Paste it in the head!


Monday, June 26, 2006

Thoughts on New Orleans

So, this is the third time I've been to New Orleans.

The first was when I was 17 and was looking at colleges with my dad; we stayed in the French Quarter and toured Tulane but I decided that, because Tulane didn't have a photography program and New Orleans had more visible roaches than Miami, I wasn't going to be able to live here. I think that those sentiments are the entirety of what I took from my high school visit.

The second time was in 2001, after September 11 when flights were cheap, and my then-boyfriend and I spent a week here over New Year's. We were 20 and didn't have fakes so we couldn't go out and drink legally in bars. Instead, we bought Red Dog beer from the vending machine at the hostel and paid whoever to buy the cheapest vodka they could find, which we then poured into a flask and sort of stood on the outskirts of bars. As I said, we were here for a week, staying at a hostel and without a car, so we got to know the French Quarter and surrounding areas really, really well. Every morning we would eat at La Madeleine cause V loved the coffee; that restaurant is now closed, whether from Katrina or something else, I don't know. We went into all of the galleries and quirky little museums and shops in the Quarter. My favorite was the coin and gun shop, which I first refused to go into, being interested in neither coins nor guns, except when they're in my pocket or being pointed at me, respectively. However, it turned out to be one of the most fascinating places I've ever been in. It was a museum of US and world history, viewed through the lenses of money and arms which, after all, pretty much make the world go round. There were old Roman coins and currency from each of the US states before the union; there were swords and muskets and shields. Somehow, we managed to miss the Pharmacy Museum, or maybe it wasn't here at the time, but I've passed by it several times so far, but it's always closed and I can't find its hours anywhere. I love eccentric, single-focus museums. They are so much more interesting than huge institutions, mainly because they reflect the psychology of collecting. Anyway, I enjoyed New Orleans in 2001, though I was certainly grateful to get out of the shitty hostel and go home.

This time, the third time, I've gotten the requisite food tour: the beignets (like crack they're so good), the jambalaya and gumbo and crawfish etouffee, but I haven't been to the Garden District or Bourbon Street (not really worth it but certainly fun people-watching, which I'll be doing tonight), and I haven't seen much of the Katrina damage. When I was 11, Hurricane Andrew hit Miami and shortly after that, my family experienced a personal tragedy indirectly related to the hurricane (no one died, though). The images of Katrina and the resulting fuck up on the part of our illustrious president and his cronies hit me in a way that I haven't been hit in a long time, not even during September 11th. I only knew a couple of people in New York at the time, and I hadn't been there (still haven't), so I didn't really feel a sense of personal loss during those days. The images were horrifying, of course, and I still reflect on how much the world changed that day, but what I felt and still feel for the people who went through Katrina is the empathy of someone who's seen firsthand the damage that hurricanes can cause. I know what it's like to be unprepared, as a city, for the absolute devastation that follows the storm.

I have to say, though, that despite Hurricane Andrew's flattening of Miami and its suburbs, we fared better than New Orleanians. At least we had a city to live in. We weren't driven out by rising waters and governmental indifference. Looting occurred, of course, but not on the scale that it did here. I was talking to a cab driver here who was telling me his hurricane story. He is originally from East Africa but has lived in New Orleans for 15 years. He figured that he could be considered a native because he had hurricane experience. He and his mother left 5 hours before the storm hit and, after sitting in traffic for 10 hours, managed to complete the 200-mile journey to a relative's house. Can you imagine? 10 hours to go 200 miles? He wasn't able to get back to the city for 6 months and when he did, he found that his house, the first house he ever owned, had been badly damaged, first by wind and then by water. Now, the city is at 60% population and while the tourist districts are up and running, the residential neighborhoods haven't fared so well. Many of the people driven out by unlivable conditions were black and poor and there is some indication that the racial demographics of NO are changing. There are more Hispanics here than before, for example, apparently drawn by employment prospects. I don't know if NO is expected to become richer or poorer, or if the original black residents are expected to come back (or are being asked back, as I hope, since this is their home, but doubt, cause this is also the US and those who are poor usually fend for themselves).

So this time, even though I haven't been able to see everything, I've enjoyed the French Quarter and the southern style of the people, and I've decided that I really like New Orleans. It's hotter than hell and the roaches are fierce and it smells worse than any other city I've been in, and it's not always pretty, but it has a charm to it that I think is unique to the south. I loooooove the laid back attitudes of New Orleanians. I love that Mardi Gras happens here. I love the bead trees. I love the hospitality. I love that you can drink on the street. I LOVE the food. If I lived here I would eat beignets for breakfast every day and gain 50 pounds. I love that this is the seat of American jazz. I love the Frenchness that is still so American. New Orleans is one of the most interesting cities in the United States, with a rich history and unique traditions, its own music and accent and food. I still don't know if I could live here--I'm pretty much over the humidity and roaches scare the shit out of me--but I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every minute of my stay here. Sometimes, that which you love the most you have to let grow on you, kind of like a song that you don't get at first and then something about it catches your attention and, after repeated listenings, you realize that its complexity was what confused you at first, and it took you a while to find its heart under the layers, but once you did you knew you would identify with it forever.


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