06/11/2009, 4:50 AM #
I've always had a strange set of olfactory associations. You know what I mean, even if you don't: the way certain smells can trigger remembrance, unlocking a cascade of complicated, sometimes contradictory thoughts and emotions. Most of the associations people tend to describe are the positive ones - the aroma of fresh-baked cookies or pie in a kitchen, or of newly-mown grass on a baseball field. On the other hand, I have a friend for whom the smell of whiskey causes almost physical pain, as it recalls his father's breath and the violence associated with the two. My most potent triggers have long been combustion-related; from early childhood, I associated the smell of jet fumes with going somewhere on vacation, and the smell of diesel exhaust still brings to mind thoughts of weekend trips with my high school band (and extracurricular activities on the band bus). To this day, a brief whiff of either puts a smile on my face in the most autonomic, Pavlovian way.
But of late, another smell has come to replace those two in my olfactory hall of fame: the scent of gardenias, the smell of a return from exile. My mother-in-law has a solid wall of them on one side of her yard in New Orleans, and she is hardly alone - in the springtime, it seems that the smell is everywhere in the city. I know that the plant is not unique to the place, but as that was where I first smelled it, its flowers are inextricably bound up in and intertwined with most of my memories of living there. During the time I have been away, there have been moments in which I chanced upon echoes of the scent, either in the form of an actual gardenia growing here in St. Louis or elsewhere, or in some perfume, air freshener, or the like. Now, in these last days before I finally make my way back down south, it seems as if the response is becoming stronger with each passing moment. Sometimes I swear I can feel the sun draped on my shoulders as I watch the Mississippi ooze by from the top of the levee, or the catch of my toe on one of the innumerable sidewalk tiles tilted skyward by plate tectonics and live-oak roots.
It is an odd feeling to be coming back to a place that feels so familiar, yet has changed so thoroughly. For one thing, its local economy is actually doing pretty well; New Orleans always tends to go a bit against the national tide in that respect, but I think this is something different, something deeper. it's not just that business is humming again, not just that people are coming back; rather, it's that an entire new type of person is intentionally coming there to live. Thanks in part to an energetic president who has positioned his university as one of the drivers of the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts, Tulane is overwhelmed with applicants and currently accepts a smaller percentage than any Ivy League university. Loyola next door isn't far behind. And it seems that anyone with an idea for education that hasn't been tried is coming to New Orleans to give it a shot - I can't believe I am actually saying this, but it might be the one American city where I have at least some hope for my son's chances if he goes to a public school.
A dispassionate observer would say that the flooding of 2005 might have been just what the city needed; I don't think I'll ever get to that point, as the sight of FEMA X's on doors and walls still gathers a dark, cold ball in the middle of my stomach. But I can see the logic, as it has given a city that had long been a comfortable failure the chance and the reason to reinvent itself. Even the crime that has received news coverage recently seems a bit different - I don't get the impression that it has really increased, but rather that the flood damage has forced the city's population closer together in the areas that are above sea level, so that now the violence which was once far away in the Ninth Ward is closer to where the pretty people live. Perhaps we finally have a chance to look honestly at the racial and class divisions that were always lurking beneath the surface in pre-Katrina New Orleans, a chance to make some of the wrongs right.
All of this has occupied my restless mind in the wee hours of the morning these recent weeks, and something beyond that. What happens to a love of place that is woven of very specific characteristics, if those traits begin to change? I can love my wife even as I am aware that she will change over time - the underlying assumption is that the essentials, the principles and soul and essence, will still be there even if peripheral characteristics or activities change. But is the same true of a city, particularly one in such a unique situation? Part of my love of New Orleans has always been rooted in its distinctive ethos, cheerfully fatalistic and unapologetically amotivational. They sell "Louisiana: Third World And Proud Of It" t-shirts for a reason. Living there successfully has always required a certain ability to tolerate incompetence, stupidity, slowness and general dysfunction; what will become of this if it becomes a town full of intelligent people steadily making it a better place to live? The trade-off for enduring those things has always been the chance to experience life in a way not available anywhere else in the United States. Will I still be able to eat dinner at Jacques-Imo's at a table for two in the bed of the garishly-decorated pickup truck whose rear tire is permanently perched on the sidewalk outside? When I leave there, will the Rebirth Brass Band's show at the Maple Leaf next door still be the sweaty, frenetic marathon of ass-shaking that it was before? Will people still look for even the tiniest of excuses to dress in outlandish costumes, crack open a beer or twelve, and just generally throw a party? Louisianians in general and New Orleanians in particular have always been a little larger than life, both literally and figuratively - does becoming a respectable city mean I have to lose that part forever?
For now, I am trying to tell myself that this is all going to take a while to unfold. Even if large-scale changes happen, they are going to play out over the course of multiple generations, not in a matter of a few years. In the meantime, I know exactly where to get the best po-boy, which bars have the best beer selection, and where to hear the best live music in the world. In two weeks, I will point my car toward the Gulf of Mexico and just drive. And when we get within the city limits, I'll crack open the car window a bit, feel the warm hug of the humid June air, and breathe deeply through my nose as we pass my mother-in-law's house.
Smells like home.