Yeah You Right: A New Orleans Manifesto

Speaker's Corner: After spending two months in NOLA writing a guidebook, Adam Karlin reflects on what makes the city as indispensable to the U.S. as Yellowstone and Manhattan

08.28.09 | 10:57 AM ET

Photo by David Paul Ohmer, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

See, this always happens to me on assignment.

I start picking up local phrases and catch words. It’s my love of language and place—read the business card, “Travel Writer”—and the peculiarities of choice phrases are like linguistic souvenirs, or more accurately, tattoos. If somewhere has a better way of saying something, I let that wording become a part of me.

In New Orleans I learned three magic words: “Yeah you right.” That little line became the city, condensed, the abridged verbiage of a relentless push to live life large. Another shot? Yeah you right. More hot sauce? Yeah you right. Should we cook this bacon in brown sugar? Yeah you right. The more colloquial and emphatic “Yeah” over “yes” coupled with the dropped verb “are” makes the affirmation of your New Orleans activity—often something fun, physically damaging, illegal or all of the above—immediate. “Are” is the copula form of “to be.” “Yes you will be correct if you want that next drink,” evolves into “You have become the fifth shot of Jameson.” Call it Creole Zen. Being a Jedi of the Order of the NOLA.

That’s the academic explanation of the appeal of “Yeah you right” to my inner frat boy. But it’s not fair to characterize one of the greatest cities in the world, the one remembered at this time of year for all the wrong reasons—the corruption, inefficiency and neglect that led to the preventable disaster of Katrina—solely in terms of the epicurean. To stick with the alliteratives, it’s more about excess down in NOLA, a many and varied excess that seeks to celebrate life rather than, as the Bourbon Street booze-geois do, escape it. How? By using life and liveliness to commemorate death, worship and the Sabbath with impromptu parades. By eating indescribably rich cuisine, attending regular live music gigs and supporting monthly art gallery walks. “Yeah you right” applies to the intellectual. Aesthete. Artist. All of the above mixing in an Ogden Museum after-hours show on Thursdays.

Actually, screw all of the above—I prefer intermixed, which is a nice word for miscegenation, which is another keystone of this town’s identity. New Orleans’ population is rooted, culturally and genetically, in the quality of Creole. They call the local attitude towards life the New Orleans Way, and if that Way means blending, it’s a Way in the Taoist, Lao Tzu sense of the word: “hidden but always present.” While the rest of America was segregated this town was ... well, segregated too, but unofficially and often openly the races (and the Euro-Catholic old guard and American Protestant newcomers) never stopped mingling.

That’s why, for all its old-line and modern divisions, this city has always been about acceptance. Its history is one of welcoming immigrants with different languages—French, Croats, Hondurans, Jews, Germans and Vietnamese—pirates with shady histories, even lovers with different sexualities. Think of the overused but applicable gumbo analogy: using everything in the pot to create something delicious. And down in NOLA recognition extends beyond respecting different communities to accepting individuals. New Orleans is always willing to give a new artist or chef a chance. The local love of life, exemplified by all that excess, is always open to a new recipe or angle on beauty. I think that’s why freaks and geeks and misfits are all drawn here, and I count myself among their honored ranks.

Merrily mixing communities stoke the coals of “Yeah you right,” feed the passions of the men and women (and trannies) of New Orleans. But what sets off the city’s fire is, perhaps ironically, her entropy, her constant crumble and semi-permanent rot. I’ve always loved that New Orleans, unlike much of America, welcomes her dark side, practically groping her Jungian Shadow. There are bright lights here, but they’re not Vegas neon. Think gas lamps flickering on sweat and sunlight slanting through a Tulane coed’s summer dress. You appreciate that sort of light, because the lamp fights back the darkness in Milneburg lots washed away by Katrina. The sunlight on the girl can vanish in a storm.

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Adam Karlin is a freelance travel writer and journalist. These days he mainly gets by as a guidebook writer for Lonely Planet, although he is also working on a book about his wandering. He blogs at Adam's Ambles and wants to add that he's feeling a lot better.

13 Comments for Yeah You Right: A New Orleans Manifesto 08.28.09 | 11:19 AM ET

New Orleans is a great city.  It’s too bad about Hurricane Katrina and the U.S’s lack of response.  It’s an area that’s rich with history and ought to be preserved for generations to come.

Jill 08.28.09 | 11:51 AM ET

And this is exactly why I return to New Orleans three to four times a year. It sticks with you and never lets go.

Rachel 08.28.09 | 12:02 PM ET

Thank you Adam. You’re a true Phoenix yourself.

Adele Tiblier 08.28.09 | 5:27 PM ET

So glad a fellow New Orleanian turned me on to this post. I am truly moved by your words, and its refreshing to see what so few can eloquently express about the affect that City has on those who eventually come to live here be it for a few days or a lifetime. It truly is HOME to eveyone that has the opportunity to experience it. Like any other city, it is plagued with its trial and tribulations, but there is so much culture, love and authenticity, that its easy to loose focus on those and to fall victim of the city’s charm.

Joey 08.28.09 | 6:54 PM ET

Plagued is right. New Orleans is a disgusting cesspool of filth that I hope I never return to. The US should sell the whole place back to the French.

Lindsay Glatz 08.28.09 | 8:42 PM ET

Adam, it was a joy to read such touching words today. 

It can be challenging for outsiders to understand the unique and often contradicting elements that combine to create our wonderful community, but you have captured New Orleans perfectly here. Your description of the city, after only a few short weeks here, is a testament to the gifts that those who seek to experience New Orleans with an open mind will discover.

I have am happy that we had the chance to meet and spend a few short hours together discussing New Orleans culture. I hope youíll be pleased to know that in true New Orleans fashion, we at the Arts Council are preparing for the anniversary of Katrina through celebrations of the arts and culture of the city.  We celebrate this somber moment with joy, because when you live in a community knowing that one storm could take it all away, you donít take life for granted. 

Itís obvious that here, you too, made every moment in this city count. Your article is a wonderful gift and provides the affirmation that while rebuilding New Orleans we have been able to retain the characteristics of the city that made it such a special place before the storm. Itís been a hard road of recovery, but reading these words proves our efforts have been worthwhile.  Youíve demonstrated that the spirit and the soul of this city will never leave those who leave themselves open to her charms. I hope you can visit us again soon, but in the meantime I am honored to have you as ambassador for New Orleans, sharing the story of her magic with the world. 

Many thanks are in order for sharing such a beautiful description of my home, but in this case I think what sums it up best isÖ. Hey Adam, Yeah.You right.

Vera Marie Badertscher 08.28.09 | 9:49 PM ET

I love to read something where the writer gets it right. I nodded my head throughout, and particularly bobbed up and down at this beautiful line:
“Think gas lamps flickering on sweat and sunlight slanting through a Tulane coedís summer dress.” Yeah, you right. right. right, man.

wandermom 08.29.09 | 2:02 AM ET

Oh for heavens sakes.
Yes, I agree that the Travel Writer has a right to wax lyrical about places s/he visits which touch his or her heart. But this is a lot of petty dribble. New Orleans has great history. New Orleans will be re-built - whether a sensible person would choose to do so in that location or not is an entirely different matter.
Dropping verbs in a given phrase is too loose an allegory for the meaning and intent of that effort for me.
And I totally fail to see how “medieval Christian theology” can make you more American. Seriously.

Eva Holland 08.30.09 | 12:51 PM ET

Thanks very much for this, Adam. “A location that burns itself into the heart” - nicely put. As a foreigner I haven’t got the legal option to become a NOLA transplant myself, but the city certainly has its hooks in me.

Lindsay 08.31.09 | 10:05 AM ET

Jill-you are right- NOLA never leaves you ever! I love New Orleans. Its a tough city but it has a heart and never gives up.

This is an awesome article/story/whatever…thank you! :)

Ellalee 09.01.09 | 12:53 PM ET

If you don’t “get” New Orleans, and it doesn’t “get” you, either you did it wrong or you were born without a soul.

Fritz Paul 10.06.09 | 11:04 PM ET

I would like to visit New Orleans

Theresa McIntyre 10.07.09 | 1:30 PM ET

I would love to visit New Orleans I have a son that lives there. Would love to see him how he is doing now!

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