Last night I stopped by the Parkway for a sandwich and a glass of wine, on my way to a meeting.

I sat at the bar near a woman who was celebrating her birthday with a cosmopolitan.

We got to talking — pleasant enough to start with. She asked me where I was from. Funny how some people latch on to my non-local accent first thing.

For her part, she was born and raised in New Orleans, and had a very distinctive local accent. She’d lived in California for 13 years but never lost the accent.

Now she was back in New Orleans, but looking to leave again. She complained about the crime and the corruption. She liked the place where she was living in Lakeview, where she said she felt safe, but she couldn’t really afford it.

She kept complaining about how bad everything is here in New Orleans, and how the city is not coming back, and so forth.

Finally I observed that the city certainly will not come back if we just sit around and wait for someone else to do it. It’s up to us, I said.

“You’re just saying that because you’re from Indiana,” she said. I couldn’t possibly fathom the depth of the problems here in New Orleans because I didn’t grow up here.

And then it came out: The fundamental thing that disturbed her the most was the black people coming back. That was soon followed by a racial epithet. She mentioned that she graduated in 1967, just before the schools were integrated, so at least she didn’t have to go to school with them.

I took issue. But every time I disagreed or expressed a different view, she said it was because I was from Indiana.

Finally I said, “When I came back after the storm to rebuild my flooded house, I never dreamed anyone would tell me I’m not a New Orleanian. I consider myself a New Orleanian. There are people here from all over the world. I wasn’t born and raised here, but I’ve lived here for eight years. I’m forty now, so that’s one-fifth of my life. And sure, maybe I see things a little differently because I grew up in Indiana. But you know what, maybe that’s a good thing.”

I tried to challenge her bitter complacency, her racism, and the many points upon which we seemed to disagree. I also tried to maintain a civil and friendly conversation, even with a sense of humor. It’s extremely hard to change people’s convictions. I know that, and I doubt I changed hers.

When I was finished eating, I wished her a happy birthday and left for my meeting with an ugly taste in my mouth — and it wasn’t from the oyster po-boy.

58 thoughts on “Ugly”

  1. David,

    You say:

    “It’s not the black vote that got Jefferson re-elected; it’s his white, conservative constituents in Jefferson Parish, following Harry Lee’s lead. Similarly, it’s not the black vote that got Nagin re-elected; it’s the moneyed, white conservatives following Republican Ron Couhig’s lead.”

    This is utter nonsense. The white Republican vote in New Orleans and Jefferson’s district is a very small percentage of the electorate. For better or worse, the primary reason both Nagin and Jefferson were re-elected was the black Democratic vote. You’re basically blaming a tenth of the electorate for the people who are elected. It’s lame scapegoating and you know it.

    Moreover, I there weren’t enough voters in district two within Jefferson Parish to impact Congressman Jefferson’s victory. Carter would have lost with or without the Jefferson Parish vote.

  2. It’s certainly true that Jefferson would have won even with the vote in his district’s portion of Orleans Parish. He carried it with a 51 to 49 vote over Carter. By contrast, he carried the district’s Jefferson Parish precincts by a 71 to 29 percent margin.

  3. Regardless of who was elected by whom, the elections since Katrina do not provide a good measuring stick. New circumstances and complications skewed these elections. The practices to which I was referring have been going on for as long as I can remember.

    I left the city when I graduated high school. I was absolutely fed up. I HATED this city. I was away for 10 years, and I missed her almost every day. This place has a lot of problems, but it always was and always will be home, because New Orleans chooses you. I’ve always believed that, but it became extremely apparent after the storm. So it doesn’t matter where you were born or where you grew up, if she’s inside you, there’s nothing you can do.

    Having said that, I will always go with the native over the latecomer. Growing up here imparts experience and understanding of the complicated workings of the city and relationships between the people that others are slow to pick up on and sometimes never understand, not to mention the relationship of the city to the state, the city and state to the rest of the country. Hell, if you didn’t grow up a Saints fan, there are certain things that you will NEVER fully understand. You just can’t.

    I think a lot of people fear progress and change because we are so different and don’t ever want to be the same. It’s easy to use that fear to dismiss non-natives and their ideas. The city has always been a day late and a dollar short and we have to fix the problems that have been around for decades, the attitudes of defeat, the “woe is us” and “they don’t understand.” No they don’t. But so what?

    I was at the Police concert and some women (out-of-towners) were complaining about the lack of common sense in the setup of the bar (which, honestly, was ridiculous. You’d think we have enough experience at slinging drinks that it wouldn’t take half an hour to get a damn dacqueri). I said to them. “This is where common sense comes to die.” My wife said later, “You really shouldn’t say things like that anymore. They won’t understand what you mean and it makes us look stupid.” We’re no longer devil-may-care, laid back and relaxed, a quirky side show distraction. To the rest of the country, we’re now idiots.

    I honestly don’t remember where I was going with this. I think it was something along the lines of:

    You’re right Bart, the bitch was out of line on so many levels. But the attitude that is ingrained in those of us who grew up here is something difficult to understand and even more difficult to overcome. Bless you for your attempts and your successes. We need more people like you. But I bet in the years ahead you’ll catch yourself saying, “You weren’t here for Katrina. You just don’t understand.”

    Shit, I’m long winded. Sorry about that.

  4. I am that birthday girl on many levels – but with one very large exception. I’ve allowed my children to re-educate me in this new world of a melting pot. I’ve rebuilt my home in Lakeview – I was the first class integrated during my school days in the 60’s – I raised my children in private schools, segregated from any world ills. I did however, allow them to be their own persons and not judge people by their color but rather by their character.
    I do notice a very angry young population among the black community and most treat me with anger or totally ignore my existance. I depend on my children “to pump me up” when I get down dealing with the young population in the marketplace.
    I feel the racist attitude is manifested mostly by the black community and instead of wanting special treatment, should want to be treated as an equal and not someone who needs the bar lowered. Parents – Preachers and Teachers should ban together and encourage everyone to be the best they can be and stop depending on others to take care of them.

  5. I’m not sure I’ve ever lived anywhere that didn’t have the “if you weren’t born here, then go fuck yourself” attitude. In Bloomington, the townies hated the students; in Seattle, the locals hated the incoming Californians; here in Denver, there’s this whole native versus import thing. New York city was strange in that the people who gave you the “New York is the best city in the entire world and if you don’t agree, you can eat shit” attitude were usually the ones who weren’t born there. I was in Alaska last year, and they are also not keen on out-of-towners settling down there. I’m sure every major metro area in the US has the same type of attitude to a certain degree.

    This, of course, screws me, because I was born in North Dakota, and the only problems that entitle me to fully understand are the fact that winter temps are about 150 degrees colder than the current temperature, and maybe something about Chuck Klosterman’s books.

  6. Hi B –

    This is Jeremy Rich writing you live and direct from Lastourville, Gabon, a small town in central Africa. It kind of kills me that the same attitude your amie gave you is the sale I get from French expats trying to lay down the line about Africans here.

  7. Minor clarification from a Bloomington, IN, native in response to Andy’s comment. Bloomington natives were never referred to as cutters. They were referred to as stonies. Not because of bong hits, but because of the limestone industry. The natives of Bedford, IN, (half and hour south of Bloomington) were referred to as cutters. The confusion comes from the movie Breaking Away, a movie about class struggle that focuses on four Bloomington native kids. It was decided that the derogatory name for these kids would be cutters instead of stonies because of the natural tendency to associate pot with stonies.

    Bloomington doesn’t have much of a visible “you ain’t from around here” attitude. With Indiana University and all the out-of-town students that come here plus all the folk who have moved here to retire, a suprisingly large percentage of our population ain’t from around here. Now, you don’t have to travel too far from Bloomington to find that attitude. Just a few miles down the road, you have Bloomfield where if you weren’t born and raised there, you’ll never be a local.

    A few years ago, I was in a bar in Crawfordsville, IN. Ain’t very many blacks in Crawfordsville. This was a small, all-white redneck bar where the locals who all knew each other tolerated the few kid who’d stagger in from Wabash College. I was in town for a wedding and the bachelor party stopped in for a beer or six. And older guy drinking beer at the bar leaned back and asked, rhetorically I assumed, “Are there any niggers in here?” Me and my buddies went silent and looked around the room. We couldn’t believe what we’d heard. Apearantly, his name was Nick and everyone else in the bar knew him. He walked over to our table and told us some racist joke that didn’t make any sense. We didn’t know what to do, so we chugged our beers and left. The memory sticks in my mind. It just didn’t make sense.

  8. First, I want to say something about Andy’s comments because they say so much about New Orleans and the black maids, gardeners, etc who worked for white New Orleanians for so many years and were so goddam grateful to have the jobs. Andy, you may think that maid was a part of your family, but she wasn’t. She was a person of equal stature to you, with her own life, and because she was financially beholden to you, you just didn’t even see it. This condescending attitude went on all over town.
    Those gardeners and maids went on to become parents who couldn’t help but pass on those attitudes, and the distrust just continues….
    A couple of examples: I went to junior high in the seventies in Algiers. Karr was “integrated.” It had tracking to separate the students in to categories. There were three white kid tracks based on ability, and then there was the black track, based on the fact that you were black. Don’t you think those black kids knew what was going on? They are parents and grandparents now. this is the legacy they share with their children. And, I’m ashamed to admit it, but my brother and his friends would throw pennies at the groups of black kids in the cafeteria to see if they would pick them up. These kids were so dirt poor that when they thought my brother wasn’t looking, thet would scramble to pick them up. (And when it came time to take to test to qualify to go to Benjamin Franklin High School, the black track didn’t even take it.)
    Here’s another: My father belonged to the New Orleans Country Club, where there were many black gentlemen employed to do the countryclub members every bidding. In the locker room they acted like butlers,handing out fresh towels, laying out their clothes….A friend or my father’s pointed to one of the workers and then said to my father, “He does a good job. I’d like to have him as my slave.” This is the legacy this man brings to his family.
    And I could go on and on….And I’m sure every black man and woman in NOLA could list five times as many instances as I could. I think as a result of past (and some present) behavior, you’re gonna get some black racism, you’re gonna get some people with chips on their shoulders. I guess all you can do is carry on until some time goes by and this collective memory becomes a part of New Orleans history.

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