It just wouldn’t be a welcome home without a cockroach sweating on the floor. I was met at the New Orleans airport by my father bearing his customary “Welcome to New Orleans” to-go daiquiri. With his help, by night fall I was able to retrieve my dearly missed motorcycle and move in to a lovely one bedroom house a short distance from the French Quarter.
The next morning as I dressed to walk across the street for groceries I experienced the first of many wake-up calls reminding me that I wasn’t in Kansas no more. After throwing on some clothes from the summer work-trip to Seattle, I walked out of the door and paused to look down at the slacks and button-up. Performing every day, this was the kind of outfit I’d worn for the last few months. I looked around the neighborhood I was now a part of, and immediately began searching through my boxes looking for old clothes I’d packed away from last season in New Orleans. I dug out a pair of basketball shorts, a faded tank top, and some dirty sneakers.
Sometimes a little dirt can be great camouflage.
The concept of attention fascinates me. As a street performer, how well I eat largely depends on how well I can acquire and maintain attention. When performing I try to dress a little above my actual financial bracket (dress for the job you want, right?). But outside of the French Quarter, near the interstate in the seventh ward, a white boy like myself might think twice about what kind of attention he’s drawing. As I took my first steps into the hot and humid air outside my new New Orleans home, I realized slacks and a button up might make me look good, but ’round here they also might make me look like a good target.
I was the only white person in the market. Later that day as I sorted out my utilities, I was the only white person in both the Entergy and Water Board offices. This is something I’ve grown used to over the last few years — my second season here I was regularly the only white on the bus going through the lower ninth ward every day — but two months in pale, pale Washington state made me even more aware of the stark contrast.
I’m much more comfortable as a minority now that I’m no longer wearing the fluorescent orange outfit with a tree design shaved in my head like I was when riding that bus through the ninth ward. In that particular instance, even if it was a bus full of whites I would still be the minority, dressed like a clown as I was.
I changed clothes not because of my skin color, but because of the economic illusion it portrayed. My clothes are all thrift store scores, any given outfit not worth more than $30-$40. But in a run down neighborhood where crime is rampant, slacks and a button-up can be enough to convince folks that breaking into my house might yield a good take.
Economically, New Orleans is as uneven as its pavement. In the Quarter, elites look down from the highest balconies. Millionaires step over the outstretched legs of the unconscious homeless. Throughout the rest of the city the echoes of the plantation days can be seen in old-money neighborhoods. The opposite end of the spectrum is evident in the ghettos, reflecting the history of the racial and economic oppression.
It kills me how useful profiling is to the art of street performing. I really hate it admit it, but so far it’s been an undeniable truth that some groups are more likely to walk off without tipping, which often ripples through the rest of the crowd as behavior that they should mimic. However, it’s not so black-and-white. If a big group of rednecks comes walking down the street, I’m just as likely to delay starting a show for them as I am starting a show for a minority family. More so than assessing their their likelihood of tipping, I am looking for people that seem predisposed for having fun in a street show. Experience has taught me to put people in the front row that are likely to participate in the show by smiling, clapping, and (eventually) tipping. Experience has also taught me that some groups of people are less likely to fit those requirements, be it from economic factors, cultural differences, language barriers, or general personality traits. For example, in Asian and Indian cultures buskers are not very common, so the cultural disposition is not in my favor. It’s about strategic energy use. Yes, I am being discriminate, but when I grant the benefit of the doubt and ignore the lessons I’ve learned, nine times out of ten I get burned on it.
I’m quickly remembering what makes New Orleans so different. It is a grab-bag of humans from every imaginable background. It truly is like no place on earth. It has the dirtiest dirt and, at the same time, the most magnificent, romantic, magical qualities. It is a poetic paradox in itself, and I can’t help but to call it home.
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