I will move to New Orleans this month. I have never been there before. I have neither a job nor a place to live waiting for me. I am going on the basis of stories. The people who have told them to me, of course, understand the city’s allure. But the overwhelming response I receive when I tell people my plan is, “Why New Orleans?”

It’s easy enough to explain my rationale for abandoning Chicago: Mention of its annual long, cold gray always draws understanding nods. But I am not moving to New Orleans for its weather. I grew up in a wind-swept desert atop the Rocky Mountains and in fact handle cold better than heat — something I admit might be a problem in a place where, as Tom Piazza put it, half the year it feels like a hot, wet towel is wrapped around your head. But I doubt the grimy soup I encounter will be worse than in other places where I’ve reveled through sweaty summers — and really, who cares about weather when you’re twenty-six years old?


My car, Chicago, Feb. 11, 2010

But that’s not to mention the Big Weather — the kind they give names to; the kind that produced all those ugly images of New Orleans on the news that prompt the dumbest, though not least-frequent response I receive when I tell my northern kinfolk where I’m headed: “But New Orleans is like a third-world country.”

Friends, family and strangers alike have slathered this one on me, usually with a mix of alarm and condescension in their voices. I’m amazed at how different a reaction I elicited with my plans after college of moving to Argentina — an actual third-world country, and another place I’d never been. Then I was romantic and adventuresome. I fielded questions about travel plans and my grasp of Spanish, promised to post photos and stories to my blog. The New York Times included me in a feature about expat creative types flocking to Buenos Aires for its European feel and cheap rent. I doubt they’ll track me down in the Louisiana, even though I’m going there looking for basically the same things.

The New Orleans in which I will live is the real counterpart to a fantastical land that I’ve conjured in my imagination. While it’s true that my friend, on a short trip there for school, made side-note goals to meet a vampire and an alligator hunter and accomplished both with relative ease, I understand that this does define the city’s day-to-day. At the same time, many of the stories I hear about New Orleans that baffle me with wonderment are blasé to my friends who live there. I mentioned to one something I had read about gangs of working-class black men who spend months creating intricate feather-and-bead Indian costumes and then roam the city to “battle” other Indian gangs with rhymed chants, dances and boasts. “Yeah, dude. Mardi Gras Indians,” he replied. It was as if I had been describing to a New Yorker what the Statue of Liberty looked like.

My friend David Lida, who splits his time between Mexico City and New Orleans, said he’s attracted to places with disproportionate amounts of culture. Song for song, he said, New Orleans beats anywhere else in the U.S. This reminded me of an article I had read in the London Independent in 2006, in which one of my favorite musicians, Quintron, said of his adopted hometown: “I think it’s really good when things are intensely local, when towns are more into themselves than they are into the rest of the world of pop culture. That’s the problem I have with New York and LA: There’s some good stuff comes out of there, but the main influence on bands from that culture is in getting famous. Whereas in towns like this, it’s more of a backwater, so things are allowed to fester and develop creatively in a unique way. It’s how village culture must have been a hundred years ago.”

New Orleans seems cut off not only from the rest of the United States, but from the rest of the South, as well. Everyone who’s from the Midwest knows someone who lives in Chicago. The same seems true for people from the West Coast and San Francisco. My friend from Tupelo, Miss., said he had a girlfriend once who had lived in New Orleans for a spell. My friend from Athens, Ga., said he didn’t know anyone there at all. “It’s just a different place,” he said.

Though friends who live in and visit New Orleans are more than happy to fill me in about the city, as always I feel inclined to build my knowledge base on a stack of books. I had already read Zeitoun when I made my decision to depart Chicago one frigid afternoon over a bottle of wine, but that was more a book about a man and an Event than a city, remarkable and vital as the story may be. I read Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, a tract on the importance of reconstructing the city post-Katrina, and a familiar account of how the author was drawn from New York to New Orleans’ charm. I requested French Quarter Fiction, edited by Joshua Clark, via an interlibrary loan, and fingered through pieces about the neighborhood by Robert Olen Butler, Tennessee Williams, Andrei Codrescu and Richard Ford. I read Confederacy of Dunces and was ashamed of myself for not having done so before. And a gracious friend sent me Bill Cotter’s novel, Fever Chart, which is an outstanding new book. It’s just as good as Dunces, and perhaps even funnier. Finally, I read Mary Robison’s One DOA, One on the Way, which is full of simple and beautiful lines like, “We’re driving alongside an aboveground cemetery — a vast and gleaming village of graves.”

Of course, no number of stories from friends or books can give me the education I’ll receive once I become a New Orleans resident, and in fact I fear that if this essay does anything it exposes my vague ideas and misconceptions about the place. But I’ve found that experience is a good cure for this sort of ignorance, and there’s no better way to get to know your country than to live in it. The backseat of my car is crammed full of all my possessions, and once I finish a few things in Chicago, I’ll be on my way. I get excited to the point of shivering thinking about driving south on highways I’ve never seen before. Maybe if you’re in New Orleans, I’ll see you when I get there.

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