Tuesday, January 17, 2006
I think she'll stick
I said, “I want to move back to New Orleans.” I expected her to spit wine all over herself in convulsive laughter. Instead, she gave me a long look, and calmly said, “Yes”. Only last week, when she had been offered and accepted a job, did she tell me why.
In September, a New Orleans jazz group--the Troy Davis Quartet--came to Fargo for a Red Cross fundraiser for Katrina relief. Late in the show, the band played "Do You Know What It Means, To Miss New Orleans”, and trumpeter Mark Braud quietly wept between verses.
That was something in that moment, she tells me, when she understood.
She understood why I used to talk about emigrating from New Orleans to the United States, the obsession and anger and occasional weeping of early September, understood the depth of feeling I had harbored for years when I said yes to moving to the Midwest ten years ago.
That’s why she said yes.
We had considered New Orleans before, when we were living on the East Coast and considering our next move. We wanted to go somewhere with family, so the choices were really North Dakota and New Orleans. My wife had visited New Orleans, of course. And ten years in Washington, D.C. had introduced her to the concept of sweltering summers. New Orleans weather was no worse that DC's, I told here. There was just more of it.
I should have stopped after the first sentence.
Then there’s the bugs. My wife and daughter seem to have forgotten their last run in with the Giant Mutant Cockroaches of New Orleans. My wife had a room at a Warehouse District hotel while we vacationed around her conference in 2004, and the kids joined us for one evening at the pool there.
"Kill it, kill it" they shriked like B-movie heroines cornered by The Thing. It was just one cockroach, but it became the focus of my entire evening. My first impulse, of course, was to stomp it. However, after years away from doubloon and cockroach stomping my reflexes weren't what they once were. So instead, I relied on my new North Dakotan instincts and resorted to cockroach herding, until I chased it safely under a garbage can lid.
The crazed spider web of streets in New Orleans can be a bit of a challenge for someone used to the obsessive grids of the heartland and the rigid order of L'Enfant's District of Columbia. "How can you people drive down here," she asked me once while visiting. "You're all over like cockroaches on toast." I love to remind her of the time she said that, because there was something incredibly southern about that turn of phrase. But telling her that didn't help.
All of those reasons, and more--the failing schools and limited professional opportunities--contributed to her desire and our mutual decision to move west rather than south ten years ago. But now, we’re coming home.
Post-K New Orleans will be different, a challenge immensely greater than those inconveniences we reviewed ten years ago. I've done nothing to sugar coat the difficulties, as we discuss whether the gang bangers will return, what we will do about schools, where and how we will live, whether there will be levees that make it safe.
I haven't been home yet, but Rebecca's new boss gave her the lakefront disaster tour, and I'm glad they made that trip. My sister brought her back from the airport to the Quarter via I-610 and Elysian Fields, where just months ago rescue boats were launched. I want her to see and understand the scope of the challenges the city faces, and that we face.
I know she is up to the challenge, and knowing that gives me the strength to face it. I know she is up to it because she's from North Dakota.
Fargo is a hard place to live even at the turn of the millennium. The weather is almost unimaginably cold, and is relieved come April, by months of a spring so wet and chilly I call it "my second winter", my New Orleans winter. If I think it's difficult sitting in my dual-heat house, looking out the window at my all wheel drive vehicle, imagine the people who settled here over a hundred years ago.
The treeless winterscape didn’t shock the ubiquitous Scandinavians who first settled here. Imagine living like them: in a sod house, burning turf and the odd lump of soft-lignite coal to survive a place where a trip to the barn can kill you. My daughter read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. In fact, we started out reading them to her. They don't do the place justice.
Some early settlers were less well acclimated to the frightening climate. The displaced Irish and German Catholics who came to New Orleans also scattered across the rest of the United States, and many landed here. These people knew winter, but they didn't really know its full potential until the first snows of October, and the blizzards of January.
Those Irish and German settlers were the descendents of people who drew the line from Eire to the Elbe beyond which the once invincible Roman Legions could not pass. They were the people who came to America and died in the thousands building the railroads west (and digging the New Basin Canal). They were among those who came to North Dakota, and stayed.
They were some tough folks.
When I first arrived in this region, people would ask me if I'd driven into the ditch yet (and if I'd changed the summer air out of my tires). They wondered behind my back if I'd stick. (Snow "sticks" if it doesn't blow away first or quickly melt.) What they meant was, did I have what it takes to make it here?
I stuck. I got a pair of snowshoes from a friend, bought warm clothes, and learned to venture out on a beautiful 10-above day for the sheer joy of it. But for the first few years, before I embraced my new home, I did it for love.
If anyone in New Orleans wonders if my wife will stick (to anything other than her car seat), I tell them yes. Think of any cliché you'd like: jaws of death, mouth of hell, whatever. Not only would this hardy North Dakotan follow me, like the pioneer stock she comes from--she's leading me.
She's there already.
Yeah, if she can do that, I think she'll stick.
N.B.--I felt bad when some parts of the piece I wrote for today's Times-Picayune talking about Rebecca's decusion to support our move to New Orleans fell on the editing room floor, so I wrote this up to accompany it. Thank you to the Op-Ed staff at the T-P for publishing the column.
I read your column in today's Pic. What a wonderful piece of writing that expresses so well your love for Louisiana and your city. I'm so happy to know that you'll be coming back and want to offer my assistance in helping you find gainful employment. I hope you'll let me know when you get into town so we can get together and catch up. Do you have any thoughts about what you'd like to do?
Please give me a call when you have a chance. I'm at 225-342-0616.
All the best,
Growing up in NH, I too have much the same appreciation for those hardy souls who first settled there. Even in this age of oil burners and insulation, life still isn't easy during the winter.
And New Orleans offers the same sort of challenge, only on the opposite end. I laughed about the roaches, only because I had the living hell scared out of me the first time I saw one of them. It seemed highly unnatural for a bug to be that large. And I know first-hand the ungodly heat and humidity of a July day and found myself in awe of the construction crews working in that weather while I was dying from the heat and pouring sweat just standing there.
I look forward to reading more of your work and again, thanks.
I had to pinch myself to keep from balling like a ninny after readying the part about the jazz band.
I'm from that stock of Germans and Scandinavians who settled the Upper Midwest. They are a tough lot, and I think I will return someday. There are too many haunting images I have of those monotonous but dreamy landscapes. The light in the North is so much different from the South -- depressing to be sure, after months on end, but one has to get outdoors and stay active to overcome the tedium. And for that reason, the ideal for me would be an old stone-cellared farm house in the country.
Summers are gorgeous.
For now, as I've been for about fifteen years, I remain stuck.
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