Thursday, January 26, 2006

Life in Louzeeanna

T-h-i-s i-s a-n-o-t-h-e-r w-o-r-l-d. L-i-f-e h-e-r-e i-s s-o s-l-o-w. N-o o-n-e i-s i-n a h-ur-r-y.

That’s life in Louziana, and they ain’t changing.

I volunteered to do the food, because I’m a foodie, as they say in the Bay Area. Breakfast was whatever I could find in the fridge, which amounted to half of a kielbasa, a couple pieces of thick bacon, 13 eggs, a couple of giant spuds, some mushrooms, some onions and a dozen buttermilk biscuits that just sort of showed up in the kitchen the day we arrived. We had no potato peeler, so I had to peel four potatoes with a paring knife.

Breakfast was frittata with sausage, onions, mushrooms and cheddar cheese, potatoes baked in chicken stock and coffee. We almost had a riot from our crew because we had to drink Folgers. One of our crew, Susan, had brought ground coffee from the Bay Area, but she horded it in the motor home she’s staying in.

My being the chef meant had to do the shopping. Jimmy Brown’s market is a block from the church that is our headquarters. I had enough food to feed eight for 3-4 days, but before I left, I had to find Mr. Jimmy, the owner, because I was hoping to find someone to teach me how to make some gumbo or jambalaya. He left his office, which was no bigger than 10-feet by 5-feet, and employed his wife and daughter, to go find his son, who was loading a truck out back. They went over 3-4 names of people who could teach me how to make gumbo or jambalaya. I don’t think people in the South are physically capable of asking just one question. The tradeoff is Mr. Jimmy loves Mexican food and he heard that was my specialty and asked me to cook Mexican food for him. Deal.

When it came time to check out, I quickly realized this would take awhile. Mind you, at Safeway or Albertson’s, I would have been out of there in five minutes. Miss Donnie was doin’ checkout and she’s got one speed. I tried to make the best of the situation. We chit-chatted about the area. “You with the group from California.” “Yes, ma’am.” Ten minutes later, I was out of there.

And just like the big towns, they had a bagger. Course, he was having lunch out behind the market, and Miss Donnie had to call him over the intercom system. He even walked me out to our van and helped me load up. For my one-block drive.

One of the things you notice in the South is that everyone is polite and respectful. Men are expected to refer to women as ma’ams. Mr. and Miss is used with everyone’s first name. There is a reverence for the elderly. You are expected to say good-bye to a grandmother with a personal message and even a hug, even though you’ve never met before. There is a politeness that is admirable. They were doing it 150 years ago in the south, and they’re still doing it.

I was late to my roofing job because of the shopping, but no one minds. They’ve realized I can cook and have no problem with me spending time in the kitchen. Today, we almost finished the roof of a house of perhaps 900 square feet. It was pretty much square and easy to lay the shingles, made of fiberglass and oil and other junk I can’t explain. My job is to play, I mean, to use an air-compressed nail gun. Two of us worked together in working on a quarter of the roof at a time. My partner, Greg Dean, is a contractor based out of Castro Valley. I asked lots of questions, apologized profusely for silly mistakes.

Growing up on a farm, I knew to take good care of my equipment and to walk gingerly up and down the extension ladders. My dad was an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, or something like that) inspector, and he always taught us to work safely (which is funny, because I probably still hold the record for wrecking his trucks one year I worked for him).

A nail gun has about 40 pounds of pressure, which would I instantly send a nail through a finger or toe. I decided not to buy steel-toed boots for the trip, so it was imperative that I use the gun carefully. It isn’t something to joke around with. When a gun broke down temporarily, we used hammers for 30 minutes. I would not have made a good roofer if I had to use a hammer. I watched the other guys pound nails quickly and confidently, but I don’t have the skill.

My girlfriend of five months, Susan Ranieri, is here as part of our team. I was late starting this morning because I was shopping and talking with the local folks. When I got on the roof, I watched admiringly as she worked hard laboring. She wore gloves just like the men. Her job was laying the shingles in place, while a few of us nailed them in with the air-guns. She didn’t ask for any special favors. She had asked me the week before not to give her any special treatment, because she came here to work and pull her weight. In the evening, she washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen, too. Right after taking a 45-minute shower. The privileges of being a woman in a mostly men’s workplace.

One thing I like about our operation is that it is well organized. Each team has a contractor-type person in charge. They decide man of the procedures we use, but the three other men on our crew all have legitimate skills. I’m not in their league. I played up my culinary skills on the questionnaire. But it takes all kinds to make a mission trip like this work properly.

In 2 Chronicles, Solomon inquired of his buddy, Hiram, king of Tyre, to send him his best tradesmen in his kingdom to build the temple for the Lord. He carefully selected the men who would build the temple, because he saw that they took pride in their work. (Do you suppose Solomon brought in special chefs to feed his working men?) I see these three other men working so diligently. For free. They are so skilled at their trade. For their love of helping people. Two of the guys go on Mexico missions during spring break doing virtually the same thing. Then there is Susan and me, going on our first short-term mission. We both hope it is not our last together.

People from our church have donated $220,000 to help in the relief. Thousands of people pray for our crews when we are here. Pastor Mark Comella is driving around picking up equipment and tools we need, while scouting out future jobs. The next team in is set for Jan. 31. His wife, Debbie, is organizing the books so we know who we’re helping and why.

Everything is done with order in how we help in the community. The elderly are first, widows and single moms next, then families and singles. Virtually everyone in town needs help of some sort. Few were immune from the impact of Hurricane Rita and the ensuing tornadoes that hit the town.

As we sit on the roof and look around, few houses were left untouched by the storm. Most houses have tarps covering at least part of the roof. The house we are working on is next door to the church and was completely covered by a tarp the day before. The house is still boarded up, possibly because all the windows were blown out from Rita. The house that used to sit next door is not a cement slab. I’ve seen a boat that is sitting in the middle of nowhere, having been carried from the Calcaseu River. Mini-tornadoes ripped apart just as many houses as Rita. Whereas a hurricane can pull up an entire house (building codes are virtually non-existent in Louisiana), a tornado will buzz through the middle of a house and leave the garage 10 feet away intact.

The house next door and the house across the street have FEMA trailers in the yard. FEMA gives trailers to people to live in for up to 18 months while their houses are repaired. They are all fairly similar, about 30 feet long. One family we work with has 10 people living under the same roof.

This is perhaps the poorest parish in Louisiana, pronounced Lou-z-anna here, and most families were impacted in some way. The region is aided by the fact that the two major employers in the area, the shrimping industry and oil and gas, has not reduced its work force.

Today was a beautiful day. It was warm and sunny, maybe 65, with a good 30 mph wind. We joked about Rita being a hundred mph higher. The good thing about the wind is that it keeps down the skeeters. I covered my body in skeeter (mosquitoes for Californians) spray for nothing. Coming back from the store, there was a skeeter in the car that I had to battle. I smacked him once, only to see him fly away. Sort of mocking me for my weak slap. “Must be one of those Californians.” I had to hit him again to kill him.

Before I went to work, I put on my eau de deet, the spray-on kind. I got some of it on my lips and I found out it’s sort of like a short-term collagen thing. It made my lips puff up. Heck of a lot cheaper than plastic surgery. The skeeters left me alone today.

One of the things you learn from working here is that the damage didn’t just come from the winds. Surge waters, the aftermath of the hurricane, is what pushes the water two feet here in Hackberry. Twelve miles down the road, right on the Gulf of Mexico, Cameron, is now no longer a town. It is completely abandoned because virtually everything was destroyed.

We have fun as we work. We tease each other just like teenagers. Two of the men joked that there was a bull next door and they weren’t going near the house we were supposed to work at because he was mean. Growing up around cattle, I said I’d take care of him. So when I saw him, I had to check him out. Only it wasn’t a him, it was a her. When I pointed out to the guys that it was a cow they were scared of, and very docile, I might add, we laughed. “How do you know it’s a cow?” “Because bulls have testacles and cows have teets. That cow has teets. And besides,” I said, pointing over at her, “cows pee out the back. Bulls pee underneath.”

As we were finishing our day, a song came on the country and western station we were listening to. The person singing the song was lamenting the fact that he could see the um … buttcracks of the roofers on the house. Then there was something about the gal smoking Pal Mals. This would be our theme song for the week. We don’t know any of the words to the song, but we’ll never forget it.

Tonight, we had a Bible study at First Baptist of Hackberry, and they talked about 11 families that used to comprise First Baptist of Cameron, which, despite just 12 miles away, takes 30 minutes to drive to. The surge there went 24 feet.

Church groups from northern Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico are also working in the region. This weekend, we will work with another Baptist church from up north in putting on the roof of our host church, which had seven people at the Bible study, while eight came from Livermore, Calif. That is typical of churches in the area. There are few mega churches in these parts. Home churches with a handful of families is common here. Fifty people is a large church in these parts.

When the pastor, who doubles as a sheriff’s deputy in the area, asked for prayer requests, their needs were very real and severe. One man was battling FEMA. One man from the congregation had just had a large cancer removed from his cheek. Everyone knew everyone and what they were going through.

In the back, the California contingent comprised half the group. Dinner was simple: spaghetti, a California salad (raisins and pears are not on too many salads in these parts), garlic bread and for dessert, chocolate chip cookies and ice cream.

It was a good ending to the day. Everyone is tired. No one wants to go to bed. It is 8 p.m. here, but 6 p.m. California time. In a short time, two of our team is in bed. There is absolutely no nightlife in Hackberry. There is not a single bar. Mr. Jimmy’s store closes at 9, opens at 5 to sell lunch products to the oil and shrimping people.

The conclusion of our evening is spent talking about the day and the mission we’re on. The kitchen is clean, shoes are off. Life is simple. The way it’s meant to be. Perhaps it is we in the Bay Area that are the backwards culture, going so fast we don’t have time to talk to the checkout person because we’re in too big a hurry. Or we eat our meals at fast-food joints instead of sitting down with family or friends and having a meaningful discussion beyond hold the pickles and lettuce. You can see our team beginning to enjoy the lifestyle here.

We will sleep well tonight. We worked hard.


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