Social distancing presents a special challenge for New Orleanians.
The “social” part comes naturally. The “distancing,” not so much. It was the first place where I’d been kissed by someone I hardly knew instead of receiving a polite handshake. Elbow bumps, now also banned, were never going to be popular here anyhow.
There are countless places in America, places that all look alike and could be almost anywhere, where arriving home means pushing a button, pulling into a garage, and pushing another button. Places where you can leave the house without ever going outside. There are no sidewalks because no matter how close or far, you just drive there. It’s not just that they don’t know their neighbor’s names, they might not even know what they look like. Their entire built environment revolves around a seeming predilection to social distancing.
Here we are lucky to have off-street parking. And if we possess the almost unimaginable luxury of a garage, it’s often full of the stuff that won’t fit in our smaller, older houses. Things like our costumes or crawfish pots. We sit on our front porches or stoops. We walk. We talk in line at the grocery store about the ingredients in our carts and what we plan on doing with them.
The neighborhood rhythm in our corner of town has changed. Morning coffee on the porch normally means seeing people walking by our gate on their way to work, on their way to school. We know their faces and say hello. I haven’t seen the old veteran who I hear every morning jingling down the street on his flag and pinwheel decorated scooter to the corner store for coffee. I worry about him. But the construction worker who bikes past around 7:45 was still on the job… until the last two mornings. The kids, like my kids, are all at home, bouncing off the walls. We are waving to our neighbors and strike up a glad conversation with them when they walk their dogs past our house, starved as we are for human interaction.
Yes we have festivals and welcome millions of strangers to our city every year to sample our lifestyle, just like New York or San Francisco. But it’s the more prosaic things that define us. At our core, we are a communal culture, and whether we’ve lived here our whole lives or belong to the last three or four crops of transplants, the vibe of togetherness, through good and bad, is one of the reasons we’ve stayed. A pot of red beans isn’t dinner, it’s a symbol that you are going to feed friends and possibly strangers. One never buys a sack of oysters to eat them alone. When a tragedy happens to one of our own, we all grieve.
It’s quiet out there. The only time traffic is ever this light around town is when the Saints are in the playoffs. But then we’re in each others’ homes or in bars and restaurants, together, the sounds of our cheering drifting out open windows. It’s weird. We’re not used to this sort of apartness. But New Orleanians also believe in their community, and our communal commitment to seeing it through is strong.
And we don’t even have to say it, though a lot of us are feeling it right now. We’ve been here before. When this is over, nobody will close the social distance like us.