Ugly

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.