Monday, November 19, 2012

Terms of Endearment

I grew up in that great sprawling suburbia that is the Western United States. People are... different in Colorado than they are in the gothic heart of the South. That's not to say that they're better; people are people everywhere, but there are some glaring differences between the people of my mountainous homeland and the drawling Southerners that surround me now. 

Perhaps the most obvious separation between the cowboy-descendants of the West and the cholesterol-shovelers of Louisiana is the way strangers relate. Southern people are notoriously kind, and that stereotype, I'm finding, generally holds true: People in the line at the grocery store greet you as if they're some long-forgotten best friend from your youth; drunk strangers will help you parallel park in the absurdly narrow alleys of the Quarter; buskers will happily recite their in-progress autobiographies to anyone who will listen. 

People in the West don't do that. Now, I don't mean that people in the West aren't friendly. We just aren't so open. While in college, I conducted a small social experiment, just for the hell of it. As I walked around campus, I would give passers-by a small smile and nod, and recorded how many people greeted me pleasantly in return, even just by acknowledging my smile. 

I conducted this statistically insignificant study on 27 people that sunny Colorado day. 7 of them smiled back, or nodded, or passed by with a simple, "Hi." 

10 crossed the street to give me the widest berth possible, sensing that I was clearly unstable, possibly criminally so, because in the West, you can be kind to strangers, sure, but you simply don't greet people you don't know like that. It's weird and uncomfortable and borders on the invasive. We're not impolite people, out West; we're just...private. Unless you're in a social setting where it's more appropriate to talk to strangers, like a coffee shop or bar, you just don't. 

That is not the case in the South. In New Orleans (depending, of course, in what part of the city you are), everyone is your best friend. There's a homeless man named Mike that hangs out on the stoop beside where I lock my bike in the Quarter, and we always exchange pleasantries when I show up for work; there are bar tenders there who let me drink free because they know I'm local; there are trolly drivers who happily tell me about that one time they nearly tore a Prius in two when it blocked the tracks; there are strangers on the street who will give you food or music recommendations even though you never asked them for it; and yesterday at 4:30 in the morning there was an Indian man at a hotel concierge desk who told me for no reason about how he travels around the country delivering cars and motorcycles to distant buyers. There were also two heavily tattooed, exceedingly stoned midgets who just wanted to find a goddamned  Waffle House.

Seriously, people, I can't make this stuff up. 

It could be said that strangers are simply less strange in the South. Or more strange. Whichever way you want to take that. 

When I first moved to New Orleans, I was, shall we say, terrified. I had lived in the 'burbs all my life. I had no concept of what made certain areas of the big city more dangerous than others, and so I was perpetually on an adrenaline-fueled high-alert, never speaking to anyone I didn't know, never navigating the city streets alone, locking the car doors whenever someone walked by on the sidewalk. 

I remember one instance in particular, when I first visited New Orleans to find an apartment. This was almost two years ago. My parents stopped to fill up the rental car at the intersection of Jackson and Magazine - which, as any locals will know, is not even a remotely sketchy part of the city. It's on Magazine Street, for chrissakes. 

But I was filled with a strange brand of ghetto terror, afraid that my family and I would be caught in a drive-by or something, in broad daylight, on Magazine Street. Anymore, I know that Magazine Street is one of the safest, non-ghetto parts of New Orleans, but, hey, cut me some slack. I'm a suburban girl at heart. 

The other night, I was at Finnegan's, in the Quarter, having a drink with one of the first-year teachers at my school, and her boyfriend. They haven't lived in New Orleans very long, so I was showing them a bit of the Quarter, sharing a portion of the color and history there. As I got up to leave, I mentioned that I'd parked about 11 blocks away, so I should get going to make it to my care before the streets got too busy. My companions stared at me with concern, "Do you want us to walk you to your car, so you don't have to go alone?" she asked worriedly. 

I think I actually cocked my head like a confused puppy. "Wha?" 

She fumbled. "'Cause...the Quarter...dark..."

I smiled and reminded her that I spend most of my weekend nights working in the Quarter, leading my ghost tours, happily skipping through the alleys after dark. (Sometimes I do actually skip. Tourists tip better when their guide skips. Perhaps because they think I need the money to afford my antipsychotics.) She nodded, reluctantly, and I realized how much I've changed since moving to New Orleans. From a terrified whitebread kid who couldn't sleep because of all the sirens to someone who tends to be quite comfortable navigating New Orleans after dark, and who has learned how to gauge what actually constitutes a dangerous area or situation as opposed to what is simply a gentrified or popular part of one old-ass bayou town. 

After I left Finnegan's, I spent a few minutes chatting with the other tour guides before work started in earnest. It was a slow night, so not many people got tours, and I offered another guide a ride home, since he doesn't have a car. He replied, "Oh, I'm good, thanks, though, babe. "

I then wished a happy Thanksgiving to some of the others before heading back to my car, almost all of whom shot back some variation of, "Hey, thanks, baby, you, too!" 

And I realized as I walked home that the lexicon of New Orleans didn't freak me out anymore. For the first six months I lived here, I felt verbally molested every time someone called me "baby," because in Colorado, that is something people do not do. It's weird and creepy and you should call people "sir" or "ma'am" or "hey, you," or something like that, but not "baby." Not unless you're dating them. "Hon" was acceptable only from plump, middle-aged diner waitresses.  But never, "babe." It felt demeaning and they didn't make water hot enough to wash off the ew. 

So when I would go to work and the school cop would greet me in the morning with a loud, "Hey, baby!" I would cringe inside and try to stop my skin from crawling, because weird. But in New Orleans, that's just the way it is. "Babe," "baby," and "beb," are all accepted terms of address for women my age, to be used by perfect strangers, for any reason. That's par for the course in NOLA, and it only took me about 15 months to get used to. I've even caught myself using it on occasion. 

But I guess that means I qualify as local now. 
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