Last weekend, I attended the 2016 Native American Journalists Association Conference in New Orleans. It promised to be a thrilling, new adventure for me: my first NAJA Conference and first time to The Big Easy. Gumbo, jazz and beignets aside, I was most excited, as a remote writer, to finally meet some ICTMN colleagues and connect bylines to real faces.
Ray, Simon, Steve, Jennifer and Suzette: It was an absolute pleasure to meet, eat and drink with you! You are all brilliant, bright lights in Indian Country. Simon, I am especially impressed with you. But more on that later.
My adventure began before I even got there. At the airport, a limo driver hit my car. Tell me, if you’re driving alongside a car that suddenly stops and the driver, without looking, throws open his door and hits your car, it’s likely his fault, right? I thought so, too. But with a plane to catch, luggage to check and a car to park first, I didn’t have the time to make a convincing argument to the seven airport police officers who had gathered at the scene to investigate the incident. And so, I own that dent and long scratch on my passenger door.
Hungry and anxious to cash-in on my dining per-diem, I took a seat at the airport Chili’s, ready to put that little hit and run behind me, and placed an order for what I thought was a relatively simple dish to prepare. Tell me, do you think waiting 45 minutes for lettuce in a bowl reflects poor customer service? I thought so, too. But with a plane to catch and a bathroom stop to make, I didn’t have time to wait for the misplaced order to be re-placed. And so, I boarded the plane famished.
Thank God for those three peanuts and a coke!
A little over three hours and one plane change later, the storm clouds cleared on our descent (a sign that my bad luck had ended?) and there it was, mystical and magical New Orleans, laid out beneath me like a moveable feast, surrounded by water. Was that the ocean? The Mississippi River? Remnants of Katrina? Hard to tell craning my neck from an aisle seat. Little did I know it was Lake Pontchartrain.
Man, that’s a huge lake!
You know what they say: Big lake, small world. With just me and another passenger to drop off, the airport shuttle driver pulled up to the Westin New Orleans, a few blocks from my hotel, and a woman around my age wearing a long, sparkling silver dress runs out into the light rain, holding an umbrella over her perfect up-do, and yells frantically to the bus driver:
“My daughter is supposed to get married in five minutes, and our limousine hasn’t come yet! Can you drop us off at the church?” She was one octave away from complete hysteria.
Kim, the driver, asked us paying customers for permission to run this life-altering errand. Of course I was all-in. My own daughter is engaged to be married and I empathized with this mother-of-the-bride because I would be in her shoes very soon myself. So the beautiful—and f-bomb-dropping bride (she was a little upset that she was going to be late for her own wedding)—boards the shuttle with her seven bridesmaids, who were wearing tea-length navy-blue dresses and nervous smiles.
Suddenly, the coincidence hits me. My daughter, who will be the same age as this bride when she walks down the aisle, will also have seven bridesmaids, and her colors are silver and navy blue, as well. What’s more, we had just decided that this mother-of-the-bride would wear a long, silver dress, too.
Is there such a thing as reverse déjà vu?
I wondered what other similarities we might share with this random bridal party, so I asked the maid of honor how the couple met. “At Disney World, where they both worked,” she said. Seriously? My daughter met her fiancé on the Disney Cruise. No kidding. And this young woman, the bride’s bestie, lives in Boulder, Colorado. But of course she does. That’s where my daughter is planning to move in a few years.
It was an unforeseen bonding experience—for me and Kim, the bus driver, that is. After we dropped off the wedding party, I learned a lot about this New Orleans native during the three-block ride to the Sheraton, her last stop of the day. She was a victim of Hurricane Katrina. The home where she grew up and lived in with her mother was destroyed by the flooding. After residing with her sister in Baton Rouge for three years, they were able to rebuild and move back to that childhood home in the 9th Ward, fulfilling her mother’s greatest wish. Three months later, her mom died of pancreatic cancer. But she died happily, said Kim, in the home where she raised her family.
Beginnings, endings, beginning again. A lot of life going on in New Orleans.
Eight Things I Learned at the 2016 NAJA Conference:
1. First off, Native American women are absolutely gorgeous! They stand out in any crowd and in any room with their long, thick, jet-black hair. (Unfortunately, I inherited my German mother’s hair gene. Or would that be “herr” gene?)
2. If you are a workshop facilitator at a Native American conference, it’s probably not a good idea to use the phrase, “The natives are getting restless” in your presentation.
3. You should shower AFTER, not before, you walk seven blocks in stifling humidity to Café Du Monde for a bag of its legendary beignets.
4. Just because your hotel room in New Orleans is 40 floors above the street doesn’t mean the 24/7 sounds of police sirens and ambulances will be any less intense.
5. If you are going to a five-day conference, you don’t need two suitcases and 10 different outfits.
6. The smell of flambéed Bananas Foster—a New Orleans original—can cast a hypnotic spell and lure you back to the Expo Center, despite your best intentions to sneak up to your room for a nap.
7. Simon Moya-Smith, ICTMN’s tough-talking culture editor, is really a softie with a heart of gold. After dinner, he thoughtfully called a cab for a fatigued older colleague and gave away his leftovers to a homeless person on the street. (Ladies: I believe he is single!)
8. Lastly, if you ever lose your home in a devastating flood, like Kim did after Hurricane Katrina, the only things worth saving are your loved ones and photo albums. Everything else can be replaced.
Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. If she ever returns to New Orleans, she may work up her nerve to try crawfish.