Monday, October 6, 2014

1 Month in.... Pulling Weeds, The Community, and An 18-Wheeler Stuck in a Ditch.

    Unfortunately this is the first official post since I moved to  my new site placement here in New Orleans. It's been a great first month getting settled in to my job, house, family community, and host church I'll most likely be attending for most of my year while here.  I figure it makes sense to describe a little about my specific location and the position I'll be serving in this year. Of course since I arrived many things have happened including a great tour through the french quarter, decadence festival, and several trips out to french man street.

YAV House
   I'm living with 6 other wonderful YAVs; Bennett who's working with Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church, John who will be with Mid-City Ministries with there after school program and Lakeview Presbyterian Church, Katherine who will also be working with Bayou Blue and specifically spreading awareness about wetlands conservation issues, Colleen who will be working with Project Homecoming ( non profit that helps rebuild homes), as the manager of the Volunteer Village, Jennifer who is working with Global Maritime Port Ministries which provides resources for sailors when they're docked in the port, and Hannah who is working with 1st Presbyterian Church with there Program of Hope ministry that provides once a week food and clothing distribution for the homeless and will also be working with the Presbytery of South Louisiana Missions Committee.The site placements are well diversified and in my opinion are supporting some major needs in this city.  So there's my house mates and the site placements...!
 It's exciting to think of the strong friendships that will be made throughout this upcoming year.  Our community house is in the Carrollton neighborhood,  directly north of a significant bend in the Mississippi river. There's food and social gathering spots all around the neighborhood. Parallel to the river runs a large levee which has a great bike and walking path directly on top, that I am foreshadowing many afternoon bike rides through out this year. It brings a hint of memory to the wonderful time I've spent riding along the track off the Rillito River back home in Tucson..... except there's a whole lot more water in the Mississippi. This area is relatively close to a bunch of different areas, but it's several miles from the French Quarter and Frenchman street, which if any one does not know are two of the most happening places to see live music like no where else in the world. But it's been great for the sake of my commute to and from work everyday.

The J.W. Johnson School Yard/ Carrollton Community Garden at the Sophie B. Wright campus in Pigeon Town....
   My placement, a couple blocks from the house,  is a completely different social/economical  conversation, and the shift from large two story modern designed homes with beautiful green lawns to shotgun houses( these are New Orleans style homes that typically have  two identical french doors in the front and often narrow width and long depth), in need of great repair, happens very quickly. It provokes an internal conversation almost everyday on my bike ride to and from the garden, what would it take for two completely different classes to switch roles? A success story to go bankrupt... and a constant struggle, reborn and set a new. Just to imagine the many layers of experience both sides carry being stripped off one by one till the image of the two could hardly be told apart..... But then I wake up and the reality hits like a brick; they're opposites existing in the same space.
     The reality of class differences here in New Orleans is open, and transparent. If it's poverty, it's probably close by. But just the same to be said about Wealth. But in context to the garden neighborhood, it seems more and more understandable, as I further hear from the local residents, the position of constant struggle is real and present. It's with in the poverty, food desert status( no local source of nutritional food), gun violence, and drug presence, and of course the difficulty these realities displace on personal family dynamics, where community gardens simply don't flourish all on there own. But I believe a garden, though may be the most difficult project to get up and running in a community such as this, has the potential of making an unimaginable impact on the local people.
The local neighbors have expressed support in the progress I've made in garden clean up at this point, and I hope to spur further conversations as the fruit of the season begins to grow. On that note, I'd like to give a huge thank you to the Parkway Partners nonprofit, for all the wonderful work there doing to support community/ school yard gardens all across New Orleans.

 They provide huge resources like seeds and a community green house and funding for all the gardens. Although currently the school is not involved this year at my site, the hope is that the next school will be ready and supportive of occupying the space for it's original intent, as a school yard garden. As for this year, a huge goal I  have is to further invite the local neighborhood to become more connected and involved in the garden in what ever way seems fit. And really, what would you think would be more inviting, some gardener trying to pull people into a parking  lot full of weeds, or a block full of flowers, veggies and fruits with a great big welcome sign?...... My hope is that the food can start a true conversation.

   One gentlemen, who I will refer to as Robert, has grown to be a  close  acquaintance these past weeks. On my first day at the garden a conservation sparked as I was riding past him standing on the side walk. After a formal greeting, he mentioned that he couldn't be helping out in garden due to the recent open heart surgery he had undergone, immediately pulling up his shirt to point to the large  scar that traveled down his chest. His recovery would take several weeks of rest, but he claimed that his two little yorkies won't let him stay crammed in the house for very long. Robert lives just down the road from the garden and I pass his house twice  a day on my bike route to work. On most afternoons or evenings he'll be sitting on his front steps, and offers a cheerful, "Well all right... how you doin' brother Vincent? You've been doin some more work out in the ga'den?" His smile and cheerfulness bring hope, each time causing  more and more excitement for the next time I see him. His tips and pointers about remembering to always keep my eyes and ears open seem to come from experience and therefore I take it as a sincere support of my  safety. I am hoping Robert will be a continuous friendship that builds through the next year.

  There's another friend I've  made through a pretty ridiculous set of circumstances that fell into my lap, his name will be Marcus....
  The second day to the garden, I have a  lot, filled with overgrown weeds covering mostly everything, that I dove head first into with  a how and a steel rake. This is the end of the dog days and the sun is not shy, the humidity is just about making my soul feel like it's sitting in a sauna. As I'm resting at the front of the tool shed,  Marcus comes rushing in the gate drenched in  sweat and throws his question out in urgency, "You got a shovel?..."
"Uh.. yeah, well, what..." I mutter, as I'm replaying the request in my head.
"I got a truck I got to get out of this ditch," as sweat streams down his face and a blank, breathless facial expression never leaves.....
Now.. A quick pause of the story, I really had several options in this situation, even though at the point in time I will honestly admit there was only one response that came to mind....
"Yeah, I  do... I have more than one... Do you need help?...", In my 'quick to help way to fast to be thought through' sort of way!
And his immediate response, "Yeah! I'm gonna need all the man power I can get! Come quick."....
So of course, both my mother and my site coordinator are at this point in a completely understandable perspective screaming, "No, rethink! rethink! You're putting yourself in the potential hands of trouble and at the least vulnerability."
  But I'll be honest, based on my previous experiences rushing into public assistance situation, I was expecting just about what I found;
1 18-wheel Semi truck
1 Russian truck driver who speaks very broken english
1 intersection way to small for an 18-wheeler.
1 New Orleans muddy ditch on the side of the road.
  All ten wheels of the truck had driven off the road and were now lodged in the ditch.
So it only seemed to make sense, I started shoveling away with another guy that  Marcus gave his shovel to and it seems fairly possible at  first to get deep enough under the tires and jam some brick and wood under. But as this confused, frustrated, and completely stressed out truck driver grew impatient and continuously attempted to drive it out, he' d just end up spinning out the tread on the tires and the front wheels only sunk deeper and deeper into the mud. It was a beautiful site to see, several different strangers stop to lend a hand or throw out a different idea; people working together to help one another. But all help a side, even after me and another gentlemen worked at it for several hours, the driver finally saw no hope and called a towing company. When the tow truck came, the Russian drive took a brief moment to explain to me, "Trucking Driver, never do job, worst job, trust me." He vented to me and another man that he had come to America 5 years back and joined a Russian truck company because his english was too poor for an american company. He told us how his family is back in Russia, and with what little money he makes after the expense of his truck are paid, he sends back home to them. He lives in his truck, a life constantly washing, eating and sleeping in truck stops, and a 700 miles a day average.
With all this, he insisted on paying the both of us for helping him, to which I insisted I couldn't take. He turns to me, "My friend, this problem is my problem. I drive truck, you... you don't know me, but you help. Please, it is for your help."
I walk back to the garden with the shovel over shoulder, thinking to myself...This is the second day of work. What will be next?.  But not to all those who read this elaborated story, with great worry or discomfort, know the next time such an offer is made I will definitely take the time to think things through a bit more. After all, yes the story ended up relativity safe and harmless for me, but the reality of that being my luck ever time is not realistic and it's important to see the potential before getting stuck in a situation.
Give a prayer, thought, toast, or shout out when you get the chance, to this new life of mine; the NOLA YAV community, the J.W. Johnson Community Garden, Carrollton/Pigeon Town neighborhood and it's many members.... And one to the kind, hard working Russian truck driver... where ever he's rollin'.

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