I knew New Orleans existed before this summer, but only from an eighth grade memory of the media frenzy that followed the worst hurricane in 40 years. And the first emotion I felt when reading a placement email from my company was fear. From the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern Louisiana was about eight degrees of latitude and about ninety degrees of culture out of my comfort zone. It didn’t help that my parents busied themselves looking up crime statistics for the area where I wanted to live and warning me to never go out after dark.
I pulled up a map, and from New Mexico to Virginia I saw a terrifying black hole of unfamiliarity. (Oh, and Texas). But, I had no real say in the matter if I wanted to be employed for the summer, so I booked a flight and made sure I had sunscreen.
And then, and then ...! From setting foot on the ground and breathing my first lungful of the summertime sauna Louisiana calls “the air,” I think it took about three weeks for me to start dreading the day I had to leave. Some cities seem to exist just because enough people decide to live there. Some cities exist for the dogged pursuit of “culture.” And some cities, some cities are fueled purely by a happy-drunk love for life and each other.
Okay, I’m doing my very best to not make this into 700 words of EVERYONE GO VISIT NEW ORLEANS BECAUSE IT’S AN AMAZING PLACE, but it’s hard. Here, take this appropriately generic moral-of-the-article right now so I can keep talking. Jump in, with minimum hesitation, when given the chance to experience new things in a big way. I never knew that my heart had a space shaped exactly like Frenchmen Street until I was listening to a jazz band at two in the morning. And, given a choice back in May, I would have passed up an overflowing double handful of joy in favor of playing it safe and staying closer to home. I’ve always been a conservative person, with at least minor tunnel vision about what I want and how I want to get it. But suddenly, there’s a lot more ways to be happy than I thought.
It’s not necessarily about the restaurants that turned me into a seafood snob, or the feeling of watching dueling fireworks barges on the Mississippi River. It’s not completely about the sight of thirty parking spots filled with nothing but pickup trucks, predictably empty on Friday. It’s not even about lax open container laws, craft beer and being carded twice the entire summer.
Maybe a part of it is that I had a job that I loved and that my boss bought me steel toed leather shoes. And I know for certain that a part of it was in every morning, when I walked into a control room full of blue-collar Louisiana men who called me “sweetheart” and refused to let me open a door for myself. Around 45 minutes into my first day, I packed the overzealous feminist in me into a little box and contented myself with falling in love with every one of them. Most of them have never bothered to go to college — not that they let it keep them from keeping the plant churning out tons of product per day with some of the best reliability records in the industry.
It’s somewhere there in the way they talk, the slow and easy drawl of people with nothing to prove. (Punctuated with the inexplicable placement of occasional Creole French). That, and the curious heartbeat of a confidently blue city in a red state. It’s in the finest of porch cultures and strangers waving from the streetcar. It’s the debauchery of Bourbon Street in a city that’s still carved into parishes originated by the Catholic Church. It’s country boys who say “alligator season” with a completely straight face and think nothing of it. It’s fried food in a city unobsessed with the debonair, and the warm spirit of people who are exactly where they want to be.
New Orleans, you’ve been good to me. But if I hadn’t left, I could never come back.
Deborah Liu is a senior in the College of Engineering. She may be reached at email@example.com. First World Problem appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.