Tuesday, September 2, 2008
I KNOW WHAT IT MEANS . . .
by Hazim Dayeh—featured writer
Nineteen and a half hours. The trip from New Orleans to Tallahassee normally takes about six. But, this was not an ordinary trip. Once again, and on the third anniversary of the storm we continue to live with, we found ourselves threatened by another major hurricane. For nineteen and a half hours, we drove through sometimes-squally weather, kissing the rear bumpers of vehicles that stretched ahead of us seemingly across the length of an entire nation. For nineteen and a half hours, home lay behind us, abandoned, deserted, and left again to an uncertain fate. And when we finally arrived at our hotel, travel-weary with two very confused cats, we had the rest of our time to watch alarmist news stations again spreading false information, this time about breached levees that hadn’t breached, as if willing something catastrophic to happen so they can keep a tragedy-obsessed nation watching advertisements. There was the one with the insurance companies’ favorite make-believe couple “Harry and Louise” once again attempting to kill health care reform. Then, there was the one with a cute cat who was partial to a new kind of cat food. An unidentified woman was selling me laundry detergent just before yielding to Wilford Brimley, who was saying something about “diabeetis.” One after another, television spots hawked everything from repetitive headache relief products to miraculous stain-removing goop sold by the loudest man on Earth. “More on Hurricane Gustav after the break.” And, when the levees didn’t fail, the networks turned to the old standby human interest stories – babies born during Gustav’s visit to the Louisiana coast, residents who rode out the storm and lived to tell their tale, and the ever-popular, ever-wishful mantra of “Will the levees hold?” America is alive and well and invading my hotel room as if it were a nation in possession of phantom weapons of mass destruction.
So, after another evacuation ordeal, after living under the threat of losing everything I deliberately left behind, along with more important things I forgot behind, several friends and family members have asked, “Why return?” After all, it’s just bound to happen again. In fact, as I write this, a storm named Ike is looks to be taking aim at some unfortunate place along the Gulf of Mexico. So why return? It’s an excellent question to someone who doesn’t know the city like so many of us do, and a stupid question to those of us who love our city so unconditionally. You see, New Orleans is our collective bad boyfriend, and we are its battered but adoring lovers. Time and again, he has given us reason to leave. And, just as often, we have forgiven him, succumbing to his mysterious and inexplicable hold on us. He is mean but charming, temperamental yet beautiful, spiteful though loving. The simple fact is that we love our city like no other. And, when we leave, however briefly, flirting with other attractive and not-so-attractive cities across this nation, we cannot help but feel a void that no other place can fill. We are New Orleans’ bitches, and we’re (mostly) ok with that. To those who cannot comprehend our love, we say, to know New Orleans is to love New Orleans. And, when we’re away, we know what it means to miss New Orleans.
For me, I miss sitting on my front porch, listening to talented high school marching bands spiritedly playing their instruments during a Friday or Saturday night football game. Sometimes, I could even hear major recording artists performing at Voodoo Fest in City Park. I miss the unbridled energy of the Rebirth Brass Band bringing down the house at Tipitina’s and leading a second line down Napoleon Ave. I miss the ferociously talented musicians who fill the humid late night air with music – Trombone Shorty, Irvin Mayfield, Charmaine Neville, Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis, Marva Wright, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and so many others. I miss Mardi Gras with its pageantry, revelry, and weirdness, Jazz Fest with its many reasons to take a day or two off from work, Voodoo Fest with its eclectic mix of musical talent, French Quarter Fest with its unparalleled (free!) entertainment, and all the other festivals that celebrate our unique culture – Seafood/Creole Tomato/Satchmo/Just-For-the-Fuck-of-It Fests. In short, there are many cities in the world with plenty of culture and entertainment. But, in New Orleans, we live and breathe it, as though entertainment were an extra appendage attached to us, and culture a vital organ within us.
To those of us who love our abusive city, New Orleans is not merely another interesting American city. In fact, as a friend recently opined, New Orleans is not at all American. Its culture, its food, and its people are its own. We couldn’t possibly be less American if we spoke another language (and with the city’s colorful accents, one could argue that we do). This is the point that many outsiders cannot reconcile. To the city’s naysayers, we are an awkward, backwards people who do not seem to know how to operate a city efficiently. And yet, we are good enough for their conventions. On any given week, one can find these New Orleans critics walking our streets. They are the doctors, lawyers, and business executives who stumble and stagger along Bourbon Street, then return home to share pictures with their friends of their visit to “N’awlins.” To these platoons of America’s army invading our bars, we are good enough to party with, but too backwards to befriend. Thanks for the money, folks. Our beer taps will always flow for you.
Of course, like all bad and misunderstood lovers, New Orleans is not without its major flaws. Our crime is, indeed, bad enough to qualify us, technically, as an American city. Our poverty is legendary among other cities in this nation. And, of course, we are susceptible to tropical storms and hurricanes, some of which leave indelible physical and emotional scars, and some that scare us out of our comfort zone, then leave like a polite, if unwanted, guest. But, while we have weaknesses, we are strong. While our spirits sometimes suffer, we are resilient. While we have our share of insecurities, we are confident in our recovery. And, while our fair city is American, we are and always will be New Orleans.