A Letter from Washington, D.C.
Photo Courtesy of NoOtherPlaceLikeIt.wordpress.com
Go to a house party in Washington, D.C., and you’ll meet people who grew up all around the country — 20-somethings like me who moved to this metropolis for its promise of successful careers and the company of other young professionals.
Because we’re from everywhere and most of us don’t consider Washington home, “place” is the wall-to-wall topic of conversation. “Where do you live?” “Where did you go to school?” “Where are you from?"
Iwas at such a house party not long ago when a friend spotted me in the crowd. Trailing him was a girl he had recently met and was hoping to impress. He began introductions over the stereo music by acknowledging that the girl had gone to Tulane University, a few blocks from where I grew up. He leaned into her and gestured at me. "This guy is from New Orleans."
Her eyebrows raised; her lips parted for air. There it is, I thought, the reaction to which I’ve grown accustomed, but of which I never tire. She was hearing the rumble of streetcars, tasting beignets. "You’re from there?” she asked. Then came the punch to my jaw: “How did you ever leave?"
For the near-decade since I left New Orleans for college, the question of whether to return or to stay away has been a constant dilemma.
When I was 18, leaving was an easy decision. I wanted to have a college experience that was different from my Jesuit years. In college, I learned to think for myself. I became more sensitive to matters of race and class than my Uptown childhood had allowed. I studied the history of the American South; in New Orleans — and in myself — I heard echoes of that history.
My family has been in the Crescent City for seven generations. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a major in Napoleon’s army. Chased out of Paris after Waterloo, exiled across the ocean, he established a new life in the French Quarter. "We’re Creoles,” my grandpa reminds me occasionally, though the only French I can discern in myself is a bottomless hunger for fromage.
Creole or not, I understand that the city has worked on me. My life is filled with tangible reminders that turn my thinking southward: a paperback copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. A well-worn Saints cap. A canister of Tony Chachere’s seasoning. My wallet — made of American alligator hide — that holds my Louisiana driver’s license. The DVD box set of the first season of Treme.
But despite loving and missing New Orleans and owing part of my identity to her, despite my family and oldest friends who remain there and ask when I’ll move back, I’m no longer sure I could live there happily. When I visit New Orleans these days, it’s not without an East Coast hustle or newfound sensibilities. Just as often as I recognize my NOLA-ness, I discover that I’ve been shaped by other places.
Once upon a time, I tolerated—even romanticized—the fact that bars still allow smoking indoors. Today, I hate the smell in my clothes after a night out, and I can’t wait until Louisiana joins other states in the smoking ban. (Really, it’s time.)
Similarly, when I visit in summer, I can’t believe I was ever OK with sweating so much.
My brother lives in New Orleans and has visited me in Washington. He’s taller than I am, but heading to lunch one day in my downtown neighborhood I outpaced him on the sidewalk. "Hold on, man!” he called. I slowed. As he caught up, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. “Let me text Dad,” he said, “and tell him how fast you walk."
Each year, I lose touch with a couple more high school friends. Three of my grandparents are dead. I look for reasons to fly back — a wedding, a birthday, Jazz Fest, Christmas — but I never stay longer than a week. The trips I make are stuffed with appointments. Like a jazz musician in a military band, I don’t give myself room to improvise.
Always, though, I make time for one particular riff — a visit to a favorite spot in the city. I drive along the edge of Audubon Park, over the train tracks by the Zoo and up onto the Butterfly. This riverside park is where I practiced baseball as a kid and where, on Friday afternoons in high school, I drank beer in my Jesuit uniform. At the edge of the Fly the sun shines brightly. The bench I sit on presses warmth through the seat of my shorts.
The Mississippi River smells slightly chemical and is unsightly as well, discolored by the sediment of two thousand miles. No matter. I like the river for its permanence. Beside it, my own dilemma is small.
I watch its currents tumble toward the Gulf and remember the words of Willie Morris, a great writer of “place,” who, after years away from his native Mississippi, returned home at last. I love how Morris explained his decision.
"As if in a dream, where every gesture is attenuated, it grew upon me that a man had best be coming back to where his strongest feelings lay.”
How did I ever leave New Orleans? It’s too late for that question. So instead, every night, after locking my apartment door in Washington, I turn off the lights and sleep to dream.