A love note to NOLA

October 31st, 2010

Having returned from eight carefree, sunny days in New Orleans to 78 spam comments on this blog and the chilly, dreary drizzle of November in Vermont, I’d like to take a moment to savor what made my visit so enjoyable.

Certainly not the much-bruited purported pleasures of Bourbon Street.  The “drink ‘til you puke” ethos escapes me, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I have escaped it.  It’s a nonstop, perpetual frat party, fueled by a fascinating convergence of social pathologies. I’ll write about that in a later post, maybe.  I did have one drink on Bourbon Street.  It was a rather nice earl grey tea, welcome in the heat of the middle of the afternoon, at a little place called the Candy Bar on the more residential end of the street.

What I miss most about New Orleans, upon arriving home, is the easy friendliness of its inhabitants.  People make eye contact – with  strangers! – when they pass on the street.  They say hello.  They engage in conversation with people they never have met.  This contrasts so sharply with the grumpy reserve customary in New England that it was a bit of a shock to return home and encounter our standard standoffishness.  True, the Crescent City’s accepting welcome may not run very deep.  When I remarked upon it to one man, he said, “Yeah, but they’ll stab you in the back when you turn around.”  I’ll bet they do it politely, though, and with an expression of regret.

This openness crosses lines of gender, age and color.  Now, a white Vermonter who visits New York can easily have the slightly disorienting experience of suddenly being in the racial minority, but in New Orleans it is different yet again.  Whites and blacks freely mingle, talk, touch.  One sees a lot of interracial couples, a lot of mixed groups of friends.  I am not suggesting that New Orleans is some sort of post-racial paradise.  Far from it.  It is residentially segregated and demographically stratified in all the unhappy ways we are accustomed to.  But for quotidian social purposes, the boundaries of color recede far into the background.  There is an ease of interaction, a relaxation of racial paranoias.  They aren’t absent.  When, walking along North Rampart Street late at night, I encounter a black man walking the other way, and we say “Hello, how ya doin’” to each other, there is a bit of the original sense of the handshake, that is, a demonstration that one is unarmed.  (Maybe that was just me, but I think it was mutual.)  How preferable that is to the eyes-averted uneasy coexistence that is the norm here in supposedly more enlightened jurisdictions!

Here in Burlington, where groups of people are gathered, say on Church Street, the  note one hears most frequently struck upon walking through the crowd is a sort of whining grievance, and when voices are raised it is usually in anger.  In New Orleans, I was always hearing bursts of laughter.  People smile a lot more than I am used to seeing.  The ground note of public places is animated enjoyment.  I don’t think this means that people in that city are happier than people here, but they do seem much more open to whatever pleasure the moment may afford, and this couples with the socially relaxed atmosphere to produce a sense of pleasure in each other.  I noticed this most on buses and trolleys.  There was almost always at least one group of people chatting and laughing, often a racially mixed group, often including people who had met just then on the bus and had no expectation of meeting again.  Once I was in a place full of silent people.  It was a coffeehouse uptown, near the Maple Leaf Bar.  It had neat rows of little tables, full of college students, mostly white, mostly women.  They all seemed to be studying.

Yes, the food is great, the music is ubiquitous, and there is the ever-present possibility that a parade with a brass band and feathered costumes and dancers may erupt nearby without any notice.  In my post about the importance of art to community, I could have given an example closer to home than Bali of a culture where the aesthetic dimension of life is truly valued.  Walking through New Orleans’ neighborhoods, I was struck again and again by the beauty of this city. The houses are not ticky tacky and they don’t all look the same.  Malvina Reynolds’ song could have been written of many places, but not New Orleans.  Perhaps a lot of the fresh paint and brightly colored trim are the result of post-Katrina rebuilding.  This could have been done in such a way as to produce an effect of uniformity.  Instead, the city’s vibrancy and the individuality of its inhabitants stand out.  Oddly, outside the lovely French Quarter this is demonstrated most clearly in the working class neighborhoods.  The ballyhooed Garden District mainly shows that McMansions are not a recent phenomenon.  But stroll through the Faubourg Marigny and enjoy the variety of inspiration and care that people invest in their dwellings.

These are the musings of someone who has fallen in love.  There’s a lot more to say about New Orleans, even on such a brief acquaintance as I have had, and not all of it is nice.  The greedheads have got their hooks firmly into the city.  To pustulent Bourbon Street, add the excrescence of Harrah’s Casino.  The Lower Ninth Ward remains a tragic, depopulated place, where the grass on the levees is unmown.   The climate is as atrocious as the politics.  Etc.  But right now, I want to dwell on my pleasures.  For a fuller portrait by someone who both knows and loves the city, try Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters.

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 31st, 2010 at 7:36 pm and is filed under Places, society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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