For many of us who spend the majority of our time on the literal and metaphorical island of New Orleans, leaving can be a lot like waking up from a dream. You find that the way you dress is not normal, but is in fact characteristic of sociopathic behavior. You’ll be told that picking through the garbage and taking a one-armed porcelain doll to decorate your home with actually makes you appear mentally unhinged and/or homeless. You’ll realize that not only is it nearly impossible to buy a case of beer or a sandwich at 4 AM; it’s also frowned upon to drink whiskey in front of a government building and wave the bottle at the police officer approaching you.
I left the island this week to venture to a mountaintop in West Virginia, where my wife’s grandfather lives. To say that the culture here is different from what you find in New Orleans is like saying that eating caviar with a glass of champagne is different from eating fried chicken with a 40. I may as well have gotten in a rocket ship and spent a week in space. And I didn’t have to come all the way to West Virginia to feel like an alien. As soon as we left the city limits, the strange gazes began flashing our way. By the time we had passed Birmingham, we were hearing the phrase “Y’all ain’t from here” as much as we were hearing “hello”.
There’s some things you forget about the way of life in the rest of the world when you spend so much time in New Orleans. The first thing is that there’s such a thing as restaurants that serve bad food. In New Orleans, places with bad food don’t survive because good food is so accessible. This makes dining choices very easy. In central Tennessee, this isn’t true. Some people will pay for crap because it’s all that’s available. I found this out firsthand a couple of years ago on the Alabama/Georgia border at a “buffet” that had three choices: fried chicken legs, two-day-old macaroni and cheese, and a pan of what was either dinner rolls or to-go boxes. However, I forget this experience every time I leave and I’m forced to relearn this lesson.
The next thing that I’m always reminded of on vacation is that most villages and towns shut down completely at a certain time, every day of the week. In New Orleans, if I get an urge for a burger, or discover I’m out of toilet paper at 3 AM, there’s a 24 hour place within walking distance to serve my needs and wants. But I was in a hotel in Knoxville two nights ago and I realized sometime after midnight that ice cream would make life better. I put some pants on and grabbed my room key before walking ten feet and having a terrible revelation: there was nowhere for me to go for ice cream. Everything was closed. For the next several hours. I got back in bed with a diminished sense of freedom.
The thing I notice most often when I leave New Orleans, and perhaps the most telling, is that I’m an absolute weirdo anywhere else. At home I’m rather normal, perhaps even tame. But the moment I get above sea level, I become a fish out of water. My manner of dress is the first dead give away. While I don’t dress nearly as ridiculous as some of my neighbors, I do fit in. And if I fit-in in my neighborhood, it means I look crazy in most of America. I did have this forethought this time around though. Knowing I was coming to the mountains, I packed what I considered to be a common mountain outfit. This consisted of cowboy boots, a fur coat, a cowboy hat, and a bandanna to tie around my neck. I figured I’d look local and the natives would take me as one of them. As it turns out, nobody in the mountains of West Virginia dresses like Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson. They dress like pretty much everyone else, in jeans, t-shirts, and baseball caps. As it turns out, I’m a presumptuous idiot.
On the same note of appearing crazy, I often forget that not everyone everywhere talks to each other like they’ve been lovers. This is one of my favorite things about New Orleans, and one of the chief reasons I moved there. Its is completely reasonable, expected even, to talk to strangers. Not only to say hello (this is actually the minimum requirement), but to tell them about your day, your life, and your philosophy. To do so makes you approachable, whereas in many places doing as little as making eye contact with a stranger is grounds for harassment. Ask them a question about themselves? You may as well have flashed them. I forget this. So I had to learn that when a gas station attendant in Virginia asks me how I’m doing, and I don’t want to appear crazy, I don’t answer: “Pretty damn good. I’ve had this wild pain in my lower back but I’ve been doing stretches and its finally going away. A few years ago, I would’ve just took a handful of Vicodin and been done with it. But I think it’s better not take the easy way out, ya know?”
As much as I love a good vacation, I’m anxious to get back home. I just don’t feel quite right anywhere else. So until the rest of America serves better food, stops closing up shop when it gets dark, and starts saying hello to each other, I’ll be the weird guy in the cowboy hat giving up too much information.
Until next time folks,