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Through pestilence, hurricanes, and conflagrations the people continued to sing. They sang through the long oppressive years of conquering the swampland and fortifying the town against the ever threatening Mississippi. They are singing today. An irrepressible joie de vivre maintains the unbroken thread of music through the air. Yet, on occasion, if you ask an overburdened citizen why he is singing so gaily, he will give the time-honored reason, “Why to keep from crying, of course!

Lura Robinson, It’s An Old New Orleans Custom, 1948

It is a month today since Danielle’s death. I had already planned to go to New Orleans for my 30th medical school reunion by myself prior to her death, as she was to be playing Amanda this weekend in a local production of Glass Menagerie. The play is set in St Louis. Tennessee Williams, the writer of the play, once said “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” Clearly, he set it in St Louis for a reason. Danielle was a New Orleans native, and she understood those reasons.

I lived in the Faubourg Marigny (a neighborhood just outside of the French Quarter) while I was in medical school. After we married, Danielle and I moved to the Irish Channel, a neighborhood that is quite gentrified now but was much less so 34 years ago. For those of you who know New Orleans, we were one block off Magazine and spent many afternoons there walking and window shopping.

After moving to Mobile we found ourselves in New Orleans many times a year. We would go to Danielle’s mother’s house and, after a suitable time, we would make an excuse and go to Magazine Street. The children had valuable grandparent bonding time, and we had New Orleans time. This became less frequent as the children grew older. After Katrina, both of our immediate families left south Louisiana and so our visits were limited to special occasions. We still made it about three or four times a year, however, enjoying many delicious meals with our friends and extended family, and spending time window shopping on Magazine.

This weekend, I played hooky for much of my 30th reunion. Staying with friends of ours in their uptown home, we drank wine and remembered the old times. New Orleans being New Orleans, we went to the Boogaloo Festival and heard the Lost Bayou Ramblers. We spent time among the thirty-somethings, watching them  frolic in the old (not very clean looking) Bayou St. John canal. It was hot. All in all, a very New Orleans experience.

At the reunion events I did attend, word quickly spread about my wife’s death. Many came up to me and offered condolences. Most of them only knew Danielle peripherally, so I didn’t have many in-depth conversations. “So sorry for your loss,” they would say. “Thank you for your kind words,” I would mumble back. Since many of these old acquaintances are no longer married to the spouse they boasted in medical school, discussions of marriage and relationships are typically avoided at these reunions altogether. One of the more awkward moments, in fact, was when we toasted to those who helped us get where we are and the person next to me said: “Wait, am I toasting my EX-wives?”

I guess my loss really hit me when I was driving down Magazine Street on my way out of town. I saw all the familiar buildings that were built before we were born and will likely be there after our deaths, and I realized that my loss is not just the Danielle of today. My loss is the life we built together and the life we expected to continue to share. That loss includes our shared experiences and memories. Our stories. Our jokes. I realized that I had lost not only Danielle but our shared New Orleans.

“So sorry for your loss.” For those who knew us, it is a shared loss and I am sorry for your loss as well. For others, I really do appreciate the sentiment, even though I may respond less than enthusiastically at times.

 

My wife told me a Ukranian “joke”

A Ukrainian caught a goldfish and was promised to get anything he wanted – but with the condition that his neighbor gets twice as much.

“So if I’ll get a house, my neighbor gets two?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“And if I ask for a cow, my neighbor gets two cows then?”

“You are right.”

“Then I want to lose one eye,” he finally wished.

I live in Mobile, Alabama. Though we are the longest continuously settled city on the Gulf, we spend a lot of time looking with envy towards Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Atlanta, and mostly New Orleans. So much so, in fact, that there was a little teeny bit of schadenfreude when Katrina hit and left us relativly unscathed. It is now 7 years later and New Orleans has rebuilt herself. She is a major economic force on the Gulf Coast and demands respect. Meanwhile, Mobile is still struggling.  New Orleans school system, not functioning prior to Katrina and completely destroyed by Katrina and the aftermath, has recovered to a great extent. The New Orleans health care system is in the process of refocusing care delivery where it is needed (though the state of Louisiana is doing its best to screw it up under the guise of “improving care”). Granted, there are still problems (such as violent crime) but we in Mobile are once again looking to New Orleans and saying “Why can’t we be that cool?”
As a physician I interact with many folks in the course of my day. I have a vested interest in improving the built environment so that my patients will be able to walk and/or bicycle to where they need to go (Our Walkability Score 38, New Orleans 55, National average 43). I want my patients to have access to healthy foods (55% of our restaurants are fast food restaurants as opposed to 44% in New Orleans). I don’t want to spend the rest of my time here reflecting wistfully on what might have been so I am going to offer a list of things we (and others in a similar fix) can do to make where we live a better place.
  • Buy and live local and encourage others to do the same – for example, one  New Orleans neighborhood away from the French Quarter is cool because it includes Magazine Street, a shopping district that goes on for several miles and has some very nice, locally owned shops. After Katrina, a Whole Foods relocated to that area. It relocated because of Magazine Street, not the other way around. If everyone picked out 3 LOCAL businesses and spent $50 a month there, we could create destinations for bike rides and walking.
  • Put some there, there – New Orleans is a unique, European-style city that happens to be in Louisiana. Every community needs to strive to create a sense of place. Mobile has some very unique features (Mobile Bay, many historic districts, the third largest river delta) that we have not made an effort to make user friendly. Rather than hide our assets from visitors as well as our own citizens, we need to put money into infrastructure development.
  • Embrace diversity – What New Orleans has is that it is an international city, not really a part of Louisiana. The world is a big place and European-Americans are becoming more and more of a minority. Europeans all live near and visit other countries with regularity. Even if we do not do so, we can’t afford to be seen as intolerant and parochial in our understanding of the world. Support public education in the broadest sense, not just to teach the 3 R’s but to force us all to look at the world through other peoples’ eyes.
  • Embrace environmentally friendly living – New Orleans is fortunate (not done intentionally) that the French Quarter (really dating back from Spanish times) was spared urban renewal. This is a unique built environment that was designed pre-car and people actually live there (I did when in medical school). Americans tend to be car focused. In a recent article, long commutes were linked to poor physical and mental health. Being able to walk or bike to work allows exercise to occur without special effort or gym memberships and provides for additional time for additional physical activity. Seek out opportunities to reduce your energy footprint and better health will follow, not only for you but for your family and neighbors as well.

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