Like so many before and after me—uninvited and clueless—I came to New Orleans. My first visit was in March, 2008. I rode around on a shitty loaner bike, something of a rite of passage for a particular type of new arrival. I was on vacation, surveying the damage. I left unable to imagine living in a place as broken and chaotic as the one I experienced then. I was in awe, punch-drunk by a staggering city that I innocently believed to exist in an endless state of summer. While it could’ve been the malt liquor in the afternoon or the food poisoning from Manchu, it’s more likely that my fairly intense first impression of New Orleans was mostly formed from my own general sense of bewilderment in a place that, at that time, felt outside of any version of America I had ever encountered before.
To be clear, that version of New Orleans no longer exists. The city has changed since then, as has my concept of it. Perhaps the consequence of going beyond a first impression is losing the original feeling that impression evoked, the unique sense of wonder dependent upon a suspension of disbelief and an unwary interpretation of truth.
There are all these myths we can take with us from the places we visit. In some ways, that’s what they’re there for: taking. We go somewhere, leave with facile interpretations of what we imagine life is like there, and carry these one-dimensional ideas around with us like souvenirs. The important stipulation regarding these simple narratives is that you’re not allowed to keep them if you decide to stay. To actively live in a place, especially one you’re not from, means sacrificing your surface understanding of it and attempting to see the place for what it truly is. In the case of New Orleans—a steadily transforming city where some things never change, where beauty is as likely to fall apart as falling apart can be beautiful—solid ground seems like the greatest myth. To stay is to figure out where to stand when everything is forever shifting.
By the time I transplanted myself here—at the beginning of a summer stained with oil, in which excessive heat caused the roads to buckle; a period in which when the paper wasn’t delivering bad news it was commemorating it, marking the five year anniversary of the deluge—forces were in motion and momentous shifts were occurring, fundamentally altering the composition of the city. The 30-plus acres of barren space in the area of Mid-City between Claiborne and Rocheblave, an entire neighborhood erased by eminent domain, was my personal introduction to what progress could look like in a city still more than 100,000 people shy of its pre-storm population. I had a lot to learn.
Life progressed. I learned about winter in Louisiana, how as the days got shorter the clouds of cold breath would appear heavier, floating in poorly insulated bedrooms like faint symbolism, each exhalation a reminder that I didn’t know anything. I got a job in a restaurant serving bad Italian food to disgruntled French Quarter tourists. I stayed in a house where my foot went through the floor while walking in the living room. The next house was an improvement and I lived there until the ceiling in my room caved in. I then moved to a punk house with a black cloud above it and a broken refrigerator full of maggots. At various points, some friends ended up in the hospital, others in jail. I made friends I considered irreplaceable and then they left. Other friends were lost without anyone having to move anywhere at all. I took part in the destruction of a serious relationship, developed an understanding of how insecurity and social anxiety can make it a struggle to establish meaningful connections with people. I ran away a few times, either escaping my own troubles or immersing myself in the problems of others, or maybe both. I got my first full-time job, learned how to tie a tie. I figured out what an autoimmune disease was, but not before getting to know what long-term bouts of depression felt like. I found a kitten underneath an abandoned car who’s more from New Orleans than I’ll ever be, which I’m fine with. He’s a full-grown cat now and he stays at my house. We’re growing up. We have central air and heat and a roommate who helps edit the writing, although most of the appliances are in some way broken and we can’t seem to get rid of the cockroaches.
This is the first installment of a column intent on exploring ideas around the loose theme of life lived in New Orleans. Its title, The Cost of Living, is a phrase that serves to remind us that being alive is expensive while ultimately failing to account for the abstract nature of what it’s trying to define. Let this be an opportunity to recognize that any estimation of life in general is inherently flawed. I should also say: if I had a “save the world” complex I would’ve never shown up. I never thought New Orleans needed my help. I’ve taken way more than I could ever give. In this way, I feel a sort of debt to the city, a personal accountability. I realize that this is very much something that I’ve constructed in my own head, but I don’t imagine that the city is saying “pay me back.” Rather, I think New Orleans communicates in a more eloquent and ethereal way, sometimes leaving me to wonder if what it’s trying to express isn’t simply: pay attention.