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Big Easy Living: New Orleans as paradox

I have a love/hate relationship with New Orleans.

As with so many people I’ve interviewed over the years, my sojourn in New Orleans was supposed to be an abbreviated one. Stewart and I moved here after marrying in 1975, intending to stay only until he finished his last two years at Tulane Law School. Then we’d be off to San Francisco or D.C. or Dallas.

We had options for all of those cities, and more. But one sunny afternoon in May 1977, as we sat on the Moon Walk and gazed out over the river, the strains of a street saxophone floating on the breeze and the St. Louis Cathedral spire at our backs, we looked at each other and said, “How can we leave?”

This city is a seductress.

And like any enchantress, she can be enticing, bewildering, manipulative, scheming.

Here’s what I mean.

I love the laid-back atmosphere here. I hate the laid-back atmosphere here. We spin out our meals into three-hour exchanges and stop to savor a street fair or passing parade. But we also shrug our shoulders when things don’t get done – from fixing potholes to broken crime cameras – with a, so what, we’ll get there tomorrow attitude. It’s nice that accountants or lawyers here generally don’t work the long hours of more corporate-minded cities. But maybe there’s a downside to that, too.

I love/hate the city’s sense of tolerance. We have a diverse population that, by and large, gets along pretty well. We have a thriving gay population, embrace our eccentrics and artists, and can socialize among socio-economic levels with aplomb. But I hate the way we tolerate lousy politicians, and I hate the occasional intolerance I see for other races or religions or social sets.

I love/hate the fact that ours is a big small town. Stewart and I both enjoy the fact that we run into friends everywhere, from grocery line to Saints game. But I grew up in an actual small town, and one reason I left was that everyone knew (and talked about) everyone else’s business. Sometimes I’d just like to get lost in the crowd, you know?

I love/hate the food. OK, so what’s not to like? Fried oyster po-boys, shrimp etouffee, cheese grits, fried chicken livers, bread pudding,  But in a city where people walk around eating crawfish bread and carry their drinks door to door, it’s no wonder New Orleans is the obesity capital of the nation. That’s not something to like.

I love/hate the way the city’s haphazard layout. You head west to go east and every drive is an adventure. I love our streets’ neighborhood feel, quirkiness, lofty oak branches, the way they throw curves. But I also love walking rational grids, like the streets of Manhattan. The first week I was in town, I got in the car and thought I’d drive till I found a take-out restaurant. Two hours later I was lost and still hungry. Of course, this aspect has an up side: Sean Payton got similarly lost on a city tour with Drew Brees, while courting him as Saints quarterback. They wound up in Katrina-destruction land, which moved  Brees enough to convince him to sign.

I love/hate our history. Creoles, dashing Spaniards and talented craftspeople versus yellow fever and the world’s largest slave market. You fill in the blanks.

I love/hate our architecture. Lacy wrought iron, shaded galleries, gingerbread and old hardware – all sublime. Flooded and still-blighted homes, new McMansions, random zoning and lack of coherent urban planning — not so great.

I love/hate living in a multi-generational city. New Orleans historically has the highest population of residents who were born here. Many New Orleanians can trace their local ties back generations. That brings a sense of community and tradition and appreciation for place unheralded elsewhere. However, it can also mean that people are resistant to change, always wanting things to be the way they’ve always been. But the world moves on, and change is not a bad thing. And what’s with the fact that, as a woman, I can’t own shares in the country club we belong to?

I love/hate the weather. I’m Southern and warm-blooded. For me, heat is uncomfortable but cold is painful. Still, August in New Orleans? Really? And while I’d rather live in an area where we get advance warning of the resident disaster, there is nothing to like about hurricanes. (Except, perhaps, the liquid kind.)

I love/hate our go-cup mentality. I admire a city so Bohemian and carefree that people can drive up to a window to buy a daiquiri or carry a beer into the street. But is that really something a 21st century city should brag about?

Stewart  read somewhere this week that you can’t understand the universe unless you understand paradox. I certainly don’t understand the universe, but, living in New Orleans, I totally get paradox. At least it makes things interesting.


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