Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Habitat for (My Magnanimous) Humanity

Going in, I imagine the experience will be like “Extreme Makeover,” with a horde of eager volunteers descending upon the neighborhood, cleaning up the ruins and leaving in their wake a cluster of five-bedroom Classic Victorians as well as lasting memories of brotherly love and the triumph of the human spirit. I imagine sobbing families seeing their new homes for the first time and Scott and I bursting through the front door, bounding across the lawn and hugging them, whispering in their ears, “Welcome home, Black family. Welcome home.” I imagine all these things while sleeping in the back seat of the car somewhere between Nashville and New Orleans. We are already late for our first meeting.

We get there 20 minutes into orientation and walk in on a group of about 30 people sitting on folding chairs at Camp Hope, a hollowed out warehouse decorated in the style of “dirty.” There is enthusiasm in everyone’s eyes, even ours despite pulling out of the driveway of a Doubletree nine hours before and not stopping until this dirt driveway lined with tools, hundreds of shovels, hammers, wheel barrels – instruments designed so that physical labor might exist. Still, we’re here with 30 other people who, same as us, woke up one morning and said, “I want to help.” Or, “I want other people to think I want to help.” Or “I still can’t believe I get to do this instead of 30 days in jail.” We’re in this together.

They dim the lights and commence a PowerPoint presentation that begins by showing images of people hugging one another, clearly satisfied with their accomplishments, progressing from here to Useful Tips and Suggestions, such as “There are no bathrooms, so if you have to go to the bathroom, hold it; if you can’t hold it, sweat it out,” and culminating with pictures of which poisonous snakes and spiders to avoid. Here, I am tempted to raise my hand and ask, “I’m here to volunteer, am I in the wrong section?”

Our first day, we arrive at the meeting place fashionably late after sleeping through the alarm and thinking, “We’ll just get breakfast when we get there,” forgetting that “there” is “a devastated section of the city with no electricity or commerce.” Of course, after 40 minutes of driving around neighborhoods with no signs of life, let along signs of bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, we conclude that arriving on time for our first day isn’t as important as eating. Because obviously we wouldn’t perform our best volunteer work on an empty stomach.

After following GPS as it leads us to numerous Dunkin Donuts that ceased to exist many months ago, we finally find a diner. We order our food and sit at a booth in our still clean work clothes smiling at each other thinking, “I could get used to the blue collar life.” On our way out, we do this, despite now being an hour late:

We are not what Habitat for Humanity had in mind when it asked for volunteers.

At the meeting place, we are informed of various safety procedures (“Watch where you swing your hammer,” “Don’t rest the electric saw on your leg,” “Don’t let your heart burst from all the goodness swelling up inside,” etc.) as well as rousing speeches about not only building a house, but in turn building a community, and in turn a city. It is powerful stuff, but I imagine if I had had the opportunity to give a speech I would have made an allusion to “the overflowing waters being no match for our overflowing generosity.” But that’s just me.

Finally, around 9:00, we arrive at our work site. Today we would be cleaning out and gutting a house in the hopes of preventing it from being condemned. The house is a two story brick structure on a small lot of property, lined up on a block full of similar houses stretching in either direction. Every house is empty. Most houses have a heaping pile of trash out on the front lawn. Ours does not. That is our job.

We walk in the front door and I am overcome by the mess. It was like there had been a frat party, only the fraternity was comprised of bears; OR, it was like walking in your house and realizing you had been robbed, only the robber was God and he hated everything you owned. (I couldn’t choose which one I liked better.) Either way, the only thing to do was ignore any desire to hesitate and pick up the thing right in front of you (a toaster) and throw it out on the front lawn. They told us the goal for our 12 person team was to at least finish gutting the first floor of the house. I thought, “We’d better work faster than that if we’re going to install the Jacuzzi on the second floor by Friday . . .”

The rest of the week we worked on building a brand new house in a different neighborhood. For the most part we worked with the same group of people. There was Boss, a tough girl/woman who was either 25 or 35, depending on whether she had her sunglasses on or off. We never called her anything but “Boss” and she either loved us for it or resented us. Clearly she was an ambiguous figure, however one thing was decided for sure – if, like in the movies, she was choking Scott and Scott was choking her, Scott would pass out first.

Then there was June Carter, a late-40’s year old woman who had the same conversation with us every morning about where we were from. When we took a picture with her and she commented, “This would make my husband jealous!” we decided that her husband had been dead for 15 years.

Then there was Keith, who ran the whole site and was like the father you always wanted but he never wanted you. As we shook hands with him on our last day, Scott and I had this conversation:

Scott: “I just hope he liked me.”

Me: “I don’t think he even recognized me . . .”

There were many others, including Kelly (so sweet she would apologize for being angry), Paul (looked like Andy Dick), Hoss (looked like Boss), and Blue (a 70 year old man who swung a hammer like a soft breeze but had a heart of gold). And without giving you a day by day rundown, I’ll just say that when we got there, there was nothing but a concrete foundation in the ground, and when we left every single wall of that house was standing. So while my plans of designing a “Mardi Gras” themed children’s room may have been a bit premature (not to mention ill-conceived), I can say without reservation that there is satisfaction to be had in the work that is being done there. Good people doing good things.

I could go on about the other things we did there, how I was raped by a shot girl in a bar, how I am now a gambling addict, how I managed to remain injury free through a week of construction work only to strain my hamstring while dancing, but honestly I want to keep the focus on what’s important here. Plus I’m pretty sure I’m approaching 50,000 words and your attention span may be waning.

Listen, I’m not going to sit here and be all high and mighty like “Look what I did, you should do it too.” But without even leaving your desk there is something you can do. (Cue me pulling an adorable little black girl into the camera’s view.) You can give them money. I understand that it’s one thing to donate your time and energy, which are relatively worthless in a market based economy, and totally another to donate money, which can be used to buy DVD’s and cigarettes. Unfortunately, like all good charitable organizations, in addition to people who “care” Habitat needs cash too. So here’s what I suggest you do:

The holidays are coming up. In fact, for our Jewish friends Hanukkah is just a few sundowns away. So if there is anyone in your life who you don’t really like, but, for reasons either political (a boss), social (an old friend who is kind of slutty now), or familial (step children) you have to buy them a present, why not make a donation in their name to Habitat for Humanity? It’s a win for everyone – Habitat, because they get the money they need, the person receiving the gift, because they hate it, but can’t say they hate it, and you, because you have changed the world with the added benefit of ruining someone else’s Christmas.

It’s just a suggestion. If not, you can always just give someone the gift of yourself, in all your selfishness, maybe even wearing a homemade t-shirt that says “Hey, I didn’t break the levees . . .” Either way.


Blogger Kelly said...

Man, that was perfect. There are so many contrived tales this time of year; yours was hearfelt [I think].

It definitely will resonate in the minds of your readers - as I'm sure your experience will with you.

December 13, 2006 at 1:33:00 PM EST  
Blogger Nina said...

A beautiful, heartwarming post to distract me from the bowels of the workers' compensation world.

Thank you. Now I feel even more guilty working to protect Big Business. Le sigh.

December 13, 2006 at 1:49:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good job!

President Jimmy Carter was on Jay Leno the other night (with Ed Norton, who read a letter that he had written at 8 y.o. to Jimmy asking him to save the animals or somesuch)asking us to volunteer our time / money to H.for H.

I give $100 and 10 hours of service at Christmas (not that I'm supercool...just trying to remember to do my part).

This year it will be for Habitat.

In a commencement speech, Marian Wright Edelman said:
" Service is the rent you pay for living and the very purpose for life".

Thanks for the timely reminder.

To All - Happy Holidays and do something good, please!

December 13, 2006 at 1:58:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You better not pull that charity crap with me.

December 13, 2006 at 2:11:00 PM EST  
Blogger Green said...

I don't quite know how to word this in a way that will make you say yes, but ... next time I want to go on a roadtrip, will you come with me?

Seems like it'd be a lot more fun than going to visit my parents.

December 13, 2006 at 2:36:00 PM EST  
Blogger ducklet said...

brownie, you did a heck of a job.

December 13, 2006 at 3:11:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well with all the charity talk, my attention spam is waning (and perhaps wailing), but the span is still good.

December 13, 2006 at 3:38:00 PM EST  
Blogger Julie_Gong said...

So is that a picture of Scott and Boss or Scott and June Carter?

December 13, 2006 at 3:48:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See, here's the thing: prior to going to grad school I worked construction for many years. The worst thing in the world was having a bunch of people who didn't have a clue working for me. They get in the way more than they actually contribute. You spend more time directing traffic than getting stuff done. Give me five guys who know what they're doing over twenty that don't anyday.

My point is: be very generous in your donation of money. Let's pay the people who know what they're doing to do it, to the extent possible.

This is not to say that by rolling up his sleeves and pitching in Dan was wrong or anything like that. The altruistic impulse is admirable and should be encouraged. But my suspicion is that things like Habitat for Humanity principally serve to make the do-gooders feel good about themselves. Cynical, I know. But making a donation of a week's salary salary rather than a week's labor is more economically efficient and will probably get more done. You still make a sacrifice and you still get to help, there's just no photo op. Just my humble opinion though.

December 13, 2006 at 3:50:00 PM EST  
Blogger Jader said...

"OR, it was like walking in your house and realizing you had been robbed, only the robber was God and he hated everything you owned."

Definitely this one. I've already read the sentence five times over and I'm still laugh each time picturing it.

December 13, 2006 at 4:01:00 PM EST  
Blogger Nina said...

Yikes, A4...

But on the subject of buying your charitable contribution:

Gap, along with other "iconic" world brands (Armani, Converse, Motorola) has been selling it's (Red) line sense October. Half of all profits generated go to AIDS charities in Africa. On top of financial donations, Gap is also providing work in villages* where the majority of the population is HIv positive.*

We may not be able to contribute hundreds of dollars, take time off work, build a house or find a cure, but we can all buy a t-shirt. Or some Chucks. Or a phone. Or some jeans. Point is, you can look good while doing some good, too.

[*Yes, I know Gap's clothing is made in factories where people are paid slave wages. No, I don't want to hear your lecture.]

December 13, 2006 at 4:02:00 PM EST  
Blogger Dan said...

I'm making that last anonymous comment my Christmas card. With a picture of me smiling and holding a sledgehammer on the front even though I'm really crying on the inside.

December 13, 2006 at 4:04:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Dan said...
I'm making that last anonymous comment my Christmas card..."

That's funny, Dan, because I'll be using this one for my cards:

Anonymous said...
"You better not pull that charity crap with me."

God bless us - every one.

-Heather Hans

December 13, 2006 at 4:41:00 PM EST  
Blogger [Cherry] Ride said...

Wow, A4, next time you have the impulse to show us all how much smarter/better you are because you think Habitat is primarily for "do-gooders" who want to "feel good about themselves" you should resist it. Esp. in the comments section from a blog from a guy who just spent a week volunteering for them.

Anyway, nice work Dan.

December 13, 2006 at 4:54:00 PM EST  
Blogger Debs said...

A4 - Here's the problem with your logic, although I understand your reasoning. Habitat builds houses for people who can't *afford* to hire the guy who's bumming around working construction till he goes to grad school. That's kinda the entire point of Habitat. If people (like Dan) don't volunteer, these people don't get a house - it's not an either/or situation.

And what's wrong with feeling good about yourself for helping out when most Americans are sitting on their asses, trying to decide whether to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Scrooged"? (Wonderful Life, by the way. Jimmy Stewart wins everytime)

December 13, 2006 at 5:10:00 PM EST  
Blogger dmbmeg said...

I once went to help build houses in Juarez, Mexico. The only possessions most had there were the cardboard that they used as a makeshift roof and three legged dogs.

while it was a very rewarding experience not showering for about 80 days, I had more fun playing soccer with a bunch of mexicans on a field with hypodermic needles near the goal post. dead serious.

December 13, 2006 at 5:47:00 PM EST  
Blogger sadielady said...

Hey, Dan, where's the picture I thought we were going to get of you with your shirt off slinging a sledgehammer? Now THAT would make my Christmas. :)

December 13, 2006 at 6:26:00 PM EST  
Blogger Meow said...

I used to work at Habitat. You are hilarious. I almost crapped my pants when you described your co-laborers.

Thanks for the Habi-plug.

December 13, 2006 at 8:10:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A4 here. All points well taken. Dan, I realize I cavalierly impugned your motives for donating your time. I apologize, that wasn't my intent. Honestly, what you did was admirable. More people should do it.

As far as it being an either/or proposition, Debs you're probably right. I wish there was enough charitable money floating around that people who needed houses could have them built without the need for donated labor.

Is there anything wrong with feeling good about yourself for helping? Yeah, kinda. You help fellow human beings in need because they're fellow human beings in need. It's your duty as a fellow human being. Denial of self-regard, man. It ceases to be charity if it's about how it makes you feel. Getting gooey about it makes it feel like you're done helping. And you're never done helping. Yeah, it's harsh. But I believe it.

BTW, I didn't slum in construction, my dad owns the business and I put myself through college doing it. He died a little inside when I became a lawyer.

December 13, 2006 at 9:44:00 PM EST  
Blogger Debs said...

Sorry A4 (could you just make that your blogger name?), I shouldn't have cavalierly impugned your pregrad school work ethic by referring to it as "slumming". Somebody's gotta pay the bills.

However, I don't think there is anything wrong with feeling good about yourself for volunteering. I'm not saying you should arrange, as a reward, to have a blow job for every nail you hammer for Habitat, but when a person feels good about what they're doing, they're more likely to do it again (blow jobs included).

December 13, 2006 at 11:08:00 PM EST  
Blogger Janet said...

Isn't funny that we (generally) usually expect wherever it is we're going to have a bagelry and coffee shop? Subconsciously even?

I mean, duh, this America. I'm glad you finally found some food. I'm even more glad to hear that salvaging activist and lending a hand where are troops aren't able to.

Whoops. Won't get into that. I mean, first day tardiness paled in comparison to the deed. I suggest we all travel to New Orleans for a weekend and make some friends.

December 14, 2006 at 3:54:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A4 - you say it's everyone's "duty" to help their fellow human beings, but doesn't fulfilling your duty provide you with feelings of, well, fulfillment?

I did not get the impression from Dan's post that the entire experience was all about his gooey fact, there was little gooey-ness in that post, which really goes to show his heart was in the right place and not "look at what a good human being I am!". And you don't know Dan's motivation -- the 'gooey feelings' may just be the icing on the cake of reasons for why he went down there.

You seriously believe that denial of self-regard (which just sounds like denying your ego - ego in the technical sense, not the colloquial 'arrogant' sense) is a requirement for a charitable deed? Cuz seriously, if you're able to cut yourself off from being aware of, you should get that checked out.

December 14, 2006 at 11:13:00 AM EST  
Blogger birdie said...

This anonymous kid may just be getting on my nerves a touch. I mean, come on. Dan’s blog is about love and sunshine and kittens and the gentle beheading of defenseless chickens. Dan LOVES the chickens.

December 14, 2006 at 11:30:00 AM EST  
Blogger Dan said...

I think we're all getting off point here. Let's not lose sight of what is really important: The fact that I risked my life to do just one bit of good when no one else would. I'm no hero, just a guy who does heroic things well.

December 14, 2006 at 11:43:00 AM EST  
Blogger deezee said...


This post warmed my tender little heart and made the needle on my laughter meter swing wildly. Are you available to provide such a range of emotions on demand?

And I'm clicking on that link and making a donation.

December 14, 2006 at 1:38:00 PM EST  
Blogger missnines said...

So tempted to set the execution fauxto as my desktop wallpaper...

HOW CAN YOU NOT LAUGH? Impossible...

December 14, 2006 at 1:46:00 PM EST  
Blogger greener said...

I dont even know where to start. I"ll start with, I think everyone how has done habitat has that same picture ( holding up the framing walls). Its a cool picture, and its funny to say " hey did I take that one?" Well, not so much to say it..but I digress.

second, glad to hear you remained injury free- i hit my thumb the first day numerous times and felt at the end my forearm was HUGE like Popeyes- but then i'm sorry you pulled a hammy.. while dancing? were getting down!

Welcome home.

December 14, 2006 at 3:00:00 PM EST  
Blogger Caitiedid said...

Since you can't tell who the people are through the coats and hardhats, I'm making the "erecting the wall" picture my Christmas Card, and telling everyone I was there.

I'd hate to get in the way, and feel good about it. Or maybe I'll go take pictures of myself donating money instead. Although, a week of my salary probably couldn't buy more than a handful of nails...maybe I'll specify that it be used for McMuffins for the volunteers.

December 14, 2006 at 4:26:00 PM EST  
Anonymous 8675309 said...

I just want to say that Scott is a cutie.

I'm a sucker for dimples.

btw: welcome back.

December 14, 2006 at 5:20:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Laaw-yuhr said...

As somebody who lives down here, I can assure Anonymous and everyone else that we need all the help we can get. Thanks, Dan. Do you happen to know where in the city you working? Just curious.

Alright, let's get back to the cynicism. This altrustic doo-goodery gives me the heebies.

December 15, 2006 at 9:38:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow and to think we used to have druken conversations about the poor and needy with you "playing" devils advocate and me "screaming" about communism and the need to help our fellow man. Now we can just get drunk and make out with politics out of the way.

December 15, 2006 at 10:18:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, personally, am partial to the God-hates-your-stuff analogy. Excellent work, young man! ;-)

December 17, 2006 at 1:56:00 PM EST  

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