While most Americans have neatly closed the chapter on Hurricane Katrina in their big book of concerns, a certain group of “saints,” united by absurdity and their hopes to make a difference, remain. Three friends and I joined them in their efforts for an alternative spring break this year, and while each one of the volunteers had his quirks, part of me wondered if they aren’t also the best our country has to offer.
“Now, I just wanted to tell y’all, so you know, how much I appreciate you coming down here from all over the country to help me,” Mr. Mason thanked us. “Y’all ain’t just doing a good thing. You’re doing a God thing. Because God sent you all down here to help me.”
While I appreciated Mr. Mason, the man whose home we were working on, trying to thank us, I definitely was not sent by God. My three friends and I had set out from Temple to New Orleans to spend our alternative spring break doing some good and getting really, really drunk. After all, it was still spring break, and this was still New Orleans.
We arrived at United Saints First Street Recovery Project in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans Sunday night. Immediately, we threw our bags on our designated cots and set out for the nearest bar, Igor’s, which is also a laundromat.
We spent most of the week painting a house with a 19-year-old long-term volunteer named Corey, who liked to sit and smoke on the porch all day while we painted.
“I love this,” my friend Noah would say, trying to start a conversation. “It just feels awesome being able to help these people.”
“Yeah,” Corey said with a laugh. “I used to be like you, all excited to build houses. Now, I don’t do [anything].”
He laughed and continued sitting there on the porch, staring across the street at an old man, who was sitting on his porch staring at Corey. I got the impression Corey was neither aware that the porch he was sitting on didn’t belong to him nor that he wasn’t an old man.
It was easy to tell which ones had been there for a while. They were an eclectic bunch.
For example: there was 6-foot-11-inch Big John, who enjoyed constantly reminding us that he was indeed very big.
“They call me Big John,” he would say in his big voice.
“Is it just me or has he said that several times now?” we’d ask each other after he’d left.
Our volunteer drinking partners were three Iraq War veterans, each from a different military branch. “I mean, I was in the Navy,” said Aaron.
The Marine, Dan, wasted no time getting arrested on Bourbon Street for public intoxication, no easy task on one of America’s most notorious drinking streets. And the Air Force guy, Scott, had sex with his girlfriend on the altar of the church we were staying in.
There was also a gluttonous, Bible-thumping group from a seminary in Alabama. One workday, I had the privilege of catching its 400-pound preacher napping on a church pew. Instead of waking him, I used the opportunity to stare unabashedly and wondered how he sits on chairs instead of just enveloping them.
Then, there was Little Bit. The first time we talked, Little Bit told me in a British accent that she had no idea why she had a British accent because she was from New Orleans. She made me friendship beads and asked my friends and me what we were buying her for her birthday. No one knows for sure, but most theorized that Little is an English woman who experienced a bad acid trip and forgot she was from England.
Differences and eccentricities aside, these were people helping people because they need it and because it’s the right thing to do. Our alternative spring break trip was great, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Mr. Mason said we were sent by God. But as we ate the huge shrimp po’ boy sandwiches he bought to thank us, I couldn’t help but wonder whether God knew Scott was going to have sex on His altar.
Greg Trainor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .