This past week has been a crazy up-and-down experience of the very best, the very worst and the signature endearing/infuriating nonsense that New Orleans has to offer.
First the lights went out in the Superdome with the whole nation watching. I switched back and forth between keening with anxiety over what a setback it was for our image and laughing at how typical it was. Ultimately, I decided to embrace it. We aren’t a super, shining beacon of cutting-edge technology; we’re New Orleans. We’ll feed you; we’ll hug you; we’ll get you drunk – but anything more than that can’t be taken for granted. Should we strive for more? Maybe. But I really like things how they are.
Except. Except that on Monday, a woman was kidnapped, beaten, raped and robbed while walking from her car to her home at 6:45 in the evening. I was shaken by this – it’s perhaps too easy to discount crimes that happen late at night or in dangerous neighborhoods, but I do it anyway. Indeed, when a group of my friends and I were robbed at gunpoint in 2001, I could point to any number of things we did that, in retrospect, were stupid. I’m not saying we deserved it or that we were the ones at fault – only that there is something oddly comforting at looking at a scenario in which something bad happened and seeing things within your control that you could do differently in the future. But my God, walking from your car to your home at dinnertime? When I pieced together from postings on Facebook and conversations with friends that I actually knew the woman who was attacked (I am not going to call her a victim, because she is anything but), I was honestly not all that much more upset – it hit too close to home already. I had a parent-teacher conference the next night, and I was so skittish walking to and from the school with Georgia in tow. Anything happening to me would be terrible; anything happening to my daughters or even to me while I was with my daughters is just unthinkable. And that skittishness, that edginess, that fear is just a part of the reality of how things are here.
Except. Except that I spent Thursday watching Ruby’s school’s Mardi Gras parade, hundreds of happy kids throwing beads to their doting parents in the February sunshine. The parents at Morris Jeff are some of my favorite people in the whole city, and we are all in this together. And I came home from the parade to find on my porch a glittery Muses baby shoes that my friend Soline had made for Georgia’s first Mardi Gras (a New Orleans native now living in New York, Soline was back in town to ride in Muses and had made a shoe for her baby daughter, and since shoes come in pairs, she made one for Georgia, too). The people, the traditions, the sense of fun and generosity in this city are indescribable. And that’s a part of our reality, too.
This is the same old round-and-round I have been doing since … God, since forever. I was both horrified by and weary of the crime as a teenager living here; I am horrified by and weary of it now as an adult raising my own kids. I struggled with it before moving back; I have struggled with it every day since. Do good friends, good times and glittery baby shoes cancel out the jaw-dropping, stomach-churning horror of a rape or a stray bullet or an armed robbery? It’s just not that simple.
As my friend Michael Martin posted on Facebook: "Ordinary livability requires an ordinary people. There are exceptions in each direction [in New Orleans]. It's easy to be too lenient. It's tempting to be too censorious. But by and large, that hard shell of corruption and decay and incompetence that protects the pearl which is this place is all that prevents the Exploiters-That-Be from turning New Orleans into a disneyfied NewOrleansLand." And that's pretty much the crux of it.
Bad stuff happens everywhere. The bad stuff that happens here is altogether too frequent, but it’s not particularly unique. It’s not like the murders, robberies and assaults that happen here are any different than the murders, robberies and assaults that happen in St. Louis or New York or Miami or any other dateline city I could name. But in those cities, Ruby would not be marching in the Krewe of Kindersaurus Rex as Goldilocks of Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. I wouldn’t be gearing up for a full weekend of parades and parties. I wouldn’t be nearly so happy.
And ultimately, every day I live here is a gamble between the odds of something bad happening to me measured against the absolute certainty that I would be miserable living anywhere else, divided by the fact that, honestly, anything bad could happen to me at any time, anywhere.
It’s a complicated equation, to be sure. But it’s really all I’ve got. (Well, that and a glittery baby shoe, about 10 pounds of beads and three blinky Muses rings.)