Aug 14, 200912:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
Feels like home
Ruby was a little overwhelmed at her first Mardi Gras, and Jamie sympathized.
Why’d I come back? I wonder that sometimes, when I lose another hubcap in a pothole or hear about another friend becoming a crime victim or have to go to five different post offices just to get mail delivery started. Life was kind of boring in the mid-Missouri college town where I lived before, but the streets were good, and the crime was low, and the bureaucracy was as efficient as bureaucracy gets. So why? Why’d I come back?
In some ways, my decision to move back wasn’t all that different than the decision of my colleague and fellow blogger Marcie Dickson to move here in the first place –– because it was a decision about living in New Orleans as an adult, something I’d never done. I left New Orleans for college when I was 17 and didn’t move back until 10 years later.
People always say, “Oh, I could never raise kids in New Orleans,” and I get that; I do.
But being a kid in New Orleans was magical. I loved climbing the gnarled oak trees in City Park. I loved that my first grade class walked to Café du Monde to celebrate the end of the school year with beignets and chocolate milk when kids in other cities were getting Little Debbies and bright-red Kool-Aid. I loved Mardi Gras parades and costumes. I loved taking the streetcar from my junior high school to my mom’s office every day. I loved teasing tourists. I loved saying, “I’m from here. Go away!” to the “I bet I can tell you where you got them shoes” characters. I even loved the thrill of evacuating. The other stuff, the crime and the failing schools and the corrupt politics and the high insurance rates, that was grownup stuff, too boring to even be considered when I had other matters to attend to, such as sneaking into hotel swimming pools and pretending to be a guest who was visiting from London, complete with a very bad accent that fooled no one.
But as much as I loved growing up in New Orleans, when I moved away, I didn’t plan to come back. I enjoyed my visits on Christmas and spring break, but every time I came home, I found myself shaking my head at how things are done here. I’d make fun of New Orleans to my college friends, explaining to them about the 1992 Edwards-Duke gubernatorial race and the “Vote for the Crook; It’s Important” bumper stickers or how I bought a daiquiri on my 14th birthday. I laughed at their astonished looks. “That’s just normal down there,” I’d tell them matter-of-factly, with a definite sense of having put all of the nonsense of New Orleans behind me with a firm hand.
And then came Katrina. It reinforced, of course, just how backward and broken we are here, stripped away the Mardi Gras beads and the jazz and the deep-fried seafood that we showcase for tourists and showed us the shameful poverty that has always existed. But even as it made clear what was wrong with New Orleans, it made me fiercely, fiercely protective of the city. I am not a confrontational person by nature, but in the days after the storm, I found myself screaming at my coworkers in Missouri who dared to suggest that New Orleans not be rebuilt. And in the weeks after the storm, I found myself in a total fog, unable to care about what the Missourians around me cared about. New Orleans was no longer “down there,” as far as I was concerned, and the people who lived in New Orleans weren’t “they.” It was “here,” and it was “we.”
When I came down in late September to help my dad rip up sodden carpet and tear out sheetrock in his flooded Mid-City house, I didn’t want to go back to Missouri. New Orleans smelled of rotten meat and mold and death; there was no electricity or potable water; there were cat skeletons on the sidewalk; there was no place to buy so much as a carton of milk and no way to refrigerate it even if you could. But suddenly, I was in paradise. Suddenly, I was doing something instead of watching it on the news. Suddenly, I didn’t have to pretend to care about anything else but right then, right here, right now in New Orleans. “We’re moving home,” I told my husband, Jamie. “As soon as you’re done with law school in May, we’re going back.”
But it didn’t happen that way.
By the time he was done with school, I was three months into a high-risk pregnancy and was in no shape to relocate 1,000 miles away. “We’re still moving home,” I told him. “As soon as this baby is born in December, we’re going back.”
But it didn’t happen that way.
When my daughter, Ruby, was just 2 weeks old, Helen Hill ––- who was, like me, a wife, a mother, a lover of New Orleans against all reason –– was murdered in her home while her husband and young son watched. The story made national news, and I sat on my sofa in Missouri holding my newborn and sobbing. Teardrops speckled my daughter’s pink-and-yellow baby blanket, and I, hormonal and heartbroken, cried until I couldn’t breathe. “We can’t move home,” I told Jamie. “If something like that happened to us just because I want to live somewhere where I can get a cup of decent gumbo … well, I can’t even imagine it. We’re never moving back.”
But it didn’t happen that way.
I grudgingly agreed to bring Ruby to visit my relatives for Mardi Gras that year, and once I was back in the city, cheering for the marching bands, throwing quarters at the flambeaux carriers, clamoring for beads, eating poor boys, it seemed like home again. As Rex passed, I realized I didn’t want Ruby to ever think that this was anything but normal.
I remembered my first Mardi Gras away from home, how I woke up in my dorm room on a cold gray Tuesday and had to make my way through snow and ice to take a midterm. The kids around me had no idea what they were missing. I was somewhere else, and it was just Tuesday.
I wanted Ruby, if she wasn’t in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, to at least know what she was missing. And I didn’t want to surrender to fear by refusing to move back to a town where my heart felt at peace. I didn’t want to live through one more Missouri winter or eat one more bad attempt at gumbo.
“We’re moving home,” I told Jamie over the sounds of a marching band. “As soon as the baby is a little bit older, as soon as we can sell our house and find new jobs, we’re moving back.”
And that’s just the way it happened.