Sophie Unterman returns to the city she fell in love with as an undergrad.
October 18, 2017
Every Thursday night the Soul Rebels cram onto the makeshift stage in the back of Le Bon Temps Rouler. Outside the bar, a man in a Saints jersey smokes ribs in an oilcan smoker, and a cluster of students squats on the sidewalk, cigarettes dangling from their fingers. Across Magazine Street, a waiter plucks the plum tomato centerpieces from the tables of the Israeli café and turns off the neon piping over the door. A city bus rattles past, letting off a hotel maid in a wilted pastel uniform and a line cook with feet sunk in marshmallow rubber clogs.
It’s not my old favorite neighborhood bar—I don’t try to discern between a dozen languages as I slither against my friends to the eardrum-splitting tuba beat; I won’t walk home down 125th once the band takes its second break; there will be no grabbing a slice of dollar pizza the size of my torso, licking grease from my fingers as I scale the steps to my walk-up. I’m not in New York anymore.
Some elements of my old home I am able to replicate here: bars with no last call, walking almost everywhere I need to go, amazing food available 24/7. But some elements I can’t. People here don’t sit on busses and benches reading Man Booker finalists. I’m made fun of for wearing all black, for not greeting everyone I pass, for bringing salad instead of chicken or a po’boy for lunch.
But New Orleans has become home in unlikely ways, too. I read out on my porch, between my fig tree and philodendrons, finding a peace I never before knew I craved. Perhaps most unexpected, I’ve found a Jewish community I never had to seek out in New York. When I was surrounded by my own people, I didn’t feel the need to connect. Now I spend Friday nights either at a community Shabbat dinner, or hosting my own. Over wine and challah, we Yankee ex-pats lament over cars lost to floodwaters, plan out festival weekends, debate education policy.
I always thought that I would make New York my permanent home. But there are intangible pieces here that draw me in, that sink me deeper and deeper into this sunlit, rhythmic swamp. This is not my first time living in New Orleans—I went to college here and started to fall in love with the city then, but the pull to New York was strong, and I moved north for graduate school.
I can’t be my neurotic, pessimistic self here—New Orleans smoothes my edges, forces me to slow down. The city has huge problems, and I don’t want to romanticize or ignore those. But in a city so different than my old one, a city with such a complicated history and an unbearably precarious future, I have found a home both familiar and utterly new. And it’s a home I won’t be able to leave again.
Sophie Unterman is a 2016 Greater New Orleans corps member in her second year of teaching elementary at Phillis Wheatley Community School. She is also an adjunct instructor in the English department at the University of New Orleans, and a writer whose work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Guernica, and The Forward.