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New Orleans Stereotypes

15:30 March 31, 2015
By: David Vicari
[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]

New York is a fast-moving, no-nonsense place with street hot dogs, Broadway plays, and a romanticized hustle and bustle. Los Angeles is a dreamy, suntanned, traffic-ridden sprawl of actors and surfers. Chicago? Deep-dish pizza and the Italian Mafia. America's greatest cities all come with a list of qualifiers-"facts" about the city that people know whether they've visited or not. Of course, a city can be great without being famous, but it can't be famous without stereotypes.

The original definition of "stereotype" was referring to truth. It was "something conforming to a fixed or general pattern." The modern connotation, of course, is based on this pattern being over-simplified, generalized, and often prejudiced. "Stereotype," at times, approaches a curse word; it is a negative, unfair conception of a group or place that hinders, harms, and feeds the judgmental agenda. But we can't forget that original definition: it came from a copy, an accurate representation of something. However unfair they may be, there is always some truth behind stereotypes.

Now, I'm nervous to even write this article because I've only lived in New Orleans for one year, and one stereotype I associate with this city is a fierce, almost frightening localism. During my first two hours in the city, when I was falling madly in love, I exhaled to myself, "I must move here." A local overheard me and, dropping the Southern hospitality that usually flows like milk and honey, snapped, "We have enough people here." Maybe she was just drunk (another cliché), but I must say, any city that has faced the struggles this one has deserves a fierce native pride.

I'll probably always feel guilty and embarrassed for something I can't control: for not being born here. In my first year, I've seen the friendliest people I know turn rude when I mispronounce a street name or don't know about Super Sunday. The part of this attitude that comes from distrust of outsiders I totally understand. But that is another article. These are the conceptions that I had as outsider, and the insights that now, as a resident, I feel allowed to express.

What danger is there in the stereotypes of New Orleans? It's a city with a vast and necessary tourist economy, so I'd say little to none. Sure, the greater public may consider us a city of alcoholics. A city of indulgence. Sure, that may offend those hardworking sober souls out there who earn their paycheck with a hard-fought week. But to put it frankly, stereotypes bring wallets.

Conventions, bachelor parties, honeymoons, every technical holiday, countless festivals and Mardi Gras, the city's party reputation is unparalleled. But an aspect of the partying and inevitably, the drinking, that outsiders may not consider is something I refer to as the Whitewash Syndrome. In Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Tom tricks the town of kids into doing his chores for him by forbidding anyone from whitewashing the fence. As soon as you forbid something, it becomes an elusive treasure, something only the elite have access to. No matter what it is, its inaccessibility makes it desirable. In nearly every other American city, alcohol laws are so strict as to make having a beer in the street a crime worthy of jail. In New Orleans, where alcohol flows freely and the stigmas are minimized, people know how to hold their liquor. It's the tourists vomiting on the street, never the locals. Natives can hold their own because alcohol isn't a forbidden treasure, it's an aspect of life. In my first four months of life here I went from beer, to whiskey and coke, to Maker's, neat. My liver was pickled in no time and with zero disasters. Unlike the college rush to build tolerance, littered with embarrassing nights and photographed mistakes, I was able to become a champ by just living normally and sanely by New Orleans standards. (Granted, I was living in the Quarter.)

As for drinking on the street? All that does is multiply the social arena tenfold! In any other town, people get in the car headed strictly from point A to point B. The time in between is devoted to transit. In New Orleans, step an inch outside your door and you're in a social realm. You don't have to wait till you get to the bar to have a drink and get chatty, you can meet a friend on the sidewalk. New Orleans is a place where people look you in the eye, ask you how your day was, holler if you're looking good, and show no shame in breaking that social barrier that most cities are bound by. The public sphere is everywhere, and interaction is the norm.

Inevitably linked to the drinking culture is the laid-back internal clock the city seems to operate on. "Late" isn't accurate because "late" implies a mistake, a hurried rush to get somewhere after obstacles have ruined your timetable. In New Orleans, the overall schedule is a little slowed. For a city with great rhythm, the tick-tock isn't as consistent as the snare drum of St. Aug's high school band. Much of this phenomenon, I attribute to the Latin influence of the culture (it being no secret that Latin America is known for being on its own time schedule: one of many Latin traits characterizing New Orleans).

But I can't help taking a chicken/egg approach to the time factor. Is it the laid-back approach to schedules, arrivals, and start times that makes for an indulgent place? Or is it the indulgent habits that create a scheduled lag? I can't be on time; I'm hung over. I can't be on time; life is about enjoying yourself. Either way, the end result is a priority shift, people here survive and relax, survive and relax. It isn't the crazy tunnel vision of focus associated with NY or the socialite, nervous back-patting schmooze of L.A.

The social life here, however late it may be running, seems to have its motivations in order. Live to enjoy; sure, we have our flaws, but let the neurotic workaholics have some other town. Maybe that's a function of living in such an old place. It feels both invincible and on a constant precipice, having gone through so many transitions, so many storms of the political and literal variety. Why not kick back? The city will still be here. Why not kick back? We may lose everything tomorrow.

I have to mention the vocabulary that accompanies timing in the Big Easy. In no other place that I have lived or visited have people used the preposition "for" to describe a time. I didn't understand people in my first months here. What do you mean the game is for two? Two teams? Huh? Most of America (it is only humble fear that keeps me from saying the rest of America) says "I have work at nine. The meeting is at noon." At is precise. There is only one minute in the day when 3:00pm is accurate. "For" is vague; "for" is flexible. If you have to be somewhere "for 7," there is room for error. What can I say? Even prepositions are unique in this town.

If we consider stereotypes as the most widely broadcast ideas about something, then it is impossible to talk about New Orleans stereotypes without discussing the media and thus, HBO's Treme. Its popularity gives the viewing public a near-constant IV drip of expectations. Focusing on crime, corruption, music, food, and the overall struggle post-Katrina, it portrays a city of the recent past to a present audience.

Yes, New Orleans is dangerous. Yes, there is a high murder rate, and yes, it is a culturally unique place full of music and food found nowhere else. But it is also just a place where people live and you have to wait in line at the bank. You go buy groceries. You sit in traffic. I thought I wouldn't be able to adapt to the magic of this city. I thought every day would be a crazy adventure tornado. What I realize now is that the best part of these stereotypes is their root of truth. In this town, life can be a delicious, musical, dangerous, drunken whirlwind. And sometimes, if I'm feeling cliché, it is.

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