"Leave New Orleans before you get stuck," grown-ups told me when I was a kid, "because you don't want to be stuck."
The cautionary tales of people being "stuck" in the city were always juxtaposed against the legends of those who "escaped" successfully and came back home decades later. It seemed like those who were stuck became the bitter party guests, pissing on everyone's parade because of their regrets, and those who escaped and returned became the fun party guests whose tales of meeting fascinating people and seeing snow and mountains kept everyone clamoring for more.
So, all my life, when fellow New Orleanians would say, "You don't sound like you're from New Orleans," I'd respond, "Well, my mom wanted me to be able to get a job one day." Then I'd envision them complaining about being broke and unhappy — in either a Magnolia Shorty or Birdman accent — while I was successful in maybe New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles or Chicago with a posh office and a huge picture of my childhood 7th Ward house hanging on the wall.
Having my nativity questioned by fellow New Orleanians was like having my race questioned by fellow blacks. I grew accustomed to it, knew when to expect it and tolerated it because — even though it was rude — they just wanted to know why we weren't exactly the same.
In my pre-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, no one equated a native's feelings toward gumbo, po-boys, brass bands, the Saints, second lines and different neighborhoods with "authenticity." People would move here after falling in love with the city, but they were always respectful of natives. But in post-Katrina New Orleans, I'm having my nativity questioned by people who aren't even from here, and who (from my mouth to God's ear) won't make it here very long.
These funk-fakers question my nativity when they see me taking pictures around town, using my phone's GPS to navigate the French Quarter or getting tarot cards read in Jackson Square. They make me feel embarrassed to admit I hate second lines, get excited about chain restaurants and don't remember all the dance moves DJ Jubilee invented.
They don't understand how lucky I feel to have sneaked Taco Tico take-out food into The Pitt (a now-defunct movie theater on Elysian Fields Avenue), shopped at Lake Forest Plaza in eastern New Orleans from its glory days to its demise after Katrina and jammed to Lil Wayne's Sqad Up mixtapes when they were new. They can't comprehend how a native would prefer vegging out at home to attending a Carnival parade. I'm often more amused than offended by the way New Orleans is depicted on TV shows and movies, and I don't think everything old in the city can or needs to be saved.
I'm a seventh-generation New Orleanian, but my parents, grandparents and a few great-grandparents were lucky enough to escape and return. It's in my blood to flee and come back. My husband and I have been feeling some wanderlust lately, and I wonder if in the next few years we'll run away, too. But will we return?
As the elders always said of those who left, "They'll come back. They always come back home sooner or later."