It’s not that I stopped loving you, NOLA. It’s just that, there, it’s different.
Not long after college, I packed my bags and left the Big Easy for the Big Apple. By then I had traveled plenty, but always with the proud opinion that though New Orleans was riddled with potholes and humidity, no place could compare to the cuisine, culture, and character trifecta of my homeland. I never gave another city’s hidden food gems a solid chance, assuming ours would taste better. Never did I duck into dive bars to discover the locals, knowing ours were quirkier. I stuck to museums, landmarks, and sparkle, resting my laurels on Miss New Orleans.
Then I met The city.
At 21 years old, I stepped out of a cab at 42nd and Park, and when my foot hit the pavement, I felt a rush – an actual surge of life ran through me. I’d climbed the peak of Teotihuacán in Mexico, witnessed the awesomeness of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and felt humbled before the Lincoln Memorial. I’d seen things, felt things, but never before had I experienced the pulse of a city traverse through me. The connection was instantaneous, like I’d met a soul mate.
Then I met my human soul mate and New York became the stomping grounds of romance. We were both foodies, me because, duh, New Orleans, and him because he grew up mere minutes from Arthur Avenue in The Bronx. He taught me about wine and tomato sauce and I convinced him to try rabbit and oyster liqueur. We pinched our nickels and hosted blind restaurant dates for each other. And as we feasted on Lobster Fra Diavolo and porterhouse steak from remote corners of the East Village to Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side, I grew positively twitterpated with him and Manhattan. It wasn’t just the food. It was the freedom in that concrete jungle. Each time I crossed an avenue, I’d take in the hills of skyscrapers to my left and right. Their endlessness represented my endless opportunities. What couldn’t I uncover in NYC?
When eventually we moved to New Orleans, it was a bad breakup.
Damn, the pace was painfully slow. I’d forgotten how to drive, and scallops were scarce and expensive. I’d made a huge mistake. But this was my turn to take the boy from The Bronx and show him my city. Only, I didn’t have a “My New Orleans.” Not really.
Before, I had been limited by immaturity, meandering the Crescent City with boundaries. F&M’s was my dive bar. Lakeside Mall was my Fifth Avenue. I moved to New York at that moment in life when newfound freedom springs curiosity. I became an adult there. I uncovered myself there – without boundaries.
I needed to uncover New Orleans. Turns out, the Marigny was a salty wench, but edgy and cool. Magazine Street dripped with sophistication, and the Warehouse District satisfied my concrete cravings. Adulting in New Orleans was sweaty, sexy, and charming: Strangers gabbed in line at the grocery store. Oh how I’d missed that! Now almost fifteen years later, I’m one of those quirky Carnival krewe people, raising my flag on Twelfth Night and masking wherever whenever. I budded in New York. I blossomed in New Orleans.
I give my kids less boundaries. We roam in the Bywater’s Crescent City Park. We bike on the Lakefront. We shop on Oak Street in the Riverbend. They might fall in love with another city, as I did. But they’ll know why they loved New Orleans first.
Fiona, my daughter, gets New York. My sons can take it or leave it. They go for the pizza and the bass they catch in Westchester County, mostly. The girl? She’s hooked. Just this June I watched her navigate Manhattan streets and be sucked in as she stared at the caverns of possibility from the top of Rockefeller Plaza.
“It’s like I was born to live here,” she mumbled, eyes at half-mast, her head on my lap as we rode the Metro North back to my in-laws.
I ran my fingers through her wispy chestnut hair, loose from a day of dodging cabs and cutting through crowds.
“God, I hope so,” I answered.
I had slipped again – cheated on New Orleans – as I do every time I visit New York. It’s hard to resist my urges to stay in its bustling arms forever. Some of us just aren’t capable of city monogamy. It’s nothing you did, NOLA. It’s just I need to see other cities and not feel guilty. I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes I need to be somewhere else to find myself again and remember why I love you. You’re still my best girl.
Because I know enough to know that, for me, there are only two American cities: New Orleans and New York. I’ve yet to experience San Francisco. Maybe then I’ll understand why Tennessee Williams named three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Until then, even the City by the Bay is Cleveland to me.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.