01/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Holiday in St. Bernard

Vacant businesses and boarded-up shops line St. Claude Avenue in New Orleans. Letters CARPETS are fadedly spelled onto brick-walled structures; now a painted sign reads St. Bernard Barbershop. No doubt the family lives in back. On the corner, two black boys of sixteen or so hang their heads outbound, waiting for the bus. Listlessly, they pick up stones from the old streetcar tracks and aim at the window of their former high school.

The St. Bernard Community Center is just a few hundred meters from the main drag. Enormous shipping canisters are piled to the left, filled with food and clothing donations. Needy members from the community wait in front, pacing in second-hand's rhythm for the center to open. A gray-haired man in a seaman's sweater lights a cigarette and nods to a familiar man who's just dropped off by a 1980 sedan. The sun keeps tucking in and out from behind the clouds.

At 10am sharp, a mousy volunteer with a shy smile opens the heavy white door. People flood into the large, cinder-blocked room in hope that the new shipment contains fresh bread, a gently used jacket, or perhaps a toy for their grandchild or niece.

Plastic table cloths in red and green cover 5 card tables, and a plastic Christmas tree stands near the sofa area where counseling using takes place. Today, a hippy acupuncturist volunteers her time. A young man in a pressed suit pours himself a cup of coffee from the communal pot and takes a seat at a folding table reading Legal Counsel.

At the back, workers from Habitat for Humanity and United Way stock the food pantry and clothing shop. Procedurally, boxes are taken from outside, inventoried into laptops, and organized by item on shelves or racks. Since individuals are able to visit the food distribution only once a week, they must sign in and wait to be called. Today's box includes: 2 cans of beans, 3 small cans of mushrooms, 5 Gatorades, a can of peaches, a can of beets, 3 cans of tomato sauce, a bag of Lender's bagels, and a bag of dried dates. This week, there is a large shipment of canned carrots, so there isn't any limit. Some brought a small cart, so they took as many as they could carry.

At the clothing distribution, clothing is snagged just as soon and steady as volunteers unpack them out of boxes: a hooded sweatshirt, a sport's bra with the tags still on, a pair of jeans in good condition, children's footsy pajamas. Hand-drawn signs in blue marker organize the clothing items, but neatly folded articles are soon strewn on the floor. An Asian woman, keeping her eyes on the opening boxes, suggests a pink blouse for her friend.

Elaine manages the Clothing Distribution: You can't let them come behind the counter. They must wait for us to put it on the rack or else it will be World War Three in two seconds flat! I'm telling ya. With a Southern draw and perfectly aged skin, Elaine is an AARP worker. She's a 63-year-old, divorced, New Orleans-native who lives with her son in St. Bernard Parish. She's been in her home for over 40 years and has been working tirelessly to repair her home since Katrina three years ago.

The local government demands that the housing inspector approve Elaine's house by March 2009, but it's highly improbable it will be ready. Every parish is obligated to stipend construction costs; but because of the utter demolition of St. Bernard, skilled tradesmen are in high demand and under-funded. Elaine's home only receives two hours a week of construction help, hardly enough to repair a home that suffered eight feet of maelstromic water.

She says, My son and I redid the floors and the cabinets -- luckily, the electricians came early on -- we didn't have light for like 10 days after the storm. We still have to repaint over the watermarks on the walls. I just hate lookin' at it. Oh, she slaps her leg, and the plumber has to come back - 'cause I don't know what he thought he fixed the first time! Elaine throws up her hands in gentle resignation and sighs, Eventually, it will get done... but, ugh, filing those extensions... With two hours a week, how can they even think that my house will pass? She peels opens another box of clothing.

Judy is in charge of the Food Distribution. Her mustard-colored outfit fits her impeccably and her short, salted hair is neatly manicured at the neck: it is a surprise to see her eye staked on the opening boxes of clothing. On her minute lunch break, I catch a glimpse of Judy in the kitchen, eating beets out of the can. Elaine informs me, She's also a worker from the AARP. It doesn't pay much, but it's an income. What else are we supposed to do for work? The Parish doesn't even have a Walmart.

As I busily unpack boxes of clothing, I also observe. A burka-headed woman complains about Governor Jindal's new Medicaid legislation; a child tugs at her mother's pantleg impatiently, and a seemingly placid middle-aged man stares onto the linoleum with fearing blue eyes. He picks up A Beautiful Mind in hardcover and squints toward the front of the line.

St. Bernard Community Center closes early today for Christmas Eve. Some linger in hopes to scavenge a few additional cans or clothing items. Some just hang out to enjoy each other's company and a cigarette, or perhaps to avoid returning to the reality that waits at home.

This is three years later.