Monday, February 14, 2011

Lip Service

New Orleans Cred
by Chris Rose

What's in a kiss? History tells us it is the mark of love, faith, friendship, respect — even betrayal.

  So: What's that got to do with anything?

  This: I think I speak for many non-natives of New Orleans when I suggest the longer we stay here, the more we look for affirmation that this is where we fit in, this is where we belong, this is where ... we are from.

  Yes, even after 25 years here. And that alone is one of the great things about this town: how she continues, over the decades, to reveal herself to you, how she continues to amaze and delight. (OK, frustrate and madden at times, too — but that's not today's story.)

  New Orleans cred manifests itself in many ways, from the obvious to the sublime: When you hang your first Mardi Gras beads over your rear view mirror; when you finally grow comfortable ordering a sandwich "dressed"; for that matter, when you stop calling it a sandwich.

  You think purple, green and gold actually look good together. In fact, due to the unyielding force of cultural brainwashing, you begin to identify the color yellow as gold. And purple comes in two shades: K&B purple ... and not.

  Other ways: You learn how to pronounce Natchitoches, Picayune, Soileau and Oubre. You stop using your automobile turn signals. Your male cab driver calls you "babe." You think Angus Lind is funny. (OK, this one takes a long time, but it happens. Eventually.)

  The longer you're here, the more subtle the indications become. I had one of those the other day. It was a kiss that gave me a touch of reaffirmation, a notion that I am not only "from" New Orleans, but "of" New Orleans.

  Yes, after 25 years, it still matters.

  I had an encounter that began with a buss on the cheek and, when it was over, as I drove away from the incident, I laughed out loud about it, all alone in my car. ("Another sign of New Orleans-ness?").

  Maybe I make this out to be more than it was. In fact, as I tell you the story, it seems very anticlimactic; it was such a small, teeny-tiny thing, a non-event, unspectacular, lacking drama and mystery. I kissed my mail carrier.

  Well, she's not actually my mail carrier anymore. Michelle is my former mail carrier, from many, many years ago, pre-storm and all that.

  I hadn't seen her in ages. She was always so kind, always filled with cheer, always asking about my kids, always delivering not just mail, but a pleasant interlude no matter the weather or anything else.

  So, when I saw her walking down a street a few neighborhoods over from mine, I hit the brake, rolled down the window and called her name. I got out of the car and we walked up to each other and kissed each other on the cheek and proceeded to make small fusses over each other.

  Like I said, not a lot to it, really. Other than this:

  I have lived in two other places, Wisconsin and Maryland, and I cannot for the life of me ever imagine walking up to a mail carrier and planting a wet one on her (or his!) cheek. The act seems to violate so many tenets of personal space, propriety and all the other social restrictions folks in other places burden themselves with but which we tend to casually disregard in these parts.

  In review, perhaps I am wont to read too much into things. But, in many ways, it is my job.

  For the past quarter century, one of my primary means of employment has been to write love letters to New Orleans. The primary means to do this, is to overstate the implications of almost everything — the slightest of local gestures, colloquialisms and traditions — and blow them into metaphors that speak to the wondrous, peerless, unparalleled uniqueness of this town.

  I'll be the first to admit: It can be toxically overwrought, cloying to the point of ennui. Does everything — everything — that happens around here have to speak to cultural significance? More to the point: Can't a kiss just be a kiss?

  Well ... no, in fact, it can't. And maybe I'm blowing this brief incident completely out of proportion, once again getting myself all caught up in the New Orleans self-love thing. Maybe I am reading too much into a kiss.

History tells me I wouldn't be the first to do such a thing.

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