I Throw Myself in Front of My City

Libby Northup

I hated it here. I moved to New Orleans when I was five years old. My family felt the call of God toward the city, which means that as a child, my parents felt a deep sense of passion for this place. When God lays something on your heart, how could you not feel a deep sense of passion for it? I didn’t understand this at five. I want to go back to Texas, I told my parents over and over to their annoyance. That changed. I don’t know exactly when this change took place or what prompted it, all I remember is one day coming over the Crescent City Connection and seeing chunks of New Orleans flash through gaps in the bridge, and thinking, my city. My own affection rose up and curled around the town. And ever since then, I’ve been proud of it. My disdain for it evaporated and was replaced with a love like that for no other place.

What didn’t evaporate, for better or for worse, is the northern bend of my mind. My dad is originally from Indiana, my mom from Minnesota, which means I’ve spent gobs of time up there visiting family and friends. It also means I’ve grown up hearing how the city looks through my mother’s eyes, which is inevitably different from a mother born and raised here. My mom is constantly making observations, asking questions, drawing fresh conclusions on New Orleans culture. I don’t think she even means to, it’s just her nature. Which means, also inevitably, that this nature seems the natural thing to me, that it’s the nature I’ve adopted myself.

There’s no doubt: I am a New Orleanian. This place is fully my home. I am deeply defensive of it because I adore it. I’ve been here the majority of my life, I know its ins and outs, but sometimes I can’t escape the feeling that I’m a puzzle piece being jammed into place. 

“You don’t talk like you’re from here,” people tell me all the time. No. But I am from here. What they’re not saying is, “you don’t think like you’re from here.” No. But I am from here. It’s not like I fit more up north. There’s way too much south in me to be northern; the New Orleans always comes out. “Haha, it’s so funny how you say y’all,” my northern friends tell me. Y’all is the tiniest sliver of a scratch on the surface. New Orleans is stamped on me. 

This has been an internal struggle for as long as I can remember. I am both an insider and an outsider in my own city. So, needless to say, I had a lot of feelings after accidentally reading Joan Didion’s essay about New Orleans. It’s the first essay in the collection South and West, which details her journey through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and rather randomly, California. In fact, I had a lot of feelings about the entire book, the ones about my city are simply the most blaring. I wasn’t planning on reading it. I’d gone to Barnes and Noble with the intention of purchasing Where I Came From, which I didn’t find. Instead, I came home with South and West.

“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology,” reads the first sentence. A gut-punch of an opener. She goes on to describe the physical darkness of New Orleans and the casual attitude toward death, recounting how she saw a woman die after falling over the wheel of her car on St. Charles Avenue. 

“The death had seemed serious but casual, as if it had taken place in a pre-Columbian city where death was expected, and did not in the long run count for much.”

Already I felt shaken by Didion’s prose. Already, she was mostly right, but emphasis on mostly. New Orleans sags with a spirit of death, this is true. And I wonder how much the humidity convinced Didion that it’s death by “decay.” Our humidity can make just about anyone feel like their insides are corroding. Death is part of life here. But I would argue that the perception of death is due to the frequency of death. There’s apathy, then there’s apathy by way of numbness. The second implies heavy exposure. She makes the case that New Orleans is unaffected by death. But New Orleans comes face to face with death so often that it’s become accustomed to the sensation. Nowadays, in 2023, you’re talking about a post-Katrina city. You’re talking about a city with the third-highest murder rate per capita. You’re talking about a city that’s quite literally sinking. Death is an old wound, and the more it happens, the nastier the wound becomes. It’s unfair to deny the existence of the wound.

It’s also important to discuss what’s completely absent here, the juxtaposition that defines life in this city. She describes New Orleans as dark. Physically dark. She says “random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” Yes. In comparison to the rest of the country, the darks are darker and the lights are lighter. New Orleans life is heavily saturated, but how could you fail to recognize the energy bursting from this tension?

It made me wish Didion could witness a Saints game. Of course, the Saints had very recently been founded when she visited, and I’m not sure football was really her area of expertise. But you haven’t seen energy until you’ve seen a Saints game. Seventy thousand 

speckles of black and gold surround the field of the Superdome. The crowd is massive, and the crowd resounds. My eardrums have never been more pleasantly abused. It’s the clamor of a divided city, united behind one thing: football. I am always astonished at the undeniable power of the sport as a commonality.

It made me wish Didion could sit in the middle of a streetcar as its engine clacks down St. Charles, and find joy in the commotion of its ride. The sun coming in streaks through the oak trees. The old beads still stuck in some branches, on some fences, remnants of Mardi Gras. The mansions, classic and precious to many in the city. The confusion of the tourists, experiencing a novelty, and the annoyance of the locals, experiencing everyday public transportation. The silent disdain. All part of it. Perhaps Didion did such a thing, but she couldn’t find the energy of it. What a waste, I thought.

The essay continues. Didion pulls from an overheard conversation between an old woman and a coffee shop waitress.

“It’s nobody’s fault, Miss Clarice.”

“They can’t help it, no.”

“They can’t help at all.” I had thought they were talking about the death but they were talking about the weather. “Richard used to work at the Bureau and he told me, they can’t help what comes in on the radar.” The waitress paused, as if for emphasis. “They simply cannot be held to account.”

“They just can’t,” the old woman said.

“It comes in on the radar.”

The words hung in the air. I swallowed a piece of ice.

“And we get it,” the old woman said after a while.

Obviously, Didion is highlighting the lack of attention to death. The women neglect to bring it up, and this strikes her. But Didion has a way of getting her message through without having to state a thing. What she’s silently pointing out, in conjunction with the apathetic attitude, is the redundancy of the conversation. They’re spinning in circles. It’s a thought I’ve had so many times: how can people talk so much about so little? I overhear conversations like this one constantly, and get annoyed with the lack of substance. As I read this essay though, I thought how rude of you, Didion, and began to say to myself how rude of you too. I was both reassured and completely insulted by her observation. 

She begins discussing our fatalism. The rottenness, the storms, the illness, the domestic violence, and the cracks in the pavement. The relationship between government and sex, the remorseless corruption. 

“The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness.”

New Orleans was “founded” in 1718 by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. Bienville for short. Of course, the word “founded” points to its European conception while neglecting the history of “Bulbancha,” the native city that had been here for hundreds of years. This is to be noted. Anyway, when Bienville created the European city, the people of France 

didn’t come. No one wanted to fight the strength of the elements: the swamp, the bugs, the weather, the overwhelming vegetation, didn’t sell its appeal. Because of the Mississippi and the access to the delta, it was the ideal place for business, but it couldn’t be worse for residence.

Canada sent down about 50 convicts to help develop the land, which turned out a disaster, seeing that they all refused, or ran away, or died. In 1719, France officially made New Orleans a penal colony. Prisoners with death sentences were shipped over, along with random and ill-fated people labeled as “vagabonds.” The first (non-indigenous) inhabitants of New Orleans were, largely, criminals. It’s difficult to ignore the relationship between the nature of this founding and the nature of the culture. On my part, it’s neither an excuse nor a condescension, but it helps me understand the general attitude toward order and authority.

Recently, my dad got rear-ended by a sheriff on St. Charles Avenue. She offered to give him her information, but my dad was uncomfortable with this, and instead called the police to file a report. When he turned around after his call, the sheriff had fled the scene. He and my brother stood there in awe for a moment before calling back. There is now an internal investigation taking place in the NOPD.

The sheriff, who’s supposed to be a symbol of order, instead directly violated it. The police department is corrupt, I often hear people say, along with Louisiana politics are so corrupt. Ah, the government, the government, the government. What everyone fails to understand is that politics and police fall short of moral standards because the culture does; their shortcomings reflect those of the people. Stealing is normalized, lying is normalized; I’ve seen it 

and heard it with my own eyes. This does not, in any way, mean that every person does, but refers to the general consensus.

“I have to go to a tournament on Friday, so my mom called the school and said I have a family funeral to attend,” I heard a girl say in the locker room. No one batted an eye. Her friends congratulated her.

The history is complicated, but here’s the reality: institutions don’t corrupt people, people corrupt institutions. Didion didn’t misread that component of the city.

After this, she talks about a friendship with a chef from Louisiana, as well as her experience in New Orleans as a child. She got stuck here with her mother and brother in 1942, and she paints it as a miserable time. Then she talks about her motive for visiting the south, which isn’t especially clear. Something compelled her, and she knew only that she had to “try to find out, as usual, what was making the picture in my mind.” 

Then we have a cut. We jump to balconies and porches.

“In New Orleans, the old people sitting in front of houses and hotels on St. Charles Avenue, barely rocking. In the Quarter I saw them again (along with desolate long-haired children), sitting on balconies, an ironing board behind them, gently rocking, sometimes not rocking at all but only staring. In New Orleans they have mastered the art of the motionless.”

This is an unchanging phenomena. It is difficult to discern Didion’s tone in this description. On the surface, it’s commendatory, but between the lines is her smooth condescension. 

Many northerners are frustrated by this. My church staff consists of my parents and several other transplants. A constant source of debate is our rigidity around time. Someone will complain that we were four minutes over on worship. But unless there’s a Saints game at twelve, no one especially cares. Hurry is not a value, and it can be hard for newcomers to wrap their heads around this. It’s been hard even for me as a local, I think I have an anxious nature and slow often stresses me out. But here, this moment matters just as much as the next. We sit in it. We rest in it, we don’t rush it, and there’s something beautiful in that stillness. “The Big Easy might be the best descriptor of a city I’ve ever heard,” my friend recently commented. 

After this blurb comes the section I’ve wrestled with the most: dinner in a Garden District mansion. 

“What I saw that night was a world so rich and complex and I was almost disoriented, a world complete unto itself, a world of smooth surfaces broken occasionally by a flash of eccentricity so deep that it numbed any attempt at interpretation.”

She dines in the home of a Mobile architect who focused on the construction and repair of New Orleans Greek Revival houses, along with his wife and sister. Within the first few minutes of conversation, he had insisted on learning what “athletics” her husband took part in, and why he had allowed Didion to “spend time consorting with a lot of marijuana-smoking hippie trash” while she investigated for Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her famous piece on the hippies and the title for her first essay collection. 

With just a few sentences, this man illuminated New Orleanian traditionalism. The unabashed misogyny is so shocking that had I been in Didion’s position, I probably would’ve 

had no response, would’ve just peered at him in amazement. But even more disturbing, to me, is the view of these hippies. Classic classism. Anyone outside of our own class, our own realm, anyone who dare behave themselves in such an irresponsible, lower-class way, is reduced to trash. Anyone.

This reality hasn’t changed. In New Orleans, there is no public school system. Instead, there is a suffering, complex patchwork of charters and the highest private school enrollment in the nation, at an astounding 30%. You don’t just go to the school in your neighborhood. It doesn’t work that way. Education is the most complicated part of living here.

If you meet a student, the very first question you ask them is “where do you go to school?” If you meet an adult, it’s where did you go to school. School does not imply university, it means high school. Whether consciously or subconsciously, what this question generally does is help the inquirer assess the person’s social status. It immediately assigns them a category. Private school kid, public school kid. The two worlds refuse to touch.

Think I’m making it up? I’ve been in three high schools. My first year and a half, I went to a struggling public school. Halfway through sophomore year, I transferred to De La Salle High School (the only coed Catholic high school in the city, if that tells you anything). I’ve been at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts for all four years, doing a half-day creative writing program. 

When people asked me the question, I always started by answering with my public school.

“Oh,” they would say, and would ask nothing else.

Then, I followed up by saying, “I also go to NOCCA,” and watched their faces quickly shift into a huge smile. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter which school I answer with. They’re both “in.” People respond with questions and an expression that, to me, screams you’re one of us. I’m beyond grateful for my education, but it burns my soul that 70% of students in this city don’t get to be “in.” The amount of unspoken tension between the two realms is staggering.

“During Mardi Gras, the private school kids have a street, and the public school kids have a street,” my friend told me at a coffee shop a few months ago.

“And there’s no overlap?” I asked.

“No, not really. They don’t associate.”

They don’t associate. I doubt that this is out of some malicious intent for most kids, they just talk to those whose lives resemble their own. This isn’t an inherent sin, but it’s an apathy that gets the rich richer and the poor poorer. This attitude of separation has spilled into generation after generation. We have a city where the 30% have the space to reach for the stars, or whatever dreamy cliche you prefer, but the 70% are hitting a ceiling to opportunity; poverty feeds off of a system like this. In 2019,  New Orleans led the nation with yet another astounding statistic: the highest official poverty rate in the 50 largest metro areas, at 21%.

Deeply intertwined with the classism is the racial tension that grips this place. Didion didn’t have to look far to find it. While talking to the women at the table, she learned about a man who got “too mixed up with the [African Americans]” and “ended up having to go north.” 

Once again, two layers of prejudice are packed into such a small space, but I will focus on the former.

The schools had just been integrated after white parents rioted in the streets. When that was unsuccessful, many just went out to the suburbs, or put their kids in private school. White flight. Today, people don’t speak like this, at least not anyone I know:  it would be completely inappropriate. But it reveals itself in microaggressions. In stories that tell of how my great granddaddy was a slave owner, but he was a nice one, not like the rest of them, which I hear far too often. In strange policies, like the one where students at my public school (which was 95% non-white, I feel it’s important to mention that 90% of public school students are people of color and 80% are black) weren’t permitted to enter the grocery store down the street. In the cafeteria divides: I look around at lunch and see de-facto segregation. It’s knitted into the functions of New Orleans. 

“When I think now about New Orleans, I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class heritage, style, and the absence of the style… such distinctions are the basis of much conversation and lend that conversation its peculiar childlike cruelty and innocence. In New Orleans they also talk about parties, and about food, their voices rising and falling, never still, as if talking about anything could keep the wilderness at bay.”

I empathize with anyone who hasn’t enjoyed the pleasure of New Orleans food. It’s sure better than California food, I thought as I read, and if there’s any such thing as objective truth when it comes to food, it’s that. And we know how to throw a party. For better or for worse. I 

wonder what Didion would have made of a second line. The post-funeral party; maybe this speaks more to our experience with grief.

But on race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of the style. Five facets of life that have hypnotized New Orleans, and to me as a Didion addict and a New Orleans local, this is undeniable. Still. 

She was confused by this city, abhorred yet fascinated by its absurdity. There on paper were thoughts I’ve been trying to articulate for years. Observations about the culture that have been taking shape in my mind, that, quite obviously, challenged me, made me dig deep. There they were. And yet, I felt so violated. Like Didion had seen New Orleans naked. Her thoughts were sharp, clear, yet incomplete. It stung me that she’d failed to recognize the wonder of New Orleans. She tried to make sense of it, was incapable of doing so, was frustrated by this, and all this frustrated me. Finally, I realized: this is a prejudiced recounting of prejudice. I’ve never felt more edified. I’ve never been more upset.

This may seem contradictory to what’s unfolded in this essay. Didion criticizes New Orleans because that’s what she does. She was a reporter. I criticize New Orleans because it’s everything to me. The fractures of the city pain me. While I read, I was comforted and stimulated, yet I wanted to throw myself in front of my city and say “Didion, leave it alone!”