It's a tricky thing, when people ask you where you're from. It used to be no big deal, of course; it used to be you'd smile and say "New Orleans!" and people would nod their heads with recognition and envy and tell you all about the time they came for Jazz Fest/Mardi Gras/Sugar Bowl/Bachelor Party and got totally hammered on Bourbon Street. It was generally acknowledged that New Orleans was a spectacular place, and while maybe you were just a tiny bit crazy for actually living there, it kind of made sense to folks. It was not, in other words, objectionable.
Not so anymore. These days, when people ask what has become for me the Dreaded Question, I find myself hesitating. Sizing the person up, quickly and silently, preparing myself. Is this guy, who seems perfectly nice and ordinary in his polo shirt and baseball cap, secretly one of those Fox News nutjobs? Am I going to spend the next hour defending my city (or, more to my nature, fall silent and listen with seething disdain, having long ago resigned myself to the knowledge that these people are not worth arguing with)? Will this soft-spoken, kind-eyed lady force me to recount every detail of my Katrina Experience, clucking her tongue throughout before posing a diplomatic but pointed question--that being, "But after all that, you decided to come back?" Will I nod, a bit sheepishly, ashamed of my sheepishness, feeling lame and defensive as I list the various reasons we live here, knowing all the time that no matter what I say, this person simply will not get it?
I spent the weekend before Thanksgiving in New York City, where my best friend and his fiance live. They share a beautiful, tiny studio apartment on the Upper West Side, right across the street from Cafe Lalo, one of my all-time favorite New York spots. I totally heart New York, in every way: running in Central Park, walking walking walking, everywhere and anywhere, the food, the subway, the energy, the people, the random celebrity sightings where I pretend to be all cool and jaded but am, in fact, freaking out just a little on the inside. And New York City in the fall: oof. I mean, you'd have to be brain dead, or just plain evil, not to find yourself awestruck and occasionally overwhelmed by the spectacle, both natural and man-made. It is, to me, an indescribably wonderful place, and although I will probably never live there, I have no difficulty understanding why so many people do.
One evening we visited the home of my friend's friends, a married couple expecting their first child. They were bright, creative, gregarious people who, despite having just purchased a spacious and undoubtedly expensive apartment in Tribeca, seemed as laid back and liberal as they come. Still, though, when the question came, I hesitated. Where are you from? she asked, absentmindedly rubbing her swollen belly, the way all pregnant women do. And I had a small, private moment of panic, knowing the conversation that was coming, the awkwardness I'd feel--do they really want to hear about this? or are they just being polite?--the likelihood that my friend would mention that hey, I was pregnant for Katrina, tell her the story, this is unbelievable. But I went on with it, feeling really tired and bored with myself, and unreasonably frustrated with everyone else, wishing for the first time that I was from Wichita, or Boulder, or anywhere else really, and I could just say so and that would be that.
This is a hard city to love, in so many ways. It's dangerous, and dirty, and the schools are just so bad. Politics are a joke and yes, there's that pesky hurricane business and did I mention the schools? But still. After all. What I mean to say is--
If you don't get it, you never will. You'll never know what it's like to stand in line for the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disney and see a family with Saints sweatshirts on and find yourself screaming "Who Dat!?" at them, even though you don't really care about football. You'll never understand why a beignet is much, much better than a dougnut, how the clang-clang-clang of the streetcar (NOT the trolley) coming down the line after a two year hiatus can bring tears to your jaded eyes. You will never line dance in the street on Mardi Gras day, nor will you understand how perfectly normal, sane people might be driven to knock down their elderly neighbors for a strand of plastic beads. And you'll never, ever know the pleasure of hearing your four-year-old squeal with joy upon discovering the king cake on the kitchen counter, on the first morning of Carnival. Your kids squeal for Santa; ours, well, they know real magic when they see it.