Have you ever heard gunshots outside your window?
In fact, so many of us have in New Orleans that guns and shooting have become part of the experience of living in NOLA, right next to crawfish and Mardi Gras and second line parades.
That’s what happened on Mother’s Day on a corner of New Orleans during a second line parade - gunshots amidst the tuba and the dancing. Within seconds, there were nineteen people down on the ground with bullets in their bodies, blood pooling in potholes.
I almost went. Merman wanted to go, bring his mother along. But no, I reminded him, too much housework. Bring her to lunch next week. Wednesday, perhaps.
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The story of guns in New Orleans is told so often that it has become something we observe lightly, like the falling of rain.
In a coffee shop on Saturday, a woman who has just moved houses tells me, “Our new house is blue. We don’t hear gunshots at night anymore.”
A few months ago, we called the landlord of a potential tenant and asked if he was a good renter. The landlord said, “I guess. He gave me trouble once about them little shootings down the block,” as if shootings were as small and sundry as a burned-out lightbulb
Next store, the upstairs neighbors got in a fight with the downstairs neighbors until someone’s sons came by with guns and then everyone decided to stop fighting, perhaps the most reasonable part of the situation.
We found a loaded gun under a house that we were inspecting and a bullet hole in the roof, a speck of blue sky held in a perfect circle.
On my old block in the Marigny, a fancy area where Audis with Oregon plates cruise around buying houses, a woman was heldup at gunpoint outside my doorstep. It was 8 PM; I was in the front room ten feet from the gun pointed at her head talking to Merman about the Pho he just cooked from scratch.
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Guns and guns and guns everywhere, so close, their stories zoom past us and this is how we’re brave: we let them bounce off of us as if they don’t mar our joy for second lines and late night jazz shows.
But the truth is, I am scared.
The truth is sometimes I feel as if it’s just a matter of time.
The truth is I tell Merman that if something like this ever happened to me in New Orleans, I would leave instantly. I would never come back. Ever, ever, ever.
Today a coworker talking to someone on the phone says, “My friend got shot at the second line.”
I continue formatting my Powerpoint deck and wordsmithing bullet-points until I realize, I should be shocked.
That this doesn’t shock me shocks me.
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Sometimes I freak out friends who visit New Orleans because I talk about people getting shot with such ease, la-de-da.
“Doesn’t it bother you living in a city where you can’t walk around at night?” A friend visiting for Jazz Fest asks me after we hear a few pops while sitting in my backyard and I mutter, Probably just gunshots.
I pause and think, yes. But it’s been this way all of my life growing up in New Orleans.
I explain to him the difference between New Orleans and New York City, where we went to college together. In New York there’s a street culture, people wandering around the city day and night so the type of crime that happens at New Orleans - crime of opportunity - can’t occur in such abundance.
New Orleans is a car culture; streets empty at dusk and vacant roads make it easy for someone to rob you.
“Nine times out of ten you can walk five blocks and nothing will happen,” I explain. “But that tenth time?” And my words linger in the air.
What I don’t talk about is getting caught in the crossfire.
I don’t tell him about the drive by shooting at the ten year old’s birthday party where bullets hit people's faces and a five year old was shot dead.
When I begin with stories like these I can’t stop, they come and come and come and I realize that we’re all insane living here in New Orleans and believing that it’s worth it.
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This is why I care about the school shootings and mall shooting and movie shootings: because it’s the only way that something will be done about the New Orleans shootings that happen every day.
What needs to be done? Lots of things. I want to start with something simple: less guns equals less gun violence.
I cannot possibly believe that more guns will lead to less gun violence.
I cannot possibly believe that at that second line, if we all had guns, fewer people would have been shot.
Okay, then maybe this: background checks. Let’s make sure crazy people can’t get guns.
And this: better education, better access to amenities.
And this: ___________ ?
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This is why I care about New Orleans, too: it is the most vibrant city in America. Number one. The best.
You can’t build what New Orleans has got: hundreds of years of history and architecture and cultures commingling.
This is a place where my neighbor Jeanette, a seventy-year old New Orleans native and mother of ten, hugs my other neighbor Mutt, a punk-rock transplant from Florida covered with tattoos, because he looked so sad after he spent all of his parents’ money trying to remodel a crumbling New Orleans mansion that he wanted to convert into a bike shop.
Jeanette told me, "Yesterday, Mutt looked so sad that I said, 'you get on my porch so I can hug you.'
Jeanette and Mutt hugging. This is New Orleans: compassion that doesn’t judge, compassion that spills out everywhere on everyone.
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In New Orleans life and death come together like sun and rain.
We dance at funerals.
We share our tombs with musicians because we want to dance with them when we’re dead, too.
But I don’t want to die dancing.
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One humid Saturday at 8 AM I woke up to a helicopter hovering above my house, vibrating the walls.
It lifted into the air, made a wide arc through the ninth ward, then came back again, dipping low.
On Twitter I read that a policeman got shot an hour ago at the Dollar General; now, there was a manhunt through the neighborhood. The bridge to the lower ninth ward was shut down, every street into the neighborhood was barricaded off, dozens of police cars swarmed St. Claude.
By 5 PM they still hadn't found the guy. By nightfall the police left.
"When nineteen people were shot on Mother's Day, why didn't they start a manhunt?" Merman asks last night as he reads Mayor Mitch Landrieu's plea for the shooter to turn himself in. After all, we have video footage of the guy standing below a security camera as he watched the second line go by, then took two pistols from his pants and began shooting. We know his name: Akein. He's just nineteen years old.
I ask a different question: why aren't we furious?
Gun violence has been the story of New Orleans for so long that we forget there's a different way to live. We forget that in other places people feel safe at night, people don't hear gunshots. We remember, suddenly, when it happens in another corner of the country with safe schools and zero murders. When it happens there, we can’t stop talking about it, we talk and talk and talk and the NRA unpublishes their Facebook page and legislation gets almost passed and then we settle down into complacency once again.
The NRA republishes their Facebook page.
I am mad.
I want change.
I want everything to change all over the country and all over my city, my home town of New Orleans, the number one city in the world.
I don’t know what to do.
I am so mad, so scared.