New Orleans: The Next Generation
When I was about 14 or 15, in the middle of one of those marathon phone conversations that 14- or 15-year-old girls are famous for, my friend Peter asked me, out of the blue, “What do you think is the typical New Orleanian?”
I thought for a moment and then described my next door neighbor: “Well, kind of Yatty. Says ‘zink’ and ‘mynez’ instead of ‘sink’ and ‘mayonnaise.’ Hair up in pink curlers all the time. Kind of racist. Calls spaghetti sauce ‘red gravy.’” I thought for another moment and gave up. I couldn’t think of anything else that made someone a typical New Orleanian.
“Really?” said Peter. “That’s it? What about someone who loves jazz? Who sings everywhere he goes? Who never misses a Mardi Gras parade or a day at Jazz Fest? Who has a great sense of humor and a great sense of family? Who loves crawfish boils and drinks his coffee strong with chicory?”
“Um, I guess,” I said. “I guess I never really thought about it. So listen, do you think you’re going to be able to come to Trey’s party this weekend?”
Obviously, something about that conversation stuck with me, though. And when I left New Orleans and began to notice how different things were in Missouri, I realized he and I were both sort of right –– with the exception of the racism and the pink curlers, both of which were all too prevalent in Missouri, the kind of people that he and I were describing couldn’t be found in the Midwest.
There were people there who loved jazz –– but not the way we love it here. Listening to jazz in Missouri meant putting on a Miles Davis album; listening to jazz in New Orleans often just requires opening your window or walking down the street.
And of course there were people with senses of humor and family, but again, it was different. Having been steeped in the bawdy black humor of New Orleans, I had trouble adjusting to the more wholesome Midwestern brand and always seemed to be facing an awkward silence after saying something that turned out to be inappropriate.
And crawfish boils and strong chicory coffee? Forget about it. The best seafood in town was at Red Lobster, and the coffee everywhere was weak and watery.
Peter and I were ahead of our time. People talk all the time now about how the face of New Orleans is changing post-Katrina. They talk about what the typical New Orleanian is, whether we’re losing that, how to protect it, if it should be protected.
In the months after Katrina, I watched as newcomers poured into the city, full of hope and idealism and energy, and I was immensely thankful they were there. But at the same time, I was worried. What did these newbies know about boiling crawfish? What did they know about Mardi Gras? Were they going to dilute our culture somehow?
That was a huge part of why I decided to move home. It sounds incredibly self-important, I know, but I wanted to make sure that enough natives were here to preserve the traditions, to show these new folks how it’s done down here, to initiate them, to mold them into “typical New Orleanians” and feed them jambalaya and beignets and snowballs. And once my daughter was born, I knew that I wanted to raise her here, both for her benefit and for the city’s.
It was devastating to lose so many live oak trees to Katrina, but we’ve planted new ones where they were, and though it’s not the same, not at all, to have spindly new oak trees where the huge majestic ones used to be, it’s better than not planting any trees at all or planting some other kind of tree where the oaks were. And that’s how I feel about raising my child here. Ruby certainly doesn’t make up for the thousands of “typical New Orleanians” who are no longer here post-Katrina, but at least it’s a start at preserving the culture, and it’s better than raising her somewhere where she wouldn’t know what King Cake was.
I woke up last Saturday, the fourth anniversary of Katrina, with the same mixed feelings as everyone across the city, wanting to remember, wanting to forget. But before I could get too caught up in it, Ruby walked over and handed me an empty plastic cup from her tea set.
“Have some coffee, Mama,” she said.
I accepted the imaginary cup of coffee and held it to my lips. “Yum, Ruby,” I said. “This is the best cup of coffee I have ever had. What’s your secret?”
She smiled proudly at me and said, “It has chicory in it.”