I’m from New Orleans. I’m not used to people feeling sorry for me. Or not liking me.
Seriously. If you’re from the Big Easy, you know the feeling. Anywhere you go in the world, when someone asks where you’re from (and they always do), and you reply, “New Orleans,” the response is invariably enthusiastic. “Wow! Love that city!” Or, “So cool. I’ve always wanted to go there.”
I don’t know if people from other cities, like Kansas City or Milwaukee, get that response. Maybe they do – “Love your rib-eyes!” “Great beer!” But we in New Orleans always feel the love.
So coronavirus has thrown us a curve. We’ve gone from the popular clique to outcast, a sort of downward Mean Girls trajectory. New Orleans is not on people’s bucket list these days. Being one of the country‘s epicenters for Covid-19 will do that to you. Leave New Orleans, and people suddenly look at you like you’re Patient Zero.
A friend evacuated to her dad’s home in Florida, and told a neighbor where she hails from. “Oh, you poor thing,” came the reply. “You must be so relieved to be out of there.”
Well, no, we are not. No matter where we happen to have landed these days, our internet news feeds link us to New Orleans. Our Zoom calls originate from living rooms along the Mississippi River.
I’m currently sitting in the dining room of a sunny canal-side second home in Pass Christian, Mississippi. It stands 17 feet above ground, on stilts, and has a small patch of green lawn, a porch swing and palm trees whose fronds blow a gentle rhythmic tap against the side windows. It’s a place we bought a couple of years ago for family gatherings. A place we could bring our grandkids to. We love it here.
People are friendly in Pass Christian. It’s a small-town kind of place, where people stop to chat on the sidewalk on Main Street. So when newspapers started talking about New Orleanians invading the coast – and theoretically bringing disease with them – I was a little taken aback.
News conferences this week promised that politicians were “keeping a careful eye on New Orleans.” The just-mandated shelter in place order for the state of Mississippi included verbiage about the proximity of New Orleans, a coronavirus hot spot. We live among Mississippians, but on our little cul de sac all but one driveway has cars with Louisiana license plates. The lone holdout: Texas. If the locals storm a foreign castle, I’m sitting in the keep.
And it’s not just Mississippians who are worried. Texas mandates a 14-day self-quarantine for anyone entering Texas from Louisiana. Violators will be subject to a $1,000 fine or 180 days in jail or both. Florida has checkpoints along highways such as I-10 where travelers from Louisiana are stopped and told to self-quarantine for 14 days.
I get the worry. In times of crisis, communities close ranks. Outbreaks migrate in what experts call “traveling waves” that follow patterns of transit and connection among communities. So I understand when a small island off the coast of Maine votes to ban non-residents, or when a member of the Select Board in Provincetown, Mass., tells seasonal residents that “coming here could be a death sentence.” I also understand the optics of those who have the means to own second homes suddenly living among people who do not.
But still … that feeling of not being wanted sends me right back to high school. New Orleans friends who absconded elsewhere are joking about removing their Louisiana license plates, or curtailing the word yat from their discourse. We’re hanging low. “We don’t mind having New Orleans people come here,” one Mississippian told me. “But not when they go back and forth.” She’s right.
My youngest daughter and her fiancé drove 22 hours from Brooklyn to New Orleans to quarantine in our house there. Frying pan to the fire, perhaps, but they also swapped a 500-square-foot apartment for a Garden District house with a yard. I don’t know if anyone cares that they came from covid ground zero; there’s no plague notice on the door. At any rate, they have self-isolated for two weeks from everyone, including family. And I’m just happy to have them close, if not necessarily safe.
Crisis sparks a gathering of family, a need – or desire, at least – to be near loved ones. My biggest distress these days is not being able to plop one of my grandkids onto my lap.
And perhaps that’s what we New Orleanians carry with us when we journey beyond home. That sense of family, the need to weather bad things together. It certainly was evident after Hurricane Katrina, and I think Covid-19 is doing the same. The diaspora that is New Orleans still finds its heartbeat along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.
Maybe it‘s time to stop worrying about whether this virus is going to spread across the country – or how, or by whom – and concentrate on what we do when it does. Because it will. And that makes all of us – from New Orleans, or Kansas City, or Milwaukee – not potential patient zeros, but one big community.