When one mentions New Orleans to anyone who has been there, they generally respond with stupor-induced memories of the French Quarter and vague recollections of jazz.
That’s the experience I half expected when I traveled to the Big Easy with fellow City University of New York students on a Hillel trip set up through Jewish Funds for Justice. They told me in advance that I would be doing “service learning” and I pretended to understand what this meant. In all honesty, I was ready for anything, prepared for nothing, and somewhere in between hoped to get me some good times.
From the moment I arrived in New Orleans and gazed into the oddly foreboding eyes of the Louis Armstrong statue at the airport, my tourist expectations were stymied left and right. Even the rainy and surprisingly chilly weather suggested that my stay would not be filled with po’ boys, beignets and crawfish. I didn’t feel like a welcome guest but a dumbfounded, uninvited and invasive stranger.
Our initial reception in the city was not filled with Southern Charm either. We met with Nat Turner who had come to New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina from New York City to help with the city’s rebirth. He has spent the last five years running, teaching, and farming at his eco-mmunity/school, Our School at Blair Grocery. He quite plainly told us that we were interlopers in the city, out for a quick fix of moral gratification before we headed back to our privileged lives. Le ze la bon ton roulette!
If that weren’t enough to desire a quick return to New York City, our daily responsibilities were. The group was divided into sections and spread around the city’s Gentilly area. We worked in the cold, painting exteriors of homes whose owners braved the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. My homeowner survived the storm holed up in his attic for a week. He made his presence scarce to us, primarily keeping indoors while we worked outside. If “service learning” meant menial tasks while miserable and freezing, I now wished I had read the fine print and respectfully avoided it.
And that was when epiphany struck. Compared to our homeowner — and for that matter all the people of New Orleans — my truly fortunate and cozy life has faced about as much strife as a housecat. I have never had to consider, imagine or experience losing everything to a natural disaster. I’ve never had to cope with the psychological scars of a week in water-logged isolation. I’ve never seen my city laid bare and broken, left to cope with chronic poverty and crime. “You know what,” I decided, “Stop whining, suck it up and finish this house for someone who, unlike me, actually deserves it.”
Even pre-Katrina, New Orleans abounded with squalor, whether it was geographically, politically, financially, educationally or ethically. While Katrina was a shock to the outside world, its citizens have always known about the city’s bad juju, accepted it, and, in the midst of it, learned to thrive. During Katrina these proud and self-sufficient people were suddenly rendered helpless to forces beyond their control. What is necessary post-Katrina is neither pity nor charity, simply assistance in rebuilding their home. It is the efforts of volunteers that help make this pipedream possible.
Yet, the people of New Orleans are the ones with the most to offer.
If not for their persistent hope, determination, and emphasis on community, Katrina would have undoubtedly wiped the city out. It was by the example of those who lost their homes and irreplaceable family heirlooms that I saw how even the most precious possessions aren’t what bind them to the city, but their undying spirit and loyalty to one another. They brought each other back from displacement and it is they who continue to keep New Orleans alive. It is their home regardless of the house they are in, and unless I understood this, I was not a guest but just another irritating, coupon-wielding huckster knocking on New Orleans’ door.
I came to New Orleans – arrogantly – to get something out of the city. I left without a hangover or Mardi Gras beads, but took away valuable lessons about the importance of others, compassion and humility.
Alex Rubin, of Columbia, MD, is a sophomore at CUNY Brooklyn College.