Archive for September, 2009

Notes on the Strange

Posted in First Encounters with tags on September 24, 2009 by lexis2praxis

One of the classic tropes of anthropology is that we make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

Strange to me is the fact that the ice-cream truck (at least it sounds like an ice-cream truck) drives around this neighborhood after dark.  It’s 7:30 right now, and it has been wandering around the streets for a while, with its typical off-kilter somber tune interspersed with a valley girl style female voice saying “Hello!” every now and then in a very annoying fashion.

Something that is strange (for me) and easier to make familiar: the fact that yesterday, my roommate left his lights on and in the space of ten minutes, two people came to our door to tell us about it.  One of them said, “You might want to put a sign on it that says ‘I know’.”

Another thing about living here is the way terms of endearment are thrown around.  Everyone calls everyone else baby, and dear, and dahlin’, and so forth, fairly irrespective of gender, although age seems to play a role; older people are more likely to call everyone baby or whatever.  So I was walking down the street yesterday evening and I said hello to an older gentleman.  He replied, “Hey baby, how you doin?”  My initial, instinctual reaction was the kind I’m used to having when someone says “Hey baby.”  A moment of reflection, and I knew it wasn’t a cat-call, but a greeting.  So I responded, as people do here, “Alright.”  And then I got to thinking about how one knows the difference between a cat-call and a greeting.  Tone, inflection, context, body language… all of these are important indicators of which type of phrase it is.  But that’s something I’m being educated about here.  I’ve never lived anywhere where someone could say “Hey baby” in greeting.  So I’m hardwired to respond to it as a cat-call if it comes from a man.  I’m glad New Orleans has given me the opportunity to de/reconstruct this one.

On Having Become a Resident

Posted in First Encounters, Nature with tags , , , on September 20, 2009 by lexis2praxis

So I moved here in July.  It was hot, but not as hot as I’d feared.  Still, I found myself quickly aware that if I attempted to walk the same speed as I did in New York, I’d find myself drenched, even pouring, within a few minutes.  That was just gross, so I slowed down.  Now, I mosey on down the banquette like a snow plow shoveling humidity.

There are other things that became immediately apparent upon moving here.  For one, the 9% sales tax, which is higher than New York or California.  Related to that, the cost of living.  Having lived in New York for a few years, I thought the rent prices were cheap here.  And, compared to New York they are, but no one should be comparing anything with New York.  I quickly learned that people talk about prices — including rent, food, and attractions like the Audubon Institute — in terms of “pre-Katrina” and “post-Katrina”.  Po-boys seem to be the barometer: before, you could get a good po-boy for less than $5, maybe even $3.50.  Now, four years after Katrina, they’re at least $8.

The third thing that struck me about moving here — and bear in mind, this list is not in order of importance, because if it were, this would go at the top — is the pervasiveness, the sheer tenacity, of water.  Here, water is determined, insidious.  The statistics say something about that — the region is geographically about half water, half land, and it rains somewhere around 50 or 60 inches per year — but local folks immediately told me that water has a mind of its own here.  This was most evident to me when each new storm (and there are lots of those) brought water into my recently renovated, 150-year-old house in new and sometimes mind-boggling ways, sometimes never to return in quite the same way.  As each issue is fixed, water still finds its way in, even once teaming up with a brutal gust of wind to knock my locked front door wide open.

Of course, I can’t forget the bugs and creepy crawlies.  I haven’t lived in a place with so many venomous, colorful, and buzzing things since the Arizona desert.  “Wait till caterpillar season,” people tell me.  In Arizona, we had poisonous caterpillars, but there weren’t a lot of trees from where they could fall in droves and sting you.  Perhaps I will follow Michael Homan’s example, and bait the ‘pillars with peeps.

And last but not least and certainly not the least of it, I came here with the assumption that people here must know a lot more about levees, and talk about levees a lot more, than anyone else.  Most people I know don’t really know what a levee is exactly or what it looks like.  I was pretty sure it would be different here, and it is.  Particularly interesting is the way it enters everyday conversation as a thing that people are familiar with.  They might take their dog to the levee, for example, because there’s some grass there and it’s basically a park.  Or someone will give directions and say, “Turn right at the levee.”