Monday, April 11, 2011

I Put On For My City

There's a section of I-10, the interstate that runs through New Orleans, that's raised up on the east side of the city. I usually drive it on my way home from night class, because there's nothing like seeing the Crescent City Connection bridge, the skyscrapers, and the glint of light off the river reflecting in the moonlight. Tonight, after watching "When the Levees Broke" for class, I hit the accelerator in my car, ramped up the interstate, and saw the city spread out before me -- the treetops over the shotguns of Treme, the tip of St. Louis Cathedral in the Quarter, the blocks of houses in MidCity, the skyscrapers rising out of the business district, the interstate split leading to Metairie, the West Bank, and Uptown. I almost cried passing the Superdome, thinking of the thousands of people trapped there during Katrina, the thousands more who flooded those doors for the Saints' games leading up to the Superbowl win, and the deep pockets and crooked politics of the Benson family who own the Dome. Oh, New Orleans. You've got a history like nowhere else. You shelter some of the deepest, darkest secrets -- a prison rate higher than anywhere else in the world, a culture of poverty, a host of class and race divides that cut to the core, harming all of us.

And yet.

I was born in Kansas City, Kansas. We moved when I was two. I was never given a distinct reason, but years later the truth slipped out -- my father lost yet another job, and unable (unwilling?) to support my family, he goaded my mother into moving to small town Mississippi, where he grew up. I spent the next ten years of my life there. It's a shithole of a town. There's more people living below the poverty line than above it. I grew up wandering cotton fields and eating fried catfish and never fitting in. Even as a kid, I couldn't handle the inequality around me. I couldn't understand why some people had everything and most people had nothing. In Mississippi, I was a child of my father's family, never an individual. Labeled by those who loved or hated him, as he always left a strong impression. I dreamt of nothing but when I would get out. When I was little and my mom was angry at the town, upset for being treated like an outsider because she wasn't born there, she used to call me Dorothy. She'd tell me to click my heels and take us back to Kansas. It became a distant dream for me, a Mecca. I thought maybe I would belong there. I have some good memories, some ties in Mississippi. I return to see family, to prove to myself that the city is still there. But mostly, it's a place I passed through.

When Mississippi (and my father) finally chewed us up and spit us out, my mom ran home to northern Louisiana. We moved into an neighborhood of mostly older couples, and I started public school (finally!). But the other kids saw me as a Mississippi kid with a twangy accent and horrible taste in country music. I was all wrong. North Louisiana never was home. It was a pit stop. I outgrew it quickly -- I became too radical, too queer, too artistic. I have ties, there, too, and oh, so many memories. I have exes and friends and ex-friends. I have family, too, but my mother and her relatives will probably never accept that my queerness and my outspoken activism are vital ingredients in my life. I couldn't get out of their shadow, and I couldn't find what I wanted in a town so restrictive. So eight years later, on the same day I arrived in north Louisiana, I left.

By providence and love and economics, I ended up in NOLA.

For a long time, I wasn't so sure I wanted to be here. Or rather, I wasn't so sure I was ready to stay. But I adore this city, from the way the pavement in the Quarter glints after a rainstorm to the stars rising over the Ponchartrain. I adore that people let me put my shit in their baskets at the Wal-Mart. I love the festivals, the music, the way people say hello on the streets. I love that art is a priority here; creation is a way of life. I love the people who put their lives and their time on the line to fight against the structures that make them crazy. I love that community building is part activism, part sharing a meal, part conflict, part politics, and all passion. I love when the stage lights up on Tuesday nights at the Pub, and I love the explosion of naked gay men at Bourbon and St. Anne at Decadence. I love beers on porches and red beans and rice on Monday nights. I love that people put roots here; they set down like the Oak trees in City Park. I love the transience of the hippies, the strength of families who have lived on the same block for generations. I love that this city is deeply Southern in a way that makes me feel like I'm enveloped by the familiar. I love that it's small enough I still run into people I know at the grocery store, and yet, large enough that I can still retain my anonymity on most days.

I will always wander. I will always need space to explore. I want to see too much, do too much. But, oh, New Orleans, you're the first and only place I can truly call home. I can't claim to be "from here" when someone in town asks -- it's a sin to claim heritage here if you weren't born here. But when I'm in Chicago or New York, when I'm on a plane headed to God knows where, and someone asks that inevitable question, my heart always skips a beat when I say, "I'm from New Orleans." And then I find myself launching into an often one-sided conversation about Katrina, about Mardi Gras and and neighborhood arts markets and trout almondine. I find myself repeating the stories of friends and queer family, and even telling tales of my own. I came here the first time when I was too young to remember. I came here in 2001 for Thanksgiving, right after my father left, because my mother didn't want to face her family. I came in 2005, two months before Katrina, and again in February 2006, Sept 2006, May 2007, August 2007, January 2008, March 2008, February 2009, May, June, and July 2009, and finally, permanently, August 2009. I felt drawn here, and it became hard to stay away for more than three or four months at a time. I still feel drawn here, connected, when I'm hundreds of miles away.

I'd marry this city, if I could. I hear that's not legal yet, thank God, since commitment never was one of my virtues. I still worry about finding a way to support myself after school here. I worry about floods and hurricanes. I worry about staying in Louisiana. But when I'm driving that stretch of I-10, and I round the curve where the city lays itself out before me... I can't help but know that I don't want to be anywhere else.

Chris Rose said it best, when he spoke of being a New Orleanian... "We dance when there is no music. We drink at funerals. We talk too much, and we live too large and, frankly, we're suspicious of those who don't."

(view of downtown and the Crescent City Connection from the West Bank) 

(view of downtown from the west side of the city, coming in from Metairie)

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