces. If you call your girlfriend and you talk about how you fuck her they don't care. It only matters if you call your friend and say 'hey, so how is the bomb coming?'. They need to control the communication to protect us. I call my mother and my girlfriend so I don't care". It was strange; he was pretty much reciting Bush party lines and yet, though I still don't agree with him, he was harder to dismiss than most who do that because I know that he's lived under the alternatives. I wasn't moved to be more tolerant of the current administration's errors and exesses so much as to appreciate what our society does get right.

As we drove through the French Quarter and started to get further and further away from New Orleans proper the landscape began to change. Even within the active portions of the city some flood damage was visible, but the farther away we got the more pronounced it became. At one point, on the side of the highway just on the edge of the French Quarter, we passed the twisted skeleton of some sort of huge metal structure, like a large greenhouse frame. When it fell (or possibly landed) it did so on a wooden shed, slicing it in two. Around the remains a few small boats could be seen in the wreckage.

The further we drove the more damaged houses we saw. FEMA workers had labeled each damaged house with spray paint. The labels consisted of a large X with numbers and letters in each quadrant. They looked like magical wards drawn to keep away looters, or perhaps just to avoid another flood. Some home owners had supplemented the FEMA markings with their own spray-painted messages: "Do not demolish", "Will re-open!" and in one case "No FEMA support! Keep our taxes, New Orleans!".

And then there were the piles of debris. Huge piles of wood, furniture and other house-guts were piled taller than me in front of more and more houses, the doors of which hung open, no glass in the windows, as we passed. I asked the cabbie why the debris hadn't been cleaned up yet. He said "because that's a whole lot of trash" and talked about what a miracle it was that New Orleans has done as much recovery as it has. He talked about how he was at a friend's home when the levies broke. When water filled the first floor they went up to the second. When the water on the second floor was up to their necks they kicked out a window and swam for it. "This is the best city in the country", he said, "maybe even in the world because we were 18 feet under water in some places and we're still here today".

After about 40 minutes of driving we reached the camp. "Camp Hope" is basically a tent city built inside the guts of an abandoned elementary school. The drywall has been stripped clean so all that remains are metal frames that used to be walls and one actual concrete wall with Dr Seauss characters painted on it. In place of the old drywall blue tarps have been hung to create "rooms" in which cots, and in some cases actual tents are set up. A large chunk of the outer wall of our room has been replaced with a collage of mismatched pieces of plywood nailed around an air conditioning unit and the room is lit with two portable florescent lamps that look straight out of a sci-fi movie. Seriously, this place is apocalyptorific.

I arrived in the middle of our orientation. This provided the first explanation of exactly what I would be doing. Each team would be assigned a set of houses. In each house we are to enter, report and turn in any valuables discovered, then basically take it apart. All the furniture goes out, all the drywall comes down and the winow panes removed. All of this is to be dumped on the sidewalk in front of the house. Yes, I'm going to be creating some of those giant debris-piles I'd wondered about on my way in. Along with this there was also a very scary slide about the various types of venomous snakes and spiders that may have moved in. Gulp. We also have special instructions for dealing with refrigerators. They are to be duct-taped tightly closed before any atempt to move them is made. The reason is that we're talking about an airtight container with food inside that has been there since the flood. When opened, according to a volunteer who'd been unfortunate enough to know first hand, it releases "the worst smell you will ever experience", such that "you won't want to eat for days" and "your team may have to just move to another house and abandon the one with the fridge for a day or two".

Tomorrow's going to be interesting.

6pm. No word about my bags. Suckage. And yet all is not lost. The H4H people actually had a large stockpile of donated and recycled clothes and, miracle of miracles, after about 10 minutes of digging I managed to find a pair of pants, a shirt and even a blanket and pillow. Huzzah. Worst-case scenario I guess I can take our rented van and drive out to the local Wal Mart or something. They have laundry facilities so I'll only need one extra day's worth of clothes.

Well, it's been an interesting day. The Hatters are going to dinner now, so methinks I'll join them.

*That last time? This is even later than that*

Dinner consisted of pasta with marinara and "FEMA crackers", which are sort of like a cross between Matza and club crackers in both size and consistency. Sort of like goverment-issued lembas, but without the magical properties. Too bad.

Sooo... ok. Contrary to what I was told, it apears that there's no net access here. This poses a problem as I was really counting on being able to keep in touch during the evenings. Oh well. Since I'm not the only one from our group in this position we've plans afoot to pop out to somewhere that does have net access at least a few times this week. One guy's already using his bluetooth connected Treo as a (33kbps) modem. Technically my phone can do that, to so... Well, if you're reading this, it means that I got things sorted one way or another.



=== Written Monday, June 12th ===
I don't have the energy or time to write about my first day "on the job" right now. Since we don't have net access at the camp we went downtown for food, internet and, in my case, to buy replacement clothes. I'm currently sitting in the corner of a hotel lobby with a raging thunderstorm outside, on the floor behind an oversized potted plant since that's where the only outlet is. Four hours ago I called American's lost luggage hotline and was informed (by a machine) that they still don't have my suitcase. Two hours ago I was called by an actual human who told me that my bag had been at the airport since yesterday.

This is the part where I start damaging things.

Ugh. So with any luck my bag will make it to the camp. If it doesn't I'm going to thrill my co-workers with new heights of stinkiness tomorrow when I re-use the hand-me-downs I wore today.

The short version re: the work is that this has been an extremely humbling experience. I've never worked so physically hard before and there were times when my body just gave out. They call it "unskilled labor", but the people who do this day in and day out (for a hell of a lot less than I get paid) have resources that I just don't have. Newfound respect for the day laborers. I got some good pictures that I'll have to wait until after the trip to put up. For now I'm exhausted and have a mountain of email to get through before we head back, so that's all for now.

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