What's really unnerving are those acrid objects you're standing among -- slimy, plastic-wrapped bundles of bed linens and Christmas decorations and rotting rhinestone shoes; powdery photo albums with peeling pictures of parents and grandchildren; anniversary mementos, rosaries, china figurines and hemorrhoid medication: all the heartbreaking and very private detritus of somebody's shattered life. You're eerily reminded constantly that it's none of your business. But if you're gutting houses in New Orleans, it becomes not only your business, but your daily life.
You feel like a mortician washing a corpse. You try to do it with both efficiency and respect.
Gutting a Katrina house -- which costs at least $6,000 if you have to pay for it -- is the first step toward rebuilding it.
But it's not the government who's doing the work, although if you don't start taking first steps by the first year anniversary of that devastating hurricane, the city may well bull-doze it.
So who's helping the unfortunate homeowners? Not the government, but church groups.
Plenty of other church groups, of course, are laboring on behalf of Katrina survivors as well. Indeed, the stressed-out homeowners will tell you churches are the only ones doing anything, that they themselves will never again look with confidence for help from any government agency at any level.
Most of the volunteers are young.
But these young and veteran gutters are superb team leaders, gentle and empathetic with homeowners, firm but politely patient should some of the older volunteers patronize them and try to take over.
They party off-duty like any college kids, and are noticeably devoid of political posturing, save-the-world-itis or the far too common arrogance of the self-righteous. In fact they don't talk much about their beliefs at all. But they shake your heart with their untiring sense of purpose.
"We're not just gutting their house, we're helping them hold a funeral for their former life."
Said one elderly woman
"God sent you all to me. You are my miracle," Ward told the grimy workers, smiling through tears in her white church outfit as she left for yet another funeral. "You can't know how much you've done for me. I feel so blessed."