I have a confession to make: I’ve always loved leaving New Orleans. Not just for the rush of packing suitcases, or the expectation of visiting a new place, or the pleasures of going to see family and friends. Nor just for the sense of mental refreshment you get when you break out of your routine, or the wonder and delight at a novel landscape. Nor even just for the thought of what to eat elsewhere. All of these things play into it, but there’s another reason entirely.
It’s that you get to come back.
Because, of course, she always brings you. One of my favorite vantage points of the city is the view as you come over I-10 westbound above the Industrial Canal, as you see the city’s skyline laid out before you. There she is, all her pleasures, all her mysteries: just waiting for you to discover them, no matter how long you’ve lived here. Likewise, one of my favorite sayings about the city is also the simplest: “Love New Orleans, and she will love you back.” It’s hard to quantify what that means, but each of us intuitively understands the truth that it entails.
For folks in the service industry, it means taking a little extra care of your patrons, maybe slipping them a little lagniappe from the kitchen, or watching your coworker’s back just a little harder. For folks in business, it means keeping an ear out to the needs of your clientele, and maybe cutting them a little deal if they need it. For folks in the music or art world, it means taking the time out of your schedule to go just one more show, even after you’re ready to go home, because you know you’re going to find something spectacular when you do.
For bartenders and servers, it may mean a larger tip. For sales agents and managers, it may mean a little more customer loyalty, one that strengthens your business over the long-term. For musicians or artists, it may mean a challenging new idea, one that inspires you to go home and try something new out yourself. These are just a few of the sectors in which our love for our city is repaid over again; I’d love to know where others – in law, in construction, in governance – are found.
But it’s true nonetheless. How often do we take our city for granted – even now, coming up on seven years after it was nearly washed off the map? Sometimes, I get a little concerned we’ve fallen back into the habits we showed in the years before the storm, when we always assumed we’d be here, and never needed to show any extra effort. I’m as guilty as anyone else, of course – there are days when the frustrations pile up, or the outrage at the injustices and inequalities, and I’m not interested in showing any extra love – but those days, most of all, are the ones when we absolutely should. MLK was right: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
These thoughts don’t come out of nowhere; rather, they’ve arisen as I’ve begun preparing for a trip. This is not to bury the lede – such an act would not just be journalistically improper, it would also be uncouth – but I’m leaving New Orleans for the summer, to take up a position as a researcher at the University of Edinburgh. But leaving – moving out of my apartment, packing up my things, tying off various loose ends – does make you think about what you’re leaving behind, and what forms of love you can show it in your absence.
To start, I’ll be teaching my Scottish friends how to make a roux. After that, well, it’s anybody’s game. But the question remains, both a question and a provocation: where, and how, and when, do you put your time and energy and attention back into the city? And where and how and when does it repay you? We’re still here, after everyone said we shouldn’t be – so how best do you display that towards your neighbors? If you knew you had to leave the city tomorrow, what would you do to show it how you cared?
Benjamin Morris is the author of Coronary, a poetry collection, and The Bella, a novella. Around town, he can be found catching music on Frenchmen, crawling the galleries on St Claude, playing soccer in City Park, or tending bar at the Sovereign Pub Uptown. His column appears on Sundays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.