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Habitat for (My Magnanimous) Humanity

by Daniel Murphy

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 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.

This story was reprinted with permission from Daniel Murphy's blog, Redacted.

Dan is an editor in New York City. He travels for the room service club sandwiches.

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