Your employer comes to you and wants you to relocate. The city they want you to move to has a high crime rate with many of those crimes being murders. The public school system is perceived by many to be one of the most deplorable in the nation. The climate is rough with brutal summers with very high temperatures combined with excessive humidity. Many streets are in need of repair and are dotted with large potholes. Housing is not cheap, with the so called good neighborhoods commanding top dollar. The city was also devastated by a terrible storm which exposed a suspect law enforcement and political system and almost seven years later is still rebuilding in some areas. What do you do?
I imagine most would decline such an opportunity and who could blame them? But if that same opportunity were offered to me and my circumstances were different I would do it in a heartbeat. The place I am writing about is my home town, New Orleans. And I understand what New Orleans is.
Now I don’t want my statement to be perceived as a slight against my adopted hometown of Shreveport. My wife and I love living here. We have a lovely old home in a beautiful and tranquil neighborhood. We completely appreciate how we were taken in and made to feel welcome when we decided to make the move. Coming to Shreveport allowed us to be closer to our two profoundly autistic sons who live in a care facility nearby and the people who live here, many of whom are long time friends, are warm and caring. But on a recent trip back to New Orleans to attend a wedding and my high school reunion I was overcome with emotion. I miss my home town and what living there meant to me.
You see all those flaws are what make New Orleans the most human of cities. It’s streets are worn from shouldering the weight of countless cars and bikes. It’s houses are old and strain to offer glimpses of their former youth and vigor. We made a lot of our own stuff and took pride in that. You drank Brown’s Velvet milk, Barq’s and Rex root beer, and ate hamburgers at the Frostop and Bud’s Broiler. We banked at The Whitney,(yes I capitalized The), and shopped at K&B Drugstore. Many of those places have closed or been swallowed up by larger corporate entities. But that life force is still there.
We did business with people we knew. New Orleans was a city forged and driven by relationships. You were introduced to your banker and he assisted you based on the faith he had in the person who brought you to meet him. Your barber knew all the kids in the neighborhood. Your bar tender knew your favorite cocktail. In fact every person you traded with probably knew all your family members and you probably knew theirs.We weren’t obsessed with economic indicators and perhaps not even shareholder return. We were about living a rich and full life. We cheered our sports teams, went to festivals, and grew our families by giving them a heritage unlike any other in the country. We ate red beans and rice on Mondays and boiled crabs on the weekends. We had King Cake parties and watched television shows that we created, like Morgus the Magnificent.
We rode the street car. It was not air conditioned, did not go very fast, and was not the most comfortable means of transportation. But that was it’s beauty. You felt the sun on your face and had to slow down and notice all of the homes and businesses you passed. It made you reflect and observe. My oldest son can only say a handful of words. One of those is street car.
The river runs through New Orleans and it brought the world to us. Now even though the river front is dotted with hotels, museums, and shopping, it still is the blood that pumps the heart of the city. I can remember having my bedroom window open as a boy and hearing the various horn blasts and ship noises that emitted from the river six blocks away and the comfort it offered me as I drifted off to sleep.
We don’t subscribe to the sterile and sleek vision of what living is supposed to be. We accept the so called flaws of our city as you would those of any family member. New Orleanians who meet instantly start the connection process. Where did you go to school? Where do you live? We need to bond like no where else I have ever visited or lived.
I have heard that it costs money to do business in New Orleans and I can neither condone nor condemn that statement. I just understand. My mother would bring food to the policemen at the station in our neighborhood. She wasn’t looking for favors, she felt compassion for those who had to work on holidays. But when she called the police two squad cars would come and all four policemen knew Joyce. It’s not patronage as much as it is relationships.
We don’t wear our faith on our sleeve but we are faithful. No one asks you what church you belong to. Because of the heavy Catholic population many of us went to Mass at more than one church. My wife and I attended Mass at St. Stephen’s and Our Lady of Good Counsel and I was confirmed at St. Henry’s. While in high school I met my friends for Mass at Holy Name of Jesus. We say the rosary and give up things for Lent, especially after having had so much fun at Mardi Gras. And we have St. Joseph Altars, where devoted people open their homes to all who want partake of their faith and love of God and community.
In other cities when they celebrate people sometimes get hurt and property gets destroyed. In New Orleans we know how to throw a party and how to act at one as well. We had a million people on the street when the Saints won the Super Bowl and nothing got burned or damaged.
The Worlds Fair in 1984 was considered to be an economic disaster. But to me it exemplifies our spirit. We decided to throw a party for the world and we did a great job. Did we make money? No. But we weren’t afraid to step out on the big stage, and in the end it created what is now known as the Warehouse District, a vibrant mix of residences and businesses. We are known for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest but we also built the most significant arena in the world, the Superdome. It has hosted Super Bowls, Final Fours, prize fights, concerts, political conventions, and Mardi Gras Balls.
People come to New Orleans to have a good time. Tourism is now an economic necessity and we do all in our power to attract visitors. They eat world class food, listen to authentic music, and walk among our cemeteries and neighborhoods. They say it’s a great place to visit but they wouldn’t want to live there. I feel sad when I hear that, not because it angers me, but because despite our world wide welcome mat I know they don’t get it and I can’t explain it.
When my wife and I got married we were going to live and work in New Orleans. We were going to raise our family there and teach our children to be careful but also confident. We wanted our children, by the time they came of age, to have been exposed to all the cultural significance of the city but also to have been raised in it’s image. To be warm and friendly individuals comfortable in their skin. Strengthened in the knowledge that they were living in a place like no other. A city that was in symbiosis with its residents. Life got in the way of that dream, but make no mistake my two boys are sons of New Orleans. They were born at Southern Baptist Hospital and loved to go to Audubon Park, the French Quarter, and the riverfront. They slept soundly in their car seats no matter how many pot holes we hit, and equally well in their strollers even if the heat was oppressive on that day. Despite their mental challenges they understood inherently what others could not.
New Orleans is often criticized as much as it is acclaimed. For those who offer opinion from a distance all I can say is you are welcome to speak your peace but just know that you probably don’t get us and probably never will. The city, like its residents, can take a punch and get back up off the floor. It can get back up because it’s sons and daughters will raise it up, again, and again, and again.
I get to go back to New Orleans in three weeks for business reasons and will have to endure the awkwardness of sleeping in a hotel room in my home town, instead of my own bed in my own room. But any room will do if it allows me to walk among the people that I share a common heritage with, even if just for a few days.
If you don’t get it please know I understand why. I just wish I could explain it better.
Beautifully written. Although our children were born here in Shreveport, they both know “home” is New Orleans and we go every chance we get. Thanks for making me smile.
Merrill, that was so well said. You have a way with words…..next time you return you should consider my house across from Langensteins for a stay…..it beats the hell out of a hotel room. Go on VRBO and look up listing #268863. You know the house ….. Let me know if you ever want to stay.
Merrill, your words hit home for me…. I too miss my city…Although I now live and work on the northshore, I often think about my past life growing up in the Irish Channel…attending both St. Mary’s & St. Alphonsus churches, grade school and high school all within a three block radius…. My soul is still there. Luke
This past year (2008) after Nagin toasted Rex on Fat Tuesday, he scmeraed YO! SOMEBODY HIT MEEEEE! and the DJ at the Mayors stand began to play Doin The Butt . If you dont know the song, look it up and you’ll catch my drift. Hardly a song for a family affair or ANYTHING do with the spirit of Carnival or the culutre of the Crescent City. But then again, it is Nagin ..(Hopefully someone will post video, I was there, but with no camera)
Merrill, throughout my travels I have have tried to describe Our city. Its a complex but yet easy endeavor. You are so correct in your blog. I have often used the phrase ” Organized Chaos” as a description of Mardi Gras. A very diverse place to live for sure. Trying to explain the big “C” from the little “C” in the Creole classes. How the village truly raised the children in our neighborhoods. How Politiclly incorrect our city is, in a time of Political Correctness. Many people didnt understand how nothing really got going in New Orleans after Katrina, until Gen. Honore came in and started kicking butt. Why. Northerners (FEMA) cant understand or speak the language needed to be productive in our establishment. To deal with that crazy environment, you have to be crazy as well. I guess to make a long story short. As one great New Orleanian (Harry Connick Jr), “To understand the language. You got to be born onthe banks of the Mississippi”. Great writing Bro. I miss walking on the Neutra ground myself.
I was pleased to have been included in your mailing of this great description of NOLA and the particulars of the city. Although i grew up in Shreveport, as I’m sure you know with Dad having been a professor of English at Centenary for 57 years, I did spend a couple of years living in NOLA after I graduated from Centenary working as a PA in Ophthalmology for Robert Azar. That was my first real exposure to the uniqueness of New Orleans and my first exposure to Mardi Gras. My wife Penny Megison Labor and I now make regular pilgrimages to the city every Mardi Gras as co-owners of a float in the krewe of Tucks and to visit life-long friends as often as possible. What a wonderful place and what an eloquent piece you’ve written describing the nuances of the Crescent City. Hope you’re well and that you continue writing…my Dad would be proud of your writing skills! (as are the rest of us judging from the responses you’ve received). I was so disappointed after hearing some responses from the talking heads on TV about the city after Katrina (eg: “don’t rebuild the city, its not worth it”) . Obviously, they just don’t get it and probably never will. Well done my friend! Kirk
I recently had the pleasure of visiting NOLA. It’s where I fell in love with my soulmate…my twin flame. We don’t own a float together, but who knows what the future may hold. The city is magical and will always be near and dear to me. What a beautiful well-written article! Merci!