Its effing hot. And the air is heavy. Its sitting low like a cloud against cracked gray sidewalk. Its pushing massively against the leaning brick walls. Its resisting every movement lazily, yet extremely effectively, when I am trying to walk down the street. Sweat blooms out immediately at my armpits, chest and back. Solid shirts become rorschach tests that poor sweating souls on the street project their subconscious ramblings onto. They see things like fires and demons, Boschian scenes painted in salt water across polyester. It’s the slow season in New Orleans for this very reason, the flood of tourists reduced to a trickle of bachelor parties and summer road trippers brave enough to wade into the stifling air for a drink and some mischief. The locals spend the summers here like most of the country spends its winters: indoors. You only leave for the necessities – like a drink.
It was the urge for a drink, and a little fresh, unrecirculated (if thick) air that lured me out of the house one evening after an early dinner. I sauntered down the tree lined avenues that radiate from the river into the crowded jumble of the French Quarter. People were just beginning to appear as the sun, having burned the sky from blue to white, faded and with it returned the colors of the world. The trees became a little greener and the houses a little brighter, the world looked a bit less tired. I settled into a bar stool in a familiar spot in the thick of the quarter and ordered a beer. I sat and watched the sidewalk for a while just to see the families walking by and drew some shapes on the bar with the puddle of condensation flowing off of my beer. It’s nice to sit in a comfortable place on a hot day with a cool drink and just think sometimes, but thinking involves a certain modicum of peace and it is difficult for one to spend too long in a bar alone, simply because in a drinking town friends seem to materialize next to you in the form of strangers, and conversations blossom, whether you want it or not. I’d come to expect this so I surveyed the smoke filled room for what was distracting my revery. The usual types were there, the quiet drunks, the self absorbed couple, the guy monopolizing the hot bartender’s attention.
But there was also in the corner what appeared to be the middle stages of a bachelor party downing Bud Lights and laughing at their own ridiculous hijinx. They were apparently in for quite a drunken night.
A night’s drinking and the associated debauchery is easy enough for anyone with a liver and a flexible definition of dignity. With an ample quantity of intoxicants floating around in their system, even the shiest can be capable of antics which, while of questionable value to society, are at least mildly entertaining to onlookers. And trouble, oh, with but a modicum of creativity can anyone, anywhere find trouble, but the city of New Orleans is where most people choose to look. New Orleans has the distinction of generating more instances of trouble per capita than any other city in the world today. I think. It’s hard to put a number to these things, really, but it’s safe to say that few people come to New Orleans without at least indulging in the normally illegal little taboos we allow like drinking on the street while singing sea shanties at 4:30 on a Tuesday morning. Or is that just me? It’s hard to say if the city openly encourages this behavior to suck up a few extra tourist dollars, or if, simply by the strange habits of history, trouble always finds you in New Orleans.
There is a certain attraction to trouble, that good, gut wrenching fear of probably not getting away with what you are doing, and the exaltation of doing it anyway. That’s where the alcohol, drugs, rubber cement or plastic bag over your head come in: you’ve got to get over that fear of getting caught and be willing to do it anyway. You’ve got to instill within yourself the proper degree of recklessness to go tearing down the street naked, punch that guy in the face, or steal whatever it is you have always wanted to hang in your living room. Once you have convinced yourself that you care nothing about the consequences of your actions, that there is nothing that other people, or the police or anyone else can do to stop you. The world opens way up. Which is why they invented sin of course, to make sure that once you have convinced yourself that there is nothing man can do to stop you, there is still God sitting there keeping an eye on things, keeping you in line. But sin, it turns out (thanks to the tricks of the aforementioned intoxicants) only holds its power in retrospect. Trouble may find you in the moment, but sin finds you the next day, at some ungodly bright hour when your eyes creak open to find a strange room.
Trouble found us in that little bar quickly, given the proximity of the dozen or so 20-somethings pounding cheap beer and routinely ordering shots “all around” which the bartender took to include her, and occasionally me, too. Watching these guys while drinking their liquor, I wondered what trouble they would get up to. What was their preferred form of sin? Would it be the strip clubs, or would they go all the way to prostitutes? Would they stick to alcohol or find someone to sell them something a little more potent? Which one would end up in jail: the best man, a groomsman, or the bachelor himself? It is hard to say but tremendously fun to imagine. The most fun to posit, however, is what they thought they would get into tonight on the trip to the city. There was, inevitably, some image fixed in their head of the city, and inevitably they were living out their idea of this city as I sat there. No doubt about it, these boys arrived here in the “city of sin” to find themselves some trouble.
It is no accident they call New Orleans a “city of sin” rather than a “city of trouble”. Part of this is tied up in the city’s heavy religious heritage, but I posit that it really isn’t the crazy nights that make the city, it’s the regretful sober mornings, much the same way the excess of Mardi Gras is actually defined by the fasting of Lent and not the other way around. After all it is usually the harsh light of judgement in the mornings that force a drinker to face the implications of the trouble they got themselves into last night. And at least on a theological level, it is judgment that separates harmless mischief from true sin. The city invites a degree of excess which pushes the boundaries of harmless, especially among the tourists who take the city’s lax attitudes to be a permission slip for mayhem. A lax attitude however, won’t help the hangover the next morning and certainly won’t pay the bail money. Everyone eventually must face a judge.
So once the sin has been committed, once the bottle has been emptied, what then? How does a person react to having gotten in trouble, done wrong, sinned and gotten caught? That answer is more interesting and more telling than any story of sin. The guilt in the face of certain judgement, the second guessing, the sin “hangover” is what really defines a city like New Orleans, and indeed defines any region with a past, darker, history. In fact, the hangover from the South’s great “original sin” of slavery has largely defined the regions economic and political path for the past 150 years. From the initial admission of guilt that was the formulation of the underground railroad to the civil rights movement, the implications of slavery have never “sat right” with everyone; a sure sign that some people were already considering the idea that they would be judged for their actions. There was an always asterisk, a resounding if unspoken “but” on the expedience of slavery.
Sin is after all, a relatively easy, and usually advantageous thing to commit; depending on who is defining it, sinning can be as complex as financial fraud or as simple as a stealing a cookie from my mother’s kitchen as child. However, the financier may be cavalier about his fraud, and sleep well every night he spends in prison, while I for one found myself full at dinnertime, racked with the fear of my unauthorized snacks being discovered (and the shame and guilt of having disobeyed and put myself in this position in the first place). The way we react to sin is as important as the way we commit sin. Our history, nationally, regionally and personally, is shaped by our reaction to sin.
Well my mother would have been appalled at the bachelor party, which surged back into my consciousness with the shattering of glass. Every head in the bar snapped to their corner on cue, but the party didn’t miss a beat. They just continued with the crunching of shot glass shards underfoot. I could almost see the bartender make the mental note to use plastic from now on. It was difficult to guess where these guys were from, they were too old to wear identifying college t-shirts or fraternity hats and their voices were a loud enough muddle in the bar to obscure any identifying accents. It was almost impossible to determine what culture governed what they considered acceptable, and what definition of sin against which (if any) they were rebelling. This group could very well be acting out exactly what they had observed as children growing up, or they could be living out a world they had observed only through secret viewing of forbidden television channels as a child. But if they were raised anything like I was in my Louisiana family, their mere presence in this bar, at this time, in their condition would constitute sin, and no small part of their coming of age would have been spent rectifying their behavior and the behavior of their peers with their upbringing. They would have had to somehow rectify their actions against their guilt.
The way we feel guilty is inextricably tied to the way we were raised. In my personal, deep Southern terms, that pretty much meant the Bible. Religion is terribly useful for parents as it provides a framework for guilt, a universal way to define good and bad, and an ultimate enforcer in God. Even outside of childhood, the idea of impending judgement for one’s actions is never very far away in life. For me as a child, this judge was mom-and-dad unit, who answered only to God. Since I have grown older and struck out on my own, the judgement of God has been supplanted by more earthly (and occasionally literal) judges, the embodiments of the judgement of my community. Contrary to a theological point of view, the amateur bar-sociologist in me is likely to tell you that sin is based much more around the judgement of the community of the judgement of the almighty. I see proof of this in the admittedly overused example of race relations in the south. Religion, being ultimately much more pliable than its adherents would like to admit, was once used as justification for slavery. Later, when community standards developed (also in part thanks to religion) to the point where slavery was considered a sin, religion was used to once again to define the boundaries of the tense relations between races. Today, racism is thankfully breathing its last vitriolic breaths and not only slavery but discrimination is commonly held to be a sin. To my reckoning, sin has been redefined over the course of 200 years.
While the definition of the sin may be malleable over the course of time, whether that period time time stretches from childhood to adulthood or over generations, guilt at the hands of the judgement inherent in sin remains unchanged. Society merely changes the reasons for judgement. When I run afoul of mom and dad, or society, when I cause trouble, (at least once of sober, rational mind) I realize that, much like stealing a cookie before dinner, I have gone against the wishes and welfare of the community. Is there then some remnant Southern guilt, some fear of judgement over the now accepted-as-sin of slavery? It is possible that the Southern proclivity to cling to tradition, which is both positive (see culture) and negative (see racism), is in a way an attempt to avoid the guilt of admitting to sin? Indeed if the wage of sin is death, I for one would prefer not to define sin in such a way as I run afoul of it. Certainly in society this is not a conscious, coordinated effort, but an inevitable result of the fear instilled by the impending judgement of sin.
A clatter and thud, followed by an explosion of laughter announced a new phase in the bachelor party that involved falling out of barstools with a little more frequency than could be attributed to random (even drunkenly increased) chance. The nice part about being good and ripping drunk is that it removes the fear of judgement of others, and these guys weren’t afraid of being judged by anyone, including the increasingly concerned bartender, whose activities found her nearer and nearer to the far end of the bar, perhaps in an attempt to exert some sort of calming, authoritarian influence in what was proving to be a vacuum of calm and authority. It was going to be a while before this crowd found a reason to be concerned about anything other than their own amusement. There was no fear of judgement, and certainly no sense of guilt radiating from the party in the corner currently ruining a good bout of quiet daydrinking. This group, deep in the thralls of alcoholic dumbassery was not of a mindset to allow guilt to govern their behavior.
Is a city like New Orleans, or a region like the South governed by guilt? One has only to look at the region’s politics, which are steeped in the religious language of sin, to suspect that the fear of the consequences of sin are prominent. A quick survey of “hot button” social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, or sex education reveals a society concerned not with the pragmatic or popular, but with the moral “right” and “wrong,” the sin intrinsic in particular behaviors. There is, across the South, widespread fear of sin and, more importantly, fear of the guilt of sinning. Even the most fundamentalist Christian sect will admit that one merely has to ask for forgiveness for sinning to absolve himself of the supernatural consequences that come with judgement. Every consequence that is, except guilt.
I’d like to point out at this juncture that technically, only the religious sin; everyone else just feels guilty. Nobody is perfect, and I can speak from experience that the inevitable consequence of screwing up is guilt. Some deal with guilt through escapism: drinking, drugs, sex, more sinning. Some deal with guilt through denial: what they did wasn’t really all that bad, compared to some other, far more dire sin. Others deal with guilt through penance: running the gamut from apologizing to community service to jail to death. Still others allow the guilt to simmer and fester beneath their skin where it becomes cancerously intertwined with who they are. I for one have tried them all out, and it is this final non-choice of how to deal with guilt that is the most interesting as it has the most far reaching effects on a person. To allow feelings to go unacknowledged is never healthy, to allow these unacknowledged feelings to define one’s behavior can be disastrous.
There was the scratching of chairs and I looked up from the topography of the dented varnish of the bar to see the bachelor party coalesce and collect itself. Some poor fool paid the tab, clearly without registering its complete impact on his credit card statement, and they loudly stumbled out the door leaving a vacuum of near total silence in their wake. The entire bar sat for a while staring out of the door, each person wearing their thoughts on their face. Most people appeared grateful, some relieved and a couple envious. I’m sure everyone wondered what they would get up to next, at least for a little comic relief. I wondered how they would feel the next morning, in some trashed hotel room. Regardless of the trouble they found tonight, the next day they will initiate the time honored tradition of waking up earlier than they should because of their pounding headaches, stumbling to breakfast, and spending the too-bright morning reconstructing the previous night. Most of them will be happy and amused, but at least one will realize that last night he went too far, let loose a little too much, and he will hide his guilt behind a laugh and his shame behind a smile.
As a Southerner, as a New Orleanian, I have been taught to hide my guilt and shame too, for they come often in a city with no last call. I have frequently allowed it to go unacknowledged and let it become a part of the fabric of my existence. I am the roster of mistakes I have made. I carry a burden of stupid statements voiced a little too loudly and poor decisions carried through a little too far. To compensate for this I have altered my behavior to head off these mistakes in the future. I have created a mannerism and tradition of being myself that is dictated both by who i want to be but just as importantly by whom i don’t want to be. All of us create a structure of manners and tradition to hide behind, which we convince ourselves is unassailably moral, truly right. Tradition provides a sort of default backdrop upon which to project our lives when we lose our moral bearings. This is an important function of tradition, to provide a framework when the more stringent (as thus more easily breakable) rules of morality are broken. Not only societal norms, but laws are the result of cultural traditions; societies with the most stringent cultural moralities also have the most stringent laws. It seems that it is in the attempt to head off sin, codify judgement and quantify the atonement required to alleviate the accompanying guilt that these traditions are formed.
In the South, unexpressed and unexorcised guilt has grown like a tumor and resulted in what then presidential candidate Obama famously (and boneheadedly) referred to as “clinging to guns and religion.” Guns and religion, these things are rights, unassailable, and thus undefinable as sin. In a region where the traditional fabric has been rent multiple times over the centuries by the redefinition of sin, a region which should on paper be judged by the almighty himself and suffer from immense guilt over past sins, the unassailable right has an undeniable attraction. It is that “clinging” that prevents the stored up cultural guilt from overtaking people who in all honesty have absolutely nothing to do with the sins of the past 200 years. The sin is gone, the sinners are gone, but the guilt remains.
What is to be done about the sins of history? New Orleans, for one, has chosen to embrace the dual nature of sin and redemption. The biggest holiday in the city, Mardi Gras, is a two week narrative of the triumph of the sacred over the profane. The ultimate guilty binge of fat Tuesday is followed by atonement of Ash Wednesday which absolves of the guilt and excess of the previous day. This little play of sin and redemption is repeated every weekend by tourists coming in to let it all go, only to return home to the penance of their everyday lives elsewhere. The next morning when that bachelor party awakes and heads to breakfast they will undoubtedly, at least internally, face this question. They will have a rough, nauseous morning and they will deny that any wrong was done. They will cling to whatever they can find that is steady, literally and figuratively, as they stagger through the sharp morning sunlight. With time however the sunlight will dull in the humidity and they will begin to feel better. They will board planes that will take them far away from the scene of their crimes. They will harbor misgivings and ill feelings about themselves for years perhaps, but they will learn from their mistakes as they grow older and wiser. They will pass this lesson onto their children (who will inevitably have to learn the lesson, the sting of guilt, the hard way). They will move on, past the sinning and into the greater expanse of life. They will grow and change, as we all grow and change as we live, as healthy cultures grow and change.
The city of New Orleans, the profane secret of the sacred south, will grow and change its living culture with every new sin committed and every new twinge of guilt felt by residents and tourists alike. It will build a structure of culture in order to judge its way of doing things, however unconventional in a region known for its conventionality, inevitably good a right. The city will stand a mirror in which generations of Americans will cast the images of their desire and see their guilt reflected there. It is an important role among a people raised to fear judgement, for once one has sinned and faced the judgement of God and society, he often finds the harshest judge is himself.
And our struggles with the implications our mistakes will live on in some way in our collective culture, the very framework of our lives defined not by our sins, but by our guilt.