Whether I live in New Orleans for three more months, three more years or three more decades, I will never forget the 72-hours that spanned July 20-23, 2012. Forever and always, they will remind me why I love this city so very much.
I love this city because she is trying to get better. Friday morning started with an event hosted by my client, Metropolitan Human Services District (MHSD) The event celebrated the completion of our city’s first true continuum for mentally ill residents in crisis*. What does that mean? It means it’s the first time New Orleans has had a fully operational, 24/7 means of dealing with people in crisis. One that tries to keep them in their communities instead of the ERs and prisons far too many mentally ill consider to be their primary means of getting care. It wasn’t your typical mental health event in New Orleans. Oh, sure, the usual suspects were there saying their usual things. But at the end of the event a client spoke. Her name is Nemasa Asetra and she has battled mental illness for her entire adult life. Yet, while she touched on the difficulties of her illness, the heart of Nemasa’s remarks was how she had found something unexpected in New Orleans: she had found good care at MHSD. Accessible care. Comprehensive care. Delivered by people who treated her like a fellow human being. I don’t think many people in that room had ever heard those words used to describe care in New Orleans. Looking around, I could see that it humbled some of them. And, at least for a few, it reminded them that the morning’s celebration was not for some administrative success. It was for the fact that a new reality is starting to emerge for everyday New Orleanians like Nemasa. A reality that this city is getting better.
I love this city because she’s a bit mad. Barely 24 hours after my client’s opening, I was out of my khakis and button-down and standing outside Tip’s, painted silver from head to toe with matching go-go shorts, cape and wizard’s hat. Why, you ask? Why to be part of a protest in which unicorns, elves and whinebots were demanding the right to be part of the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, New Orleans’s largest DIY krewe. It was an epic meeting of nerds vs dorks. Crowds of rather puzzled on-lookers gathered, including a group of on-leave Navy men and women. In the end, the Krewe of PUEWC (which I co-captain) was granted a Pax Chewbacchus to be forever part of the wookies’ Intergalactic Krewe. In true New Orleans fashion, everyone won. Because everyone was in on–and actively participating in–the joke. Even, the Navy folks! Why? Because when you live in New Orleans, you realize that there are plenty of people in the world who take themselves–and the world–far too seriously. We do our part–daily–by puncturing holes in their seriousness so that a little light, a little love, can get in.
I love this city because she celebrates the cycle of life. My 72 hours of love ended with Uncle Lionel’s jazz funeral on Monday. Finally, after two weeks in a city that never closes and a homecoming that seemed to never end, Uncle was ready. To go home. And we were ready to send him, with the good people of Treme leading the way. Jazz funerals, of course, are a celebration here. Because, in New Orleans, we realize that death is nothing more than a chance to celebrate the passing of the baton from death to birth. It’s the cycle of life and we neither weep for it nor deny it here. We give thanks for it, thanks for the precious opportunity to have our own tiny roles in its never-ending dance.
Uncle’s funeral began with the horse-drawn caisson carrying him stepping down St. Philip as jauntily as the man himself. A wave of folks followed. Then the Zulu king and queen started their death march down the street and the distance between the caisson, the wave and the Zulus got further and further apart. “Lord, if they don’t hurry up, Unc’s gonna be in the cemetary by now,” a woman next to me said. Charbonnet Funeral Home staff frantically tried to tell the Zulus to pick up the pace. But they wouldn’t be moved. Because they knew that you don’t rush death, just as you don’t rush life.
Finally, everybody caught up with everybody else and the celebration was in full New Orleans mystical wonder by the time Uncle started to make his way by my house on North Robertson. As I stood on my stoop, shaking my this and my that to the Treme Brass Band, a man with a little boy asked if they could come up. “Sure,” I said without missing a beat. The little boy’s eyes were filled with excitement and joy as he took in an event that he will share with family, lovers and anyone who will listen for decades to come. “I was there for Uncle Lionel’s jazz funeral,” he’ll say and then recount every detail of his first indelible memory.
I watched that boy, whose excitement made it possible to stand still, as Uncle Lionel rolled by North Robertson street one final time, perfectly still (and laying down!). And I realized that our city’s most precious gift was beginning a new cycle.
The cycle of compassion had died with one man whose compassion for New Orleans is–and should be–legendary. But that spark, that wink, that love, was finding a new birth in the eyes and the wonder of a little boy, standing on a random stoop, at the end of an amazing 72-hours.
*By the way, if you or anyone you know is in crisis–at any time on any day–please call 504.826.2675. Specially trained professionals are available 24/7 to get you the help you need, when you need it.