By Sophie Unterman
As Dr. Michael White’s band burst into “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” my friends, roommates and most of the other gummy-eyed, hung-over (or still drunk) Tulane class of 2012 graduates in my section of the Superdome turned teary-eyed. My best friend broke into flat-out sobs. Among them, I was curiously dry-eyed. Yes, I would miss them all terribly, but I was not leaving our city. As they embarked upon teaching programs and medical school and new jobs, or just figuring it all out from the rent-free confines of their old bedrooms all over the country, I was staying here. Unlike them, I hadn’t spent the last few weeks passing out at Snake and Jake’s “just one more time,” lamenting over a “last” Parkway alligator sausage po-boy or one “last” nectar cream snoball. I was going to have as much of all those things as I wanted (or that I could afford on my brand new, hourly wage job).
Over the course of last year, I hosted several of those friends on their long weekends. I picked them up at Louis Armstrong International while they quickly shed their coats and scarves and ordered me to turn the dial to WWOZ. It was also last year when I finally thought of myself as a true New Orleanian, living on my own in a one-bedroom on Henry Clay, stumbling distance from my favorite Magazine Street bars and restaurants and a stone’s throw from Audubon Park.
I was by no means one of the many Tulane students who never wandered farther than Maple Street unless it was for a foam party at the Republic, but I was far from feeling like I knew the city. That year post-graduation, I grew a fig tree and made bread pudding for my coworkers. I explored the city every weekend by bike and porch-sat with my neighbors, attended every festival I had missed because of studying in college. In short, I began making it my home. Last August, when I moved to New York to attend Columbia for grad school, I knew I would be back often for visits and then, one day, back for good.
And here I am, tickets booked for Halloween weekend, to visit my boyfriend Adharsh, a New Orleans native. As psyched as I am to revisit the place I still consider home, I am a bit weirded-out by coming back not as a local, but as a visitor. Not that my new status as a New Yorker automatically turns me into a Bourbon Street-stalking, beads-wearing, hand grenade-guzzling tourist, but it will be different.
Can I still consider myself a New Orleanian? At graduate school orientation, when a couple hundred arts students attempted small talk and sipped teeth-staining red wine, the first question out of all of our mouths was, of course, “So where are you from?”
“Well, I’m from Kansas City,” I would begin, “but I just moved here from New Orleans.”
That’s when everyone’s eyes would light up, and they would tell me they’d always wanted to go there, or that it’s where they’d spent the best weekend of their lives. New Orleans was my icebreaker. I told them about catching my favorite musicians at Free Music Fridays, about second lines winding through the Quarter on Sunday mornings, about the Reginelli’s two-dollar pitcher lunches my friends and I took to break up many monotonous Mondays at the office.
I told them about being blessed on the Magazine Street bus and befriending nuns at the convent across the street during the Thoth parade. I spelled out Tchoupitoulas on a cocktail napkin and told them that down there, a dive bar was not a joint in Chelsea where you could get a $6 pint, but a sticky-floored shack strung with Christmas lights that served $1.50 Schlitz.
I’ve told myself a thousand times that I’m not going to tear up when I catch my first glimpse of Lake Ponchartrain from the plane, like all my friends did last year. My list of things I want to cram into that weekend is far too long, the sub-list of things I want to eat long enough to feed any human for weeks. During study breaks, I peruse the Livewire and Gambit, scribbling down several options for each night. I want to make the most out of my New Orleans fix.
Realistically, I will probably end up knocking out a small part of my list, and most of my time will be spent catching up with friends over drinks at Miss Mae’s, eating Adharsh’s giant, Tony’s dusted omelets too late in the day to be considered brunch, and watching the world go by from the porch — in short, the everyday things that are, in a way, more New Orleans than a day packed with sightseeing.
When Adharsh came to visit me a couple of weeks ago in New York, I fretted that he wouldn’t get to see every inch of this new city I was so desperately trying to learn. When we overslept our Park Slope brunch reservation, I apologized and fretted over whether they would take us later. He responded in his typical New Orleans way — urging me to relax.
His favorite part of the trip? Munching on salmon, brie, and hunks of challah in Riverside Park, our own version of many an evening in Audubon. A fierce defender of his city, he admitted that New York was growing on him, although it had nothing on New Orleans. And how could I argue?
As I take lox and bagel orders for my New Orleans friends and dig through my black sweaters and tights for some scraps of color and glitter to pack, I also try to cross out some of the things on my list. New Orleans is not about lists—it is just the opposite. It’s about wandering down the streetcar tracks at night hand-in-hand with Adharsh and running into old classmates at my favorite coffee shop, about nights veering off of plans and into eardrum-shattering trumpet solos in a dark Marigny bar.
It is about, even for a visitor, coming home. As two of the stickers slapped across my cello case proclaim, “Be a New Orleanian. Wherever you are.” I never stopped being a New Orleanian, and I don’t imagine I ever will. So in a few short weeks, when I find myself touching down on the runway at Louis Armstrong, it will not be for a visit, but for a homecoming.