Beacons of Flight
Written by Joe Longo
Tuesday, 21 August 2007 08:34
The earnest, optimistic photos of the “beacons” profiled in the Times-Picayune bore a striking resemblance to the photo of Robertson that made the rounds of the media on the heels of her murder—smiling, a glint in the eyes conveying a proprietary relationship with the future.
As someone who was fortunate not to lose any personal memorabilia in Hurricane Katrina, it is easy for me to scour photos of myself from 1996, when I had my own stint as a “beacon.” (Before I’m accused of mixing the metaphor, let’s not pretend that the tone of the Picayune article was to promote New Orleans as the “beacon.” The underlying plea that sustains the article is that smart people from somewhere, anywhere else will swoop in and right this sinking ship.)
Back in 1996, my first full year as a New Orleans resident, I made friends with people from all over the country, all of whom had life histories and resumes that dwarfed anything I had accomplished. I met graduates of Columbia, Bucknell, Yale, and the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan. And all of us had congealed in the “cultural gumbo” of New Orleans. We debated the qualities of various microbrews and took great pains to attend the right musical gigs on the correct nights. It might have been Clintonian Bliss, but most of us saw our lives as full of purpose.
It was during one of those gigs back in 1996 when I had an earnest conversation with Maria, who had arrived in New Orleans after a stint in Africa with the Peace Corps. I had met Maria through a mutual friend who, along with his wife, had also done time in Africa. I no longer remember whether I was naïve or whether I was trying to make polite conversation, but I asked Maria why so many Peace Corps veterans chose New Orleans as a place to return to the United States.
Surely you can anticipate her answer, as I was able to do almost as soon as the mundane question fell out of my mouth.
“Why do you think?” she said.
I learned then, and I know now, that New Orleans is a gateway to civilization, not a part of it. If you are on your way back to or heading home from somewhere better (Vancouver) or worse (Baghdad), you can luxuriate in the New Orleans lifestyle. And while I can’t discern in what direction New Orleans’ newest round of “beacons” are headed, I’m fairly confident that the vast majority will have shed this place before they are able to accumulate any nostalgia.
(I will disclose that Maria sill lives and thrives in New Orleans, but that every mutual acquaintance we had has moved onward and upward, so much so that Maria lives less than ten blocks from me and I have not seen her in years.)
There is one quality that is required for anyone looking to stake a long-term commitment to New Orleans, and that is a proclivity for self-negation, the inner peace that is achieved in coming to grips with the fact that what you do in this life adds up to nothing.
Building a life in New Orleans at this late date is like building a sand castle. Among this latest batch of young idealists, might we cull the kind of people who press on, building tributaries, buttresses, and dribble attachments even as high tide laps at their ankles?
My guess is that anyone with a big-ticket college degree will, like so many before them, ditch the castle and move to Austin, Portland, San Francisco, or some other brighter “beacon.”
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