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Mission: Improbable

Mission: Improbable

New Orleans, LA-The man had not been passed out in front of our door for long; the ice in his full cocktail looked quite fresh. Fortunately he wasn’t blocking the door, just snoozing half inside his open car, which was parked just across the sidewalk. His many tattoos made it look like he was wearing a colorful shirt, and he had a good-sized knife sticking out of his back pocket.

We went inside, locked the door, then climbed the stairs and watched him from the window for awhile. It was mid-afternoon. The knife alarmed the eight-year-old.

 “Is he a murderer?” she asked. 

No!” we assured her with total conviction based on statistics, I guess – most people aren’t. We explained how people carry knives for all sorts of things. I told her about the Swiss Army knife I used to keep in my car to slice cheese and salami for impromptu picnics. 

She nicknamed him The Robber. I preferred Knifepocket. At some point The Robber Knifepocket (that’s sounding rather Shakespearean, or Princess Bridean) awoke, locked his car, and went for a stroll. Later still, his car was gone. We kept an eye out, but never saw him again.

We did see more neighborhood sleeping later in the trip – a hairy guy with a dog who seemed to live at least part-time in the empty lot next to our flat. He had a small corner next to a junk pile carved out for his combination bathroom-bedroom. Wouldn’t you have separate spaces for those activities if you lived in an empty lot? I certainly would.

Five days of Easter vacation in New Orleans with school-aged kids made perfect sense to us, even if surveys rank the city rather low among family-friendly destinations. We were looking for food, music, art, warmth and adventure in territory we hadn’t charted before.

We planned ahead extensively, making restaurant reservations, buying concert tickets and scheduling tours. We rented a flat on (that was chic and light-flooded inside but had somewhat bleak surroundings according to Google Earth) because of its close proximity to Frenchmen Street, where a thriving art and music scene awaited. 

 Friends who had lived or traveled in New Orleans advised caution at all times and avoiding walking in various areas after dark. We could handle that. Our days would be full and fun, and if we couldn’t walk home after dinner we’d Uber. I felt certain we’d survive, but I got progressively more nervous as the trip approached, not having been in an environment with much crime in a very long time.

Navigating situations of potential risk builds a certain muscle, a street-smarts muscle, and mine was out of shape. Not to belabor a point made in previous posts, but I spent 28 years in Fresno, California, with its tragic crime rate, before moving to the big mean streets of San Francisco, which was much safer but still no leafy New England suburb. But that was long ago, before motherhood amped up my fear and vulnerability.

Growing up in a high-crime area can instill behaviors that reduce one’s chance of becoming a victim, and those came flooding back when we arrived in New Orleans, in a heightened awareness of surroundings. A closer observing of how people move and behave. A certain way of carrying a purse more tightly (without looking paranoid). The practice of having keys in hand before approaching the door. A careful check in all directions before unlocking it. It’s a complex collection of body language and specific actions, fairly hard to explain as it occurs unconsciously in those who have been at it long enough. 

Our girls don’t know the first thing about any of that. And they won’t, unless we take them places and show them how it’s done.  Would I rather they not need to know those things? Yes. But they do need to know – how to be in the world and try to keep themselves safe.

Not that the expedition was a survival workshops; it wasn’t. But subtly, they got the beginnings of an education about avoiding some areas at some times and being extra careful in unfamiliar places. They also learned there is no need to panic at the sight of someone rough around the edges, or different from us in one way or another. These are things it’s quite hard to learn where we live, and they are so important.

New Orleans rewarded our attention many times over. We saw mesmerizing concerts featuring musical styles and instruments the girls have never heard before. We had family bowling night at an alley featuring a live Zydeco band and a friendly guy who taught us all contra dance moves. We positioned ourselves front row at the Gay Easter Parade and were showered with beads, stuffed animals and candy.

We saw unforgettable installation art and benefitted from an artist on hand discussing his work with spellbinding passion and purpose. We all learned lessons in civics, politics, economics and more as we took in five days of references to and discussion about Hurricane Katrina, which residents said has in some ways assumed a biblical quality, with people now marking time as ‘before’ and ‘after.’

We gorged on the city’s singular architectural hodgepodge, scented throughout with exploding walls of jasmine. We ate in white linen tablecloth establishments and from aluminum trays on folding tables on sidewalks – and everywhere in between. Whitney fell in love with fried alligator; Anna pledged to try something new at every meal, and nearly succeeded. 

We sat in motorized chairs that simulated bomber planes in the 4-D World War II museum and on the antique wooden benches of the St. Charles street car. We packed into The Maple Leaf bar to hear the Rebirth Brass Band (the night we had a sitter), and stood in the open fields of a former sugar plantation now turned into the country’s first slavery museum, which in itself was worth the trip.

We conversed non-stop with one friendly Uber driver after another, meeting lifelong residents and those newly arrived from troubled parts of the world: Iraq and Turkey. Endlessly, we jotted notes as open-hearted locals pressed their secrets on us. We did not finish our business in New Orleans; we will return. There’s much more to see, hear, taste, smell and touch.

“That guy sure is having fun singing along and sweating!” Whitney observed cheerfully toward the end of the trip, after a riotous combination of human, bicycle and headphones sped by.

A child normally laid low when served 2% milk rather than the 1.5% she’s accustomed to drinking was coexisting, learning more than she realized.

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