By July, the novelty of "summertime and the livin' is easy" has worn off like sunscreen, leaving behind a vague stickiness, and we realize there is no respite from the elements-other than the threat of a storm. You know it's hot when approaching hurricanes are a welcome break from the remorseless humidity. And the crazy thing is, it will only get hotter before our summer season ends, sometime around early October (with hurricane season still going strong into November). Some folks actually enjoy the simmer of this relentless heat, but most of us stew, sweat, and swear at the world.
My New Orleans-she sure ain't easy. Whoever nicknamed her "the Big Easy" should revisit that thought in the dead of summer, while maneuvering about our potholes on the way to a poorly paying job that can't keep up with the ever-rising rents and utilities. There are endless frustrations; they litter our collective psyche. Yet looking back into the mists of Jazz Fest reminiscences, when summer was merely last year's memory and our attitudes were full of sweatless pride and pleasure, I realize that it's important to make a case for ALWAYS lovin' this town-even when the doldrums of summer sweat can lead you to the dark side. So, I am writing the following now, while in the throes of perspiration passion for my town. Despite summer's weather abuses, I know why I so love living here, even when frustrations reach a boiling point.
I am fond of saying that if I had to pick one-just one-memory to hold on to as a reason to live here, it would be Jazz Fest. Why? Because during the two weeks of Jazz Fest, I am reminded of all the other reasons in the seasons that make living in New Orleans special. While I am treated to the performances of visiting world-class, world-renowned musicians and vocalists, I am moved the most by our own wealth of local talent, who make this town a magnet year-round and constantly draw in the visiting famous from afar.
Watching the Andrews/Hills/Neville/Jordan/Marsalis dynasties (to name just some) take to the Jazz Fest stages, I decide that something must be in the water to make such magic grow here perennially-magic that I'll get to see on a regular basis, even if only in the grocery store or local restaurants. This level of talent is not consigned merely to music. Jazz Fest showcases the crafts, art, books, fashion, and cuisine of this region. Our homegrown creativity is complemented and enhanced by those artists of all mediums who visit us and even go a step further and adopt us as their new home. Nothing stagnates here-we ebb and flow.
A friend once scoffed when I spoke of our city attracting the cultural tourist. I persisted and maintained that we are most certainly a cultural destination, and he countered with how we can't compete with institutions the caliber of, for example, the Louvre. To some, culture is found within a museum-but here, it grows. New Orleans culture is not confined to a wall or a stage-it walks, talks, sings, and sashays down our streets. Our music is carried on a breeze, be it a high school band practice session, a bunch of old men stooping and singing as they coax Marvin Gaye from a beat-up boom box, or a Sunday gospel choir reaching to the heavens.
As for our curated art, it can and should stand proud next to any world-class museum. However, we know that art needn't be housed in grandeur. It can be found in a small house in the Lower Ninth or the Treme. The House of Dance and Feathers and the Backstreet Cultural Museum could never be "contained" within conventional walls-and they are sought out and visited by world travelers.
I have learned that you can't take this town for granted. I did that some years back, and then along came Katrina. Now that was a wake-up call if ever there was one. The world looked to us and wept, and then they came forth and helped us rebuild and save our cultural heritage. I must relive those days and never forget why we stayed and why we all fought to save our city. It was worth it, and even the dysfunctions, disrepairs, disrespect, and encroachment of gentrification-even the damn heat-should never be allowed to sway my love.
Any relationship can hit the skids, weaken, and teeter on the edge of ruin. With any romance, you have to nurture it and grow it and give it some "special" time. Every couple needs a special date night or romantic get-away. The same goes for my relationship with New Orleans. I need-we all need-to see her gussied up and showing her best side, for her to be given a break from the headlines with second lines. Merriment should reign over mayhem, with distinction trumping dysfunction.
But never ignore a beloved's problems. Treat those issues as a challenge to be improved upon. We must tend to our New Orleans, encourage her eccentricities, replace disrespect with deference, and welcome changes that enhance rather than dilute our distinctive culture. Educate to perpetuate all the incredible entities that make this town so damn unique.
So, here I am in the thick woolen-blanket humidity of sweltering July, risking another day of being worn down by the hot mess that this place often slips into. And today, I will rub the Jazz Fest ticket stubs, taped to my mirror, for a little bit of luck and a prayer-to help soften my scrunched-up frown when I see only the negative of New Orleans. And as I reapply my sunscreen barrier against the wrath of summer's sun and annoyances, I shall look back to memories of music, culture, and fabulous funk, knowing they are here year-round, waiting to be appreciated.