Observations on a trip to NOLA

I was blessed recently that a noteworthy conference on innovation in K-12 education took place in New Orleans and I was able to parlay it into a longer trip with Mike, who had never been to the glorious, sometimes smelly, always riveting city. After 7 days, four of which were entirely unencumbered by work, I felt mildly homesick, in need of a detox, and reflective, none of which is anything new or outstanding (I eat a lot, miss my cats, and ruminate while traveling).
1. There’s simply no good reason to go to New Orleans when the weather is hot and humid, ever. October is perfect. 80 degrees and only enough humidity to ruin my bangs, but not soak my clothes. I cannot fathom how people in the south suffer through the hottest six months of the year. October also rocks because Halloween is a hallowed event. There are at least three skulls per capita, and lots of other creepy voodoo paraphernalia and decorations, but I get the feeling that these aren’t part of autumn decor so much as a year round staple. I love it.
2. I couldn’t live there without either gaining or losing 25 pounds. Either way. There’s no shortage of butter and biscuits and grits and fried green tomatoes (all of which were delicious, by the way) but there is certainly a shortage of ruffiage or green vegetables (friend okra doesn’t count) or breakfast food that doesn’t include eggs or pancakes the size of a hub cap.* So I’d either have to indulge, and maybe stop being vegetarian (I actually discarded my vegetarianism for about three days while on the trip – to eat shrimp and crab, not crawfish brains or duck or anything too sickening), or try to maintain a healthy diet but probably starve in the process.

3. I passed by the tattoo parlor where I got my nose pierced five years ago. At the time, it seemed like a possible quarter-life crisis, though I’ve grown to love it (and approximately 60% of the yoga community has a nose piercing anyway). No new piercings or tattoos (I mean really, I’m almost thirty and what would that accomplish?), but a psychic who wanted to do my “angel reading” (translation – tell me what my guardian angels wanted me to hear.. uh, ok?) engaged me in conversation about it. “Why did you get this?” I had no real answer. “Why not?” She then proceeded to tell me that based on the precise location of the stud on my nose (she also did palm readings and “face readings” – if you weren’t already self-conscious about freckles or spots or premature wrinkles or asymmetries I’m pretty sure one of these would change that)) it means that after the age of 40 I would never have to worry about money again. Score. Wait – what?

4. The city is so remarkably weird. If you see transvestite strippers and have an argument about whether it’s a he or a she, light your napkin on fire in a restaurant, get in a fight with a cab driver, get hopelessly lost in a probably really bad part of town in search of an authentic jazz club – only to admit your stupidity within 30 seconds of exiting the bus and camping out in the back of a convenience store for 20 minutes while waiting for a taxi to come save you – then you’re definitely in New Orleans.
5. Remember the days when bars reeked of smoke? New Orleans hasn’t banned it yet. And it’s disgusting. What a horrible, asthma-inducing blast from the past. How did I ever, ever go in a bar before? The worst part of this was that at our first B&B the water wouldn’t heat up when we got back late one night, so I couldn’t shower. I relinquished, dropping into bed like a fly, reeking up every square inch of the pillow and sheets and waking up feeling cackly and coughing and as gross as the zombie bodies described by our Haunted Cemetery tour guide (zombies were basically people waking up from comas and trying to get out of their grave). SICK.

6. And now my serious reflection. New Orleans inspires hope. And it makes me feel connected to people. I’ve never quite understood this, but it’s true. Big caveats: I wasn’t there during the storm, nor did I lose anyone in it. I went down to clean up after the storm- albeit two years late – but it’s not like I was tearing out dry wall and rehabilitating houses or anything major. I cleaned up on the periphery of the lower Ninth. There were still teddy bears and china cups and other tragic remnants of people’s lives, and lives lost, embedded in the dry dirt. But our efforts (a service group from Princeton) felt slightly soiled – no offense to any of us or our motivations – by the fact that I was raking and scraping and cleaning feverishly at one point so that I wouldn’t be ushered out of the photo op about to take place. Brad Pitt and Bill Clinton were strolling up and down the road – it was like an hour after our actual clean-up finished – meeting with volunteers while photographers stood by. I wasn’t about to miss that. Even if it felt forced, and just ever-so-slightly wrong.

While at our B&B and indulging in the above-mentioned type of breakfast, Mike and I met an early to mid-50s sort of couple from Houston who drank a whole bottle of champagne while sharing advice and insight about the city. Toward the end of the conversation, they started talking about the storm (note, it’s good to let people share on their own terms and not go about asking too many questions)- how it impacted several of their family members who were essentially exiled from the city for months. How they saw their sanity disintegrate right in front of them. What it was like to watch the manliest cousin/uncle/brother break down sobbing at the news on TV. What it was like to not know where they were, with all phones dead and electricity down in Louisiana and Texas. How they still aren’t the same, even though they moved back to the city. How it impacted the entire extended family, not just residents. I had never thought about it that way before.

And the exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum was riveting, too. On display – a pair of jeans, upon which was written a man’s name, date of birth, social security number, and contact information for his wife. He wrote that in permanent marker while boating around the city rescuing people from roofs and attics. In case he didn’t live through the ordeal, someone could call and let his wife know. During many parts of the exhibit (lots of storm debris, pictures, charts/graphics, and video clips of the news and survivors being interviewed) people crowded around, holding their breath, shaking their heads. Some openly cried.

It was heart-breaking.

Something about the city moves me just so. I thought about applying to jobs and moving down there after grad school, proposed the idea to Mike (he could work in mental health and I in education – in a city where over half the schools are chartered out). We were never very serious. But to anyone who’s been there (or lives there), there’s a certain pull, a magnetism. There is a deeper capacity for hope in a place that’s known great sorrow. I’m not entirely sure why I’m drawn to that, in people and in places, or why I feel so moved by seeing people fight so hard to reclaim what’s theirs. The angel/face reader might tell me that a past life regression could reveal some hidden tragedy I was a part of 400 years ago – or something else equally odd and completely unverifiable – who knows. All I know is that I love the place.

*Huge pancake