Does this content look wrong? Click here to report any errors.

Crossing the Gulf: A letter en route

Canal and oaks, Audubon Park, New Orleans, La. (From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

I’m returning to New Orleans and, more than anything else, I’m excited.

The doubt I expressed on another website last year, about whether I’ve grown too distant from my hometown, lingers. But neither have I been able to shake my curiosity about what it would be like to live in New Orleans as an adult, on my own terms.

The longer I’ve been in the workplace, the more acutely I’ve sensed that I ought to be giving what talents I have to the place I care about the most. Still, I needed to feel not only a pull toward New Orleans, but also a push out of Washington, D.C. I had to accept that while Washington is busy and cosmopolitan, and though I do enjoy my status as an expat from romantic New Orleans, Washington doesn’t need me and I don’t love it.

Banking over the Potomac in an airplane, spotting the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial out of my cabin window before landing at Reagan National Airport, fails to stir me like gliding over Lake Pontchartrain to MSY does.

Was it not ungrateful that after my upbringing in a city rich in culture — which inspired me to study culture in college — I took that experience and education to a different city? What of all the talk I used to hear as a kid about a “brain drain” desiccating New Orleans? It bothered me. Even then, though I expected to leave, I wished that other young people would remain.

And many have, it turns out.

In Washington I check my email and discover a message from a favorite friend in New Orleans. Her wedding a couple of years ago occasioned one of my return trips. Her email today delivers a slideshow of pictures of her 4-month-old daughter. Where did this child come from, with her blue doll eyes? My old friend is a mother now? How much we miss.

I hit “Reply” and declare my long-distance love for the little girl.

“Come home soon,” her mother writes back.

I quit my job a few weeks ago. I gave 60 days’ notice to my landlord. Soon I’ll pack my things and rent a car one way and drive southwest, stopping to reconnect with friends from my decade outside Louisiana. Then, thumbing up the air conditioning in the car, I’ll roll down I 65 to I-10 and along the coast to the old city, where I can host the same friends.

With some shame, lately I’ve been telling people in D.C., “I’m moving to New Orleans,” but my shame is for omitting the word “back,” for talking as if I had no childhood and would be making this move without those 18 years. Afraid of regression, I want this to be another step forward. I want a new New Orleans.

As I return to you, New Orleans, grant me a fresh experience. Let me live in one of your distinctive, historic neighborhoods, but please — not the block where I grew up.

Rent to me a shotgun apartment that I can make my own with books bought in North Carolina and a bookcase from Mississippi. Serve me a cold beer at a corner bar, as long as that bar isn’t F&M’s. Forgive, even appreciate, that I’ve changed. Welcome me and then withdraw just enough that I can author an original second act.

My grandpa has lived long and well and almost entirely in New Orleans. A member of that stoical generation that endured a great Depression and a world war, he has never been especially good at voicing affection. With him, I know to read between the lines. There is tenderness in the birthday cards that he inscribes with teasing messages and in the extra second or two that he holds my hand after shaking it.

One night after I decided to move, he phoned me unexpectedly.

“Hey, Hicks,” he said. “I’m just returning your call.”

I asked him, “What call, Paw Paw?”

“Your call from today. Didn’t you leave a message on the machine? I had one from you.”

“No. I haven’t called you since the weekend, when you answered. It must have been someone else. It wasn’t me.”

“Really?” he asked. “Damn! I don’t know what I’m talking about, I guess. This happens when you get to be 90.”

He hung up laughing. I laughed along with him, but behind his mistake I heard a heartfelt meaning, an assurance unspoken.

Come home soon, he seemed to say. I’m ready to see you again. You still belong.

Hicks Wogan submitted this article to NolaVie.


You must login to post a comment. Need a ViaNolaVie account? Click here to signup.