Fried oysters and storm-sale wine
Here's my response to the earlier PGR post featuring Joe Bageant's essay lamenting the loss of a sense of community in mainstream United States culture. I was struck by the truths I found in what he said, but I was also struck by the contrast that New Orleans offers to Bageant's dismal portrait of the rest of the United States.
Several weeks ago, I was helping a friend move into a new apartment. I didn't know anyone else in the group of helpers, but by the end of the day, we were all getting along like old friends. Camaraderie in labor has a way of doing that.
One of those helpers was a small-framed but tough-as-nails woman, with a spirited character which I find common in people whose families have lived in this region for generations. I'll say her name was Jenny.
My friend was moving out of the same neighorhood that Jenny lived in. The neighborhood is in a corner of New Orleans that I like to think of as being like a living Norman Rockwell painting, with houses close to each other, porches with swings set close to the sidewalk, iron fences bordering small front yards, Live Oak and Magnolia trees lining the street, and neighbors greeting each other while walking and pushing strollers.
Throughout the day, Jenny kept running into people she hadn't seen in a long time -- at least, not since before the storm -- and they shared their stories. In fact, all of us in turn ran into people we hadn't seen in a long time, and as is the custom now, we all asked each other how we made out in the storm. There is a particularly virile sense of belonging now -- not just to a house, to friends, or to a neighborhood -- but a commitment to the well-being of our fellow citizens.
After a long day marching up and down a daunting flight of stairs that lead to an apartment above a first floor with twenty-foot ceilings, dirty, hot, and sweaty, smelling like a herd of horses, Jenny invited us all to her house for a glass of wine. She boasted of her bargain find -- a crate of French white wine that sat around at Cork and Bottle in Mid-City while New Orleans withered without electricity in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The crate was sold at storm prices -- $10 a crate, if I remember correctly.
Once parked in chairs around the kitchen island at Jenny's house, our tired muscles were quite content to stay put, and the wine and conversation flowed freely. Jenny and her husband were excellent hosts, and their kids were well-behaved and tolerant of their parents' entertaining.
After a while, Jenny and her husband talked about some leftover oysters they had in the refrigerator. Without a moment's hesitation, Jenny started mixing together a corn flour batter, guessing at the right amounts as she threw together salt, pepper, and chili powder, like this was something she's done a million times, then briskly running the mix through her fingers to blend it. The oysters were tossed into the batter and then into a pan of hot oil. Not twenty minutes later, Jenny laid a plate of fried oysters in the middle of the table for us to enjoy, and the celebration continued.
It was an epiphany.
I think most of us are still in a state of shock, trying to comprehend the impact and scale of the blow, to absorb what's happening to our city, what's happening to our friends and neighbors. I think most of us at one point or another break down emotionally. For me it happens fairly suddenly and unexpectedly -- the sight of a flood line on a house, or personal memorabilia heaped in a pile of trash on the street.
There's no doubt in my mind that I'm stubbornly committed to stay put while New Orleans rebuilds, doing what I can to help. Nevertheless, I will always have a love-hate relationship with the city. There's so much to love, and so much to hate. It may be the "big easy," the "velvet rut," but the fact of the matter is that it's hard for professionals outside of medicine and law to make a living here. Then there are the abysmal public schools, and high crime. Being a crime victim in New Orleans is almost a blood rite -- as though you aren't really a New Orleanian until it takes a pound or two of flesh from you. But the rewards! The rewards balance the account. If it weren't for the people, the architecture, the neighborhoods, the music and culture, the food and the arts, it would be difficult to justify living here. Everyone makes a decision at some point to hang in there, or hang a for sale sign. For now, I'm committed -- at least a while longer, until I can see through the rebuilding process.
The epiphany was the confirmation in that occasion at Jenny's house of what I love about New Orleans -- the spontaneity, the serendipity, the gaity, the celebration of life, the welcoming spirit, the emotional connectedness of neighbors, the cultural diversity, and now, the very physical realization of our interdependence. There are other places like this -- sure -- but none quite so rich in these qualities as New Orleans.
We know we're in this together, and we're going to make it happen together, over oysters and wine, crawfish and beers, Mardi Gras and beads, costumes and parades, marching bands and doubloons, jazz and the blues -- and speaking of the blues -- over moldy sheetrock and soggy furniture and ruined photo albums as well, because that's all a part of our lives now too. This is our city, and its strength is in the character of its citizens, and in the community traditions we're struggling to uphold. This is living culture, and it's the people who bring forth all of its bounty. It's the people who bring joy to the life of the city.
We won't allow a knucklehead in the White House to ruin it. We'll fight, and we'll kick, and we'll scream, until we get what we want, because preserving this city should be the nation's most important priority. Why? Because living in New Orleans is in many ways like living in a Norman Rockwell painting. New Orleans is more like America than America itself -- an essential American city -- for all of its history and the diversity of its people and its culture, and yes, for all of the good as well as for all of the bad. We have it all, and if we can't make it work here, then we might just as well give up on the rest of the country as well.