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Walking With Saints, Talking With Fools

A Trip to New Orleans Is a Reminder that 'Diversity' Has Many Definitions

April 29, 2001|VICTOR MERINA | Victor Merina, a former Times staff writer, is a Freedom Forum teaching fellow at UC Berkeley and an online writer/editor for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies

I am in New Orleans, where the buzz is about a possible break in the stifling heat, and the welcome warmth is from those memories of downing local muffaletta sandwiches with ice-cold Dixie beer. Where the football Saints remain hopeful despite a woeful history. Where musical saints march and mourners dance in funeral corteges. And where Blessed Diversity is thy name.

It is late Friday afternoon, and I am sitting here as a guest speaker at a national journalism educators convention, glancing at my fellow panelists and at the audience who will join us to speak about diversity, about the value of differences in the classroom, varied voices in the newsroom, more inclusion in all other rooms. But we are in a largely empty room now at the Sheraton Crowne Plaza Hotel, and we are deciding whether to wait just a little longer to allow more people to arrive.

There are five people on the panel. There are six people to hear us. But we may as well be waiting for the Saints to reach the Super Bowl because, after vamping for a while, no one else shows. And so we start. And we talk. And we debate. And we discuss. And we remind one another how important it is that we have diversity in America. All five people at the front table. And all six people in the audience.

I am in New Orleans. It is late Friday night, the dismal memory of the panel fiasco fading in my heart. I am walking the French Quarter near my hotel and mingling with the crowd. I have found my diversity: They are the young and the old, families and singles, men and women, the drunk and almost drunk, the delirious and the weary wafting through the narrow streets. They walk amid the roar of conversation and spikes of laughter and those musically cool triple notes slipping outside the nightclub doors, through the humid air and into hungry ears.

Then I see the little boy in frayed overalls and no shirt. He looks to be no older than 8. Next to him is an even smaller boy in similar attire, a pocket version of his brother. I say brothers because a woman who appears to be their mother sits on a crate behind them on the sidewalk. Touting them. Directing them. Collecting for them. The boys have close-cropped hair and shimmering black skin as if they have been sweating even more than the rest of us on this sticky night. Sweating for good reason, I see. Sweating because they are dancing, tap dancing, around the crate, around their mother, around the flow of tourists and other pedestrians. People part as they approach. Some show only a flicker of curiosity. Most give the brothers a wide berth. Few give them the money they seek.

I am torn about what to do. Reward them for their dancing? Refuse to reward a mother who exploits children for a midnight job? Should I play tourist? Should I play along? Should I be so torn? All I feel is this immense sadness, sadness you are not supposed to feel in New Orleans. In the French Quarter. On a Friday night.


I AM LEAVING NEW ORLEANS. IT IS SATURDAY MORNING, AND there is no escaping the prickly heat.

The airport shuttle arrives and the driver greets me. A friendly sort, talkative. I am his only passenger, and he focuses his attention on me. How about this heat? Have a nice stay in our city? Have you been enjoying yourself?

Yes, I answer, how about that heat?

A short distance away, we stop for another passenger. She is a fair-skinned, suntanned--no, sunburned--woman who moves with a flourish. She sports a broad-brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses and flops to her seat in dramatic fashion. When the driver sits and closes the door, she is nonstop conversation. About her long night out. About her hangover. Sun worshiping. Growing up in Georgia. The new home in Texas. The annual weeklong jaunts to the French Quarter to collect those hangovers and bask in Louisiana sunshine.

The next passenger is another woman who sits next to Sunglass Woman. She seems older, with milky skin set off by a colorful outfit. She is a resident of the French Quarter and sits directly behind me, playing tour guide. Yes, she confirms, Delta Burke does live on this block. And, yes, Delta and her husband are very nice people who come here a lot when they are not in Hollywood. And so on, as the shuttle moves down the cobblestone street. The pair of women at my back become a blur of conversation that passes over me.

Until the carriage driver appears.

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