Discomfort Tours

Apr 1, 2012 by

Living any place has its ups and downs.

Living here has its slings and arrows as well, and I’m not just talking about the murder rate.

I speak of the role nearly every New Orleanian who has friends and relatives living outside of New Orleans has had to play when those friends and relatives come to visit. Of course everyone has to play tour guide here, if only to inform visitors that their notions of north, south, east, and west have no real bearings in this city. Just be wary of the emotional roller coaster that the events of 8/29/2005 may yank you into. Case in point…

I hadn’t played tour guide in a while and thought it’d be a nice diversion for a morning. And it was – breakfast in the Lower Garden District, driving around the Garden District a little, making an unscheduled stop at Lafayette Cemetery, explaining the aboveground tombs a tad and why their upkeep has been important.

Somehow, the friends of my husband’s family made a comment about the many houses that were looted in the aftermath of the storm. “Um, no, that didn’t happen. You had stores that were looted, sure, because people were hungry and thirsty and needed those things, and you had the opportunists who were taking the TVs and such. But houses? Not really,” I said. “And the paranoia of the people who couldn’t come here was responsible for the presence of some of the hired armies that were patrolling uptown. It was like the hyperbole of the NOPD chief talking about babies being raped in the Superdome. Didn’t happen.” Wow, I was really gathering steam. It was time to simmer down.

“But why didn’t the grocery stores just open their doors then and let people take stuff out?”

Simmering would have to wait. Medium low heat was more the temperature. “Insurance companies. They’d be less likely to pay up if a grocery store owner decided to open his doors rather than keep them locked and turn everyone into thieves. ‘Oh, you unlocked those doors yourself? There goes your payment.’ ” The lady who asked me the question looked as deflated as I felt over the answer I gave.

But, hey, back in the car. Back to the gorgeous streets of uptown after the torrential rains of the night before. Off to the Jewish cemetery on Arabella Street, to show the visitors how the Jewish people bury their dead in the low water table. Off to the Fly, where one can actually see the river. Talk of the flooding of 1927, where the riverine levee system was cemented in place, causing the sediment of the river to head straight for the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico rather than into creating more wetlands and strengthening barrier islands that would likely have helped keep the canal levees intact nearly eight years ago if they hadn’t been built so shoddily in the first place…ohhh, no, here we go again…

Somehow, I made it to the Lower Ninth Ward for the first time in ages to show these folks the houses Brad Pitt’s Make It Right built there. Somehow, I managed to hold it together enough to communicate how difficult it was for people to rebuild in these areas that the city, the state, the country was willing to write off before I dropped my charges off at the edge of the French Quarter. I’ve been racking my brains ever since for the reasons why this particular tour felt different from many others I’ve given since we moved back to New Orleans in 2006.

Not too long ago, I complained that New Orleans since the levee breaches had become a cause, not a city. I think now that I was wrong.

This isn’t to say that nothing has changed. It is simply to say that time and circumstance have rendered our problems not as important in the national scheme of things. We were so far behind we were ahead in having to juggle this current economic depression in which we sit, but the rest of the country has caught up (or fallen down to our level) and found that New Orleans doesn’t have a hell of a lot to teach except hunker down and hustle every day for your right to live. In fact, we’ll bet you twenty dollars you can do it and probably bilk you out of that easy money….because not everyone can hunker down and hustle. We are now a society that follows the jobs and opportunities above all else.

People exclaim over all these young entrepreneurs trying to start things up here. Those same sort of people were here 15 years ago. Their transience is still guaranteed because salaries here are still not as competitive and the schools have not gotten any better despite what reformers would have the rest of the country believe. A city cannot truly survive without families to anchor it. The crime rate only makes things worse. Too many people find that true, lasting change here is a mirage.

In the midst of a simple morning drive and some extensive commentary, I found that those of us who are still here are occasionally busily selling a different mirage – that our history matters. Deep down, I believe that it does – but when I come across those who have no real clue, I wonder how many words will really change their minds.

I guess these are the words of someone who is getting comfortable in her own small abode – but not too comfortable. Walking away from a certain level of keeping up with current doings in city and state government as well as the runnings of the public schools is very hard, yet necessary for my overall health. Doesn’t mean I don’t keep track at all, but I cannot let the anger and the hurt take over. It’s a strange sort of limbo, a localized purgatory, born of too much shouting over the internets. Too much of my thoughts have gone into this city as a cause as well. And New Orleans is much, much more than that.

The trick is in regaining that city-ness of this place once again. For me. And whether that follows for anyone else….that’s a happy extra.


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