Over the years, people have asked me now and again why I drive a four-wheel-drive, high-off-the-ground SUV in an urban environment.
“Have you driven the streets of New Orleans?” I reply. “Why in the world would you drive anything but an off-road vehicle here?”
(This is akin to the question, “How can you have three kids and work full-time?” To which the answer is, “How can you have three kids and not work full-time?” But I digress.)
During my three decades in Lakeview, riding high and rugged was a given for those of us living in an area of the city built on landfill. The reclaimed earth out there by Lake Pontchartrain strains to return to its marshy prior existence, in a sort of ongoing un-rendering of man’s technological touch that yields sinking streets, rippling pavement and potholes the size of Texas.
(One former crater off Harrison Avenue, I recall, was filled in post-Katrina days with a scenic diorama of garden flowers and gaily clad dummies, artistically arranged by neighborhood residents. But again, I digress.)
Four years ago, when I moved to the Garden District, the tantalizing whisper of hope that streets there might better conform to urban uniformity was banished the first time I drove down 7th Street. Despite an occasional foray into our neighborhood by one of the city’s two PK-2000 Pothole Killers, my street makes jeeping into the rutted wilderness of Sonofabitch Canyon, during childhood vacations in Colorado, tame in comparison.
The terrain gets even rougher when you turn the corner from 7th onto Camp Street, where road edges crumble into gravely ruts that drop precipitously from pavement to sidewalk, as though earthquake-ripped along the side seams. Yet people park their cars on these uneven margins, the vehicles tipped audaciously, like they had a few too many back at the Rendez-Vous. (The retractable side mirror, in New Orleans, is not a luxury option when buying a car.)
The rigors of parking, however, can’t hold a candle to the dangers of actually driving along these Uptown arteries.
You see, the north-south (east-west? In New Orleans, directions rarely conform to the compass) streets Uptown, unlike the east-west (north-south?) ones, are two-way corridors.
Which means that, on Camp Street, say, with the above-mentioned tipsy parked cars crowding both sides of the street, the remaining 8 feet or so of pavement gets traffic going in both directions.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of turning onto Camp Street in your seemingly solid SUV and suddenly locking headlights with a monster truck coming right at you.
Who has the right-of-way? The driver with the more-muscled car? The one heading Uptown? Downtown? The driver who, even marginally, has entered the block a few feet ahead of the competition?
It’s a constant game of Chicken, this two-way dance along the narrow Uptown streets.
I’ve learned a lot about my fellow man from these close encounters of the gut-wrenching kind. The timid among us pull cautiously into the first bulge in the road, to let the other car inch forward and by. The more aggressive personalities barrel toward you, forcing a showdown of strength (I inevitably give way). The humanitarians pause to see who will make the first play; a cautious give and take follows, like a small waltz in which no one is sure who is the lead, who the follower.
Some years ago, when my mother was choosing between Houston and New Orleans as her principal abode, she mentioned that she hated driving here. She was unnerved, she explained, by the narrow streets, the confusing directions, the propensity for drivers to ignore the road rules and manners generally held as inviolable elsewhere (What? Turn left from the right lane? But, of course …).
She eventually settled in Houston. Houston! Where exiting a freeway requires a six-lane change at warp speeds and a trip to the market can involve a 26-mile trek through rivers of concrete and steel. (As a friend once said of Houston, “One should never live in a city with loops.”)
But I get it.
In a guest sermon at our church a few years ago, a newly arrived rabbi said that people kept asking her “if I’m getting used to New Orleans.”
She paused. “If that means getting used to inching carefully out onto Prytania Street, little by little, and craning my neck and looking both ways and not being able to see the traffic coming, so just stomping the gas and shooting out into the intersection …. Well, no. I am not getting ‘used to it.’ ”
Nor, after 38 years here, am I.
For those having a really slow day, here is the NOLA Pothole Killer in action: