On this day in 2010, I woke up as a resident of the city of New Orleans for the last time. I had a van downstairs, packed with my personal effects and my car in tow. My furniture sold the week before. The apartment key dropped in the mailbox the previous night. After nearly seven years in the city, I had to go. It seemed like it was both too soon and a long time coming.
I made my home over a thousand miles away from home, rising and falling much like the city did during that time. I’d seen supreme highs. I’d experienced extreme lows. Those ebbs and flows taught me much more than any school ever could.
Men and women much more astute than I have devoted countless pages to the way New Orleans imbues the soul. Nevertheless, here’s my tale of hope, heartbreak and independence in its infancy.
It Started So Promising
Growing up in the suburban paradise of Long Island, I was brought up to believe I could achieve anything I wanted. Like many Millennials, my parents minimized the impact of bad things, creating an insular bubble that kept out negative thoughts and emotions. Everything I did was the best, on the way to success down the road. I couldn’t fail no matter what I did. That world wouldn’t let me.
In the spring of 2003 I paid my first visit to New Orleans, a prospective freshman at Tulane University. At this point, I had already decided to leave New York for college exploring the world beyond the bubble. The only question was where. The first time I set foot on campus, I had my answer.
The picturesque setting enthralled me while the slightly off-kilter culture enticed me. A top-50 school just the right size and speed. And money wouldn’t be a problem with a scholarship offer on the table. I thought this was it. This was how I would start living my real life. Sort of.
Turns out a college like that is just as much of a bubble as Long Island was, just closer to the action. Yes, we had access to the gritty city. However, we could always keep it at arm’s length, receding to our hideaway when life got too real. Just enough excitement to get the blood pumping without much real danger. Kind of like a horror movie or roller coaster. Metaphorical.
For a time, things went well. New friends from new backgrounds. My roommate was from Florida. (How exotic!) Military families. Chilled out bros. Midwesterners. Native New Orleanians. Tons of culture to explore. I even picked up some interesting hobbies. All in the antiseptic environment fostered on campus.
I dormed for just one year, renting an apartment near campus at the beginning of my sophomore year. My roommates would be a Texan and a German. We came from different places yet held common goals and values, united under one roof to achieve the same thing. We wanted a college education and all the fortune that brings. We could do anything.
Then Katrina Hit
That’s a story for another piece. Promise.
Suffice it to say, I’d graduate with honors on time in 2007. My prize for this was a brand-new Mazda3 from my parents and a job waiting for me with (what was then) Clear Channel Radio. Even though it was as an ad sales rep and I had no prior experience whatsoever, nor did I have any network in the area upon which to call, it was a start. Here’s my chance to make something of myself.
As with many outside sales positions, I was given a phone book and a computer and told to “make something happen.” At least 25% of the numbers I dialed rang to businesses no longer on the map, washed away years earlier. Nevertheless, I persisted, eventually growing a somewhat sizeable book of business dealing with local direct clients.
Travelling around metro New Orleans talking with different business owners, I got a taste of real life outside my suburban bubble for the first time. The people I met with did not share my background, nor did they share my priorities or outlook on life. Not all valued my college education. They were more concerned with making payments on mortgages, unsure if their businesses would survive another month. Some didn’t.
These were challenges I had a hard time understanding then. I had never worried about where the money came from. No one aside from myself depended on me. The pressure to perform was mitigated by the bubble, where everything would always be okay at the end of the day. Not everyone was as fortunate. In fact, I wouldn’t be as fortunate in just a few short months.
My paths also crisscrossed with members of the Young Leadership Council, one of the oldest independent organizations for young professionals to get involved in the community. Some of their greatest hits include getting lights on the Crescent City Connection, organizing a weekly free concert series downtown and creating those ubiquitous “Proud to Call It Home” bumper stickers.
I thought I had found a new home myself, among the community-oriented executives and major players in the YLC. They welcomed me with open arms as a youthful outsider (read: non-native) ready to pitch in wherever needed. I’d even have the chance to complete their Leadership Development Series, a gateway to board member positions around the city. This was my in. This was the life for which I had been preparing.
The Bubble Bursts
Within a twelve-month time period starting in 2008, I would go on to lose my car, girlfriend, apartment and job, in that order. What should have been one of the greatest moments of my young life was instead a dismantling of what I had built to that point, an excruciating and unrelenting death by a thousand (or in this case, five very deep) cuts.
First, the apartment started crumbling. As the ceiling leaked and fell down around my couch, I was forced to find new digs. In the end, this became a net positive, moving from a three-bedroom to a single, further from campus and deeper into the heart of the city. Also metaphorical.
The car became a total loss after driving through a puddle. Yeah. I know. New Orleans is known for some epic road lakes. It was still surprising that I could flood an engine driving on a side street. Turns out the ladies don’t love dudes without wheels as my girlfriend left about a month later. There were other issues, although constantly bumming rides while shopping for a car (without much to spend on it) probably got tiring.
It was around this time I was also given an interesting medical diagnosis that both explained and complicated everything. More confusion in a frustrating and chaotic time.
This was my summer. By the fall, the economy was crashing and everyone started panicking. That modest book of business got more modest. My fledgling career was on life support. On Inauguration Day in 2009, the company pulled the plug. I was now without a job.
Between the surprisingly large severance and unemployment insurance, I thought things would be fine. Just a bump. There would be another employer willing to bring me on in no time. My connections at the YLC could help me out, for sure.
Nothing came. I would bounce between performing odd jobs and collecting unemployment as the situation would dictate. Magazine sales. Event promotion. Car sales. Nothing lasted for more than a few months. Money grew tight for the first time in my life. Strict budgets were made. Drastic measures had to be taken. Here were some of my favorites:
- Extreme budgeting to the penny
- Air conditioning in one room at a time
- Attending events offering free refreshments (The YLC had lots of those)
- Hanging out at the Latter Branch library
- Walking everywhere (or taking the streetcar if I felt like splurging)
- Turning my bedroom into a dark room to keep it cool
- Eating other people’s bar scraps because food can’t go to waste
- Volunteering to work Wednesdays at the Square, with access to free food AND beer
This was the type of adversity all those clients had faced. This was life outside the bubble. As everything came crashing down, depression set in. My identity had been taken from me piece by piece. What if I don’t make it? What if my best isn’t good enough? Could this really be life now? I struggled to find motivation to fill the void.
By now, the YLC had become my major social network. Those friends kept me sane during this rough patch, talking me back from the ledge countless times. This organization allowed me to hope for a better future. Volunteerism will do that to you. I planned my calendar around their events, both to get out of the house and to make my food budget stretch beyond food stamps. It still wasn’t enough to shield me from the horrors of what my life had become, not knowing where the next meal or rent check would come from. I grew tired of fighting.
Shortly after the Saints won their first Super Bowl, an evening of memories I will cherish forever, I packed it in. Things simply weren’t working out. The recovery was too slow and my money was gone, using every last (bonus) week of unemployment available to me. By the spring, I’d be making plans to move back in with my parents. I needed the bubble to rebuild my psyche and recalibrate my life. As much as I struggled to avoid it, I boomeranged.
And that was it. That was how my time as an independent adult in one of the most culturally important cities in America came to an end. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Running Doesn’t Always Mean Failure
I thought I had failed in my quest to live in the real world. It turns out things were just getting started. Within six months of moving, things were back on track. Now, I’m proud to say I have a wonderful family and a fulfilling job, two things I never thought I’d have. The change of scenery did me well.
I only lived there for seven years, yet it feels like a lifetime. Perhaps it’s because those years in New Orleans shaped me as a young man in formative adulthood, no longer under the care of his parents, fully experiencing the world beyond the bubble for the first time. Those lessons pulled from an impossible situation have inspired me to seek solutions where none are known to exist, challenge boundaries and get creative when it comes to resourcefulness.
On my way out, I had an insight that got to the root of what makes The Big Easy so special:
“New Orleans isn’t a city, it’s a cause.”
The implication here is that you either believe in New Orleans or you don’t. There’s no neutral ground. Love it or leave it. Except, I did both.
My time as a resident of New Orleans influences me to this day. I own a (504) cell phone and still watch the Saints every Sunday in the fall. My family celebrates Mardi Gras with all the gusto of your average St Patrick’s Day up here. It’s all because I owe New Orleans credit for the man I’ve become, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.