Monday, August 27, 2007

Parting is such sweet sorrow

It’s early June and our bus just crossed the Mississippi state line, where a sign proudly declares: “Mississippi: it’s like coming home.”

What a bizarre way to welcome visitors into a state. It’s
like coming home, but not quite home. Mississippi: you might want to visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay.

I am confused and humored by these words, and so I write them down in my journal. An hour later, as we drive into Louisiana, I record the words of our state’s welcome sign, which reads: “Bienvenue en Louisiane” as if to remind us that this place is not really part of America— at least not the America George W. Bush thinks of when he says God Bless.

As our bus heads towards Lake Ponchartrain, the large and usually benign buffer between New Orleans and all points north, I begin to ponder what the Big Easy’s welcome sign would read if she were to ever have one.

“New Orleans: City of Hope”

“New Orleans: Birthplace of Jazz”

“Welcome to New Orleans. Ain’t no place like it.”

Ain’t no place like it.
Yeah, you right— as Harry Connick, Jr., one of the city’s many musical sons might say in that trademark local “yat” accent. Ain’t no other place where the thought of car-eating potholes, smoky jazz, French courtyards, outdoor parades, football, hurricanes, food, quirky architecture and a truly unique way of speaking can fill you with incredible nostalgia— a nostalgia and indelible charm that has been known to overwhelm New Orleanians who depart from the realm of the Crescent city for a day or more.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

I find these words written in an earlier entry of my journal, where I wrote the phrase after reading it on the back of a Washington D.C. bus. I noticed the words as I looked out the window of our bus, which had driven all the way from New Orleans to the nation’s capitol with 35 female high school students from the Priestley Charter School and several teachers and administrators in tow. Another bus, which carried about 40 male students and staff members, including my husband Hazim, followed close behind.

The words appeared on the back of that bus as part of an advertisement for a local performance of Romeo and Juliet. When Romeo and Juliet confess their love for one another in Shakespeare’s famous play, Juliet says, “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” The painful departure is their sorrow, while anticipation of their next meeting is sweet.

I didn’t think about the words again until I looked at my camera, admiring the digital photos I had snapped that day. As I clicked backwards through the smiling faces of Priestley students in front of Capitol Hill and the White House, I arrived at the first shot I had taken. It was a practice shot, aimed randomly out the bus window, to see if my camera was working. The shot unintentionally captured the back of that bus decorated with Shakespeare’s words just as it had started to rain.

Parting is such sweet sorrow. It sounds cliché, like a Hallmark card message, like a phrase I have heard far too often. Somehow it perfectly captures how I felt as our bus pulled away from downtown New Orleans at the start of our trip, when the sunset was barely visible through the many oaks lining South Carrollton, and the Superdome was straight ahead of us as we exited onto the highway. I felt excited, nervous to be leaving our city at the start of hurricane season, but also somewhat sad.

Several days later, as our bus crossed Lake Ponchartrain, I felt some of that sweetness that Juliet spoke about— not the let down that usually accompanies a return trip home after a vacation. There was a distinct uplifting, a sense of privilege… to be returning to this improbable city perched on the edge of the Mississippi, near the imposing mouth of the Gulf.

* * *

Hazim and I parted from New Orleans a total of three times this summer. First there was the bus field trip to DC in June, a road trip to Dallas in July, and an extended road trip to the northern reaches of New York and back in August. Each time our “sweet sorrow” and separation anxiety from New Orleans grew stronger.

The Priestley students first made me aware of the deep difference of this city while we were in DC. Many students had never before left Louisiana and some had never left New Orleans. Only a few had seen another part of the country before, but most did so while evacuating hurricanes.
I immediately noticed how different the students seemed in DC. Not only were they one of the only large groups of African-American around— they were also loud, full of laughter, loud gestures, and colorfully dressed in a way that no one else was. These children, who acted and looked much older than other high school students around, seemed to wear New Orleans on their sleeves.

While sitting in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum with a few of the students, a group of young African-American members from the United States Air Force strolled by.

“Wanna join?” A proud female in uniform asked the students, unaware that I was with their group.

“The air force?” a Priestley girl answered. “No thanks.” The students laughed at her sassy answer.

“It ain’t that bad,” said the woman in uniform. “Where you from?”

“New Orleans,” the students said proudly.

The air force recruits laughed and walked off.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this exchange, but the Priestley student’s disinterest in the armed forces seemed to be matched by the Air Force members disrespect for New Orleans. None of the students seemed surprised when their city's namesake was met with laughter.

In a similar manner, no one was surprised that New Orleans made the front-page headlines of USA today twice while we were in DC. One story lamented the recent spike in crime, the other discussed the perils of the New Orleans education system.

Still, nothing could stop these students from feeling proud about their hometown—especially when it came to music and food.

Our large group of New Orleans high school students, teachers, and administrators gathered at the Golden Corral one night for dinner after a long day of sightseeing. I sat with a female student who looked a little upset as she sipped her sprite.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.

The girl looked at me with a straight face.

“Yeah, but man, they don’t even have gumbo here."

"Yeah, this sure isn't New Orleans."

"Nope. I want soul food. I want gumbo and red beans and rice. Even the grits here is wrong.”
“What’s wrong with the grits?”
“It’s all watery.”

I could only get her to eat strawberries and ice cream that night.

As our group walked down the mall to the Smithsonian Museum of African Art the next day, a street musician paused to ask our group where we were from. “NEW ORLEANS!” the students yelled. The man smiled and started to play Louis Armstrong’s famous “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” very off key. A male student muttered, “Man, he sucks.” “Yeah, that’s no way to play a trumpet.” Our group giggled in a hushed, proud way. None of those students were musicians themselves, but they knew how the song and trumpet should be played.

Armstrong’s “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” captures the same sentiment of Shakespeare’s “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Either would be an excellent slogan for a city welcome sign.

That message on the back of a DC bus came back to me as Haz and I drove away from New Orleans in early July, taking a different, northwesterly route through Louisiana that avoided Mississippi altogether. Beautiful bayous and swamps blanketed with a layers of neon algae followed us away from the old grittiness of New Orleans and eventually turned into rolling hills, plains and the wide open cattle country of north Texas: home to Dallas, America’s ninth largest city.

Dallas covers an extremely wide area with plenty of room to continue spreading. Everything is clean, new, and highly modern. The roads are smooth, without potholes, and the medians are without litter. The air is hot and dry and trees are very sparse. Buildings and pastures that look close-by are often ten miles away.
Haz’s brother and his family live in Dallas, as do an Aunt, Uncle, and cousins of mine. Those facts are among the city’s most positive traits. The only tourist attraction in the city itself is the Texas Book Depository where John F. Kennedy was shot in 1967. An “x” still eerily marks the spot where a bullet made its historical impact on the road that swings past the depository.

I was studying for the Graduate Entrance Exam (GRE) while visiting Dallas. One of the words on my vocabulary study list was a perfect synonym for Dallas: Insipid. By definition it means: “dullness due to lack of character and lively qualities; bland and without flavor.”

Dallas sure has a lot of conveniences, and it is definitely very culturally diverse, but there is little to no history, flavor, or quintessential quirkiness that distinguishes it as a city of more than 1 million people, the ninth largest in the nation. Can you name a Dallas cuisine, style of architecture, music, or way of speaking? Dallas is famous for being the namesake of a 1980s TV sitcom and the site of JFK’s assassination…. but what else?

In Dallas, Haz and I enjoyed shopping in huge malls complete with skating rinks and in designer stores largely lacking in New Orleans. Still, we couldn’t wait to return to our city, where we can drink locally brewed coffee under oak trees and shrug about pot holes, politics, termites, and thick humidity—a unique experience that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

I didn’t expect to feel the same way after leaving New York, the city we both grew up around, a city normally followed by an exclamation point when uttered in any conversation. Haz and I drove more than 1300 miles to get to the New York State and New Jersey, where we visited family and friends for a few weeks. In New York City, in Manhattan, we did touristy things. We took the ferry across the Hudson River as New York’s brilliant skyline daunted us, ate incredible Thai and Italian food, walked with incredible power down Fifth Avenue, and even saw a Broadway show for half price.

At night, as the ferry took us away from the spectacular island of lights, a mild, almost cool wind lapped against our faces. It was an experience you could make a movie out of, but not a film you could watch everyday.

No, we could never live in New York City, be we sure love to visit.

In New York, traffic is so bad that highways become parking lots of slow motion well before rush hour and on-the-spot entrepreneurs walk car-to-car selling cordless phones and bottled water without being hit.

In New York, at pedestrian lights, no one talks or laughs unless they are on a cell phone. In New Orleans, there are no pedestrian lights, and strangers chat, wave, and laugh together all the time. A New Orleanian once told me that when she was in New York, New Yorkers knew instantly that she was from the South, or at least from “somewhere else” because she regularly greeted strangers.

Indeed, this is what first baffled me about New Orleans. In our hotel, where we stayed during my inaugural visit two years ago, just days before Hurricane Katrina, a fellow guest—a stranger—greeted us in the elevator.

“How are y’all doin’?”

I thought Haz must know this man, but he didn’t. He also didn’t know the women behind the front desk who called him “baby” and “sweetie.”

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare New Orleans, a city of just under 300,000 people, to the great metropolises of Washington DC, Dallas, and New York City. After all, the population in the Crescent city could easily fit into a Manhattan neighborhood. Still, these three road trips to other parts of the country, to areas far less devastated, less impoverished and less burdened by crime, really gave me than undeniable feel of knowing what it means. Those areas might have a lot less problems, or different problems, but they sure don’t have all the positive, vivacious qualities of New Orleans, where Armstrong and Shakespeare’s words hold true.

Welcome to New Orleans, where parting is such sweet sorrow.