It was time to get back on the bus so we left Austin and headed off into the night to camp near Houston. We camped in another gorgeous setting, surrounded by trees on green grass. Along the trip, most of the campgrounds had warm showers and power for charging phones, cameras and laptops – it was a daily mission to charge electronics for the next day. Even though we were averaging about four hours of sleep each night, we had plenty of energy each day. One of the best things about the trip was rediscovering the joy of camping. It's much cheaper than staying in hotels and America has a wonderful park system that is overlooked by many travelers.
Sean Penn - Dirty Hands Camp|
The next morning we drove into Houston and visited a community called Manchester that is surrounded by oil refineries. It reminded me of San Pedro in Los Angeles, a place that used to be beautiful but has been savaged by the oil industry. There were refineries across the street from playgrounds. We were told that children in the community are 54 percent more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia and heart problems due to air pollution, yet the corporations deny they are doing any harm. We spent time cleaning up the streets by removing garbage from oil stained ditches, and then we helped organize a bone marrow drive with Pat Pedraja, the 13-year-old founder of Driving For Donors, who is living with leukemia. He was on the trip with us to write about it for an organization called Do Something and was a constant source of inspiration.
There was a local TV crew present and the PR man from one of the refineries was alerted to our presence and brought us over a cooler full of soda and water that we refused to drink, as we had our own water on the bus. Refusing the cold water was another measure of solidarity that was quickly binding us together. Some of the workers drove around and gawked at us picking up their trash, but one city worker arrived and gave us some gloves to protect our hands. We struck up a conversation with a gentleman who stored molasses, and while we didn't agree with all of his points, we listened and he listened to ours as well.
Pat Pedraja with The Dirty Hands Crew|
He told us that his company had bio-diesel processing plants in Idaho that processed potatoes rejected for use as food, but that they weren't turning a profit yet. I asked him, "Wouldn't you turn a profit if the government forced companies to use bio-diesel?" He agreed but pointed out that the US can't manufacture enough bio-diesel to satisfy our energy needs. Then, Aim asked about growing hemp as a bio-fuel. He told us, "Sure, hemp is a better plant for use as a bio-fuel and we could grow more of it, but you can't just convert a refinery that is designed to process potatoes into a plant that can process hemp. You need different machines, and we aren't going to tear down a potato processing plant that we've already built to build a new one to process hemp." He was nice about the discussion, and it illustrated that corporations will only get serious about bio-diesel when it's a proven cash cow.
We were almost to New Orleans, and we had already experienced so much, growing as individuals and learning about the challenges that face our communities. We stopped in Baton Rouge to pick up Penn at the airport. His flight was delayed and he told Cleve to leave without him; he didn't want us waiting around at the airport for him, but really, the airport was a welcome break from the bus, with lots of power outlets to charge our gear. So, we ordered pizza for the group and waited. Cleve told Penn that we left, so he was shocked when he came down the escalator to our surprise-serenade with a song we had learned:
We are the dirty hands
We travel across the land in a caravan
We are the dirty hands
People don't know why
But they'll understand
He was humbled. He made a beeline for the exit to puff down two cigarettes in rapid succession and thanked us for being there. It was a cool moment on an extraordinary trip.
The performer Everlast was with Penn, just another person who had heard about the trip and wanted to join us. We had picked up about ten people on our way across the country, and as we drove the last few hours into New Orleans, our apprehension at what we would see in the city grew.
New Orleans, LA - The Dirty Hands Caravan|
We watched Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke to get a primer on the hurricane and its devastating effect on the city until we arrived at Noah's Ark Missionary Baptist Church that night. Pastor Willie Walker met Penn when he had courageously entered the city using his own resources to try and do what he could, using a boat to pluck people off of rooftops.
Since the hurricane, Pastor Walker's church had been featured on the show Extreme Home Makeover and had been given a $1.7 million dollar remodel. It was beautiful, shaped like an octagon, with bamboo floors. We camped out in the backyard of the church, located in a rundown part of town, illustrated by the fact that we had two policemen guarding us while we were there. We enjoyed a home cooked meal at the church and later that night, Everlast gave an intimate performance on acoustic guitar in the church. It was another special night – some people danced while others enjoyed the music from the floor. Eventually we went to sleep around 2:30 in the morning.
At 4:30 a.m. I was woken up by the sound of thunder, seemingly right above our tent. The sky looked angry in the pre-dawn gray. I was exhausted and thought we could ride out the storm in our tent, but there was shouting outside and we learned that we were being told to get inside the church. Rain was falling in buckets. I was soaked immediately, but it felt good to get washed off, and I'm from Washington State, so rain doesn't bother me. We grabbed our valuables and joined everyone else inside.
The storm continued for several hours. People were scared and cranky, cooped up in a small place. We were being given a very small taste of what it must have been like to be at the Super Dome during the hurricane. Penn nervously paced on the porch - the storm was affecting our plans for the day. Just when the collective mood seemed to be darkest, one of the Danish kids played American Beauty through the PA in the church. Almost immediately, the vibe changed as barefoot children of the '70s and '80s danced on the bamboo floor to the mellow Grateful Dead masterpiece. A middle-aged mom who was on the trip kept shaking her head in amazement that 20-somethings could know every word. Heck, even I was impressed at the musical knowledge of the kids. There is nothing better than seeing a new generation turned on to the Dead.
The rain stopped and it got warmer. Our presence, combined with the weather, had left an indelible stain on the church property, so a few members of the group stayed to clean the church for Sunday services the next day, and the rest of us took the busses to the 9th Ward.
Pastor Willie Walker at Noah's Ark Church|
With The Dirty Hands Crew
Even after watching the DVDs and hearing about the destruction, nothing prepares you for the vastness of the carnage. At first it looks pretty. The roads crisscross like patchwork, with green grass everywhere. Then you realize there are concrete steps where there once were houses, stretching for miles along the rebuilt concrete levies. Each stoop is a gravestone for a home. A couple FEMA trailers dot the landscape, along with the odd damaged, listing house, like bodies not yet recovered from the battlefield.
There is an organization in New Orleans called Common Ground that is made up of young people from all over the country who have put their lives on hold to come to New Orleans to get the community up and running. They are headquartered in the Lower 9th Ward, and every day they work to tear down homes or build gardens or paint houses for the residents who were able to come back to their homes after the storm. Most people had nothing to come back to, but those who did need our help to rebuild the community. It's a daunting task, and there are no signs of a concentrated government effort to rebuild. I did not see any bulldozers, just lots of buildings with X's on them marked for teardown. The people we met from Common Ground told us a little bit about the failure of the levy in the Lower 9th Ward. Despite the severity of the storm, the levy would have survived had a barge not broken from its moorings and smashed into the wall keeping the water out. This caused a massive breach and ten feet of water to flood the entire area. The black water submerged houses miles from the levy breach, and the barge's owner or insurance company were not held responsible for the damage the barge did to the levy and community because of legal loopholes.
After the hurricane, I read opinions in the news that the area should be abandoned, but it appears this is just setting up a land grab for developers to remake the area. This land belongs to the people that were there before the storm. The levies have been rebuilt, stronger and higher than before, and the residents should get their land and houses back. All they want is a return to normalcy. But, it wasn't our mission to decide whether or not the 9th Ward should be rebuilt – we were there to help, so we did what we could.
Dirty Hands working in NOLA|
One of our jobs was going to be tearing down these crumbling homes, but the rain had made this unsafe, so we split into teams. Some of us brought food to the massive tent city that has sprouted up. These people are homeless but they have jobs. Due to a lack of affordable housing, they are forced to camp underneath an overpass. Another group went to a church to help out and other members of the Dirty Hands rode around on bicycles with a Common Ground worker, helping anyone who looked like they needed a hand.
I joined a team that was going to a house to help a woman who came back after the storm and had recently lost her husband. Her husband had been confined to a wheelchair before the storm. He survived the hurricane, but succumbed to health problems earlier this year. We created a stone path, landscaped a garden, cleared some rotten wood and painted. We worked together as a team doing the light labor under the watchful eye of our host. She kept saying, "Bless you, bless you. Oh, thank you so much. You don't know how much this means to me!" She was the only one on her street who had returned after the storm, and the street was eerily quiet, free from the sound of children or traffic. Each of us had moist eyes as we worked in silence. She brought us water and pointed to the faint stain on the outside of her house where the water had crested. We were at least two miles from the levy, and the water had reached nine-feet. The scope of the flood is more than most people can comprehend.
Our work completed for the day, we rode back to Noah's Ark to enjoy some more food and share our experiences from the day. Since there were no showers at the church, we were shuttled over to Tulane University to clean up. Still, it was Saturday night in New Orleans and we were ready to enjoy the French Quarter. Specifically, our goal was to check out M.I.A., who happened to be playing that night. Even though the show was sold out, a group of us managed to get in and we got up close and personal. It was a wild show, much better than the overcrowded Coachella performance, and M.I.A. rocked the house.
M.I.A. :: 05.03 :: New Orleans, LA |
Sunday morning we attended services at Noah's Ark. It was the first time many of the kids on the trip had witnessed a Southern Baptist service and the energy and cadence of the worship and sermon were a cultural revelation. After the service we split into groups again. Aim and I opted to visit the New Orleans Jazz Festival and help pick up cans and bottles from the concert field. We got to hear sets from Santana, The Raconteurs, The Neville Brothers and The Radiators while we filled six huge bags with empty beer cans before it started to get dark.
We arrived back at Noah's Ark and found out there had been a drive-by shooting one block from the church. It wasn't directed at us, but the threat of random violence weighed heavily on our minds. New Orleans has experienced a rise in crime born out of frustration, poverty, anger and helplessness.
The next day we were scheduled to leave. Some of us were frustrated that we couldn't do more – we had journeyed all this way and we were leaving already?
The trip has been so hastily planned that it wasn't perfect, but the intentions were pure. Penn told us that his goal for the trip was simply to raise awareness, to try and jumpstart a movement. In this respect, he succeeded. It was up to the participants on the trip to remind other people to do things like pick up their cigarette butts or recycle their bottles. I refrained from preaching about the environmental damage that eating meat causes and just tried to stay positive and lead by example. Of course, there were people on the trip who weren't focused, but the absolute angels we befriended more than made up for a few bad apples.
New Orleans, LA - The Dirty Hands Caravan|
Oscar and Alison encouraged those without responsibilities to stay, and sure enough, about 20 kids stayed behind to continue the mission of The Dirty Hands Caravan. As much as I would have liked to stay, I had obligations back home.
In the past month, they have set up a non-profit organization, continued to help other churches rebuild, secured housing for volunteers to come back to New Orleans and work, and started a number of community outreach programs including after school mentoring for children so they have a safe place to learn.
The Dirty Hands Caravan was whatever you wanted it to be and there were enough bright rays on the trip to shine a light on the problems that any group of 150 people will encounter. The singular, simple goal of helping people each day was more rewarding than I can put into words. Any other problems in your life take a backseat when you are helping others. It was a social experiment wrapped in goodwill, and we were willing participants.
The trip back to L.A. gave us ample time to reflect on the trip and cement our new friendships. A month after the trip, dozens of the Dirty Hands got together in Hollywood to attend a screening of the Third Wave and get drinks. Reconnecting with our friends, getting updates on the work being done in New Orleans and making plans to go back and help further made me realize that the trip was a success. A spark has been lit within a bunch of us, and our work is just beginning. We are The Dirty Hands, and we welcome you to join the party.
The Dirty Hands|
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