We've all had it happen. You're sitting next to a nice guy in an airport making small talk to pass time. The guy asks where you live. You say New Orleans. He gives you a sympathetic look and the conversation segues into half an hour of questions about whether or not the city is still underwater and how scary it must be to live in such a lawless place. Then he asks for your Katrina story, which you obligingly tell, for the 500th time, albeit in the abbreviated version because after telling it for two years, you've noticed that people don't really want to hear all the details when they realize yours wasn't a near-death experience. "I sat in traffic for 15 hours" isn't nearly as exciting an evacuation as the helicopter-rescue story the inquirer wants.
I've had more of these chats with strangers than I care to think about, and they're starting to get to me. I'm tired of defending my choice to live here. I used to be one of those annoying people who would strike up conversations on airplanes or in waiting rooms. Lately, however, the monotony of answering uninformed questions about the state of New Orleans has forced me to read entire newsstand novels in a day of traveling, just so I'll always be occupied. I probably shouldn't avoid talking about it. I love the city, and I'm glad people are still concerned about our rebuilding efforts, but seriously, how do you answer a question like, "Do you need a boat to get around?" without rolling your eyes?
My most amusing New Orleans recovery conversation took place a few months ago on a hotel shuttle bus to the Denver airport. The bus was loud and filled to capacity, and I found myself cramped all the way in the back between a window and big man holding a baby. My novel-reading defense mechanism isn't foolproof. I had to look up every now and then to avoid full-on nausea on the hot, crowded bus. The guy with the baby caught me in a weak moment and asked where I was headed. When I hesitantly said New Orleans (only after seriously contemplating making up a city in Canada), the conversation proceeded as expected. I gave my scripted responses to his questions: "The city isn't underwater anymore, but some parts still need a lot of work," "I don't think about it much, but crime is definitely a problem," and "I woke up in the middle of the night, saw the storm was a Category 5 coming straight at us, had a panic attack, got in my car and drove for 15 hours."
This wasn't so bad, I thought. He hadn't asked me anything completely inane, though he did throw in a bit about his friend coming down with some strange, perhaps insect-borne illness after a recent French Quarter visit ("It's called a hangover," is what I felt like saying, but abstained). But I noticed about halfway through my evacuation monologue that the bus, which had been so loud a few minutes before, had become eerily quiet. Some of the people in the front actually turned around to give me concerned or guilty looks. When we unloaded at the airport entrance, I saw lots of families talking quietly, occasionally glancing my way. At least three people came up to me and said something meant to be supportive, preceeded by, "I couldn't help but overhear ..." One very presumptuous lady in a peacock-patterned tunic said "What I don't understand is, what's a sweet little girl like you doing in a city like that."
At that point, as I tried to plaster on some sort of facial expression that could be interpreted as confused, not just disgusted, I decided I needed a new approach to the whole defending New Orleans thing. I realized that no matter what I said, people would still be convinced that I lived in a swampy shell of a city and routinely witnessed violent crimes. My answers to their questions barely registered; they'd rather stick to their preconceptions about the city. What do I know, anyway?
Now, I've decided to take my cue from the massive advertising campaigns dedicated to bringing tourists back to the city. I saw a New Orleans commercial when I was visiting family in South Carolina recently. It says something like: "Come to New Orleans! We're back on our feet after Katrina! We have great food and music!" There is jazz playing as panoramic images of the riverfront and French Quarter balconies float across the screen with happy couples walking near street-corner musicians. Another marketing pitch led to stick-on pictures of New Orleans food classics on airplane seatbacks.
After seeing these things, I figure the best way to talk about the city is just to ramble on about the great things we have. If ad campaigns can do it, why can't I? Granted, no one can ask a television commercial questions about city water levels. But airplane conversations are brief and fleeting anyway, so I doubt anyone would notice if I answered "Isn't New Orleans still underwater?" with "You've got to try our bread pudding."
I know I'll always have to defend the city to the occasional traveling companion who's still convinced that boats are our primary means of transportation. I know that, when I meet people like this, nothing I say will convince them that New Orleans is a functioning city. So, when I can't avoid talking about the city, I'm just going to work with what we've got. Talk about food. And jazz. Maybe throw in some architecture for good measure. And keep talking about it until they lose interest. Considering that no near-death experiences will be involved in my ramblings, that shouldn't be very long.