The Paper House
After lunch I was determined to get as far into the lower 9th ward as possible to do work. I felt like I needed to witness for myself the nucleus of the destruction to help me heal. How would this help me? I wasn’t sure. I guess its kind of like being afraid of heights and going to the empire state building; I wanted to face my fear head on. My heart was heavy and my stomach in knots on the way to Common Ground. I know so many people wanted to go and I also know that I needed to go so I did what I had to do to get there. I hitched a ride from Otis in our moving truck to Common Ground. Upon our arrival were told we could go into homes and help gut them or stay at the main site and help at the distribution center. Of course I chose to gut a home in the 9th ward. We were suited up in blue suits, given respirators, goggles, rubber boots and two sets of gloves. We were warned that we would encounter toxic mold and needed to sign a waiver. The combination of anticipation and fear was bubbling within me, but I knew I needed to do this. I was tired of driving past homes, snapping photos; I needed to help someone by getting my hands dirty. I needed to know I was physically looking destruction in the face by helping someone clean out.
In the van our group split again. We were able to rip out sheet rock from a home or go to the home that had not been touched since the storm. We were forewarned that house option #2 was not for the faint of heart. I knew I needed to go to house #2. Of course, everyone else wanted to go to house #2 as well, so when we arrived at house #1 and they asked volunteers to get out to rip off sheetrock, I was not moving. I allowed there to be an awkward moment where no one moved because I needed to go to house #2.
As we crossed over the bridge into the lower 9th ward, it appeared as if I had arrived on foreign soil. Homes were ripped off foundations and blocked streets and cars stood straight up in the air. This is what I always imagined a war torn country to look like. I looked out my window and said to myself “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” I remembered a song I know that says, “when you don’t know what else to pray and you can’t find the words to say, say the name of Jesus…”
That’s all I could say… The lower 9th ward was nothing I had expected. No creative imagination could envision what was flashing before my eyes. We pulled up to a home that was a couple of blocks from the broken levee. I got out of the van ready to face the pain and fear because I was ready to make sense of my boggled emotions. I wasn’t sure how that would happen but I knew cleaning out this house somehow would help… Or at least I hoped it would.
The echo of my breathing filtering through a 3M filter made me feel like I was in a war. I walked into this house and was overcome by a stench of rotten food, human waste and mud. The stench crawled through my filter and took up residence in my nostrils. My feet were super-glued in about 5 inches of the toxic concoction that looked like black mud. So afraid to fall into the sludge , I leaned onto a wall for support and my arm went right through it. This was a paper house. I began peeling off the walls like a peel of an orange and ripping off wood like I was Hercules. No matter how much I cleaned, the black sludge was just never-ending. I remember thinking “what’s the point? Why bother with this, just let them tear it down.” Just then I found a graduation diploma and a high school ID card.
Why be a social worker when social ills will always remain and social injustice remains integral in the way our country plays its game? Why bother when I will never solve it all? The same reason why I stayed and tore down every wall I found still standing in that house. The same reason I salvaged anything I could and for the same reason I stood in toxic sludge for an afternoon. Because when I found that diploma and high school ID card it turned this home from being just another destroyed home among hundreds to being that of a family. I put a face to a problem – life in the midst of “toxic sludge.”
I now realize that as a social worker I will never cure social ills or solve all injustice, but I will put faces to injustices and personal stories to social ills. Why? Because in the face of the “toxic black sludge” of the injustice real people - people like you and me - are the faces and the stories that are the signs of life in the sludge’s midst. This keeps me dedicated to social justice. So I leave New Orleans with a new sense of purpose. Ready to dig and shovel and tear down walls – until I find life!