Monday, April 25, 2005

Work, Animals & Ice Cream Trucks

I know that its been a long time since I had a chance to write, but don't worry I'm still alive and kicking. It wasn't my intention to write about Miami, when I am about to embark on my second project, but it seems that's what has happened. Yes, I survived round 1 of Americorps and I am now on my way to Des Moines, Iowa where we will be spending the next 6 weeks at Camp Sunnyside, a camp for people with various disabilities, which is sponsored by Easter Seals. Like everything, I don't 100% know what we will be doing, but from what I do know it seems like the camp is getting ready for summer and we are going to help their staff renovate some of their buildings, paint murals, build a hiking trail, construct a small ropes course and do office work. Although the summer camp doesn't begin until after we have left, there will be weekend events where we will be able to work with the various campers. I'm very excited. Our team got to vote on our projects this round, this was my 12th choice out of 45 or so projects, and considering we got the 26th pick, thats not so bad. If this project is at least half as fun and exciting as Miami was I will be fine. So let me try to recap and tell you all about working for Habitat For Humanity in Miami. I think when I left off last, our road trip was almost complete.

What can I say, working for Habitat For Humanity in Miami was a blast. I've never worked so hard in my life, but I still cannot get over how much I learned. I have a new found appreciation for construction and I now plan to add building a small house for my family to my list of things I want to do in my lifetime. In Miami we stayed in a community center that is owned by Habitat in Jordan Commons, Princeton, Miami Florida. When I say south Miami, I mean south, we were probably closer to the Everglades then South Beach. This wouldn't have been much of a problem if we weren't working so far away. If was somewhat funny that we were living in Jordan Commons which was a Habitat community itself, all the houses within a 5 block radius around the community center where constructed by Habitat, but we had to wake up at 5:00 in the morning everyday to avoid the crazy Miami traffic to get to work in Liberty City before 7:00. Also, let me remind you of our sleeping arrangements. My team, all ten of us were sleeping 6 inches from one another on the floor of a small classroom in the community center. I'll never forget the first night in the community center. I've never been so uncomfortable in my whole life and after a good 20 minutes of tossing and turning in my 12 inches of space I screamed out "what the fuck did I sign up for." I'm sure everyone was thinking the same exact thing, because everyone lost it and began laughing their heads off. The living situation got alot easier, but the laughing and joking continued. It was very much like camp and everynight we'd laugh ourselves to sleep, until one would proclaim that we had to wake up at 5:00 AM and that we have to shut up and get some sleep. This would usually follow with 3 minutes of silence and then someone would say something stupid or fart and everyone would begin to laugh again. This cycle would continue for at least 3 or 4 times until we finally passed out.

Construction is tough work. For those of you that have never built a house, houses are made of big heavy objects, like wood and cinderblocks that must often be carried and lifted. This requires work and energy, one thing I did not want to do and other thing I did not have at 7:00 AM. And since wwere getting ready for the almighty Blitz Build where the 9 houses that we were working on where going to be finished in 9 days, there were lots of those big heavy supplies. For basically the first week we were there we unloaded truck after truck of cinderblocks, rebar and long, I mean long, pieces of wood. We would have to put all this stuff into these huge construction storage containers and everything had to be placed and stacked exactly according to plan, otherwise we would have to take it all out and do over again. The good thing about the Blitz Build was every week there would be a different college on Alternative Spring Break working with us and second, we got to partake in a large chunk of the construction process. By the time we left we met our goal and had nearly completed the exteriors on all 9 houses. In addition to working with college volunteers, we got to work with various other groups, like a bunch of people from MENSA. The people from MENSA were exactly what I had envisioned, a bunch of old, single men and women, half of whom were Jews from Brooklyn and quite satirical. One of them played in a klesmer band, ha.

A have a disease and the only thing that will cure it is more tie-beam!

To all of you still reading this you may ask yourself, so how do you build a house exactly? Let me tell you. First the land is leveled off and gravel is compressed to make a base for the foundation. Then a wooden mold is constructed for the concrete to be poured into. Before its poured, rebar is placed throughout the structure. This is also when you lay the intial plumbing pipes. All the plumbing and electrical work is outsourced to private contractors. Then the foundation is poured. After the foundation dries masons would come and lay the inital cinderblocks. Since the houses we were building have concrete exteriors (this is because hurricanes are so prevolent, Habitat's standards are actually more stringent then the states, in areas of large devastation, Habitat neighborhoods are easy to spot because in the most extreme cases they are the only ones still standing, sorry for the sidenote) you cover up the cinderblocks with plywood essentailly making a mold so that concrete can be poured from up top creating a solid exterior. This was definitely the hardest part. First off, we had to nail thick plywood boards into concrete. We were given these things called cut nails, primitive like looking nails, that look more like chisels then the traditional spikey head and flat top nail we all know and love to nail the boards in. Getting these things to pierce the wood and then the concrete was the biggest pain in the ass. You would have to hit these things so hard that they would usually spark and burn you before you got it into the wall. So before the mold was done we run more rebar through all the cinderblocks and construct a tie-beam, this is a large rebar contraption that runs the entire length of the house and laid floating on top of the cinderblocks. Then a cement truck comes and pours the house. I'll never forget the first time we poured cement. First it was poring rain. Half of us would be standing up on a scaffold and it was my job to stick these straps into the wet cement that would be used to connect the trusses for the roof. One of the girls below was complaining about the rain and all of a sudden one of the boards gave way and cement came pouring out and all over her. After the house was poured you begin on the roof. At least 10 of us were needed to move these big wooden trusses into the houses. Then using these long tools that looked liked whales tails we would flip these things right side up so they would sit on top of the house. Then we had to nail all these other pieces to the roof, yada yada yada, then you pretty much have the exterior of a house. Building one of these houses is like building a model except the pieces are alot bigger and you have to use cinderblocks and plywood instead of balsa wood and elmer's glue.

Ok, here are a couple of the highlights of our trip. The guy in charge of our house was named Angelo. He was a real interesting guy. Angelo was from Equador and drove an ice cream truck he bought one day when he was driving to the beach and decided it would make a good work van. We would hang out in the van during lunch and he would drive us to Church's Chicken every Tuesday for the Tuesday Special. This was always quite the experience. First the van didn't have any seats, just assorted objects and tools he either found or thought it would be helpful to have on hand. This consisted of a baby crib bed he would sleep on, a lawn chair you could sit on and side back and forth in when he drove, a collection of poted plants, a chicken costume, his pet, a flying squirrel named Angelina and a very special piece of wood, holy wood, palo salto, a wood that is used to make incense in Equcador. Angelo had told us that last time he was in Equador he wanted some incenses from his home country and decided that instead of just buying some it would make more sense to buy a whole freaking piece of the tree the incense was derived from. I remember that he told me that no one wanted to sell it to him, so he had to either trade for it or aquire it illegally. I don't remeber. We would light this piece of wood with his blow tourch essentially baking out his ice cream truck and drive to Church's Chicken playing the traditional ice cream truck jingles on his car and try to sell random things out of his car when people stopped us wanting to buy ice cream. One day Angelo dropped us off at Church's Chicken only to come back three minutes later screaming over the ice cream truck music, come on, get in, get in. He made us jump into the truck while it was still moving. All the traffic behind us honked their horns in frustration. In Equador the buses don't stop for you, he said as we sped away. I still don't know what the rush was.

I also learned that you can use the number of stray animals to quantify the degree of poverty in an area. In Overtown, the worst area we visited during our first day on the job, I counted 14 stray dogs and cats with the occasional roosters. In Miami, people seem to keep roosters as pets. I should also mention that we weren't in Overtown for more then 3 minutes when undercover cops stopped us and asked us what we were doing there. They must have assumed we were buying drugs or more likely a dumb group of kids in the same t-shirt decided to wander into one of the worst crime ridden neighborhoods in the country. Our own worksite of Liberty City was not as bad. We would get the occasional drunk or crackhead that would walk by stumbling and ask us if he could have the house we were building. We also grew very fond of our stray animals. Our favorite was a dog we lovingly named Teets. Teets must have recently become a mother, because she had utters so large that they would smack her in the face then she walked. Everyday, she would be there, either laying in the sand or eating grass outside one of the houses. One day we found another dog, although we don't know if this dog was a stray since it conveniently came with its own leash. This dog didn't like grass, but preferred to eat rocks, hence we named this one Rocks. We ended up taking Rocks to a shelter hoping that he had an owner that was looking for him. We don't know what happened to lovable Rocks. But the best find of all was a baby raccoon we found near the big septic tanks waiting to be installed in the middle of the street. This thing couldn't have been more then 3 days old and was very close to dying. Sarah, one of the girls on my team, decided we needed to nurse it back to health. She just picked it up and I bought it milk, which we fed with an eye dropper Angelio convieniently had in his ice cream truck. He decided to take care of it since we couldn't bring pets back to the community center, so he rapped it up in a little paint tray and put it in his ice cream truck. It seems to be getting healthier, until one day he told us that a lady he knew was taking care of it and fed it peanut butter and then it died. We were all sad but I am skeptical if the peanut butter killed it, I assume since Raccoons eat garbage religiously, they can handle a little peanut butter. Oh well, RIP Ringo the Racoon.
Angelo with Ringo and the chicken nugget

I know that so far I have only been talking about work and animals and ice cream trucks and you maybe asking yourself what did you guys do in your feel time. Good question. The truthful answer is well, not much. We don't have much free time. We worked Tuesday through Saturday and usually sleep, do laundry and try to go to the library on the weekend, but we still did had some fun. We went to South Beach a few times, that was awesome. Many of the girls voluntarily walk acround topless, you don't even have to ask or pay them or anything! We also went to the Everglades. One of our teamleaders had a Aunt who lives near an animal refuge and they took us to this cool animal refuge for exotic animals. We got to play with snakes and allegators and we also went on a fan boat ride. Afterwards we walked around the Everglades National Park and saw some of the coolest looking birds I've ever seen. A few of them had necks like the lockness monster. On the way back we got attacked by swarms of mositioes and we had to run into the van and kill all of them on the way home leaving little blood spots all over the ceiling of our van.

Thanks for reading this. Hopefully I will have more stories to come. Till then see ya.