Once in a blue moon—like when I buy a lottery ticket that I just know is gonna be a winner—I think of moving away, perhaps to Costa Rica, Paris, or Greece. Sometimes I dream of moving, say, when the Formosan termites have ascended to our attic, having eaten sizable chucks of our house along the way; then anywhere without bugs appeals to me—what about Montana? Regardless of what dream or nightmare has me contemplating a new zip code, I quickly return to, “How could I live anywhere else?”
Perhaps my Mobile roots created my need to be different from the mainstream, to imagine myself somehow intrinsically unique, if only by belonging to a city and citizenry that’s weirder than dirt. My hometown may be someone else’s cup of tea, but I prefer something stiffer; I need a city spiked with a bit more tang, more complexity.
New Orleans is ripe with flavors that often border on the edge of tainted. We take braggin’ rights over our excesses, while at the same time, these extremes bloat our sensibilities. Our world-famous cuisine delights and devours. As we rack up James Beard awards, we rank consistently at the top tier for diabetes. Our streets are host to “uniquely New Orleans” second lines, music, parades, and processions—and also world-class craters that could take out an army tank. The city is filled with some of the friendliest people you could ever meet, yet our crime rate rivals most any American city.
In 2015, Cheryl Gerber gave us a brilliant photo essay book, Life and Death in the Big Easy. She captures the essence of this dichotomy, this diaspora of reason. Where my words ramble, her photographs state—with clarity—our yin and yang. This town is loving and lascivious, filled with the gifted and the grifters, old school charm and gentrifying newness. So many talents have written, painted, sculpted, and sung of the world of New Orleans that defies logic or comprehension. David Simon’s Treme (HBO’s televised series) showed every wart, every dark side, of this city, without ever betraying his obvious infatuation with her. She’s a love that might require a vaccine to mitigate the dangers.
Recently, I met a woman who, in preparing her husband for their move here, told him that New Orleans will love you and hurt you and that nothing will be easy, and if he was good with that, then fine; otherwise, he should not live here. In telling me this, it was obvious that she felt this city right down to her bones; she was unabashedly proud, but with a jaundiced eye keenly focused on our realities here. She apparently had stressed the enchantment of New Orleans because they are both here now!
Our new New Orleanians will sink or swim depending upon how they come to terms with their new home. And first, and most importantly, they need to “own it” from the get-go. When asked if you are local, do not hem and haw—if you live, work (or school), vote, and/or have a library card here, then you are local, and don’t let anyone say ya gotta be born here to claim it as home. It doesn’t matter if you have only been here a month, you are now a New Orleanian—so own it and be one! Also, I beseech those in the process of moving here not to roll over and accept that ridiculous rent quote—tell that prospective landlord that 2,000 bucks is a bit high for a one-bedroom and that all the granite-topped counters in the world do not justify this highway robbery for rent. This used to be an affordable place to live.
One thing that truly separates our people here is our talkative nature. A neighbor of mine from Boston was about to move away and return there for grad school, and she lamented how much she would miss the way even strangers here take the moment to say hello and engage in conversation. I suggested that she “pay it forward” and carry that trait of our town back to Boston. She looked skeptical. Bostonians, she explained, just didn’t greet on the street like that. Give it a try, I urged, for it is certain that our visitors—regardless of where they hail from—love our hospitality and our chatter.
Every morning as I walk to work, I pass extremes: old ladies walking their dogs, well-heeled suits with briefcases in hand, laborers, joggers, neighbors cradling grocery bags from Whole Foods, tough-looking men working the corners selling their illicit wares, and all greet me with pleasantries. Civility is democratic here. New Orleanians just can’t stay silent when greeted with, “Good Morning.”
Would there be less thugs and bugs elsewhere? Possibly; yet a whole lot less folks to hug as well. But, to be fair, is it all neighborly love here? The warmth of most can be taken out with one visit to the check-out line at Winn-Dixie or just about any fast food joint. The sullen, no-eye-contact silence that slaps you as you place and pay for a bagged burger is chilling. And still, you kinda understand that working for below the poverty level drains a person of cheer.
There are monumental problems in this city that the mayor has yet to address or remove. Growing up in the conservative South, I find it refreshing to now have a mayor and city council that are socially progressive … but every day, I smell pork roasting as construction projects are awarded and with little in return for the community. Example: nearly a year spent refurbishing a NORDC (City Recreation) park and playground, and now that it is open, the outdoor pool has no funding to operate for more than two months. It will sit drained and empty during our hottest months.
This place ain’t for the faint of heart, and yet it can only be loved by those full of heart. Lord, give me the strength to never leave her.