Friday, May 25, 2007

Win a Trip Essay, Finally

NEW YORK, May 25 — After much delay, through finals and not realizing Nick Kristof had already announced that he is taking a medical student from Washington University in St. Louis on his trip to Africa, and not me, here is my entry essay, written seven weeks ago, April 6. Enjoy, comment, be merry. —B.S.

New Orleans, my home for eight months now, scares America. It shouldn’t, but it does. The city is a mess, with its iconic streetcars seldom running, traffic signals out or missing, and potholes growing into craters, but it shouldn’t scare people.

Anderson Cooper and The New York Times love to announce in primetime and on page one that murders are up, long-time residents are staying away, and flooded neighborhoods remain devastated. Do-gooders and positivity abound, but America doesn’t notice, except during Mardi Gras.

As the second storm season after Hurricane Katrina approaches, America still wonders whether New Orleans will sink or swim, and many Americans are too scared to answer that question by visiting. They are Americans like my father, a worldly, if absent-minded, professor, who, when I call home nightly from NOLA, always has yet another sad story to share about this city. After endless bad news, I finally limited the nightly rehash by requiring him to share a positive story for every negative one. The flow has trickled to a slow drip.

Upon moving to the bayou, I expected to watch New Orleans rebound, but I’ve seen more change in myself, adjusting to a new normal that includes flooded, empty store fronts and drenching humidity. New Orleans is, appropriately, the City that Care Forgot. In observing it as I live here and share stories of its good, I’m hoping it won’t become the City that Americans Gave Up On.

The green light at Oak Street and Carrollton Avenue is out, but it doesn’t stop me from driving that route, the only way to the post office. Thugs murdered a member of the Hot Eight Brass Band days after Christmas, but it doesn’t keep me from grooving to NOLA’s notes. I came to New Orleans to learn the law — a long and laborious process — but I’m also here as the eyes of scared Americans, seeing it to show them it’s worth saving.

New Orleans frightens Americans so much they won’t visit now. They’re immobilized like a bitterly cold winter freezing Lake Erie. Africa shocks Americans into near-permanent paralysis, like Vonnegut’s illusory ice-nine. Hurricanes and murders are frightening. AIDS, malaria, and genocide are dazing, stunning, overwhelming.

A friend in Manhattan recently shared a dating debacle, whose critical character is African. Bobbi, a bubbly 20-something grad student met a seemingly nice, dinner-worthy, Wall-Street type, WST. After a couple dates, they were out again, strolling through the Village, when they passed an Ethiopian restaurant. WST nodded, acknowledging its presence to Bobbi. She replied enthusiastically, sharing her love for the cuisine and suggesting they eat there. WST scoffed, appalled.

“Ethiopian food!?” he retorted, his tone conveying his sense the concept was an oxymoron. “They don’t eat! They’re starving over there!” South Park’s Starvin’ Marvin apparently taught WST all he knew of Ethiopia.

Americans misperceive Africa, but only in part due to apathy and ignorance. To them — or, perhaps “us,” because while I care, I don’t yet “get it,” having never traveled there — Africa is apartheid and “Heart of Darkness.” Deserts, Darfur and Hollywood’s “Congo.” (“There are two countries named Congo? No way!”). It is a far-off fantasyland, veiled in dreams of the Nile and savannah-scapes, drowned out by nightmares of famine and genocide.

Journalists can’t make Americans care or “get it,” but if we don’t try, we’ve already failed. The Times tries and often succeeds, but its readership and perspective limit its reach. I’m ready to take a shot — to be an American who cares and gets it, and acts as the others’ eyes and ears, sharing some stories to shake their catatonic states and show them they can help, bit by bit — or, to borrow a title phrase from Anne Lamott, bird by bird.

Law school — the work, the competition, the distance from home — has humbled me, the institution’s process grinding me down systematically, as I struggle daily to restore myself. Africa, I know, will shatter me — not slowly and methodically, but haphazardly and unexpectedly, all at once. And I’ll rebuild myself, opening new eyes to share its stories with the world.

When’s our flight? I’ll meet you at JFK.

1 comment: