Tuesday, July 2, 2013

"Are you from here?"

Posted By on Tue, Jul 2, 2013 at 10:43 AM

It’s common for New Orleanians to ask where you’re from. If you’re from here, the next question is, “Where’d you go to high school?” For non-natives, it’s “What brought you here?” A Baton Rougean by birth, I have a hard time with this exchange. When I say I’m from here, the high school question reveals me to be a NOLA imposter. But if I say I’m from Baton Rouge, I get a wave of the hand. “Oh, close enough.”

If my mother had her way, I’d have been born in her native New Orleans. But she made a deal with my dad after they met and fell in love at LSU… well, a wager, really: Whoever found a job first would decide where they’d live. My dad, a country boy at heart, favored his hometown of Baton Rouge. My mom longed to return to Lakeview. But the newlyweds were both quarrelly and eager to leave their cramped Tigerland apartment. So the race was on.

My uncle (holding the McKenzies bag) and my mom costuming on Canal Street circa Mardi Gras 1963.
  • My uncle (holding the McKenzie's bag) and my mom costuming on Canal Street circa Mardi Gras 1963.

In the 1970s, Baton Rouge was little more than a cow town, my mother’s friends said with disdain, to which my father replied that New Orleans was dirty and dangerous. And in the 1970s, the world was still very much a man’s, so it’s easy to guess which of the two business majors got a job offer first.

I was born in Baton Rouge’s Woman’s Hospital in 1980. Two weeks later, I made the first of countless pilgrimages to my grandparents’ Lakeview house. In a sense, I was a displaced New Orleanian from birth.

My mother made sure I enjoyed all the idyllic parts of a New Orleans childhood (Proper upbringing, she would call it. Brainwashing, my father would retort): trips to Pontchartrain Beach. Family picnics at City Park. I was a proud keyholding member at Storyland. I listened to my dad’s band gig at the Rock ’n’ Bowl, and at age 10, I ate crawfish bread at my first Jazz Fest.

In Audubon Park after the Crescent City Classic, April 1982
  • After the Crescent City Classic, April 1982

There were rough points, of course, that probably made my parents eager for the 80-mile drive back to Baton Rouge. I remember my mother guiding me around a syringe on the sidewalk. My grandmother kept a handgun wedged between the seats in her car, and I sat on it once. I pulled the hard lump out from under my butt; the gun was wrapped in a washcloth and much heavier than I thought it should be.

“In case someone tries to carjack me,” my grandmother explained, unlocking The Club from her steering wheel. She took the gun from my hands, totally unfazed.

Even as a child I could tell New Orleans possessed a dangerous magic, and when I was 18, I moved here to attend Tulane University. Amid students who were mostly from Connecticut and New Jersey, I learned about the distinction between New Orleans natives and transplants. A New Orleans native was the best, coolest thing you could be, and Tulane freshmen hung on their explanations of the city’s quirks like boozy gospel from Bacchus himself.

You could be a New Orleans native if you were technically from Metairie. Even Kenner was sort of OK. But Baton Rouge? No way. Not only is Baton Rouge not New Orleans, it’s the avatar of suburban nightmares onto which urbanites project all their hate: a sprawling pastiche of three-bedroom ranch homes hemmed by coils of traffic-clogged freeways and smoldering chemical plants. I was definitely not a New Orleans native. But when I walk down Canal Street, past the hotel where my great-grandfather worked as a maintenance man, or drive down St. Claude Avenue, where my great aunt and uncle lived before they migrated out to New Orleans East in the 1960s, I’m reminded I’m not quite an outsider, either.

City Park carousel, August 1984
  • City Park carousel, August 1984

I’m jealous of that rarest of creatures in this post-Katrina population mélange: the Orleans Parish native. Very few people can say, with conviction, that they’re from here. A true New Orleans native is commonly defined as someone whose family has been here for generations, who was born and raised in the city. Born in Boston, moved here when you were two? Oh, a Yankee. You moved here 25 years ago and raised your children here? Congrats, you gave birth to New Orleanians, but you’ll never really be one. And if you think being from here is earned with the passage of time, that’s just another sign that you’re an outsider.

I guess this outlook is what you’d describe as provincial, but it’s hard to hate a conservative attitude that’s helped preserve so much of what we love about the city. Still, the standards for being from here are so strict, so immutable, that I suspect there are a lot of people out there like me: people who aren’t quite natives, aren’t quite transplants, or just plain aren’t New Orleanian enough.

Which is why I’m happy when I read articles like this one by Gambit political editor (and New Orleans native) Clancy DuBos, which defends the LA Swift bus line connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge, calling it “a vital link between two of Louisiana's leading cities.” Or when The Baton Rouge Advocate stepped into New Orleans to provide the city a much-needed daily newspaper. Or when I read accounts of New Orleans and Baton Rouge fusing to make an economic super-region.

The truth is, New Orleans is the city I’ve chosen to make my home. It’s my literal motherland. But Baton Rouge is the place that birthed me, my fatherland. Being from both places doesn’t make me less of a New Orleanian. I think it makes me the human equivalent of these two cities’ region. I like to think it makes me super.

Screen capped from gnoinc.org
  • Screen capped from gnoinc.org

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