Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Requiescat Mr. Jimmy

This post was originally published 6/15/06 elsewhere. We received news this week that Mr. Jimmy Lepre passed away last Saturday after a decline over the last few months, but not without inspiring many of us who met him with his strength of character and loving spirit. Jimmy, I know you are with your beloved again. Bless you both.
On Thursday morning, after our orientation (interrupted by 5 or 6 cell phone calls), Ed began dividing us into work teams and assigning us jobs. Our group of about 10 was--I think--supposed to head to someone's house to do drywall. Ed received yet another call, this one from an elderly man who has needed help assessing what was next in recovering his house.

This gentleman is an active, fit former-fireman. Coming just six months after the death of his wife, Katrina wiped him out emotionally. He has a tidy little nest inside his FEMA trailer, and his house has been mucked out (twice: he paid for the job once, and then called Ed for help when the $3,000 he spent got him a half-assed, unfinished job which Ed's volunteers full-ass finished). The roof was replaced (I think he paid for that and again had to have volunteers finish the job properly). Then he apparently just ... shut down.

One of the things the D'Iberville Volunteer Foundation and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance have done is continue to assess each and every resident. They stay in touch and check in with them by phone and by visits regularly, though they do not force residents to begin or do any work until the individual is ready, assuming their health is not in danger. So they knew that James needed more work done, and they had talked to him about it, but he just wasn't ready. At 84, he wasn't sure it was worth it to him.

He called Ed Thursday morning as we were getting our assignments. In spite of being assigned to drywall someone else's house, Ed switched half our group over to go assess the electrical needs and get started on drywalling James's house. We pulled up across the street from a nice 60's-era brick ranch house which looked--from the outside--clean if a bit careworn. As we exited the van, looking a bit like a circus clown act, we realized we were parked in what used to be someone's living room; all that is left is chunks of concrete slab and a gravel driveway.

On that cheery note...we proceeded across the street into the garage. The inside of the house had been taken down the the stud walls. There were pipes and wires protruding from the ceiling and walls, and there was wrecked linoleum on the floor of what used to be the kitchen and dining room. The rest of the house had bare concrete floors. No insulation anywhere. Windows and screens in need of replacing, standing open like the front door: a lovely old solid wood door too water swollen to close completely. The front yard had a few dead tree limbs and a lot of weeds, the wrought-iron on the porch rusty under the white paint. Not horrible, but definitely not livable. The bathrooms had all their fixtures intact, including the tile on the floor (which, now that I think of it, will probably have to be removed).

Our team that first day consisted of the following people:
Beast, Sparky, me
two youth members: TS and JY
AD, a church member who used to be a youth group leader
another couple from church: MS and LS
a woman who teaches with one of our members: SB, and her two teenaged sons, AB and JB
another teacher, KM, and her family: RM Sr., RM Jr., and SM
Beast, MS, AD and me got started assessing the electrical layout. It was a mess--they ended up replacing everything except the circuit box, and rewiring the whole house. I was assigned a notebook and pencil and followed MS around making a shopping list.

RM and several others began measuring for drywall and insulation. The other women started talking to the homeowner, who insisted that everyone calls him "Mr. Jimmy." Oy. He was very clearly depressed, bent over under the stress of decision-making and despair. Still, he was lucid and able to answer all the questions about wiring and so forth that were put to him, and gradually began to join in the free-for-all. He mentioned that the linoleum in the kitchen would have to come up eventually so that some other floor could be laid. People started scraping it up in the loose spots with spade and some other tools.

Shopping list completed, we headed back to Volunteer Village to get better floor-scraping tools, and then to Lowe's for our first shopping expedition. Mr. Jimmy came to VV and insisted on taking the scrapers back for us, tossing them into his jeep. That was my first hint that as depressed as he was, he is still physically strong.

Long story short: by Saturday, we had his linoleum floor up, including the sticky backing which had to be removed with solvent, there was insulation in most of the walls, and the guys had sweat about 5 gallons each while climbing in the attic.

In the process, several of us had a chance to spend time chatting with Mr. Jimmy. He is a born storyteller, he loves girls, and he is an absolutely charming man. He told us about his wife, and her love of gardening; their house was a showcase, he said, and people used to drive past and take pictures of all the blooms.

So, the women decided to take the money raised by the children in the elementary school where they teach and fix up his front garden: new (easy-care) plants, pulling weeds, paint on the wrought iron on the porch, a soaker hose so he doesn't have to drag the hose around the house.... The dead branches and tree debris was stacked by the street for removal, weeds were shot with Roundup, and the gardens were mulched.

We worked at Mr. Jimmy's Thursday, Friday and Saturday straight through. The rest of the group was doing other jobs: painting one house and drywalling another one, and I did some of the drywalling on Monday, too, in a house just down the block from Mr. Jimmy's. On Saturday after we'd cleaned up the work area for the day, and after to some urging from his new girlfriends, Mr. Jimmy sat down in the garage with all of us gathered around and performed five songs on his guitar. There was not a dry eye in the house. He eventually agreed to come to our camp and do a concert for all of the volunteers on Monday night. It was the loveliest concert I will probably ever attend. There was not a dry eye in the vicinity, and a few audience members were singing along quietly with him.

On Saturday, his daughter and son-in-law, and grandson and great-grandkids arrived for what seems to be their weekly visit. [They live near Mobile.] They had some work to do for him on the house (long story), and they mowed his yard. The little kids (ages 5 and 9) were agog with all the work being done in the attic, and my job that day was to keep them out from underfoot so they didn't get boxes, wires, plugs, tools, etc. dropped on their heads. They are pistols, those two. Mr. Jimmy was grateful for our presence again, for giving them something to do: "They get bored here. There's nothing for them to do," he said.

Both after the concert and before we left his house Tuesday for the last time (electrical completely redone, inspection passed!), Mr. Jimmy told us that we obviously love to work, that he couldn't believe how hard we ALL worked, and that he felt that he might be able to move into the house before the end of the summer. I don't know: he's got HVAC, drywall, flooring, fixtures and plumbing to deal with next. BUT!!!! He was standing upright, smiling, gesturing--a totally new man ready to face life again. I will undoubtedly never seen James Lepre again, but the light of his lifetime of stories and the sound of his voice singing "Bill Bailey" will stay with me forever.

Yes, we helped this man, and some others. But what we got in return is just as valuable, if somewhat amorphous. I feel like I've regained my sense of purpose, reminded myself of strength I didn't know I had, seen the horror of what nature can do to us and been properly reminded of humankind's place in the world, killed some of the stereotypes I've had about Southerners, crossed off a few more states in the list of those I've traveled in/through, and survived another 'camping' trip. I wish I'd been able to eat a beignet (my stomach was not willing to face one), and I wish I could have stayed in D'Iberville longer. I wish these people didn't have to go through this horrible time, and I wish I could understand why someone would want to rebuild a beach house on the site of the one that washed out to sea last year.

Mostly, I can't wait to do this again sometime, somewhere. But only if Irene McIntosh is in charge of the meals!

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