Nov 6, 200912:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
"... But Keep the Old"
My friend Aaron was at the hospital the day my daughter was born and was one of the very first people to hold her.
In mid-July the summer before I went away to college, I got a letter in the mail listing the other freshmen who would be in my Freshman Interest Group, which went by the awkward acronym “FIG.” I looked over the list and noted, with no excitement, that five out of the six people with whom I’d be sharing this FIG experience were from various cities in Missouri: Coffeeville, St. Louis, Sweet Springs.
Then, at the bottom of the list was a student from Kauai, Hawaii: Aaron.
“He’s going to be my ally,” I decided immediately. “We’re either going to fall in love or be best friends forever.”
I even knew what I’d say to him. “Well,” I’d say, shaking his hand. “You’re from Hawaii. I’m from New Orleans. You and I are going to be dispelling a lot of misconceptions about our hometowns.”
Well, OK, so that’s not exactly how it happened. As it turned out, he wasn’t really from Hawaii. He was a military brat who’d lived everywhere, which was certainly cool and interesting in its own way but didn’t really give me a chance to wow him with my stunning bit of dialogue. I don’t remember what we talked about instead except that we complimented each other’s battered Converse high tops, and I drew a picture of an elephant’s butt on one of his notebooks. (It’s the only thing I can draw with any degree of competency.)
I was right about one thing, though: We were fast friends and remained so through all of college, all of grad school and the beginnings of our professional careers. We’ve studied for countless midterms together, sung bad drunken karaoke, driven halfway across the country listening to Lucinda Williams and Warren Zevon and the Magnetic Fields. He gamely ate my bad first attempts at cooking and was rewarded, years later, with meals that were actually good. We cried together on Sept. 11 and again after Katrina. He stood up in my wedding and was one of the very first people to hold my daughter after she was born. And when I moved from Columbia back home to New Orleans, he and I didn’t really say goodbye. We just couldn’t.
All of which is to say: When he came to visit last week, I knew we were going to have to show him a good time. This was partially because I take my job as an ambassador for this city very seriously, and I want anyone who sets foot in New Orleans to leave with good things to say –– or better yet, to quit their jobs, send for their things and not ever leave at all. (I’ve seen it happen.) It was also partially because he’s one of my very best friends, and I wanted him to have fun. But I know that it was mainly that I needed him to understand the pull of New Orleans, to understand that I left Columbia for a compelling reason, that I had to get back here, that I wasn’t abandoning him to the chilly cornfields of Missouri because I didn’t care about him but rather that I needed to be here in a way I couldn’t explain with words.
I picked him up at the airport on Friday morning and immediately insisted on getting takeout Bloody Marys –– just to prove we could. Later that day, as I drove him into the French Quarter via I-10, he looked at the Superdome and the CBD and said, “I think I’ve been seeing that skyline in my dreams.”
Things were going well. He loved the weather and the food, and he and my husband, Jamie, braved Frenchmen Street on Halloween night, sending me text messages like, “Just saw an angel making out with a guy dressed like a banana. I love this town!”
By Monday night, I knew he was a convert. We invited some friends over, ate red beans and rice and screamed “Who Dat!” at the television. After a few beers, Aaron, who’s never been a big sports fan, was on his feet protesting calls and hating on the Falcons like he’d been doing it his whole life.
On Tuesday, he officially gave me his blessing. “I get it,” he said. “You seem at home here in a way you never were in Columbia. And I’m happy for you.”
I was home, and I was happy. And maybe Aaron, who’s called dozens of places home, from North Carolina to Japan to Hawaii, didn’t fully understand the need I had to get back here, but he could see that I was at peace.
On Wednesday, I drove him back to the airport, early, and spent the rest of the day sort of melancholy. I hate goodbyes, and I particularly hated saying goodbye to Aaron. It was so nice having him here, a link to my past in my present-day world. I was so mopey, in fact, that I briefly lost sight of the future –– of the fact that even as Aaron flew back to Missouri, I was still responsible for the little New Orleanian I’m raising.
Luckily, though, toddlers have a way of not letting you forget for too long. And as I drove home that afternoon with Ruby, she pointed urgently from the backseat at the same skyline that had been haunting Aaron’s dreams. “Look at that, Mama!” she yelled. “It’s the Emerald City!”
And part of my brain immediately thought, “Oh, God, I obviously let her watch way too much TV.”
But another part, a more charitable part, thought: “Wow. The Emerald City, eh? That’s pretty cool.”
And then, before I could stop myself, I said, “Hey, Ruby, can you say, ‘There’s no place like home’?”