I am reading Dan Baum’s incredible piece of non-fiction, Nine Lives, for the third time. It makes me laugh and cry and muse in all of the right places. It is the next book I have assigned my New Orleans class and while I always intend to re-read the books I assign, it doesn’t always happen. But this book, with great stories and realistic, yet poetic language, reminds me why I love the city of New Orleans. And when I am still in mourning for having left once again, that is a very good thing.
The shame is, most tourists associate New Orleans with beads, breasts and booze, but that is a fiction meant to attract convention-goers and Alabama frat boys to the corporate, soulless squalor that is Bourbon Street. It has little to do with the city and the residents who make it unique. And I love it unconditionally, not because it is perfect or special. It is not Disney World or the new, improved version of Times Square. It is a real place with all of the problems that most urban centers have — and then some. The people are maddening and lovable all at the same time. The place just doesn’t work — and I can mean that in a number of different ways — but folks just keep on living in the moment, without the strictures of time or goals or planning. As Baum suggests: “In the context of the techno-driven, profit crazy, hyperefficient United States, New Orleans is a city-sized act of civil disobedience.”
And, in looking at what we’ve been through since the economic collapse in 2008, perhaps they could teach us a thing or two.
The census tells us that New Orleans is no longer a major city. It has lost 29% of its population since 2000. But it is still a force to be reckoned with. It is no longer the economic colossus that it was in the 19th Century. Even though it is still a major port, it is not a major player in banking and international trade. Today, it plies a laissez faire attitude that might forstall the self-immolation of the most staid and driven Puritan. It is the antithesis of America, and conveys a spirit that could rescue us from the self-doubt and meanness into which we have descended. It seems to be our collective natures that “when the going gets tough, the tough attack someone else.” Forget “blame free” organizations, New Orleans is a blame free city. And they accept the consequences, both good and bad. Or as Baum once again suggests: “Stop thinking of New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States….Start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean.” [I can actually think of a couple of Caribbean cities that might be better organized, but this is neither the time nor the place.]
Where else could a popular open air venue, Cafe du Monde, survive for decades by serving only two items — beignets and cafe au lait? Look at the lines on a weekend morning and tell me it’s not working.
Where else would a city decide to reverse history and replace bus lines with an expanded system of streetcars? Your stimulus dollars at work!
Where else would citizens of all classes and colors budget large-scale money for balls, Mardi Gras “throws.” social aid and pleasure club accessories, or Mardi Gras Indian outfits?
Where else would some of the most accomplished musicians in America play for tips and a cut of the bar receipts?
And where else could I sit, in a greasy spoon in the quiet corner of the French Quarter, at 6:00am in the morning, with a television blaring MTV and the gay guy behind the counter dancing along with Lady Gaga? There is no place else on Earth where you get that kind of entertainment with your eggs and grits.
And I love it.