Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Violence We Live With

My friend’s boyfriend is flipping out about the Mardi Gras day shootings here in New Orleans. I want to scoff, really I do, but seven people were shot—including an 18-month-old baby—while they were watching parades, arms outstretched, catching beads, only a few blocks from where my family, friends, and I were standing a few hours before. The young men responsible were apprehended within moments, but no motive has been forthcoming; all of the victims appeared to be random bystanders.

And of course, the question everyone has is why. And the next question is, what is wrong with this city? I find myself waiting for the logical explanation for gunfire into a celebrating crowd. I wonder what I would have done had I heard gunshots near me, seen people fall next to me, felt a bullet graze my toddler son as I held him up to catch a bead or stuffed animal.

And then I wonder why I skip over the story, why I want to scoff at my friend’s boyfriend. I wonder, why am I not freaking out? Has it become such a normal part of living in New Orleans that I am willing to accept random acts of violence as part of the price we pay to live here? What if it had been me, my friends, my family who had been shot? Do I ignore it because it hasn’t happened to me? Is it only a matter of time?

Violence in this city has touched me personally. A year after we returned from our Hurricane Katrina-motivated exile, a friend of mine, Helen Hill, was shot and killed in her home; her husband and two-year-old son were chased down and fired at as they hid in their bathroom. Her story made national headlines, too, and her killer has never been found, her death never explained. She and I were not terribly close, but she and her husband were some of the first friends we made when we moved to this city, and their passion for this place was contagious, even as they put themselves to work to improve the many problems here. It still is difficult not to think of the horrible end to their stay here as a warning for those of us who come here to make a difference: get out, get out now before it happens to you.

But I am working hard at seeing it differently. I want to believe that the violence, the poverty, the crime, the pain can be overcome. That the overwhelming problems our city is plagued with can be addressed, that we won’t sink under the weight of it all. Am I an optimist or a fool? Will I feel differently when it happens to me? For now, since Helen’s death, I keep my doors locked even when I’m home and always use the peephole before I open my home. I tell myself that that’s just smart city living. I tell myself it’s a small price to pay to live in such an amazing place. I tell myself I want to raise my children here, I want to grow old here, I want to be part of the fabric of this city. But I don’t want to become one of its bloody statistics, a news story, a reason to leave for good.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

So-called because of the taste in my mouth? Somehow, yesterday I convinced myself that bloody marys count more as juice than as alcohol--and at 10am Mardi Gras morning, they seemed just right. And again after lunch, and of course walking around the Quarter catching beads from balconies, one needs something in one's hand, and I've learned the importance of avoiding mixing my liquors. See, I am mature!

Despite today's foggy, ashy flavor, I am beginning to recollect yesterday's high points. We missed the Zulu parade (it starts at 8am, and not even I am that diehard) but did catch Rex, and lots of beads and cups. Now, of course, the piles of beads are sitting all over my house--on the floor, draped over every doorknob, on the kitchen table--and I have no idea what I'm going to do with them all. I guess add them to the boxes already sitting in the attic. Or maybe actually look into some of the bead-recycling programs around town, places that repackage them for sale to float riders for next year.

Of course, bead crafts are always fun. I've already decorated a toilet seat currently hanging above our actual toilet and made a bead curtain in years past. Now the volume of beads requires much more time and energy (and creativity) than I have anymore. What does one do to top a beaded toilet seat?

Back to yesterday. As the most seasoned Mardi Gras veterans, my husband, son, and I had the honor of escorting a large group of out-of-town (and new-to-town) friends and family members through the sights, sounds, and smells of their first Mardi Gras. We caught beads at the Rex parade, then boarded the bus to head to the Quarter (did I mention we were all dressed--to varying degrees--as superheroes? Capes and masks abounded. Our friends even decorated their mom's wheelchair with purple tinsel garland, and we ornamented our son's stroller with bead fringe).

After getting off the bus, we were hungry, so we stopped by Mother's, a soul food institution on the outskirts of the Quarter. I'd never been, figuring they didn't have anything for vegetarians, but was I wrong! It was one of those blessed places that serves breakfast all day, and I'll gladly eat waffles anytime. As will my three-year-old, who, for the first time all day, was happy. (I think seeing me in a wig wigged him out--he was cranky and whiny all morning, thus my heavy emphasis on bloody marys.) As all eleven of us sat around a round table munching away on po-boys and waffles, with beads, capes, and masks around our necks, I couldn't help but feel a wave of gratitude for good friends, good food, and a wonderful sense of oneness with the celebration going on throughout the entire city. And the waitresses kept calling us "baby" and "darling." Gotta love it.

Finally, we began walking. Walking and walking. We crossed Canal, strolled up Chartres, over to Royal (lots of balconies with people dropping beads on us--my son started screaming and running away, afraid of beads on his head, sigh) and even ventured down Bourbon street. For one block. Then we'd had enough of the crowd, the boobs, and the competing extra-loud stereos blasting out of the bars and clubs. Back to the more relaxed parts of the Quarter. One of the best parts of being downtown on Mardi Gras is seeing and being seen, checking out all the costumes, interacting with the other revelers, trading beads and laughs with all the grown-ups acting like little kids (even as the kids get all serious and cranky, again. Time for a refill of Mom's cup!).

Aw, maybe I'm not being fair to the little guy. It is pretty overwhelming to see the grown-ups acting so silly. And he did get into it, sitting on Daddy's shoulders and sometimes standing by himself in the middle of the street waving his arms for beads or feather boas or little stuffed toys. He especially enjoyed chasing and being chased by our friends, a giant game of hide-and-seek (don't worry, not very hidden), the French Quarter as his playground.

We ran into some of our other friends as we wandered around, made friends with strangers, generally walked until we just plain ran out of steam. By the time the sun was going down, I was feeling as crabby as a three-year-old on Mardi Gras, so we grabbed a cab (a Mardi Gras miracle!) back to our car, then made it home to rest...

...ha ha. Of course, we parents were completely wiped out, so our Darling Son decided that he just couldn't fall asleep (try as we all might). We finally gave up trying, and the three of us ended up eating leftover sandwiches (that Daddy had dragged around all day) and watching the televised Meeting of Rex and Comus, the most boring, pointless, and bizarre part of Mardi Gras day, which we have become weirdly addicted to as a part of our annual celebration. It's a pageantry of the rich folks in town, who elect kings and queens to perform a weirdly stylized ritual wherein they get all dressed up and pretend to be actual kings and queens. They're on the front page of the newspaper and everything, as if their "reign" over Carnival were something significant. Weird, too, how the election (appointment? I don't know if anyone votes for this stuff) runs in families, so the queens are often the daughters and granddaughters of former kings and queens. An example of the musty, dusty past still thumping along in the present. Our son, anyway, was really into the whole idea of kings and queens and kept asking us where their kingdom was, where their castle was. How do we explain it's just grown-ups playing dress-up, and taking it really really seriously? He wanted so badly to see real kings and queens, and maybe we all do--thus the pageantry, the zoned-out viewers in front of the TV.

As a nice counterpoint, we then watched a short documentary about Mardi Gras Indians, who are African-Americans from the poorer sections of town who dress in amazingly detailed feathered costumes and perform their own series of ritualized dances and meetings in the streets. These traditions, costumes, and rituals are also passed down through families, possibly extending back as far as the time of slavery, another example of the past infusing the present. In the old days, they had ritualized fights, with knives and machetes hidden among their feathers, but these days it's all about the fanciest dances, the best costumes, the chanting and singing. It looks a lot more fun than sitting on a throne and waving a gilded scepter at a bunch of rich folks wearing white gloves, I'll tell you that much.

Finally, blessedly, our boy fell asleep on the couch, and Mardi Gras was over. Everyone's experience of this day--this season--is different, and each year is different from the year before, even as we follow our own routines and rituals. Every year is amazing and exhausting. I feel so lucky to live here and excited to raise my son here. Someday he'll remember these holidays as part of his own history, one we build from one Mardi Gras to the next. For now, we're gonna sort out the beads while I add some Alka-Seltzer to my afternoon tea.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

It's Carnival time...

Two nights ago, I paid someone $2 for the privilege of peeing indoors. And I loved it! Yes, down here in New Orleans, it is Carnival time, time for parades and beads and food and crowds and booze--and nowhere to pee, unless you know the right spots to stand. After living here for 8 years, I'm beginning to figure it out. If ya wanna avoid port-a-potties, ya gotta go to St. Michael's for the parades. But if you do use the big plastic boxes, remember to stock your pockets with napkins, kleenexes, or (if you're really prepared) toilet paper cuz otherwise you're gonna be just shaking it off.

Last year, I wondered how we'd handle my son being out of diapers once he was potty trained--this year, he's a peeing pro. But he has not yet graced the porta-potty; he prefers to "water" the trees, weeds, dirt--he doesn't care. More often than not, though, he just holds it--and he can hold it for hours. We don't make him hold it, nor do we want him to. He just refuses to go while there are floats going by and beads to catch--he even digs the marching bands and the "girls in their beautiful outfits" who march and dance behind the bands. When asked what he likes the best, he says, "All of it! I like all of it!" but then amends, "except when everyone starts yelling when the float comes--why do they do that?" I explained everyone cheers to show excitement and to catch the riders' attention, and he said, "They are so loud in my ears." But last night, I heard him hollering, up on his daddy's shoulders, calling out, "Beads! Beads! Beads!" That's my boy.

I love Mardi Gras.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

O Say Can You See

My son has a fever, so I'm letting him veg on the couch in front of the TV today. Rather than veg along with Barney, Curious George, and Wall-E, I have been reading my sis-in-law's old issues of People. I just finished last week's double issue obsessively detailing every blink, smile, and grunt from the inauguration of our new president, and let me tell you, I read it cover to cover.

I'm not normally a big celebrity hound, nor a political junkie, and part of me was a little disturbed to see the level of detail this family is subjected to. And yet, I want to know everything! For the first time in years and years, I am not disgusted by the sight and sound of the leader of my country. I find myself rooting for Obama and his family and am continually overwhelmed by the significance of their presence in the White House. It's so significant and so normal at the same time. So right.

When I watched Obama's inaugural speech, I was sobered by his laundry list of problems our country has to overcome and his emphasis on the work ahead for all of us. As a post-Katrina New Orleanian, I feel as though I know something about work. And yet, after he spoke, someone sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," the song we all know by rote, and I was surprised to find myself tearing up. I was overcome by the idea of a tattered old flag still standing for something, still meaning something, something about hope and optimism, and the future, and hard work toward communal success, about caring for those who have fought to get us here (and here I think primarily of Civil Rights warriors, not Civil War--of suffragettes, feminists, activists, environmentalists, and everyone who labored in their daily lives in unglamourous circumstances with no parades to welcome the change they wrought). Not silly debates over whether to declare flag-burning illegal, or brou-ha-ha over who wears flag pins and who doesn't, but a unifying symbol of a hopeful country.

Even now, when I read about the bills Obama is signing into law (healthcare for all children!), and the laws he is questioning and putting the brakes on (limits to Wall Street fatcat bonuses!), I am cheered and hopeful. This level of optimism feels somewhat foreign to a cynical Gen-Xer like me, and I worry about the inevitable mistakes that will be made: will they be catastrophic? Will they burst this delicate bubble of hope so many of us share? But the romantic, the poet, the mother, the optimist in me wants to believe that maybe this really could be the beginning of a new era, one in which our country actually lives up to its potential, becomes the magical place we learned about in grade school, a place to which I will be unequivocally proud to pledge my allegiance.