Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Conversation II

Friday night we took Sydney to The Big Top to hear Ingrid Lucia perform. Every other week the venue hosts a kids' night with all the necessary accoutrements: smoke-free live music, cool art on the walls to peruse while waiting in line for the bathroom, an arts and crafts table, juice boxes and booze for the kids and adults (respectively). This weekend was the first time we'd made it to the event, and Syd had a blast raising the roof and gawking at all the older kids making their big debuts on stage. A few minutes after we arrived I ran into the husband of a colleague, who'd brought his four-year old son to the show. As we watched our kids expend their not insignificant energies, he managed to articulate the thought that had begun to form in my own mind in the brief time we'd been there. "This is one of the great things about living in New Orleans," he said, as I watched Sydney bounce up and down on her pudgy legs. "Where else can kids get exposed to so many different kinds of music?"

And it's true; this is one of the reasons we live here. It was not the first time I've had this thought, or heard it spoken by another New Orleanian, but it has certainly been a long time. These days we talk a lot about the problems, the reasons why we shouldn't stay here--of which there are plenty. We talk about the crime, the people who are dying, the poverty, the racism, the lack of infrastructure, the governmental failures, our failures, the broken and bereft school system, the list goes on and on. We still talk about where we went and what we did during the evacuation, but we don't talk about why we're still here, what binds us to this place, America's bastard city. I honestly can't remember the last time I began a sentence with "One of the great things about New Orleans..."

We don't talk about the reasons why we stay, because most of us aren't really sure. Jazz and gumbo do not a happy life make, especially when you have no kitchen in which to prepare said gumbo and all of the musicians have to leave town because they, like everyone else, cannot take it anymore. We're talking about leaving because the reasons to stay seem unreliable, like a memory so distant you wonder if you dreamed it. It's damn hard to sing the praises of this place when you're stepping over the detritus of your neighbor's home, but that conversation, words spoken in passing that would not have struck me as out of the ordinary two years ago, made me acutely aware of the good stuff. Maybe its some sort of survivor's guilt, or just your garden variety cynicism, but everything in me--body, psyche, spirit--resists "looking on the bright side." It feels naive, in a way, but it is truly a sad day when optimism and naivete seem so dangerously synonymous.

But damn, this is a beautiful city. Isn't it? It's loud and dirty and poor, for the most part, but look: every time I'm in Audubon Park, jogging or pushing Syd in the stroller, and I come around the bend where the spires of the Loyola chapel come into view, framed by towering oaks, it just blows me away. Still, after nearly six years. That's something, isn't it? And though there are many who would not describe this as a good thing, I actually like it when store clerks call me "baby." It's nice, and it makes me feel good. Sure, cashiers and clerks in other cities tend to adhere more strictly to the tenets of something they refer to as "customer service," but they have never made me feel particularly rooted to the place.

And speaking of name-calling, every time Syd walks into her classroom, someone--a teacher, the director, another child, or usually some combination thereof--yells "Sydney Roux!," like Cheers with sippy cups. How can you leave a place like that?

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