When I was in college, describing New Orleans to my Midwestern friends, I used to compare it to my loveable drunk uncle: It was fun but not really functional – definitely the kind of person you would want to bring along for vacation but definitely not the kind of person you would want as a lab partner. My uncle makes me laugh a lot, and I love him, but I am not kidding when I say it took him 11 years to get a college degree while going to school full-time.
As I’ve gotten older and more settled in to the city, though, I have started to see it less as a well-meaning, affectionate screw-up and more as an incredibly charismatic, fabulous, romantic, abusive alcoholic lover. That sounds harsher than I mean it, I guess, but I truly mean it in the best way possible.
New Orleans is an indescribably romantic city. I don’t mean that it’s a great place to fall in love, although that is also true. I mean that it’s the city itself that courts you, flirts with you, gives you these extravagant gifts that you feel almost embarrassed to accept: wet, humid nights thick with the smell of jasmine; street music floating up through your open window in early spring; the dazzling chaos of Mardi Gras; the utter perfection of a 70 degree Christmas. It cooks the most amazing meals for you, introduces you to all the best people.
But as intense as the romance is, the city can be flaky as hell, too. The boil orders issued hours after everyone has consumed the unboiled water? The potholes? The basic inability to provide any kind of bureaucratic service with even the slightest degree of efficiency? If New Orleans were a person, he would get his power cut off a lot because he just forgot to pay the bill. He would have vodka in the freezer but no milk in the fridge. His bank account would be overdrawn while a $500 check sat on the floor of his car because he just hadn’t gotten around to going to the bank.
That kind of stuff is easy enough to overlook, given all of the good qualities. That kind of stuff, you think, is something you can fix. And indeed, an influx of do-gooders have been drawn to New Orleans lately, eager and optimistic and ready to do just that. God bless them, and I mean that sincerely. I am grateful to all of the smart, kind people who have come down here to earnestly Teach for America or rebuild homes or start businesses. I just don’t think changing a city is any easier or less impossible than changing a person.
Beyond the flakiness, though, there are deeper flaws. All too often, New Orleans shows its dark and violent side. It smacks you around, steals from your friends, demands to know what exactly you thought you were doing walking down Canal Street drunk at 2 a.m. What did you expect to happen, goddammit? You made this happen; it is your fault for not making smarter decisions. Maybe you’ll know better next time, huh?
And yet you forgive. I forgive. The city is gorgeous in the fall, and you can hear a marching band while taking a bath, and you know enough to know you wouldn’t feel at home anywhere else anyway. So you stay, and you hope it won’t happen again, even though you know in your gut it will.
Not long ago, I asked my Facebook friends to play along with my extended metaphor and personify their own hometowns as lovers. And although Facebook is sometimes an annoying hodge-podge of chatspeak, cat pictures, bullshit inspirational quotes, political arguments, urban legends and links to articles about how you’ve been pooping wrong your whole life, my Facebook friends blew me away with their answers. With their permission, I’d like to share a few of my favorites with you.
Marie on Sitka, Alaska: “Sitka was (it's changed drastically since my childhood) the Grizzly Adams of a hometown, wearing flannel shirts long before grunge because we were all hiking and boating and camping in this luscious rain forest with totem poles and bears. A self-sufficient recluse in a log cabin, with hidden secrets taken out on the wood chopped each winter and the salmon hung to dry. You stay with him even though he barely talks to you because … oh wait, I left at 17.”
Scott on Slidell: “Here's one of the few times when I'll openly admit Slidell is my hometown. It's like one of those 80s-era Wall Street brokers who wore the royal blue shirts with the white collar, spent freely and really was the coolest guy of his time. He got into trading because his older brother was always the most popular guy and he constantly, desperately sought others' approval. Thirty years later, his money is gone, time has not been kind on his looks and his reputation is shot. But his brother is still the most popular guy around.”
Abby on New York City: “New York City used to be that guy who wrote graffiti, could get you into bars when you were 18, took you to see your first porno in a movie theater, and gave you a straight razor to carry when he wasn't around to walk you back to your apartment. But then he grew up to be some bullshit artisanal mayonnaise maker or hedge fund manager.”
Jamie, also on New York City: “New York is the older guy with impeccably tailored suits and a lady-killing smile. Seriously, how does he get his teeth so white? He knows more than you about everything — politics, art, sports… You struggle sometimes to keep up with him. He's friends with all of the owners at the hottest clubs, and he drags you by the hand past the velvet ropes. He's always whispering, ‘C'mon, just one more drink. You can sleep when you're dead.’ You are always exhausted. But who are you kidding — you love his lifestyle.
When you're out to dinner, he never mispronounces anything on the menu. Young blond waitresses right out of college flirt with him, and you watch. It's as if they're waiting their turn after you're gone. But he must love you, right? He doesn't say it a lot, but 10 years must count for something.
One night, over Barolo and foie gras (you have no idea how you're going to pay for this — weekend overtime at work, you guess), you start to realize all he talks about is his job and his money — and you don't think you've ever seen him do a genuinely selfless thing unless there's something in it for him. But then you hear yourself going on and on about your hair appointment at that fancy salon with the chandelier over the stairway and about how the people you work with are ‘such f***ing idiots,’ you pause. You've become just like him. You know no one else will ever understand you the way he does. So you stay.”
Chase on the other coast: “Los Angeles is an abusive lover. Just when you think you've had enough and you're through, he inevitably intoxicates you with the promises of dreams that will never come true. You stay in the relationship, feeling less and less about yourself, returning, deflated, time and time again. When you're in his warmth it's other-worldly, ethereal, majestic, shiny, celluloid perfection. And when you're not, a million other people are vying for his affections.”
And finally, back to the middle of the country, Lyndsay on Kansas City: “Kansas City is your guy friend who wants to be more. On paper, he's perfect – good values, stable, calls his mom every Sunday. He's not unattractive – average height, average weight, dull brown hair. But, he has bright eyes, a warm smile, and you get along great. Sometimes you get a bit tipsy and lead him on a little. Sometimes you get drunk enough to convince yourself you could really love him. But, in the morning, he's that same guy who would be so, so perfect for someone else.”
If you want to play along, for New Orleans or any other city, please do so in the comments or send me an email.