The New Normal by Harriet Riley

We thought we were somehow immune. We hug strangers and share drinks. We had just welcomed thousands of visitors to our two-week orgy of parades and celebrations before the soberness of Lent.  We love life and live large here in New Orleans.

We are survivors and we have been here before. This current crisis is creating flashbacks to the time after Katrina devastated the city. But this time is different: We are on our own. And with one of the highest rates of coronavirus infections per capita in the US, we are creative in our coping mechanisms.

I’d been away since Ash Wednesday for 10 days in South America and Texas. The coronavirus was starting to enter my brain space in a bigger way when my very large annual writing conference set for San Antonio fell apart as presenters and attendees backed out. I cancelled my hotel room and visited friends in Houston and Austin instead. Hand sanitizer had sold out in drugstores in many Texas towns. People were fighting over toilet paper in Costco. That felt a bit extreme.

Coming back to New Orleans on March 7, no one seemed to be even talking about the virus. Life seemed normal. We went to meetings and I led tours of school children at the Ogden before leaving for a two-night trip to Mississippi for an article.  While I was away, the mayor cancelled the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades and Super Sunday, a huge Mardi Gras Indian parade and second line.  Everyone felt like she was taking harsh measures. I heard people in New Orleans joking that we had a strong immune system here because of all the shoulders we rubbed and dirty beads we caught during Mardi Gras. We truly thought we couldn’t get the virus.

On the Saturday when the St. Patrick’s Day Parade would have rolled down Magazine Street, my husband and I rode our bikes to the Irish Channel.  Turns out everyone else in New Orleans had the same idea.  Roving groups of people in green wandering the streets. The sharp hot smell of crawfish parties on every block. The sunny patio of the beer garden packed with men and women drinking green beer.

People in New Orleans were slow to accept the news that our party was ending. Finally the mayor sent police on horseback to break up large groups on Bourbon Street and outside a nearby Irish bar on Magazine Street.  A few days later all the bars and restaurants closed.

Then the numbers started adding up. Our first case was announced later on Monday, March 9. Ten weeks later we have 6,904 confirmed cases of COVID19. We are in our Phase One but still mostly at home, except for essential needs. Liquor stores have remained open because this is New Orleans. Drinking is essential.

For New Orleanians, disaster is not new. We have been here before. Katrina shut down everyday life as we knew it. The National Guard kept the peace. Everything changed. But this time, no one from out of town is coming to save us.  No one is raising money for New Orleans or praying for New Orleans. We are on our own.

We are always told there will be a new normal after the storm. We here on the Gulf Coast know about new normal.  This is familiar. We are accustomed to evacuating and coming back after the hurricane passes.  But we are in a storm that none of us anticipated. A worldwide pandemic is like no other disaster we have ever known. We were ordered to shelter in place. Evacuation is not an option. There is nowhere to go.

But we embrace our home time here in New Orleans. I can still sit on my front porch swing, raised above the rest of the neighborhood, yet hidden behind a sweet olive tree that delights my nose with its apricot-scented blossom. As I gently rock, I hear the church bells ring a familiar hymn. The words I know by heart echo in my head:  “Come thou font of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thee grace.”  I feel truly blessed in this moment. I am home. The pandemic has not taken away the safe place where I always feel welcome.

My New Orleans is a front porch. New Orleans is where my tribe, my people, live. New Orleans is a cup of chicory coffee, a Dixie beer, a musician playing the piano on the back of his truck, red beans and rice on Monday, costume closets, magnolia blossoms and jasmine vines. New Orleans is festing in place, boiling crawfish and playing the saxophone for neighbors. New Orleans is home.

New Orleanians are survivors, if nothing else.  We are accepting our way of living and doing what we do best – throwing parties from our porches and thinking about our next meal. The parties are in isolation and the food is take-out, but we are finding things to celebrate. The weather is sunny and the skies are blue.

And we are reaching out to each other. One group has organized a way to tip your favorite bartender and numerous GoFundMe accounts have been started for laid off restaurant employees. Another group is raising money to get meals from local restaurants delivered to health care workers in local hospitals and nursing homes.  The Krewe of Red Beans is now raising money for our culture bearers – brass bands, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Mardi Gras Indians. Supplies for Saints is reaching out to dentist offices, tattoo parlors, high school labs and more to get personal protective equipment to health care workers.  The streets are quiet but so many people are working behind the scenes to get help to those who need it most.

We are all in this together.  We will celebrate our new normal just like we know how to do best. With toasts and tears.

BIO: Harriet Riley is a free-lance writer focusing on creative nonfiction. She also teaches creative writing. She and her Australian husband now live in New Orleans.

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