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Social Studies

Do You Know What It Means . . .

By Vincent Williams | Posted 9/14/2005

My father spent his teenage years and early 20s in New Orleans. My paternal grandfather and a large portion of his side of the family lived 30 minutes away in Slidell. I went to Slidell and New Orleans every year of my life until I was 16 years old. I know New Orleans. I knew New Orleans.

Being a Baltimore boy, Slidell and New Orleans always sort of blended together for me. My grandfather lived in a trailer down there. I was going to say ďon the swamp,Ē but, honestly, all of Slidell was the swamp. How much was it the swamp, you ask? Well, at night, everyone would bring their dogs in so the alligators wouldnít eat them. I remember how the air would just hang, thick with heat and mistóyou could see the wavy steam around you. I remember the wall of buzzing that surrounded the small community he lived in; mosquitoes and cicadas and bats and palmettos just crying over and over in the night.

I remember how poor everyone was. For years my siblings and I have tried to explain to our friends that thereís a difference between ďNorth poorĒ and ďSouth poor.Ē When youíre poor in the North, you donít have things. When youíre poor in the South, you donít have plumbing. Now, you might have a generator for electricity, but you certainly donít run it all night. And it gets real dark at night in the swamp. It was hot, it was sticky, it was filled with snakes and alligators and insects that looked entirely too big to fly. It was nightmarish. But it was where my people were. To me, that was New Orleans.

New Orleans proper wasnít much different. My father lived in the Calio housing projects, the place immortalized by Master P. Iíve driven through the Calio projects more than a dozen times, but my father has never let us get out of the car to walk around where he lived. So I just have memories of images flowing past the car like a movie: boys dancing for change with makeshift tap shoes made from bottle caps driven into the bottom of sneakers as other boys beat on overturned buckets creating a percussion beat, impossibly old women sitting on steps staring and forcing you to break your gaze first, men playing jazz on pawnshop brass. That, too, was New Orleans.

I remember the French Quarter from those years. I remember how loud it was to my young ears. Everyone yelled all the time. There were horns and drums and marching bands and drinking. I remember even the sights were loud, everyone wearing makeup and beads and flashing skin. I remember how the town smelled, all those spices and crawfish and gumbo. I remember being dizzy and drunk just from sensory overload. That was New Orleans.

I remember magic. Whether you call it voodoo or roots or any number of euphemisms, it was thick down there. Chicken bones and painted women and tea leaves and red dust and quick movements you can only see out of the corner of your eye. Donít eat here and donít use the bathroom there. This one canít have a picture of you, and make sure you bring any loose hair from the sink if you use a comb. When I was about 15, my grandfather was in a horrible fire and had burns over most of his body. He went to the hospital. They sent him home because, frankly, they couldnít do anything for him and they thought he should at least be comfortable at the end. My great aunt, his sister, took him in. Two months later, my grandfather walked out of her house with nary a mark on him. I know dozens of stories just like this, but that is the only story about my great aunt that I feel comfortable putting into print. That was New Orleans.

Iíve only been to New Orleans one time as an adult. About 10 years ago, me and four of my boys went down for the first Essence music festival. We figured five young men plus a city full of women equaled a week of debauchery. In retrospect, Iím just astonished that we got the money together and actually went. There wasnít much debauching ícause, Lord, did we drink. Itís hard to chase women when you canít walk straight. We ate and drank and partied and drank and listened to great music and, yeah, drank. And Iím pretty sure I saw an old woman put a root on one of my friends. After a lifetime of going to the city, it was like really meeting New Orleans for the first time. I understood. New Orleans was sexy and mysterious and spicy and dangerous and scary and wonderful.

And now itís gone.

They say theyíre going to rebuild New Orleans. Yeah. Well, Iíve seen what developers and builders do when they ďrebuildĒ cities. Anyone been to Greenwich Village lately? Iím sure itíll be very nice and pretty, and youíll probably be able to get a fairly decent bowl of gumbo. But somehow I doubt itíll be New Orleans.

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