Six Years In Exile

I’m no longer around the corner from a tasty snowball, or an short hour’s drive away from red clay.  Maryland is my home.  It almost feels like home now. I’ve made new friends.  One of my favorite things to do is watch those new friends mingle with my old ones.  It’s almost always a good fit. Times like that make me think I’m not so different from the girl who drove away in a beat up Celica almost six years ago.

Not being able to go to your regular haunts makes feeling like the same girl quite difficult.  Conveying the betrayal I felt, and continue to feel, is difficult.  They could rebuild that city brick for brick, and the fear that it could happen again still wouldn’t be removed.  When people who’ve visited and love my home say, “It will never be the same again,” I agree, but for totally different reasons.  They think Mardi Gras and to their credit, even the goodness of the people of New Orleans.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just an overly broad testimony regarding the shift in New Orleans.

I can sit here and tell you the story of the piece of crepe myrtle tree that my mother begged my grandmother to give her for almost two years.  My grandmother passed away always saying she would let her have a piece, but never got around to doing it.  When she passed away, my mother took a tiny piece of that tree home in remembrance of her and planted it in the middle of our small lawn.  For three summers, she sat hopeful for any sign of that tree bearing life, and for three summers, it didn’t.  Then one spring, for no reason at all, we saw flower after flower bloom on the tree that was more of a silent rebellion than an adornment.  In the years after my mother’s passing, I would drive past the tree.  Once I had children of my own, driving past “Gramma’s Tree” became part of our daily trip home.

I can explain in great detail why this tree was important.  You may even feel a tug at your heart when you realize that I’m referring to this tree in the past tense, because it wasn’t strong enough to survive the storm.  You won’t know the quiet joy I felt each time I saw it bloom.  The thing that helped Mama remember her mother, helped me remember Mama.  Those blooms being forever lost is why New Orleans will never be the same to me.  Not being able to see a long lost friend without discussing how we lived [or tried to] in the time warp that was September 2005, when everything was uncertain, is why it won’t be the same.  The thought that some friends are long lost because they didn’t make it makes being the same impossible.

Through it all, I’m thankful that I made it through.  I give thanks for being able to relay the story behind the tree to my children.  They choose to maintain strong ties to their roots.  I feel like I’m doing something right.  They met the lady who used to sell me $0.27 Buttermilk Drops at McKenzie’s when I was their age during a visit home, and matched my excitement.  Things like that make it bearable.

It’s different.  I’m different.  But we’re still standing, getting stronger by the day.

Last year, I wrote this post, recalling my experience.  I’m not in a place where I can reread the entire thing myself, but I think if you haven’t read it, you should.  Read it, if for no other reason than to understand that we weren’t these exotic party people who are now forever lost, but real flesh and blood humans who had a sense of home like everybody else.  But I will cut and paste the end, because it bears repeating:

Nola.com said it best:

       New Orleans will forever exist as two cities: The one that existed before that date, and the one after.

And even though that sums it up best, it still doesn’t begin to approach the actuality of New Orleans, because it’s more than a city.  It’s more than two.  New Orleans begins in the bones.  It’s hard drinking and hard loving.  The knot you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you must leave soon; that sigh you give when you plan your return – that’s New Orleans claiming you.  It’s the necessity, not the novelty, of getting your liquor “to-go.”  New Orleans is listening to Jim Henderson call that fucking field goal 375 times and getting a lump in your throat every damn time.  It’s being separated by two degrees from everything and everyone you need to know.  When you realize that Nagin was wrong about New Orleans being chocolate – it’s black, gold, green and purple.  It’s the tears in my eyes as I type this post.

Even with all that goes wrong with my city, every year, I have that long conversation with myself, where I consider moving back.  Ultimately, I come to the realization that setting up shop here has been good for all of us, and I have a phenomenal support system in my new home.  Yet, only a foolish tree would hate its roots.

I know what it means to be New Orleans.

If you had any sense, you’d wish you were as lucky.

So before I go to bed and pray for the lost, I’ll toast to surviving painful changes, forgetful mothers, persistent daughters and memorial crepe myrtle trees.

Heaven for Less than $5

No trip home is complete without a mandatory stroll down Decatur.  I’m not one of those locals who believes the French Quarter is an overrated experience.  There’s magic there.  I peek in windows and chat with the occasional drunken tourist, until I reach that familiar green awning, always packed with eager faces and tummies.  My friends and I seek out the table with the most seats and least powdered sugar residue.   To search for a spotless table would be an utter waste of time.

It’s not just about how delicious beignets are [very], or how deep the coffee tastes [amazingly so], but it’s what comes with it.  To truly enjoy beignets, they must be consumed then and there.  It’s not a traveling food.  It’s not something you rush, unless you want to be a powdered sugary mess.  Coffee and beignets are meant to inspire camaraderie.  A visit to Cafe du Monde can be as funny and raucous (with a large group of family and friends), or as romantic (if you haven’t licked beignet sugar off someone else’s fingertip in the moonlight, you haven’t lived) as you want it to be.  Those green trays come bearing awesome.  Sugary, doughy, milk-infused, caffeinated, memory-making awesome.

It’s the little things like this that make New Orleans forever my home.  Granted, you can pretty much go anywhere and have a good time.  But you can’t go just anywhere and feel like you belong.  Put it on your bucket list.

The good stuff

Not all condiments were created equal, and other stuff

It’s very easy to implode into your own New Orleanian-ness.  You can eat fried fish a thousand different places, and never tire of it.  The split second you remind yourself that Mardi Gras is not a national holiday is a startling revelation.  My crescent shaped universe was all I needed, and seeing outside of it was tantamount to heavy lifting, because it was so rich with a culture all it’s own.  Though I lived a rather worldly and cosmopolitan lifestyle (I had been to Canada), there was a certain smug sense of self satisfaction that came with living in a place people traveled to globe to melt into.

But it wasn’t without flaws, which caused me to leave.  It happens.  And I was forced to learn different things about regular life living in Maryland, like:

1. You Don’t Spread Wasabi Like Mustard:

I’d had sushi before I moved to Maryland, but I wasn’t extraordinarily experimental. Shrimp Tempura and California Rolls.  No ginger or wasabi. I don’t know nobody named wasabi.  But with a new place should come new experiences.  Curiously enough, my first experimentation with wasabi was during a visit to New Orleans, while running errands with my stepmom.  We went to whole food, and I decided to not only try a raw item, but I tried it with brown rice. Fancy. As. All. Hell.  My new bestie in Maryland loved wasabi, so I figured it had to be good.  I put the soy sauce on the sushi, and opened the little wasabi packet, spreading a dollop on each piece, getting in the nooks and crannies of the rice.  It’s all good. It’s spicy, but I LOVE spicy.  But we’re in post-Katrina, under-construction New Orleans…and we hit a bump.  And wasabi went up into my parietal lobe.  WHAT. THE. *&^%q!@!  As soon as I got back to DC, I asked why she was trying to kill me on the slick.  Her response:  “Uh, you do recall that I always mix this in WITH my soy sauce, right?”  Oh.

2. No Waiters in the Club

So, New Orleans is a not your typical southern city, but it is still a southern city, replete with hospitality.  You go other places, tables and comfy chairs have to be bought.  In New Orleans (though that is swiftly changing with the arrival of transplants), it’s a normal occurrence.  There are also people who walk around the club to take your empty glass, etc.  It’s as normal as the rose man.  So in one of my first DC club experiences, when the scruffy kid extended his hand toward the hand that held the empty Red Bull can, of COURSE I handed it to him.  He laughed, my friends laughed, I wondered why the eff he wasn’t throwing my can away? Did he want a tip.  He was asking me to dance.  Oh.

3.  Go-Go is music

No ma’am.

4.  Hatred of Local non-Go-Go musicians

In New Orleans, if you’re trying to do the music thing, unless you’re really making a lot of enemies, you’re going to be supported.  Bounce music has no lyrical content whatsoever, yet, it’s supported in New Orleans.  In fact, you can take a Jessica Simpson song, set it to a bounce beat, and you and your family are off ramen for at least six months.  (Sounds anecdotal; it’s been done.)  That being said, I need one of my DC folks to explain to me whose mother Wale sodomized and failed to call, because that’s the only explanation for the level of vitriol this kid gets in his city.  Can he rap?  Nah.  But, it still doesn’t explain the hate.

5.  Light Skinned Blacks are Dominican

I am clearly a black woman.  Fairer skinned, yes, but discernibly negro.  Yet, I couldn’t understand why people in my Silver Spring hood would default to speaking Spanish to me.  Then I paid attention and noticed that all of the people who would have been Creole in New Orleans, are Dominican here.  The only people I know that do NOT fit this bill have roots in Louisiana.

6.  Home is Where You Make it

When I got out of New Orleans, I missed it, and almost didn’t give DC a chance.  It was “sterile” and didn’t have it’s own culture.  In a lot of ways, yes, it’s very transient.  But there are great people here.  I love the circle of friends I have made, and continue to make.  Though I don’t feel it has the melting pot vibe of New Orleans, it’s like this awesome salad bowl…with capers and hearts of palm and home grown tomatoes.  As homesick as I may become, I’ve never had a “I should never have come here moment.  Maybe it’s a testament to my ability to adjust and make friends, but I also believe it’s a testament to this area and the great things it has to offer.

So, whaddaya say DMV?  Another five years?