What's in a Name?
I've been in New Orleans for about eleven years now, and I always thought that as I stayed in New Orleans longer, I would feel better about saying I was from here. But, it never really happened that way.
This is one of the facets of life in New Orleans that is both endearing and annoying as all hell. The culture of New Orleans is so self-centric and self-aware that there is a birthright in the phrase "I'm from New Orleans," and those born here protect the right to say that phrase with a suprising ferocity. I'm sure a lot of Orleanians are not aware they are doing this, and even fewer are aware that it is anything like combative.
The first thing an Orleanian does when you tell him or her you're from the city is to ask polite but very telling questions like "Where'd ya go to school?" If you're not aware, the proper answer is not where you attended college, but rather what high school you attended. More often than not, it's expected your answer will begin with "Saint," or "Our Lady," Though there are more schools called by just a regular name in the burbs (even though they are spoken often with a silent "Archbishop").
Now, if you answer something they don't know, or just plain wrong, then it's assumed that you're really from elsewhere and that you don't know what it means to be a real New Orleanian. And it doesn't mean that they will be less friendly to you, just that you'll get a polite reminder that you are not from here and you can never be, and your conversation will carry on. The first time this happens to you, it can be a little disconcerting, and even a little hurtful. OK, not just the first time. If you're like me... every time.
So, eleven years after the first time I mistakenly informed someone I was from New Orleans, y friends say I have developed an Orleanian personality so true that it surprises people when I tell them I was born elsewhere. But, it doesn't surprise them enough to keep them from reminding me, "oh, I thought you was from here, baby." I'm not from here. I just live here. End of story.
Or, so it would seem. Enter Katrina.
My friends lost everything. Some of them lost everything in the sense that I talked about before... nothing but pilings or a slab. I saved everything... just in time to be forced to leave my home. My job is 1200 miles away. My remaining friends are scattered to the winds. My city looks like a bomb went off everywhere. Some of my favorite music, food, and places are never going to be seen again in the city. Businesses are leaving in droves. People are leaving faster.
And yet, I return to New Orleans. I return out of a sheer love for the city. Of the hundreds of things in my life that I could have or should have committed to, this city is the one that remains true. The life that people lead here is right for me. The people that live here are the people for me. The music that lives here is the music I love. The food here is my food. I have made an effort to immerse myself in her, and to know the city. My heart lives here. Belongs here.
That's something a lot of "real" New Orleanians can't say.
I was standing at Johnny White's on Mardi Gras day. (I know. It's redundant. Move on.) I was talking to a fellow who works at Ingalls Shipyards in Mississippi. We're talking because we work for the same Large Defense Contractor. He's from New Orleans. He's half drunk and asks me where I'm from. Oh, hell.
I say, "right here."
And it starts. "Really? Where'dja gotah school, pahdnuh?" So I tell him that I didn't go to school here, and when he presses further, I tell him that I came here eleven years ago.
"Aw hell, man, I thought you said you was from here! I'm talkin' generations, man!"
So I thought about it for a minute, and I told him he was full of shit.
"I am awful tired of that shit, man! Just 'cause you had the good fortune to have been born here doesn't make you any more from here than me!" I went on, making sure he understood that I was the one that kept his home in New Orleans. I am the one bringing his job back to the city. No matter how crappy life has gotten in the City on a day to day basis, I am coming back for good. I, and thousands more like me, are going to bring the city back to life.
I told him that gives me the right to say it. He didn't say much after that.
But, in retrospect, I think I was wrong. That simply makes it true.
I am from New Orleans.