Friday, December 28, 2007

The Beginning of The End

I know that I promised to update the blog weekly; this is why I usually don’t make promises. Unpredictability is the nature of life. I have been in a holding pattern for about three weeks. Here are my VALID excuses – 1) My daughter’s daycare was closed for a week, so I was unable to do any work on my house save that Tuesday when Aiji came to help. The rest of the week was filled with Mommy days. 2) As fate would have it, on the Tuesday the daycare reopened, I was stricken with the flu! Even as I struggled to push forward and accomplish SOMETHING, ANYTHING, my body simply would not allow it. I couldn’t see beyond the pain pressing on my eyeballs. My every movement was strained; every turn of my head followed by pain. I went home to bed… and ended up staying there until Friday. 3) Lastly, I decided to go out of town at the last minute (minor emergency). So there went another week. My readers surely understand the frustration. Life happens, yes. But I NEED to be in my house working. And it’s not just the emotional need anymore.

Last post, I wrote about The Impracticality of Passion, where I shared the realization that my dream is coming to an end and I have to face reality – it is no longer a good idea to rebuild my house on my own terms, without earning any income.

A few things have happened to support this thinking:

1. As you know, I recently discovered that my brand new electrical wiring had been clipped. As long as my house remains unoccupied on this abandoned block, it will be subject to the whims of selfish thieves.
2. Tired as I am of dealing with trifling little liars disguised as professionals, I am hiring a new electrician, who appears to have integrity, to rewire the house. Of course, in post-Katrina New Orleans, morality comes at a premium. His estimate is just short of double the previous electrician’s.
3. Even though the previous electrician took six months to NOT finish a two-week job, my contractor/uncle is still charging me almost the full amount for his services.
4. My insurance company is closing my theft claim without payment because my insurance does not cover theft while the property is under construction. My house is completely vulnerable and there will be no retribution for any loss incurred.
5. To add insult to injury, I just got a letter in the mail today stating that my insurance company would be canceling my homeowner’s insurance as of January 18th.

All these factors, coupled with the fact that I am WAY over my projected timeline and need to begin making some money, have contributed to my reality check. No one (with whom I have a financial relationship, at least) cares about my commitment to this house and the neighborhood. They are not moved by the strides I've made; my learning experience means nothing to them. This is Reality; and at this point, I am basically “shit out of luck”. The good ole days are over and it’s time to leave the Matrix.


I am not one to mope around and be sad about unfortunate circumstances. I am just not the “woe is me” type. Self-pity is a useless emotion, and it’s counter-productive. When I feel a twinge of depression coming on, I am compelled to MOVE. I have to shake it; I refuse to let it conquer me. Thus, I have come up with a plan of action – a bare minimum list of what needs to happen so that my daughter and I can live in the house.
- Win the lottery and/or marry a wonderful (and coincidentally wealthy) man
- Frame in the bathroom with studs
- Install baseboards throughout the house (the electric sockets will be in the baseboards)
- Re-wire the house (hire an electrician)
- Install plumbing in the house (hire a plumber)
- Patch the rest of the kitchen ceiling
- Close up the walls in the bathroom with greenboard and cement board
- Install hardwood flooring in the first three rooms
- Install tile in the kitchen and the bathroom
- Hang kitchen cabinets and sink
- Install temporary plywood countertops
- Install toilet, bathtub and lavatory

The first one COULD happen… I also COULD be struck by lightning this afternoon, but it’s not likely. I just put that there for amusement. Everything else could be done within two to three months, if I receive cooperation from all parties involved. That, in and of itself, is a gamble. Working with electricians and plumbers in New Orleans has proven to be a challenge for quite a few. But I hope that this time, since I’m working with men of integrity (or so I’ve heard), I will be able to forego the common problems. I am still debating whether or not to attempt the flooring installation myself. I know for sure that I can/will install the tiling. I’ve done that before and I feel confident about it. Hardwood flooring is a different beast altogether. I’ve installed laminate flooring, but it’s not the same. So we shall see.


We shall also see if I am able to even get through the Bare Minimum List. I have not updated my budget in a while and, honestly, I’m afraid to do it. But such things need to be done. I know already that I’ll be spending more than the amount of the initial insurance claim compensation. The question is “How much?” and whether or not I can afford that. Time to crunch some numbers.

At this time, I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have sent a few dollars my way. And, of course, to all those who have volunteered their time working on my house. I couldn't have gotten this far without you; I truly appreciate your help.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Moving Forward

Today, my old buddy Aiji came over. Bless his heart, he traveled TWO HOURS on the bus just to lend a hand. This is a testament to the glory of the RTA, New Orleans’ own public transportation system. Aiji lives about 15 minutes away.

A little back story - when my fabulous UU volunteers from New Mexico were here, we unfortunately discovered that my sills (the very foundation upon which my little house sits) had some wood rot. Bad news. We were all set to remove the bathroom window and put in some studs so I could have insulation, which would have been Miracle #4, when we found the damage. Anyway, all work had to stop and I’d kinda been in a holding pattern since then. Getting emotional, overwhelmed, and feeling like this work would “never” be done. My biggest problem was that I couldn’t find the right sized wood to replace the rotted pieces. Lumber stores don’t sell true 6-by-6’s anymore; the wood is really 5 ½-by-5 ½. I’d been dumpster-diving for old sills with no luck.

Lucky for me, pretty much everyone I know is rebuilding in some way, shape or form. My cousin Rashida told me her workers replaced sills on her house, so I went over today to see how they did it. I discovered that they used ½” plywood to shim underneath the 6-by-6. A rush of relief and clarity washed over me. And somehow that allowed me to make a decision about NOT replacing one of the sills. Finally, I could move forward! The bathroom would not have to wait.

Rashida's sill

So, today, Aiji and I worked de-constructing the bathroom interior. Since I’m going to be building out the walls with studs, we had to move the tub away from the wall. And, of course, the toilet had to come out because I’m going to be laying tile (and the toilet has to sit on TOP of the tiled floor). Aiji pulled out the wood framing around the tub. I crawled under the house and cut the drain pipe with a hacksaw. We worked well as a team and I couldn’t have done any of this without him. Without his super-human strength, that bathtub wouldn’t have moved an inch.

Aiji said he loves tearing stuff down.

I'm just glad he could lift this cast-iron tub!

Equally noteworthy, I’ve patched another ceiling. For all the work it’s taking to replace damaged ceiling boards, that ceiling better look nice when it’s finished! I have none other than my new friend Whitney to thank for that. Last week (and the week before), she came and helped out. Did I ever mention that working alone is really inefficient? So much time is spent climbing up and down ladders to get tools, measure, cut wood, get things I forgot the last time I climbed up or down, etc. Having Whitney there to help really sped things along. We were able to get that ceiling done in a morning. She stripped wood, cut boards, hammered nails, and provided extra hands when I needed them. [I wish I had photos of Whitney working, but I guess I wasn’t thinking of that at the time.]

The ceiling, before and after

As a footnote, I want to share a comment expressed by the man I met whilst visiting The Green Project today. “Women have gone too far,” he told me when I said I was doing my own construction work. He also added, “Construction is not feminine,” in response to my inquiry regarding his bizarre thought-pattern. So, thanks, sexist man. Thanks for giving me a good laugh.

The Impracticality of Passion

In 2001, my now-former employer laid me off along with 75% of the staff. Puzzled by my co-workers’ long faces and tears, I hurriedly escaped the building and went skipping merrily into the sunlight. I was FREE!! I then proceeded to enjoy the BEST six months of my life. The bulk of my time and energy was spent putting together my brainchild, a multimedia exhibition (well, I called it an “experience”) entitled “Cat Calls”. I worked harder than I probably ever had in my life… for zero dollars. The money (or lack thereof) was irrelevant; hell, everything was irrelevant – sleep and food included. I was on a mission; I had a goal, a destiny to fulfill. Then one day, my unemployment checks stopped coming and I was jerked back into the world of reality. A rude awakening, it was. But in our society, one cannot live on passion alone. I decided to leave my free-wheeling (and financially precarious) existence and accept the company’s re-hire offer.

Oh, how history repeats itself. Here I am once again, living passionately and purposefully, working harder than I ever have before, doing exactly what I want to do with my life… for zero dollars. And on the horizon, I see the Rude Awakening slowly creeping forward like the Grim Reaper with his bloody scythe. In a way, I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. The practical thing to do would be to find lucrative employment and pay someone else to finish the work on my house, but that defeats the entire purpose of my being here. I’m here to learn, to build, to dig my fingers into the dirt and create something new. But that job does not pay very well (or at all). So, I am not sure what I’m going to do next, but I’ll have to decide soon. Though living with my mom and penny-pinching have kept us afloat so far, there’s only so far a chunk of money can stretch. I am very proud of the progress we’ve made on the house, the knowledge I’ve attained through this work, and the impact I’m able to make in my community through rebuilding my house and organizing the revitalization of the community garden. But I am way past my original six-month deadline, and I have to face the impracticality of passion.

Make It Right
Finally, I want to share a photo I took in the Lower 9 the other day.

If you haven't heard about this yet, it's part of a fundraising campaign led by Brad Pitt to build 150 green homes in the Lower 9th Ward (the area that the city had originally slated to be "greenspace"). For more info, check out Make It Right's website.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

No Way!

No way!




Get outta here!


As you can see, a LOT has transpired since the last post. And these photos don’t even represent the half of it. However, for both of our sakes, I will try to keep the commentary short. Mostly, I want to spotlight the folks who have helped me during this time.

New York Weekend

In Mid-October, New Yorkers Matt, Jeff and Bret came down to help install an underlayment over my subfloor. Since one worn layer of hardwood flooring was all that separated the interior from the exterior… and because the house has no insulation, I’d decided it might be a good idea to put another floor on top. My NY crew enthusiastically took on the task. Brave souls, they were. Slept in my mom’s construction-site house. No shower, no stove. They said “No problem.” They were awesome.

I bought all the flooring supplies (and some fencing supplies, since I knew I’d have more volunteers the following week) on Friday. Lo and behold, it is not Home Depot’s policy to forklift merchandise into a vehicle… which includes the 10ft UHaul truck I’d rented. They didn’t want to be responsible for any damages. Understandable, but still sucky for me. I’d wanted to have everything ready by the time the guys arrived. As fate would have it, my supplies were still at Home Depot when their plane hit the tarmac. But Bret, Jeff and Matt were here for a reason – to help rebuild a home. They insisted on going back to Home Depot that night and loading the truck by hand. In the darkness, we loaded up the truck, twenty 80lb bags of cement and all. And unloaded by the light of their rental car’s high beams.

[Not coincidentally, with all the hubbub around getting the supplies to my house, I lost my debit card at Home Depot… and didn’t find out until Monday. By then, someone had run up about $2000 worth of charges! Fortunately, I was able to dispute those charges and Chase credited the money back to my account. But it was still a fierce blow to my otherwise positive outlook.]

Matt is a contractor by trade and I was so grateful to have him at my house. The first thing he did was organize all the tools and equipment into one central location. How much easier and faster work becomes when one is organized. That done, the four of us cleaned/prepared the floors, laid down roofing paper, and then secured the 5/8” plywood with drywall screws. In the kitchen, we put in cementboard, since I’ll be installing tile there. We knocked it out in a weekend and the guys still had time to enjoy the tastes and sounds of New Orleans.

Matt in front of the organized tool shelf; Me and Bret cutting a 2x4

Jeff laying the roofing paper; Bret and Matt putting down the plywood

We even had time for a photo shoot!

I was also grateful to finally have electricity. I will not get into bad-mouthing the electrician right now because that is a whole other story. I will not talk about how unreliable and trifling he is. I will say - thank goodness he finally kept his word on something (albeit a week late) and installed the GFI (ground-fault circuit interrupter…. In my case, a useable outlet attached to the outside of my house) so I could have power. It enabled us to work into the night AND use power tools.

The UUs Return

The following week, another Unitarian Universalist group (this time from Alberquerque) came. My mother, community liaison at NENA, had been planning a mapping project for that weekend. By Monday, however, they hadn’t finished. So the volunteers and I went out in the monsoon-like rainstorm and mapped the rest of the Lower 9. We went from door to door, assessing the building status (red=abandoned, yellow=under construction, blue=lived-in or live-in ready) and recording the number of residents.

The next day, we dove into work at my house. The first miracle was erecting the fence. I’d decided that putting up the fence with manual tools was crossing the line into Crazy-Land. So, Jim and I were inside discussing renting a jackhammer and an auger. A few minutes into our talk, I look up and four guys are outside with a sledgehammer and other hand tools busting holes in the concrete. Where it took me about two hours to dig one 2 foot hole, they dug all thirteen holes in about an hour and a half. At that moment, I realized the limitations of my gender – hey, men are physically stronger; can’t argue with reality. Thank the good Lord for men. I love ‘em, yes I do. The metal posts were in the ground by the day’s end. Originally, I got wood posts, but the volunteers convinced me that I should go with metal. We returned the wood and they generously bought the metal posts! By the end of the week, I had the 80 foot fence I’d desperately needed since the beginning of this project. [A side note, I discovered the previous week that looters had clipped some of my new electrical wiring from underneath the house! There was an urgency.]

Two hours, y'all. I'm impressed.

Then we set the posts in concrete.

A real FENCE!!

Meanwhile, on the inside of the house, Ed was installing ceiling boards, Kathy and Connie were replacing window panes, Phyllis was sanding. The house was a-buzz with activity. Each day, there was a group of about 10, but the members switched in and out. And they WORKED. [Embarrassingly, I have to attribute all the work to them because I didn’t get a chance to really focus on any one project!] This group was committed to making a dent in the rebuilding project. The second miracle was their generous donation of supplies to my house. Countless Home Depot runs and countless “Don’t worry about it”s when I’d pull out my debit card to pay. I wish I could provide photos of this work, but alas I had no camera.

The final miracle occurred on Friday, their last day. Earlier in the week, I’d mentioned the sad story of my digital camera’s demise, victim of the crushing power of automobile wheels on the St. Claude Bridge (my purse fell during a bumpy bike ride).

Keep in mind this group had already donated not only a full week of their time, but also supplies without any hesitation. I was beyond appreciative just based on that. On Friday, as we stood in my backyard enjoying red beans and rice (courtesy of my mother, thanks Ma!), the group presented me with a brand new digital camera along with a 1GB memory card!!!! They wanted me to be able to continue documenting my work… and my daughter’s life. I was speechless and I’m pretty sure a few tears fell. That was just too much. What did I do to deserve such generosity? All I can do is pay it forward.

Since The Volunteers Left

The week after the volunteers left, I took a break from the house. It was such a hectic time, I felt that I needed a little separation. I devoted much of my time to helping my neighbor Kelvin with his house. Then, I volunteered a week with The St. Bernard Project. Since I hadn’t been doing my usual Thursday volunteering, I figured I’d make it up by putting in a full week. I had the privilege of doing finish work (installing interior doors, window casing, trim and molding) at the home of an 80-year old man and his son. They were living in a trailer in the front yard, and were so eager to get into the house that they started moving their clothes in as soon as Dave Holt installed the closet racks. It felt good to be able to help them.

And finally, I got back to work at my house. I caulked more of the exterior siding (so many cracks, so many holes):

I fashioned a downspout for the front side of the house:

And I put in some more ceiling boards in the kitchen (Thanks, Ed, for preparing the ceiling. It made my job a LOT easier.):

AND Home Depot finally came by to install the garage door:

I also experienced the most serendipitous blessing this month...


First of all, let me share that cabinetry is the most expensive item in a kitchen remodeling budget. My original plan had been to buy some simple base cabinets from Home Depot. I’d just make do and wait until I could afford more cabinetry. So I was sitting pretty when I came across a set of base cabinets at Habitat Restore for $40. I was lucky to get that! Well, on Wednesday when I went to pick them up, Habitat Restore just happened to get a donation of a full set of quality wall AND base cabinets. Solid wood, not particle board. Oh, Happy Day! I bought them ON THE SPOT for $160, a pittance in comparison to their cost brand-new. All I have to do is sand, repaint them and change the hardware. Well, and I also have to kinda reconstruct them to fit my space, but that’s not a problem… I hope.

Some of the base cabinets. Couldn't take decent photos of the wall cabinets, but they are filling my kitchen right now. They are HUGE!

On Being A Handy-Woman

If this experience has done nothing else for me, it’s made me CONFIDENT that I can fix pretty much anything around the house. When it comes down to it, having the confidence to do something is half the battle. Confidence clears the mind of worry about failure and allows it to focus on problem-solving. I felt completely comfortable telling my neighbor Kelvin that I knew how to re-glaze windows last week, even though I’d never done it myself. Part of my confidence comes from watching others (skilled and unskilled) work. I’ve seen skilled folks who “know what they’re doing” cut corners and do things “the easy way.” I’ve seen the unskilled do work without a full understanding of what they’re doing. To me, the understanding and the willingness to do it “right” count for more (sometimes) than experience. I’ve read about re-glazing windows; I’ve seen other people do it; I understand the process. So when Kelvin asked me if I knew how to do it, I said yes without hesitation. And I did it. Confidently. And correctly. Men do it all the time! I’m noticing that women are more likely to say “I don’t know” if they’re not 100% sure they can do something. Men rarely admit to not knowing something. I’m turning into a man! LOL.

Community Garden Update

I mentioned to y’all before that I’d begun organizing the revitalization of the Laurentine Ernst Community Garden in the Holy Cross neighborhood. Well, the garden is thriving. And I must also mention that some of the fabulous UU volunteers also took the time out to visit our garden and do some weeding. We have more plants than I can list growing now – broccoli, cauliflower, mustard greens, beets, parsley, mint, and chives to name a few. We’ve also planted flowers to add some color and attract the pest-eating bugs.

Patsy Story has still, unfortunately, been doing the brunt of the work. I recruited some garden keepers to do regular maintenance, but they haven’t gotten into a groove yet. Anyone have experience in organizing people? Not sure how to motivate folks to keep up the garden.

A few weeks ago, Patsy and I were contacted by the American Community Gardens Association to participate in planning their New Orleans conference in October 2008. We were recruited because the ACGA wants to DO WORK during the conference, creating and improving our city’s gardens. How wonderful! Patsy and I created a brief Wish List and they are currently fundraising to meet our goals. By next year, we just might have a magical little oasis in Holy Cross!

Well, that’s all for now, y’all. It’s hard to keep it short when a month’s time has passed, but I tried to be concise. My new commitment is to update this blog weekly, even if it’s just to post some new photos.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Wheels Keep Turning

First of all, I must share with y’all that…. I GOT A NEW BIKE!!! Those new to this blog may not understand why this is such thrilling news. (Well, you need only read this to come up to speed.) But those faithful readers who have been with me through my ups and downs will surely rejoice. Oh, how my life has improved. No more depending on a bus system that is unreliable to the point of being useless. No more coordinating with my mom to borrow her car and risking returning it late (or forgetting to lock it up or turn the lights off… details, so minor, yet so important). No more opting to just stay home in order to avoid the aforementioned. Now I’m FREE! And I’m also being gentle with both the environment and my wallet alike. I must thank my father for offering to purchase it (and all the accessories!) for me. Thanks, Baba!

Now onto even better news! Over these 6+ months of rebuilding this house, I’ve become keenly aware that having help is SOOOOOOOOOOOO important. I cannot stress this enough. With a group of energetic volunteers, tasks can be completed in a fraction of the time it would take to do it myself. “Well, duh!”, you may remark. However, coming from a person who often opts against asking for help, this is a significant breakthrough. Anyway, this is all to say that I am eternally grateful to the 10 volunteers (again, from the Unitarian Universalist Church) who showed up at my house a few Mondays ago ready to work. And to NENA for sending them my way! I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to prep and prime three rooms, replace several ceiling boards, replace two window panes, fashion and install a metal downspout, remove that stubborn closet frame in the back hall, remove a few obsolete pipes from the kitchen and install drywall, AND begin putting up the shed roof. My guess is – a few months. But with assistance from this wonderful group of UU’s, we accomplished all these things in ONE WEEK. As if that wasn't enough, on the last day, they thanked ME and gave me a Home Depot gift card.

Nina cleaning; Jim and Cliff replacing ceiling boards; Judy scraping old paint. What a team!

Finished walls. It's beginning to look like a home...

Frances May caulking; Stacie applying paint stripper; Stan and Veronica.... stripping. (Well, that IS what they're doing.)

Thank you, Stan the handyman, for the wonderful downspout. I SO appreciate it!

Since the volunteers left, finishing the roof has become my focus… really, close to an obsession. It’s all I think about these days. It’s the one thing about my house that actually might be FINISHED soon. Last week, I finished putting up the rest of the corrugated metal panels, only to discover that I was short three panels. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

So many obstacles had been keeping me from finishing (the wave of rainy days, mostly)... and now this. I was irritated. I had to stop work and call Fran at Corrugated Metal to order more. But by the end of next week, it should be DONE. At that point (and after the garage door is installed), I’ll be able to securely store all my tools and supplies outside the house and re-focus my energy on the interior.

I must also thank my neighbor Kelvin who has been a tremendous help to me since the last post. A few weeks back, I asked him to help me pick up my metal roofing order and return some unused drywall. After that, he also came by to help during the Fabulous Volunteer Week. Like me, he’s rebuilding his house by himself. The week after my volunteers left, I went over to his house and helped out for a few days. He has more tools and experience (and muscle) than I do so I feel that he’s more of an asset to me than vice versa, but I will figure out a way to balance that. He’s in the process of installing drywall now, so I’ll be there next week to assist.

In keeping with the “good fortune” theme, here’s another piece of fortunate news. So, every Thursday, I attend the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meetings. I usually end up leaving the meetings early, as my daughter gets progressively more disruptive the longer we stay. This particular Thursday was no different. However, on our way out this time, a man representing the Laurel Foundation for American Baptist Churches of the South stopped us. He was giving out $500 Home Depot gift cards!! What luck! He gave me one and one for my mom, and then he was on his merry way. Like magic. Well, my mom gave me hers and I was able to purchase a garage door (and installation) for my back shed! Pure serendipity. Things like this brighten my spirits so much, especially since the year is almost out and I was supposed to have been done by now. And my insurance proceeds will most likely not be enough to cover the upcoming repairs. But I have a little more faith in my dream (rebuilding this house with my own hands) when I see that there are entities out there who believe too.

Another such entity is Dave Macauley. I found out about Dave through my neighbor, Sarah. She and her husband Simon put in some work at the Community Garden Clean Up Day I organized about a month ago. Anyway, she suggested that I send my Clean Up Day photos to Dave for his Help Holy Cross website, which I knew nothing about. Though Dave lives in Kansas City, he’s been working intensely for the revitalization of the Holy Cross neighborhood since April 2006. Well, after I emailed him about the Community Garden Clean Up Day, he responded saying that he’d be in town from Oct. 9th to the 13th with a group of three architects and engineers, evaluating Holy Cross houses. This past Friday, I showed them my house. They gave great suggestions on how to better insulate the house; how to better ventilate it, since I won’t have air-conditioning; and how to best remove that bathroom window and re-install it in the adjacent wall. Dave said they’d come up with a plan for helping the evaluated houses. I’m looking forward to that.

A final piece of good news (my UU volunteers will be pleased to hear this) – last week, City employees came by and removed the broken-up cement on my curb! Why is this significant? Well, the City had announced that, as of September 30th,FEMA would no longer be picking up resident’s construction debris. Not only would the City NOT take over that responsibility, but would be issuing fines for curbside debris. I wasn’t sure if this was an empty threat to force residents to expedite the rebuilding of their homes, but I certainly did not want to be fined. On the last volunteer day, I’d borrowed my uncle’s truck and we hauled a bunch of concrete to the dump. The line at the dump was very long and my uncle’s truck wasn’t very large, so we ended up taking only one load and leaving a lot there on the curb. So, I was very pleased when a big dump truck showed up at my house last week and scooped up the remainder of that pile.

Gone, baby, gone!

So, all in all, this has been a wonderful few weeks. Some unfortunate things have happened as well, but I shan’t rain on this parade by mentioning those. I hope and pray the good things keep coming. I REALLY hope I win the lottery or money falls out of the sky or something. Until then, I’ll keep plugging away at my house. Next Friday, three volunteers (organized by Bret, one of the New York volunteers who came down in July) are coming for the weekend. One is a contractor! I’m really thrilled about that. So, hopefully, I’ll have more good news to share next time.

These beauties popped up by surprise in my overgrown side yard.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Fence

“Y’all always wanna learn things the hard way.” My father would say this repeatedly, referring to his four children (I’m the second oldest) and our perceived hard-headedness. I recalled these words as I stood in my yard about two weeks ago (wow, I can’t believe it’s been 10 days already), sledge hammer in hand, funky and sweating like a pig under the hot sun. I thought about the raised-eyebrow-soft-chuckle response I got from my then-supervisor Chris Kuwata (a former construction worker) when I announced why I’d be leaving Blue Sky. And all the looks of surprise and bewilderment from people when I tell them that I’m fixing up my house with my own hands. Why AM I doing this? I guess I am just a hard-headed woman. I must learn things first-hand. I must see for myself.

So, I’ve learned that busting up concrete with a sledge hammer and digging 2-foot holes with a manual posthole digger is not really that fun. Fulfilling, yes. Fun, no.

And the thought of doing that 13 more times (that’s the number of posts I need for the fence… I’d decided I was going to put the damn thing up myself, instead of waiting to get a reasonable estimate for installation) made me second-guess what the hell I’m doing here.

I am CHOOSING to do manual labor every day, y’all. Am I crazy? Maybe I should go back to New York and get a desk job like a normal person. Then again, most “normal” people are unhappy with their jobs/lives. But putting up a fence is hard work; it’s the kind of hard work you don’t want to make mistakes with. There is a reason people hire professionals to do this stuff. I stood there alone in my yard and looked at my property and all its glaring faults. Needless to say, I started feeling a bit overwhelmed.

I went home and made a TO-DO list. It is currently 2 pages long. Feel free to check it out. I feel that I should start with the priorities – fence, shed roof and door (workspace and storage), and wood siding. Originally, I thought these would be secondary (well, except for the fence for security), but I am realizing that I need security immediately and protection of the house for the long-term. If I don’t repair the wood siding, all the drywall work we did will be for naught. There are literally open holes in the exterior. That won’t do in a climate where rain is sometimes blown horizontally. Also, I need an enclosed shed - a secure place to work and store my tools that is outside the house. Finally, someone tried to steal my hot water heater or the copper pipes a few weeks ago.

I'm not sure what they were after, but this is what they did.

So I really need a secure wood fence.

Sometimes logic and reason have to win out over passion and sheer will. Not only will it take a LOT of physical labor and time to put up that fence by myself (or even with a few helpers), but I wouldn’t be sure about the fence’s structural integrity and security. I concluded that it made sense for me to hire this one out. So I found another company, Budget (ha!) Fence. I liked that the owner lives right around the corner. I liked his demeanor and that of his assistant. I liked that he arrived when he said he would. I did not like the $2499 estimate he gave me for the work. Budget, huh? So, I don’t know what I’m going to do about this fence situation, y’all. I decided to focus my efforts on the shed roof. Last week, I framed the open part of the roof so that I can attach the metal roofing sheets.

My first foray into carpentry!!!

In other news, I had more volunteers come to help!! Why didn’t I get THEM to help me with the fence, you ask. Well, this was in the last week of August. My home hadn’t yet been vandalized and I was still focused on finishing the drywall. A local organization called Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA) sent me a church group eager to make a dent in the effort to rebuild New Orleans. Boy, did they get a lot done in my house. Many hands make light work, y’all. It’s so true. We finished mudding the last room and a half; and sanded the walls and applied a second coat in the other rooms.

The UU's (Unitarian Universalists) sanding the walls. Go team!

I was so grateful to have them. And they ended up coming back a couple days later! More sanding and mudding. When this house is done, it will be filled with so much warmth and memories. A handmade house. So many people have given so much of themselves to it.

After a hard day's work, we still had energy for a photo shoot.

The following week, my friend Jared stopped by and lent a hand with the sanding. He just called one day and came over! It was a totally unexpected blessing. It's difficult for me to ask for help sometimes, so I'm glad he took it upon himself to offer.

Good to have some muscle!

On the neighborhood revitalization front, I’ve begun organizing neighbors to breathe new life into a neglected community garden that had fallen into disarray after the hurricane hit. A few entries ago, I spoke of acquiring a plot of land on my block and turning into a garden. But again, logic and reason won out after I spoke to Macon Fly from Parkway Partners (an organization that assists communities with creating and sustaining gardens). A garden will not tend itself; if people aren’t taking care of the existing one, what will happen with a new garden? I decided to start with rehabbing the existing one. If there is enough interest, perhaps it’s feasible to create another. I organized a group of Holy Cross residents and supporters to come out (yesterday) and clear out the overgrown weeds. You can actually see the ground now!!! I’ll attach a couple pics.

Dedicated neighbors hacking through the jungle that was the Laurentine Ernst Community Garden

Look what we accomplished!!! You can actually see the ground now!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Thinking About Grandmaw

Two years ago today, my grandmother Leoma Sordelet died. When the storm hit, none of us knew where she was; I breathed a sigh of relief when she called me a few days later. She had evacuated with her sister's family to Atlanta. Worry took relief's place as our conversation went on, however. She was in pain; she had difficulty even speaking. On her birthday almost a year before, she'd told us that her breast cancer had returned. But I'd never been concerned that she wouldn't make it. Even as I spoke to her after the hurricane hit via telephone from New York, urging her to see a doctor, I couldn't imagine that she would die. It was only when she began speaking about being "ready to go" and "letting the Lord take her" did my fear set in. And she insisted that she did not want medical attention. A few days later, my father (a firefighter who remained in New Orleans through the storm) took a bus to Georgia and my mother (who had evacuated to Memphis, TN) flew down. They forced my grandmother to go to a hospital. Still, she died on September 9th at about 6pm. For the first time, I saw my father cry.

I feel grateful that I was able to hold her hand before she passed (literally hours before). My co-worker, Angela Macias, generously gave me her frequent flyer miles so that I could get there. I will never forget that. After Grandmaw passed, my brothers and sister came down and we said goodbye. There was no way to plan a proper funeral... 470 miles away from home and unable to return, our relatives scattered across the country in temporary homes. My father decided to have her cremated and return her ashes to New Orleans. I still feel sick when I think about us standing in the parking lot of that crematorium, where they kept the incinerator, watching the cardboard box that held grandmother's body being shoved into that machine. She would not have wanted it that way.

I do blame Katrina. She made no exceptions for the most vulnerable of us. Even those elders who made it out of New Orleans before she hit experienced great stress and profound loss. My other grandmother suffered a stroke that January (2006). And I just got word that my great-aunt, Auntie Dot, died from a heart attack. Katrina's arms are long and her affect is wide. It has been over two years and she's still stealing lives. About a month ago, my cousin Caroline (who is 4 years my mother's junior) passed away due to complications from surgery following a brain hemorrhage. One cannot help but connect these stress-related deaths with that unprecedented disaster. We say, "The sun is always rising; we cannot hold back the day". The world does not stop for tragedy, but we will never forget. It seems she's not letting us forget either.

Updates on the progress of the house are coming soon, y'all. I just needed to post this as a tribute to my dear grandmother. I miss you, Grandmaw.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

AUGUST 29TH - When The Levees Broke

Today marks the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For me, it's the day this journey began. My city drowned. My family evacuated. My grandmother died (two weeks later). It shook me up, forced me to re-evaluate my existence. Made me to get up off my comfortable ass and LIVE... make sure my life MEANT something.... to me, and to my community. My life took a sharp unexpected turn that resulted in moving back home, something I never thought I'd do. And now I'm here!

A few weeks ago, a journalist-photographer team from the St. Petersburg Times took an interest in my story - the story of a New Orleans native returning post-Katrina after years of living away. To mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I'd like to share it with you:

Click here to read "The Pull Of New Orleans"

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Falling In Love

I miss my little house. I want to fix her (my house is a “her”).

Because my daughter’s daycare is closed for vacation this week and next, I haven’t been able to work on the house much. I wouldn’t use the word “sad” to describe the way that I felt, but I definitely yearned to be there. I organized some friends to come over and help me with the mudding yesterday (this will be discussed later). I’m pretty sure my heart sang. I think this is how people who really love their jobs must feel. To my memory (albeit dull and often unreliable), I’ve NEVER felt this way about anything that wasn’t a personal relationship.

I’ve never felt this way… (play sappy love song here) It’s like a cute little love story, actually… except instead of a person, it’s an inanimate building. Is that so wrong? Our relationship was strictly business when I began working in March. My goal was simple – to make the house live-able so that I could rent it out (or possibly live there). I was just going to replace what was missing and leave it at that. I wanted to do my part to revitalize the neighborhood. Plus, this experience was going to be a springboard to shoot me in the next life-direction. But the more time I spent with her, the more I grew attached… the more I started to care. I mean, I’ve seen her naked! I know all the intimate details of her frame – I know where her missing boards are, I know what color the old wallpaper was, I know which rooms held the most moisture. I KNOW this house. I know her beauty.

Beyond that, others have joined me in rebuilding. They have supported this relationship. I look at rooms and I see the stories all over again. I remember when Jaye and I crawled under the kitchen cabinets to unfasten the sink; when Peris ripped out the kitchen ceiling. I look at the windows and see my mom diligently repairing the sash mechanism. I laugh about the time and care we took in removing the drywall four feet from the floor… the precise measurements, use of the chalk line, the delicate removal of the wallpaper (cuz I wanted to save it… still do). Paulette helped with that. And then a few weeks later, I discovered that it all needed to come out and volunteers from the St. Bernard Project came over and gutted the house in a day. I wonder what happened to the little puppy who came to visit us that day. Or that touched man who called himself “The Preacher.” I look into the backyard and see Maida, Anietra’s tiny cousin, busting up that concrete like a professional. In the shed, Ann is shoveling debris into the wheelbarrow. There is HISTORY there; I have bonded with this house.

These emotional memories intermingle with thoughts of my life goals. As I dream and brainstorm about the way I want to live, somehow this house shows up as the backdrop before which my life plays out. I’ve already decided that the bedroom should be a pale olive green; my daughter and I will share it, in line with my ideas about attachment parenting. The office will be tangerine orange. I see my daughter’s half of it decked out with all her educational supplies (I’d like to homeschool her). I fantasize that I will buy the lot next door and create a garden for the homeschool group (there will be a group in my fantasy) . Or, even grander, STARTING an alternative school… to be housed in one of the properties on my block. The parents could pool their resources to buy the building right across the street and renovate it! Maybe. But I definitely WILL install a tankless water heater to save water (and money). I see myself locking up the earth-friendliest means of transportation besides walking, my bike ( a new one… an invincible one), in the back shed. And I’ll fix the attic fan and take advantage of the shotgun design to allow air to be drawn through the house; no air-conditioning (we’ll see how long that lasts). I will reduce my carbon footprint just by living simply… in this house. I’ve been thinking about fancy tile patterns for the kitchen and bathroom floors, though reality – lack of money and skill – often suppresses these plans. I’m gonna strip that paint off the front room window (I’m told it’s “Edwardian”) panes and the transoms above my doors. And frame the tongue-and-groove wood ceilings with crown molding. And install concrete countertops in the kitchen; they are durable, can be poured into any shape you want and they’re less expensive than stone.

I’ve crossed the line. I love this house. I want to live in it. More than that, I have been entertaining ideas of one-woman neighborhood revitalization… wondering if I could buy a piece of land and convert it into a community garden; or buy another house, fix it up and resell it at an affordable cost to an owner-occupant. These are likely pipe dreams, as I have no source of income right now. But tis good to dream… at least it keeps me aware of what I want out of life. I daydream of how wonderful this neighborhood could be and my fabulous plans for making that happen. I’ve already got my eyes on the empty lot at the corner for the garden. Lots are way cheaper than houses. We’ll see what happens… I’ll keep y’all posted.


As I mentioned earlier in the blog, I DID get a chance to steal away and work on my beloved house. Four wonderful people came through to help with mudding yesterday. My good ole uncle Eli, family friend Kwame aka K. Gates, and newly acquired friends Rhonda and Adia, her young daughter. We accomplished SO MUCH. I’ll share that with you via these lovely pics.

Good ole Uncle Eli! When you need him, he's there.

Kwame getting his shiny blue shoes dirty.

Adia, Rhonda's daughter, covering the drywall screws. Super Girl!

And here is what we accomplished:

The front room of the house.

What will be the bedroom. Nice job!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Back From THE ROAD

Whoo! Sorry it’s been so long. It just dawned on me that I could’ve written at least a brief update and posted it immediately(I think my readers appreciate those more anyway), instead of taking all this time to write a full entry. After being gone so long, I guess it's taken me awhile to get back to my regular routine. And it’s difficult to write when my daughter is awake PERIOD, and obviously I can’t write when I’m working. But, anyway, I’m back in New Orleans now after 5 weeks of travel. Getting away was refreshing, to say the least, and now I’m energized and refocusing on my beloved little house. Well, that implies that nothing’s been done since I’ve been away. Quite the opposite is true. I must take this opportunity to give a standing ovation to my mom, who not only kept my daughter for 3 of the 5 weeks but worked as my counterpart while I was gone.

In my absence, mold remediation was done on the house, courtesy of Inspector 12. As you may recall from a previous post, I took that company’s advice and removed all the drywall in the house so that they could thoroughly obliterate any mold that might even be THINKING of growing in my house. Originally, they quoted me a little under $2K to do the job. It wasn’t in my budget, but I decided that it was worth the extra expense to be assured that no one who lived in that house would have respiratory problems because of something I neglected to do. So I was prepared to take the hit. A few weeks into my trip, I received this email: “I have decided to remediate your home as a donation because of your tireless effort to restore your property. I am truly impressed to see what you have accomplished…” Thank you, Ivan from Inspector 12!! Unfortunately, it failed the post-inspection.

According to Louisiana law, the remediator and the inspector cannot be the same person/company. So I was going to hire Bill Feaheny, an environmental consultant and professional air quality tester, to do the post-inspection. Upon completing the initial visual inspection, however, he concluded that the remediation company didn’t follow proper protocol for mold removal. He wouldn’t do the air test because none of the holes in the house had been plugged. Additionally, he'd never heard of Inspector 12. Well, I didn’t have time to search for another remediation company, then schedule another inspection. I had a group of volunteers coming the following weekend to help install drywall! So he gave me some suggestions about how to move forward. I am still grateful to Inspector 12 for doing the job. The house was cleanER and the air was clearER after they did the work.

Weekend Warriors
SO, when I first moved down here, my friend Anietra in New York said that she’d come and help out sometime this year. “Great!” I thought. “I can use the help!” In late May, she emailed with plans of assembling a group of friends to volunteer at my house. In a matter of days, she’d gotten ten commitments! I was floored. TEN people flying down to New Orleans OF THEIR OWN VOLITION to help me rebuild my house. I shouldn’t have been surprised; this was classic Anietra style. Anything this woman does, she does to the nth degree.

So now I had ten volunteers coming to stay at my mom’s not-quite-ready house… and I’d just found out I’d be traveling for the next five weeks, up until two days before they were supposed to arrive! Needless to say, it was difficult preparing from afar for a group of this size, but it all worked out and the weekend went surprisingly quite smoothly. My mom was absolutely fabulous; she ordered the drywall and other supplies while I was away, she agreed to cook red beans and rice, and gumbo for the volunteers AND keep my daughter while I worked with them over that weekend. My uncle took care of the drywall delivery (thanks Eli!). I borrowed air mattresses from my cousin, my aunt’s neighbor, and my mom’s friend. And the St. Bernard Project loaned me drills and a bunch of other necessary tools. Man, it's good to have a big family! I got the rest of the supplies from Common Ground. Since my Wednesday flight back to New Orleans ended up being CANCELLED (grrr…), I flew back that Friday (the same day as the volunteers!). But I was still able to make all the necessary last-minute runs before they arrived. I wanted to make them at least semi-comfortable in that house.

I’d prepped Anietra before they came down – there’s no air-conditioning in my mom’s house; there’s very little furniture; some of the floors are unfinished; there’s only one working bathroom; the entire first floor of the house has been gutted and is un-usable; the house hasn’t been lived in since August 2005. They knew it would be FAR from luxury living and they were cool with that. I’d suggested to Anietra that we work short days (9am-2pm) because of the heat and humidity. There is no electricity in my house (translation – no fans… don’t even THINK about air-conditioning) and it was the end of July, one of the hottest months of the year. They all insisted on working ALL day. I patronizingly entertained that notion, thinking, “Wait til they get down here.”

Well, when they got down here, they hit the ground running. The day their plane touched down; they wanted to go check out my house and maybe get some work done! We spent the evening moving drywall from the driveway into the house, racing against the approaching storm. We made it, thank goodness. The following day was Saturday; we got a brief drywall demo from some skilled volunteers from St. Bernard Project.

Richard assists while Dave and Mike demo drywall installation.

The rest of us pay close attention.

Since I’d only put up drywall once or twice, I thought it would be better for a more experienced person to supervise. [Good thing because a few issues arose that I wouldn’t have been able to handle alone. The biggest issue was the un-evenness of the vertical barge boards and that fact that many were missing in the front room of the house. So we learned how to use shims to level the drywall, and how to reinforce existing beams with two-by-fours and drill the drywall to that. So handy!] And we actually did work all day Saturday AND Sunday… until the sun went down and we couldn’t see anymore. But it didn't feel like slavery at all!!(That was a joke... anyway..) By the end of the weekend, most of the house's interior had drywall.

They came, they saw, they installed.

A wall in the second room. DONE. After they were done, most of the walls looked just like this. PERFECT!

Our mascot insisted that I include him.

It's amazing what 10 volunteers can do in a weekend, isn't it? Sike! This ain't my house, y'all!

As much as we worked, you wouldn’t think there was time to do anything else. But the group also wanted to get out and see New Orleans. They had a ball… live music at The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street, dancing on Bourbon Street, beignets (apparently, "nothing but a zeppoli" according to some people) at CafĂ© Du Monde, and drinking in the streets (can’t do that anywhere else in the country!)

And not only did they install drywall, the volunteers also removed the nails from the floor of the kitchen, removed the old tile from the back hall floor, busted up the concrete in the backyard (that I might have grass one day) and moved the debris to the curb.

Anietra and Mike showing those nails who's boss.

Bret attacking that stubborn tile... while I work hard in the backyard. (lol)

Maida is about 5'3", y'all... WOW. That's all I have to say.

Carsta got jealous and wanted to take a turn too.

And Ky keeps it tidy.

Ten dedicated, energetic people can accomplish A LOT. I SO appreciate what they did. To top it off, one of the volunteers, Bret, actually changed his flight so that he could stay an extra day! So we spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday morning putting up MORE drywall!!

Bret and I put up drywall on two walls in the kitchen after the others went back to NY.

It felt AMAZING to look around the house and see walls, not boards of wood. I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I could imagine what the house might look like once I’m done. One day, I’ll actually be done!! Needless to say, that weekend experience has given me fuel to continue forward.

Since the volunteers left three weeks ago, I have installed drywall in most of the kitchen (except the sections of wall where there’s plumbing).

Putting up drywall by myself. See that nice sheen on my legs? I didn't get oiled up for the photo shoot, y'all. That's sweat!!!

Another wall in the kitchen that I put up alone.

I’ve also knocked down the bathroom closet, the beams that supported the lowered ceiling in the bathroom and most of the closet in the back hall. Yes, I am making aesthetic changes to the house. Yes, I am getting more attached to it. I can’t just let the house remain with those ugly additions. Why would one level vaulted (or half-vaulted) ceilings? After I removed the closet and those beams, the bathroom just opened up. It thanked me. It did. The walls will be covered in “greenboard”, a water-resistant form of drywall, and cement board (around the bathtub enclosure).

Before-and-After of the bathroom ceiling. Isn't it better now?

All that's left of my closets. Hope I can reuse some of the wood for something else!

Also To-Do, the drywall in the other rooms needs mudding. Mudding is the process of filling holes and covering seams using joint compound and joint compound tape. It’ll be a long, tedious process because I have to spread it over each screw hole in the drywall (and since the volunteers got a little trigger happy with the cordless drills, there are A LOT of ‘em) and, of course, the shorter your drywall sheets are, the more seams you’ll have. I opted for the 8’ long sheets, instead of 12’ sheets, which are heavier and more difficult to carry. So, I have a task ahead of me. I think I’m going to organize a Mudding Party and see who in New Orleans can come by next weekend or the weekend after to help me knock this out. I’ll keep y’all posted!!