Sept. 1. 2006

The toughest question I ever have to answer is: "Where are you from?" I could say I was raised in Texas, but I lived long enough in New Orleans (my father's hometown) to consider that wonderful, insanely-optimistic, insular city my real home. And then there's New York City, where I lived for twelve years, and Boston for another twelve. Each one made a change in me, and in the way I write and look at the world. But if I had to claim one -- or two -- I'd have to say that New Orleans and NYC left the deepest marks, and I owe a debt of gratitude to each one.

I love New York. Everybody told me that I'd hate it. "The people are mean, they're rude, the city's filthy and it's impossible to get around." None of that was true. When people list the bad things about New York, they never mention the real true stuff: it's expensive, and you have to have a heart of steel and a cast-iron nerve to rent an apartment. Trust me, once you get the apartment, everything else seems smooth as oiled silk.

To de-mythify, let's start with the people. New Yorkers are not mean and they're not particularly rude. What New Yorkers are is cautious. They're a little standoffish until they see that you're not 1) a crazy or 2) attempting a scam. Ask a New York stranger a question and you'll get a moment's hesitation while they wait to see if you start ranting about aliens stealing your wisdom teeth or giving them some story about how you were robbed and can they spare $20. Then, when neither of those things happen, they really open up. The great thing about New Yorkers is they're like bloggers: they'll tell you everything that's on their minds whether you want to hear it or not. If you're a writer, you couldn't ask for a greater gift than this. Yeah, the city's crowded, but some of the best dialogue I've ever heard was while I was waiting for a table or on line at the movies or just riding the subway. Don't believe me? Go to http://www.overheardinnewyork.com and prepare to laugh your butt off. New Yorkers live quickly and they like to get to the point without a lot of frilly chit-chat. This is difficult for Southerners to learn, but once you get the hang of it, you get very impatient with anything else. Even today, I can't stand meetings that take a half-hour just to get started while everyone dances around the issues.

The city's filthy? Well, yeah, it can get dirty. It's a very old city, and there are lots of people. Some areas are cleaner than others, and some are beautiful. But it's always interesting. In Texas, I lived in a city that couldn't rip it's history down fast enough to make way for glass and steel. The whole place looked like it was just put up the night before. It was beautiful, pristine, and soulless, as manufactured as Disneyland. 

NYC is one of the easiest cities to get around in. The system of subways, trains and busses are great, and the city's layout is mostly in a logical grid, so it's easy to find your way around. One of the things I loved was riding in NYC busses and looking at the city. The subway's faster, but a bus or a taxi ride is more interesting.

New Orleans... what can I say? If you've been there, and you ventured anywhere other than Bourbon St. (where locals never go, especially at Mardi Gras) you know what I mean. You either love it or hate it, and if you love it, there's no place else for you. Yeah, Katrina was and continues to be a nightmare, but I know those people. They'll rebuild. And they'll do it whether the government or the insurance companies help or not. New Orleans has its own rhythm of life ("Dey got two speeds in dis city," says chronicler/cartoonist Bunny Matthews, "slow an' stop, right?"), its own language and its own traditions brewed out of the Cajun swamp water and the mud of the Mississippi, mixed with the spice of the French, Spanish and American settlers. It's the most insular place I've ever lived: everyone speaks the same shorthand and a true native sounds like a Brooklynite on Valium. We go over by Hansen's for sno-balls, drive out by da lake for crab boils, make groceries, go slumming in da Quarters, pray for da Saints, and know that the best show during Mardi Gras are the Indians. Speaking of Mardi Gras, no local ever flashes her boobs for beads. That happens only on Bourbon and it's only done by tourists. Try that crap at any of the parades and your ass will be in jail if the locals don't slap you senseless first. Mardi Gras has always been a family affair. But for all its insularity, New Orleans opens her arms for anyone who loves her. Drink that water, and you're a local forever. Yeah, you right.


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