I traveled to New Orleans in the summer of 2007 to paint schools and repair homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, which engulfed the city in August 2005. This trip forced me to care—about New Orleans, about friends and family, those with less than me, and those with more. It set a process in motion to work in the service of others that six years later I am only beginning to understand. Life’s ebb and flow is a process full of inflection points and defining moments. And this experience that occurred with New Orleans’ sweat dripping off my sunburnt skin, is one of mine.
I sat on the fractured wood floor of a single-room Baptist church buried in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and rested my back against a white wall rotted by water and now spotted with dark circles. It was early August 2007, and the second to last day of my volunteer trip to paint schools ravaged by Hurricane Katrina almost two years earlier. Sweat dripped from behind my bent knees, slipped down my calves, and settled on the ridge of the dirt-stained tube socks stuck to my legs. On the floor near my right leg rested a black Bible. I flipped through its smudged, cracked pages with my yellow and green paint-stained fingers. Moses melted into Jesus who melted into Paul and the disciples. They all vanished into Revelations.
A few feet in front of me, I saw a decaying white hat. It clung to the edge of a large pulpit smothered in ash and scarred by the elements. I watched as some members of my volunteer group stepped over broken statues and around pictures of Jesus, cautiously making their way through this tiny house of God long ago left to rot. A few others sat on the dust and mold covered pews in the church’s center pointing at the water lines reaching a foot or two below the sole wooden cross hanging near the room’s ceiling. Sitting on the hard floor, I recognized how the entire church had flooded when the levees burst and water swallowed New Orleans. What I didn’t see, or expect, was the life-changing moment just minutes away.
I graduated from Princeton in June 2005. By the time Katrina unleashed its watery hell on the Crescent City that August, I had armed myself as another young warrior waging Wall Street’s battles. I fought with tailored pants, Brooks Brothers shirts, loafers, and an aptitude for manipulating data on spreadsheets. Although I sat in a separate classroom away from the action of the trading floor studying for my financial licensing exams on the Monday morning Katrina struck, I imagine that floors around Manhattan whistled with buzzing phones, clicking keystrokes, and young employees red-eyed and missing the summer weekend that just ended. As the crisis worsened, I picture conversations halting and stunned faces focusing on the news broadcasts playing from the television sets hanging above rows of desks and computer screens.
Business would slow but continue. Somewhere, I envision an oil speculator reaping handsome profits as the price of a barrel of crude jumped to then record levels. I diverted my focus from studying long enough to catch glimpses of panic on the news. Amid the suffering, I felt relieved there was nothing I could do for the victims at that particular moment. I could always sign a check later, I thoughts, and returned to my work.
My budding selfishness sprouted during the next two years. I basked in the status I thought I deserved as a member of Wall Street’s Manhattan. Although I lived at the bottom of the totem pole and my salary paled in comparison to other colleagues, it trumped those earned in nearly any other profession, especially at my age. In New York City’s race upwards, I took my place in line and banged elbows with other runners jockeying for a spot in the middle of the pack. Personal fulfillment escaped me, but I felt content living in gainful dissatisfaction. A world with other needs might exist beyond my west-Manhattan bubble, but I preferred oblivion to consideration.
I spent two years in New York City before I embarked on my solitary trip to New Orleans, which I made for two reasons that did not concern the people of the crisis-ravaged city. First, I hoped to appease the nagging conscience inherited from my family. “You can always give back more,” they said. And “volunteer because every little bit helps,” they urged. I intended to suppress my guilt with this trip, not overcome it. Any giving would remain on the periphery of my life.
My obsession with standing out from the crowd was the second reason I traveled to The Big Easy. I craved distinction from friends and co-workers, none of whom had taken a voluntary trip to paint and sweat inside large, eroding saunas masquerading as schools in New Orleans. For selfish reasons, I wanted this to be my drum major moment, my chance to lead the race and stretch my head above my peers. I expected praise of my kindness to exist long after the act itself had ended.
Without altering my daily life, I planned to appease the guilt I felt for not living with enough compassion while purchasing a warped set of moral bragging rights. I booked my flight and smiled thinking about the future $100-plus per person dinners in Manhattan where I would claim to have done some humanitarian work as I stained my teeth drinking more red wine. I even saw the trip as an opportunity to use my volunteerism as an ignoble pick-up line. Maybe girls would finally flock to me once I boasted to them of all the good deeds on my resume. My life needed an advantage, and I planned for this trip to be it.
Except, while in New Orleans I received something that I never expected, and it hit struck me like a bolt of lightning across my chest.
My memory holds vivid pictures from my days in Louisiana. A permanent layer of perspiration trapped the inexhaustible August heat on my skin. My pores begged for mercy as the sins inhabiting my body poured onto old shirts and soiled sweat rags. For the four days preceding my visit to the church, I lived at St. Vincent’s Guest House, a Victorian-era hostel on Magazine Street less than two miles from the French Quarter. Three-stories of red brick enclosed St. Vincent’s courtyard of wilted gardens and its swimming pool filled with slimy, blue-green water. Massive black iron gates separated the hallways, and statues of Mary declared the Guest House’s history as a Catholic Orphanage.
Our group consisted of elementary and high school teachers from Michigan, members of a church group from somewhere in Montana or Wyoming, a few college students, the employees of the non-profit and me, the watch-me-do-good-deeds financier. We slept on metal bunk beds with thin, decrepit mattresses in one barren-walled room. Cockroaches scurried across our bedroom floor, and long lines formed to use the only showerhead available to wash the mixture of dried paint and grime that covered our bodies each day.
During the mornings and afternoons, we painted the defaced classrooms and hallways of three separate New Orleans schools, each one suffering from a lethal combination of Katrina and years of neglect. We painted around exposed wiring in hallways and above unhinged classroom doors. I observed a courtyard of dead grass through the round bars protecting a dirt-stained window while standing in one school’s hallway. A winding spiral fire escape broke the monotony of cracked sidewalks over-run with weeds and empty concrete walls. Even the graffiti artists had abandoned this place.
As a group, we spent our lunch breaks discussing how a city’s schools could exist in such disrepair. I wondered how I never cared before this trip. We hoped the students of these schools would appreciate our efforts, but felt overwhelmed by how much work still existed. It frustrated me to know that one week of my uneven paint strokes would make little long-term difference.
I painted for eight hours every day. By evening, with my efforts complete, I inhaled New Orleans. I sipped coffee and dropped flakes of fried dough from beignets into my mouth at Café Du Monde. I sat hipbone to hipbone with other tourists on a wooden bench in Preservation Hall while listening to a brass band quartet. In the French Quarter, I gulped drinks of liquor called grenades from giant green plastic containers and ate barbecue ribs and brisket in a restaurant named for a voodoo deity. A seventy-something man and I drank Miller High Life’s at a no-name bar late into one evening. When he joined a two-man band to sing on a flat stage, he let me wear his straw hat as long as I sent him more High Life’s during his set. While volunteering the next day, I vomited from my hangover in the middle stall of a second floor high school men’s restroom. Twice.
I welcomed the fog of such a hangover, though, because it meant I had lived New Orleans the previous night. Even while volunteering, I managed to restrict any good to the margin.
Eventually, the other volunteers and I found ourselves sifting through the depressed rubble of a neglected church while touring the Lower 9th Ward. After spending a few minutes considering the repentance offered by the haggard bible in my hands, I stood and exited the church through an absent side door. While outside, I observed the wreckage with my fellow volunteers. They discussed New Orleans, Katrina, and the incomprehensibility of a proud American city enduring such devastation. Sweat beads spotted the stubbles of my shaved head as I stood on the fringe of the group contemplating my normal day-to-day routine.
I determined in that moment that my life needed more passion, despite not knowing what passion actually meant. This trip changed my perspective about my neat and tidy Wall Street life. I had all the trappings of success, but I felt selfish, uncaring, and unfulfilled. I didn’t know what I was searching for in my life. I only knew I had not found it, and that gainful dissatisfaction would no longer cut it.
I stood awestruck and admired the splintered red church that limped through Katrina’s fury. Standing in that spot, surrounded by a group of dedicated volunteers, I decided that my life deserved more satisfaction. And this decision crushed me.
In a place with so little, I wanted to know how I could want more.