A large portion of your twenties is spent accepting that you’re not as invincible as you thought you were when you were 19. Part of that comes with learning street smarts, and another part comes with learning how different streets can be from city to city.
New York smarts harden you to neighbors who choose not to hold the door for you or acknowledge that there is another human being in their presence. But New Orleans, on the other hand, softens you. It makes you a person again, and your street smarts must adapt to a place that’s more of a community than a city. You know which areas to stay away from and when to take a cab home, but how do you know who is really your neighbor? You learn to trust the man who works at the corner store down the block from your house who knows your name or the bartender who knows that it’s either going to be a Budweiser or a whiskey kind of day.
I once fell asleep on the subway stairs in the early morning, waiting for a train to take me back to Brooklyn, when I first moved to the big city. I woke up in a distorted daze, knowing I had been taken advantage of. I didn’t even have to check my pocket. I knew it was my phone. I turned around to see a blurry figure taking its last step up the stairs and turning the corner when impulse picked me up to go after it. I jumped up the stairs two at a time and caught up to a man who I began demanding my phone from. He denied the accusations, but with no patience; I cut him off and told him to give me my phone back in a New York language that may not be appropriate for this forum. And he did.
But after the adrenaline subsided, I was filled with alarm at the reality of it all. I wasn’t just being naive, I was being stupid. Lesson learned.
Fast-forward three years to the other night, as I was grabbing my bike to head home after a drink or two in the quarter. These were different streets. And it was a whiskey kind of day. I crossed paths with a guy I had met two or three times at the bar; he hangs out with another guy I vaguely know. In New Orleans terms, it was like I’d known him for years.
He asked if I’d walk with him a little while since it was late. His charming tone and familiar face convinced me. A couple blocks into the walk he asked if I could spot him $10 for a burger, since he had no cash on him and added that he would get the money from his house, which wasn’t too far away. In New York I would have rolled my eyes and peddled off. The New Orleans in me gave him the money.
He ran in and out quicker than it takes to order a burger, but I didn’t question it. I wanted to believe that he ordered that burger. He then walked me to a house around the corner, telling me he had to run in back and would be back soon with the cash.
I stood there for a long while thinking. The sun was coming up and a light breeze filled the air on the streets of the Marigny. It was the perfect temperature outside.
I knew he wasn’t coming back. I waited. Not for him, but because I did not want to accept this lesson. He could have taken all of my money. He should have taken all of my money. But instead, he took $10, some pride, and the little trust in others that I’ve recently gained back.
And I eventually began walking home, wishing he just had taken it all.
Joey Albanese writes about the twenty-something generation in New Orleans for NolaVie. Send him any questions or tell him the answers at firstname.lastname@example.org.