We did not imagine we would bus our way through the Lower 9th. In fact, we thought we should be so lucky to stroll through the Garden District or Uptown in our five-day excursion. Nevertheless, there we were, in front of homes, newly-built and lifted above flood level, an impassioned tour guide describing which organizations funded which projects.
New Orleans, Louisiana: a place, as C. Morgan Babst put it, “where they speak of the dead in the present tense until mass has been said,” oscillating somewhere between grateful and offended at the inquisitive nature of privileged tourists.
It was evident on the streets. Countless homeless, all engaged in conversation with those classes above them as though they saw no difference — after all, we are all human, all ‘who’ destined to become ‘what’ should the unfortunate hour come — were grasping each opportunity to bum a smoke or share a drink, for whom among us knows what follows? Perhaps Baron Samedi knows, but even his mythological self did not design Katrina. There were times in a liquor store a man would spark conversation — a particular beer or shopping bag in hand would catch his attention — and the patrons would not know if the money he planned to spend was earned through conventional or unconventional toil. Employment is the established means of toil, but appealing for the charity of others no person can discount. The latter is so often more grueling than the former. Nobody cared, really, where or how money was earned. The city’s connotation whispered of deprivation behind the bright lights of Bourbon Street.
Even Bourbon Street, in all of its jovial bustle, housed secrets in the courtyards behind the identical daiquiri shops and franchised strip clubs, or quietly seated on the sidewalks outside of its storefronts. The proverbial elephant in the room was the poverty, but no person was willing to admit defeat to that storm.
“The poor have existed since the beginning of Time, or at least colonization,” they would stubbornly argue. Of course, being a port city in the Old South, displacement was a recurring theme historically; their point was valid. However, no person wished to discuss the displacement so palpably owing to the storm. They knew it all too well; they needed no reminders from outsiders. Instead, they spoke and laughed and danced along all of the others, meticulously forging pleasure until they believed it themselves. Herein lies the beauty of the city: above the architecture and above the cuisine is the resiliency formed through a history of strife and bound to the people of New Orleans as though it were their very flesh. This human pliability is the basis for all we tourists enjoy. Especially in this instance, the people are truly the heart of the city.
I met a woman on the plane over. She told me of the culture, the lack of restrictions and maintenance only of Napoleonic law, as well as the freedom to exist as one pleases — preferably in a jovial manner. Her tone hinted to me the rest, but she did not explain the ‘why.’ Beyond the compulsory talk of the storm, we did not cover its implications. I knew better than to ask, and I expect she anticipated I would learn for myself.
I was never here before Katrina. I did not see whether people were so accepting and dynamic prior to that dreadful storm and its flooding. But I can imagine their struggle has stressed the importance of living in the moment and welcoming everyone always. I one day hope to know it further, but for now — for it all, for what I have learned — I am grateful.