Knowing, Meaning

A friend of mine recently posted a picture of himself standing in polar vortex snow up to his waist next to a car broken down on the side of the road, an unmistakable look of disgust on his face.  He captioned it, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”

It’s an iconic reference around here, the Satchmo recording invokes memories from old movies like New Orleans, or “Frank’s Place,” the short-lived television show of the ‘80’s, and of course the endless play the song received in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Many a bumper sticker with the phrase still flaunts the survivor status of those who endured the storm, a badge of honor beginning to fade 8 ½ years later as the cars age and need replacing.  We can’t escape the annual marking of August 29 without incessant air play of every version covered.

Someone from the DMV will likely show up and demand my Louisiana driver’s license back after I say this, but that song bothers me, almost to the point of anger.  I don’t mean any sacrilege to Louis Armstrong or Billie Holliday, it’s the actual lyrics that trouble me, the words people cling to as some sort of secret password, or wink and a nudge.

Specifically the clause, “do you know?” chaps me, perhaps because I’m a lifelong recovering know-it-all, perhaps because I’m innately competitive and hate to feel left behind.  Match all of that with a love for learning and teaching, and it is a dangerous formula for imploding self-esteem.  It’s a very emotional relationship to knowledge that challenges me to keep up, or stay in the know.  No one likes to feel left out or left behind, and to me, that phrase goads, even bullies, a sense of exclusion.

It’s not just my personality that perpetuates this, it is New Orleans herself.  We have secret clubs and Mardi Gras krewes, required by law to mask so we don’t know their identity.  One read of Rising Tide by John Barry is enough to turn any naïve optimist in this town into a hopeless cynic believing nothing will change as long as the nepotistic power of a quiet few dictate, unchecked, the fates of the rest of us.  Take one look at the lines on Bourbon street outside Galatoire’s for Friday lunch through Christmas and Carnival season, a restaurant who famously does not take reservations for downstairs.  The poor blokes sitting in their folding jazz fest chairs being paid to hold a spot so their patron can have a table ready when the doors open are certainly not going in to enjoy Crabmeat Maison.  They aren’t homeless bums, just regular Joe’s looking to make a few extra bucks.  Literally, those waiting outside will never know what goes on inside.

And don’t get me started on the complicated dichotomy between tourists and locals.  Talk about biting the hands that feed you.  We’ll save that for another post.

It was a dangerous and easy addiction in the months following Katrina as a restaurant manager when our early brave tourists only wanted to learn about our experiences, and we wanted to set the record straight.  It’s a sensation easily revisited every Carnival season when we explain (defend?) to those “not from here,” why we take our kids to the parades, why certain street corners are sacred, the difference between Upper and Lower Ninth Wards.  It’s a demonstration of our knowledge.  We know something “they” don’t, and maybe we will think about sharing, about giving just a little taste of the meal we routinely enjoy.  I’m as guilty as anyone of employing the phrase, “it was great until everyone found out about it,” or mocking national anchors who claim to be in one part of town, but in truth are several miles removed.  It is the possession of this knowledge that grants a level of superiority – a sense that of course, I know what New Orleans means.  And if I know what New Orleans means, then I am allowed to miss it, long for her, in ways that you are not.

But let me get away from the easy reaches of hurricanes and defenses of Mardi Gras.  It happened just this morning in the coffee shop.  My coffee shop.  In my neighborhood.  Where the owner greets my toddler with a hug and a kiss and a piece of fruit.  It could be argued that every New Orleanian has their own coffee shop.  A dapper older man, I would guess in his seventies, in a dated gray suit dripping from his bony frame, charged in the door, the bells clanging violently against the glass.  A thick and faded yellow tie exacerbated his gaunt jawline.  He led with his chin, in the way old men with backs bent from life still charge ahead though their bodies can’t keep up.  I was saying goodbye, fussing with my toddler’s coat, when he greeted all of no one with a raised hand – there was only me, the toddler, and the owner – as if hoards were expecting him.

“How you doin’, how you doin’?”

“How you doin,” I responded, without looking away from the tiny toddler buttons I worked.

He looked around quickly to get his bearings, and I could tell from my friend the owner’s face that this gentleman was a stranger.  The gent peered at me through thick lenses weighted by opaque plastic frames decades old and walked closer, then studied me for a minute.

“Let’s see if you’re really from here,” he leaned in, and I noticed his nose had grown around the glasses so he likely never had to push them up.  He smacked his lips a little.

While propped on my hip, my toddler tried to determine if he might have candy.  I found it strange he didn’t greet her or comment on her cuteness, even meet her eyes, just stared me down.  I cocked my head a little and tried to smile.

“Where y’at?”  He asked quietly, as though he were setting me up.

“Alright, alright,” I answered in my restaurant voice, my casual street dialect.  The one I order at a counter with.  “Where y’at?”

“Hmmph,” he smacked, and sucked on his lips.  I gave the appropriate password, I answered with where I was emotionally instead of geographically, which is what the question begs.  I don’t think he was satisfied, but he was enough assuaged.  Then he turned to the owner, an Iranian who’s lived in New Orleans for over thirty years.  “I know you’re not from here,” and that was my cue to get the hell out of there, though I’m sure the show would have been worth it.

I don’t know what inspired him to barge into the shop with this test, or if it was just part of his personality, and while my first response was to be relieved that I had passed and my second was to be curious if I could have code-switched appropriately without my restaurant background, my final response, and where I have settled, was to be annoyed.  How rude!  How exclusionary and unwelcoming!  How un-Southern!  (More on “being Southern” later!)

This is exactly my frustration with this town, the implication that there is some sort of inside knowledge just out of reach, another level of initiation, before one can become “a local,” or even better, “be from here.”  It makes no difference how long one has lived at a certain address, paid taxes, or invested their time and thought into their community, it is implied there are just certain ways one can never, truly, understand this identity that apparently can only be attained through birth at an Orleans parish hospital (is there a secret ritual performed in the nursery?) or by graduating from a high school within the city limits, a rite of passage that will automatically furnish ever-important socio-economic status, and I mean ever, because that diploma is a lifelong mark representing family, their money and religion.

Therefore, it doesn’t matter who you are as an individual, but rather the village from which you hail.  I wonder about this every day, as my daughter will be a bonafide “local,” since she took her first breaths at Touro Infirmary.  Even if she leaves at 18 and never returns and I die here, to some she will always be more “New Orleanian,” than I.

I watch as other friends who, after decades of love and life in this city, have just as much right as I do to call themselves local, still need to find ways to justify their identity, quickly claiming they “married a local.”  They’re from the “gulf coast,” even if it’s Alabama or Texas.  They “stayed through Katrina” or came back immediately.  They work in public health or city government trying hard to turn the barge of challenges here.  And the only reason they feel the need to make these qualifications to their cocktail party introductions or resumes is because they fear they may not be taken seriously otherwise by the people they need to take them seriously.  They may be perceived to not have the “knowledge” of what New Orleans needs, because she is so special, unique, and broken, and therefore they are incompetent, or worse, disrespectful of her traditions.

These understandings, or lack thereof, have nothing to do with what kind of person one is as a resident, which is what should really matter – the willingness to plug in and connect.  It doesn’t matter if blood is fresh or old, as long as it circulates kindness and love and solid intentions, isn’t that more important?  Which brings me to the line that really gets me about the Louis Armstrong song.  So much focus is spent on the opening phrase, so much head-nodding and Amen-ing to it, that the ears don’t stick around for the last line, “there’s one thing more/I miss the one I care for/more than I miss New Orleans.”  It’s what, in poetry, we call “the turn,” the moment where you realize the words are taking you somewhere you didn’t expect.

This is the real meaning of the song, and the real meaning of what it means to be a New Orleanian – to care more for the people around you.  In the song, Satchmo portrays all the luxurious cliches of Southern living – magnolia blooms, moonlight on the bayou, blah blah blah – but in the end he states that all of that is not what makes our hearts.  It is the people we love and who love us that give our lives meaning, who help us understand what it means.  It is not the hoops we make each other jump through, the tests, the secret passwords.  It is being together in the company of these clichés, and using those shared experiences to build a relationship.

All of that was what I wanted to say, but didn’t, to the old man in the coffee shop.  Yes, cousin, I really am from here.  Are you sure you are?  Because since you didn’t care about my answer to the question you just asked me, but instead were trying to exclude me from your initiate, I have to wonder if you really know what it means.  To care.


Coming up next, just to confuse matters, I offer examples of the times I don’t “know,” and a defense of why I think people exclude in this town.


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