JUNE 1, 2007
WHAT IT MEANS
The New Yorker
By Dan Baum
The final New Orleans experience I will record in this journal is, fittingly, one of exile. I’m on the outskirts of Houston, stuck in a sterile motel room and pining for the rich, convoluted streets of the Crescent City. The soaring expanses of freeway disorient me; my eyes haven’t focussed on anything farther away than a few blocks in a long time. And, instead of looking at peeling multicolored shotgun houses with oddly dressed people sitting on their porches and others walking dogs in the street, my eye falls on the featureless beige wall of a Best Buy and the acres of parking around Sam’s Club.
But, most of all, I’m lonely. I was in Beaumont, Texas, having vegetarian fajitas at an outpost of the Acapulco Mexican Grill chain, when I noticed a woman at the next table looking at my food. “That looks good,” I heard her whisper to her mother. I kept expecting one of them to lean over and shout, “Hey, babe, what’s that you’re eatin’?,” and for all of us to end up at the same table. But they kept to themselves.
“Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” an old song asks; another reminds us, “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.” Since Katrina, I’ve often been asked (though never by someone in New Orleans) why the country should bother rebuilding it. Is it really worth the billions it would take to protect this small, poor, economically inessential city, which is sinking into the delta muck as global warming raises the sea around it? But the question of “whether” has been settled—New Orleans is rebuilding itself, albeit slowly, fitfully, and imperfectly. Now it’s only a matter of how and how long. That is better news than perhaps the rest of America fully understands.
It’s the American way to focus on the future—we are dreamers and schemers, always chasing the horizon. Looking forward has made us great, but it comes at a price. (Mexican immigrants often describe life in the United States as puro reloj, or “nothing but the clock.”) New Orleanians, on the other hand, are excellent at the lost art of living in the moment. Étienne stopped at our house one afternoon to drop off some papers he wanted me to see. No, he said, he couldn’t stay; someone was waiting for him downtown. But we got to talking, and gradually moved to the chairs on the porch. We had a beer. The shadows lengthened as the day cooled, the jasmine across the street smelled sweet, and a few houses away someone was practicing the saxophone. Margaret brought out a dish of almonds. We all had another beer. It was dark by the time Étienne left. And here’s the true miracle of New Orleans: the person waiting for him downtown no doubt had an equally pleasant couple of hours, and Étienne surely paid no social penalty for being late.
When Margaret and I first arrived, in January, I noticed that I kept getting stood up. If I arranged on a Monday to meet people for lunch on the following Thursday, they often wouldn’t show. When I tracked them down later, they’d ask why I hadn’t called that morning. It hadn’t occurred to me to do so; everywhere else in America, people use calendars to manage the future. It took me a while to figure out that in New Orleans the future doesn’t really exist. There is only the present.
Long before the storm, New Orleans’s infrastructure was decrepit; the schools were a shambles; poverty, corruption, and violence were rampant. It was, by most conventional standards, a terrible place. But few who had tasted life there willingly gave it up. Right before Katrina, a Gallup poll found more than half of New Orleanians “extremely satisfied” with their lives, despite the city’s wretched state, a higher percentage than in any other city surveyed. New Orleanians have more time than money, and they like it that way.
The city’s unique appreciation for the present makes life there rich indeed; it’s why people call New Orleans “the Big Easy.” It is not a world view conducive to getting things done, however, which goes a long way toward explaining why New Orleans is having so much trouble recovering from Hurricane Katrina. There are exceptions, but, as a rule, New Orleanians—no matter what color or how wealthy—aren’t great at planning meetings, showing up on time for them, running them in orderly fashion, deciding on a course of action, and then following through. This isn’t simply laziness or fecklessness; it’s a reflection of a commitment to enjoying life instead of merely achieving. You want efficiency and hard work? Go to Minneapolis. Just don’t expect to let the good times roll there.
New Orleans endures as the national repository of the loose-jointed Huck Finn spirit we Americans claim to cherish. While the rest of us pare down our humanity in service to the dollar, New Orleans is a corner of America where efficiency and maximized profit are not the civic religion. As I drive past endless repetitions of Wendy’s, Golden Corral, Ethan Allen furniture, Jiffy Lube, Red Lobster, and the like on my way back to Colorado, I realize that I haven’t spent a dollar anyplace but locally owned business in four months. A long time ago, David Freedman, the general manager of the listener-supported radio station WWOZ, described New Orleans to me as a kind of resistance-army headquarters. “Everyplace else in America, Clear Channel has commodified our music, McDonald’s has commodified our food, and Disney has commodified our fantasies,” he said. “None of that has taken hold in New Orleans.” In the speedy, future-oriented, hyper-productive, and globalized twenty-first century, New Orleans’s refusal to sacrifice the pleasures of the moment amounts to a life style of civil disobedience.
This is my last dispatch for New Orleans Journal. (Margaret and I can be found at www.knoxandbaum.com.) We are on our way back to a city full of high-achieving software engineers and real-estate brokers who have built a fabulously well-organized community, with excellent schools, thriving businesses, and immaculate parks, but who can’t find the time to sit a spell on the porch, let alone enjoy a second beer. Everybody in New Orleans tells Margaret and me that we’ll be back, that we now have the city in our blood and won’t be able to live anywhere else. We don’t yet know if that’s true. I can tell you that, wherever we live, I’m comforted knowing that New Orleans is there. It’s no exaggeration to say that, without New Orleans, the United States would be lost.