Over a period of a few years after hurricane Katrina, I spent a great deal of time working in New Orleans. It was a bittersweet time for me as I hated the lack of woods and wilderness, and friends, but it was an interesting culture shock and view into what sometimes felt like a third world country, depending on where you go. I love diversity, eccentricity, honesty and the things that can be learned from such. From this experience, I happened into many stories. I would have been a poorer person to not have lived some of them.
On one of the nicer streets, far away from the French Quarter, there is an area of upper end restaurants with tables and seating under the large Live Oak trees, with their long branches swooping down in an arching curve. I found myself strolling through this area one nice evening near the end of dinner time. The restaurant goers were mostly in fine dress and speaking in a rather respectful tone. As I was nearing the line of restaurants, I noticed a very raggedy dressed homeless man with a long white beard, full of who knows what, walking, or more accurately, staggering between the tables and headed my direction. As he was doing this, he was screaming obscenities as loudly as possible. Just one word obscenities, all of them, slowly, and with a short pause between each one. The restaurant goes were clearly uneasy and you could see them lean far out of his way as he slowly staggered by. His and my paths crossed just after he exited the restaurant area. I was not too worried about passing him as he did not seem to be interacting with anyone. He caught me off guard, though, by staggering right into my path as we met. I stopped and just instinctively said “what do you need man?” Perhaps I caught him off guard too. He grumbled in a low, gravelly tone “a cigarette…..a hug”. Just trying to keep the cordial conversation going and without too much thought, I replied “I don’t smoke….but I can give you a hug”. So he hugged me, then slowly let go and continued on his way. Although now, he was quiet. As I walked through the restaurant goers, who were all staring at me in silence, I started to laugh and said “all he needed was a hug”.
New Orleans is a lot of things. It is often known as an adult tourist trap where people go to unshackle themselves from the standard norms. When this involves tourists just looking for an excuse to be naughty before going back home, it is without much interest or depth. I see nothing particularly noteworthy to learn from that. I realized much later that the residents there have many norms, they are just more diverse and a little unrecognizable to a middle class Midwesterner. I see a huge disparity of wealth, which is viciously enforced, much like a third world country, and yet, a much greater willingness to interact with each other across these barriers.
The poor people there are not so much the rejects of society, to be pitied, as is done in the rest of the country. They had their own community and rituals and hence, don’t always feel as poor as they really are. Many are just sad alcoholics of course, but I found a rather unique individualism and inventiveness in how they made their way in life that was fascinating. For me, the greatest thing to learn from them was their willingness to accept whatever came their way, without too much suspicion, fake politeness or ulterior motive. I find myself drawn to these people because when people have nothing to protect, they sometimes let their guard down and are not afraid to be honest with who they are, a necessary step for understanding.