Saturday, May 29, 2010

A young hardhead from New Orleans. I ain't known no better...

I never got the bumper stickers.

Defend New Orleans. Proud To Swim Home. Make Levees, Not War.

To me, New Orleans has always been the most beautiful of tortured souls. A thriving city in the wrong place at the wrong time. Always. The failures of three hundred years echo through the oaks in City Park and down St. Charles. New Orleanians just learned to live with it. Hell, it was always a good excuse to throw a party...until Katrina anyway.

It's funny to see change in something you always thought would never evolve. Ever since CNN moved the cameras to the "next great human tragedy," I had always been steadfast in moving back to New Orleans after college, settling down, and raising a family. It was non-negotiable. My kids would attend my grammar school. If they were boys, they would attend my high school. If not, probably Mount Carmel but that's beyond my point. I wanted that. Yearned for the continuity and tradition a place like New Orleans so easily lends to the transitory. Half of the city can probably trace their heritage to immigrant workers, slaves, or carpetbaggers. People forget that in the vein of the "Y'at" culture. We're all New Orleanians. Not Italians, Irish, Indians, or Inuit. That's what I loved about New Orleans. The togetherness. The feeling you get in the Superdome or on Orleans waiting for Zulu.

I don't know anymore. I just don't. At what point does childhood memories of trips to the zoo and walks through the Cabildo overtake murder rates and mortgage crises? Has New Orleans become a nouveau Venice, her culture and history bleeding through the X's on Marie Laveau's tomb? People want to see New Orleans when they get here, I understand that, but at what cost? It was all too easy being a kid, growing up with McKenzie's, Schwegmann's, and K&B. Our parents protected us from the decay lying too plainly to see. Sometimes I want the rose colored glasses back, but I know what I see will only make me sadder. When the Sugar Bowl arrives on New Year's Day, Fox will show TV shots of the staples. Bourbon. Cafe Du Monde. The Crescent City Connection. Millions will be enthralled, and more than a few thousand will visit in the near future.

So why am I worried? Is it because these "tourists" will sap the lifeblood out of New Orleans with their "The Bitch Fell Off!" t-shirts and drunken escapades sure to end up on YouTube? It's not that simple. When posed the question "Do you want to raise a family in New Orleans?" I now waffle worse than Bill Belichick on fourth down. I love New Orleans. It's who I am. Which New Orleans though? The one I knew as a child or the hardscrabble reality of Central City and overcrowding? The reality is nothing is getting fixed, just patched up until the next big festival. It hurts to say that. Every city has its problems, we just seem to raise the bar while other cities like Baton Rouge raise their profile. People from other places in Louisiana see New Orleans as a paragon of living, a big city with little regard for rules. I just see New Orleans the way every Saints fan has since 1967: a lovable loser of a town, with just enough charm to keep us in the race.

Until this year anyway. Now the hope's back. Told you I'm a waffler...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sometimes I can hear this old earth shouting through the trees as the wind blows...

Recess was always a magical time for me. For thirty minutes we were free to do as we pleased. Free to run, jump, laugh, and play as only kids could, away from the harsh reality of books and bags that had become our sad, structured lives. Our teachers didn’t mind it either as they talked about the things grown-ups always talked about and fussed at children running too fast down the hill or trying to climb the fence. Come to think of it, the only thing wrong about recess was its sudden mortality. Like a flower that had bloomed only moments before or a Saints touchdown in the opening minutes of a game, the finality of the moment was always sensed and whatever hope remained was extinguished by the bell. We stopped and lined up, innocuous chatter leading to dead silence as we ascended upstairs into our bastions of learning. The rest of the day was inexplicably spent staring out of the window, yearning for a few more minutes of controlled chaos on the dusty, tattered playground.

It’s where my environmental journey began, I guess. They say you never know what you have until it’s gone and with the beginning of fifth grade, recess was gone along with homerooms and hand holding. We were big kids now, capable of changing classes and using lockers. Recess was for small children, not for the mature and nearly grown-up. We didn’t realize the lies they were feeding us until much later, after the cattiness and carpools had been absolved. It’s funny how something so seemingly insignificant has such a big impact on your life later. We joked all throughout high school and even into college about how we needed recess to survive. Well, recess and naptime but you know how that goes. In high school, I had unstructured periods. Free time, but used in the pursuit of academia, not monkey bars. In college, well, let’s just say that I cannot find a good slide anywhere on campus except for maybe the roof of the Swine Palace and I’m not going to attempt that for a long time. So it remains romanticized in my mind: the playground that I first set foot on years ago at Arden Cahill Academy. It was my first brush with the joy of nature and the feelings of freedom; my Shawshank, obviously on a much lesser scale but untarnished nonetheless.

The playground I visited a month ago had appeared unchanged. Grass was nowhere to be seen despite the feverish effort of the groundskeepers who had lay sod many times only to see it trampled by the endless footsteps of unknowing children. The playground, installed during my time over a decade ago, looked almost new save for a few marks from sneakers on the slides. You could still see the barns behind the playground. Luckily, the delightful effluence of the horses, chicken, and llama (yes, one llama) stayed across the pasture. Winter had brought her withering hands over the trees, leaving them leafless and skeletal. Weeds protruded out of the ground at intervals, contrasting with the dusty land. The bench I had moped for a full period over my best friend’s missing class was still there as were the gardens we young horticulture majors cultivated as fourth graders.

To an outsider (read, adult) this was just a place for kids to play but to us it was a suburban utopia, better than backyards and boulevards. This barren, sandy patch of land was the best place in the world if only for thirty minutes and I believe it created an innate desire for learning in me. Not the book kind, I had plenty of that, but a more simple learning. As time flew by, I wanted to protect these places if only so kids ahead of me could experience the singular joy of recess. That learning evolved into what I am today: an environmental management major. The slides are gone, replaced by regulations. The playground is too, replaced by case studies. But the singular, innate desire to learn remains. Maybe it won’t be as fun or liberating but I can’t wait for the day I go back to the playground: the grass will be green, the water pristine, and the air clear. And I’ll know as I step onto the slide, waiting to feel the familiar blanket of static envelop me that it started here.