Bright Lights, Small City by Jami Attenberg
In New York City, as with most big cities, there is the opportunity to be anonymous on the streets. For a long time, I loved no one knowing who I was or what my business was. I took comfort in the speed with which I moved through the streets of the city, head down, in my own little world, but still somehow absorbing a thousand details at once. It was helpful to my development as an artist, I felt. If all you want is to be left alone with your imagination, then there is no better place to do it than New York.
In New Orleans, there is an insistence to the way we all interact with each other out in the world. We share these streets, which are generally sparsely populated in the neighborhoods. There are good mornings, goodnights, how y’all doings, and head nods and smiles and eye contact. There are neighbors who walk out on their front porch to give treats to my dog. There is polite chit-chat even if we don’t know each other. There are waves from car windows. There is communication. My solo-artist instincts still sometimes rise up, but here, I can’t hide even on those rare occasions I wish I could. This is me now: I’d rather be seen and known than ignored and isolated.
It’s not just the streets to which I feel more connected. It’s the entire city. Part of this might have to do with being a homeowner, and being more cognizant of public services, especially in a city that has a complex and dramatic past with hurricanes and flooding, government corruption, and troubled, antiquated utilities. (We’ve had several boil-water advisories recently, not to mention power outages all year long; I keep a store of emergency supplies for the first time in my life.) My awareness of public issues has increased exponentially because they impact me and my neighbors on a day-to-day basis. Local politics is everything here. I witness the struggle every day, I listen to the conversations—in my neighborhood of the Bywater, affordable housing is a hot topic—and I try to participate in this community as best I can, whether through contributing time or money. I even clean the catch basin on my street before it rains. The smallest of gestures reverberates in a city this size.