By Maurice Carlos Ruffin
My dirty secret is that I don’t like New Orleans. Before I’m pelted with tomatoes, allow me to explain. I’m talking about the Big Easy clichés. Every great city is a tableau of clichés. Right now in Paris, a young man penitently kneels before a lithe woman, cigarette dangling from her fingertips. A New York cabbie spits a Bronx cheer while careening through Midtown Manhattan. At this very moment, an island woman Hula dances on a white sand beach even though it’s 3 a.m. there, as I write. The conventional wisdom tells us that French lovers are always in the process of coming together, impatient Big Apple cabbies disregard all traffic laws, and shapely Hawaiian girls shake their hips for our enjoyment even while sleepwalking.
Likewise, everyone in New Orleans can play a trumpet, cook an amazing pot of gumbo, and would rather be in the crush of each and every Mardi Gras parade.
Unfortunately, I’m not a cool cat who can blow a horn. The only way I get to eat gumbo is if some kind soul shoves a bowl into my hands. I’m just as likely to be curled up with a good book rather than braving a chilly Tuesday morning to see the Rex cavalcade. And even though I was born here and have lived here my whole life, I couldn’t reliably spell “Tchoupitoulas” until my thirties. So what claim do I have to this place?
Well, it’s something I have no control over. The same way some people carry the scent of jasmine on their hands after tilling a garden, strangers can smell New Orleans on me.
I travel a good bit and invariably there comes a point in the conversation where I mark a bemused twinkle in my captive’s eye. They wonder why they’re spilling their guts to me, why they’re enjoying the exchange so much, why I’m so focused on them instead of trying to maneuver my way into the next conversation with a more prominent person. In other words, why do I seem to care about them?
It’s because I do care. An essential aspect of being a New Orleanian is living in the here and now. In an epoch where so many people drift through life on the ephemeral currents of social media that make us more distant than ever, New Orleans folk are ambassadors of the absolute present. We love to know what TV series they’ve been binge watching, who’s more annoying Kanye West or Miley Cyrus, what dreams sweep through their thoughts when they should be preparing a spreadsheet.
New Orleanians see what life offers, and we engage. Is that a marching band drawing near? Go outside on the porch and hear them pass because they’re playing just for you. See an elderly stranger wandering toward you dressed as a character from The Wizard of Oz? Say hello because they haven’t forgotten that make believe is just as awesome at 75 as it was at five. Should we have dessert after that deliriously over-the-top dinner? Of course we should because tomorrow isn’t promised, but this moment is.
When people who’ve never been to the city ask me what New Orleans—the real New Orleans—is like, I tell them that it’s just like me. These conversations never end with a hand shake. Instead, we part with a hug, kiss on the cheek, and plans to reconvene, as old friends, when they finally make it down.