Working hard in the Big Easy


Mary Fafard

Bourbon Street

The swinging sound of trumpets hummed throughout the street while the smells of old fried food and alcohol surrounded us. Old brick buildings laced with gold, green and purple banners lined both sides of Bourbon Street. We had arrived to the heart of New Orleans for a service trip right in the middle of Mardi Gras.

On our first day in the city, we enjoyed a day of sightseeing and exploring. I woke up to the sound of a rooster, which I thought was extremely odd since we were staying in an apartment building in the business district. All ten of us took turns showering and brushing our teeth in our little bathroom, and then we jammed ourselves into our Nissan rental cars and drove deeper into the city.

We stopped for breakfast at District Donut and Coffee Bar, where we each consumed approximately 2,000 calories. The donuts were not the average treat you could get at Dunkin’ Donuts. They were dense and thick, drenched in frosting, stuffed with gooey fillings and topped with candy or cereal. I had ordered the Barkus, which was the donut of the day because of the dog-themed Mardi Gras parade later that day (more on that later). This donut was stuffed with peanut butter frosting, dunked in chocolate icing and topped with a peanut butter and caramel candy. I ate it all and couldn’t eat again until dinner time.

We hopped back in our cars and drove to Louis Armstrong Park, where we walked around for a little while before we headed to Bourbon Street. Walking along the shops and bars almost felt like a foreign experience. It was only 11 a.m., and everyone was drinking — but not just in bars or restaurants — they were out walking the streets with open alcohol containers. We had learned the night before that New Orleans does not have the open alcohol container law as most states do, so this means you can walk around with bottles, cans and glasses and freely drink anywhere in the city. There were even to-go bars all around the city, which were just little windows with people lining up to order mixed drinks to carry with them.

As we continued exploring the city, we went into small tourist shops for souvenirs and nibbled on french fries. All of the old brick buildings were at least two stories high, and a lot of people were sitting up in the barred in balconies throwing Mardi Gras beads down to the pedestrians on the cracked and crowded sidewalks below. By the end of the day, each of us had a pile of purple, green and gold beads around our necks.

Around 2 p.m. we had settled in for the Barkus Mardi Gras parade, which is a huge parade through the French quarter of dog owners walking their dogs dressed in fun costumes. Some were dressed as pirates, others in feather boas. One thing was for sure, the people of New Orleans love their parades, and Mardi Gras is just one huge party that brings the city together. Old, rich men would stand out on the street drinking scotch next to young college kids chugging beer. Everyone was celebrating, and everyone was happy.

After our free day, the rest of our week was dedicated to service based on disaster relief. We were staying with the United Saints Recovery Project, and they would decide where in the city we would go to volunteer. During our stay, there was a group of 50 students and teachers from Middlesex Massachusetts who was working with the United Saints Recovery Project. Their big group would get split among six projects, while we stayed together as a group.

Four out of our five service days were spent on Gladiolus Street with 74-year old Caryl Eagen, a victim in two different cases of contractor fraud after her home was hit by Hurricane Katrina. When we arrived at her house early Monday morning, we saw that her house had been gutted and only one of the nine downstairs rooms had drywall up, and the whole front end needed insulation between the studs. Brian, our sarcastic and British project lead, put us to work that first day cutting and placing insulation between boards.

Eagen, who would walk around in a baggy blue sweatshirt and wore her dirty blonde hair pinned up, would boss us around and look at us through her orange-framed glasses. She reminded us to not stand on the edge of the drywall stack over and over again but also showered us in free snacks and treats.

At the end of that first day, we all felt defeated and realized we had no carpentry skills. Somehow all those high schoolers seemed to be kicking butt at rebuilding this house, and we all felt like this upcoming week would be an embarrassing attempt at us trying to help poor Eagen.

To our surprise, day two of service was a success. Each of us started to hang drywall in different rooms of the house, and we learned that those silly high schoolers just made it look like they knew what they were doing but, in reality, they were as lost as we were.

Most of our group hung drywall on the ceiling of different rooms in Eagen’s house, but three other women and I tackled the walls of a room. We had to hang soundboard, which is a soft, woody cardboard that creates a soundproof barrier between rooms. We had to measure out the distance in between outlets and cut holes so the outlets could be used in the future. We didn’t do a great job, but the soundboard was hung, and later in the week we got drywall up too.

My group and I also tackled a wall next to a staircase. We measured angles and corners, and we felt like real, professional carpenters. Well, professional carpenters that learned to laugh at their mistakes and could barely lift a slab of drywall.

At the end of each day, we were covered in drywall dust, and we had sore arms and legs, but it was worth it.

The thing about building houses is you can see the difference you are making. On Monday, we couldn’t even tell where one room started, and the other ended. But on Friday, we had six distinct rooms with drywall on the ceilings and walls. The work may not have been perfect, but we felt really good about it, and so did Eagen.

Eagen believes that everything happens for a reason and that we were sent to help her from God. Even though I don’t have the same beliefs that she does, I was simply amazed by her strength and hope that she had after 11 years of being out of her home.

“This is all because of you guys,” said Eagen, referring to the new drywall on her walls. “Because you’re so wonderful, and I love you with all my heart. I know what God brought you here to me, and I love Him for it.”

New Orleans is a unique place in that after tragedy strikes most people stay put and somehow believe that it will all be okay. After all that the city has gone through, they still have the energy to have a different Mardi Gras parade every day of the week leading up to the actual holiday. This type of city pride is something that I had never felt before, but I really enjoyed being a part of it.

We attended a second Mardi Gras parade later in the week, and it was truly a unique experience. The parade started around 7 p.m., and the route was approximately five miles long. The floats of the parade were similar to double decker buses you would see in London, but twice as long. Each float had its own theme, some had musicians like Lady Gaga, or Elvis sculpted on the front while others had princesses and cartoon characters leading the way of the vehicles.

Each float was filled with at least 30 people dressed to theme throwing multi-colored beads to the crowd. Some floats had music blasting, others had girls doing choreographed dances down below and some even had Hollywood award show style spinning lights attached.

On top of celebrations and the service work, another highlight of the week was food. Upon returning from New Orleans, I realized I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in days, unless you count the coleslaw that we were served on Thursday.

The United Saints Recovery Project provided food made by Pops — an older man who had years of experience cooking southern comfort food. We were treated to spicy sausage jambalaya, barbecue chicken with a red hot southern kick and barbecue ribs that just fell off the bone — and that was just in one night!

For never having been on a Badger Alternative Break trip before, I must say I lucked out. We did rewarding service, partied (substance-free) in the streets and ate some damn good southern food. My only regret is not applying for a trip earlier on in my college career.