I just got back from New Orleans and I’ve been going through withdrawal. It’s been three days since a bartender called me “Sugar” or a stranger chatted me up in the street.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Boston. I have come to accept the arms-length way we show affection for each other. I understand that when the lady-with-the-dog-in-my-condo raises her eyebrow at me, it means: “Are you my new neighbor? Welcome to the building!” I know that the hair-trigger honk a millisecond after a light turns green is just the guy-behind-me’s way of saying hello.
But there is something refreshing about the shameless displays of friendliness in New Orleans. The crush of people waiting for barbecued shrimp at Jacques Imo’s bar are more likely to buy each other drinks than get snippy about who is seated next. No one gets testy with the waitress. A sign instructs them not to. It reads: “Be Nice or Leave.’’
The same sign hangs in Willie Mae’s Scotch House, where the fried chicken is so large it looks like pterodactyl. Back in 2005, the James Beard Foundation gave 89-year-old Willie Mae Seaton an award for making her restaurant a place where people don’t just eat; they belong. After Hurricane Katrina, chefs from around the city helped her rebuild. If that is not down-home friendliness, I don’t know what is.
In fact, those signs — “Be Nice or Leave” — hang all over the city. It’s an audacious mantra for a place that thrives on tourism. Although visitors are returning — 7.5 million came last year — it’s still less than the 10 million who came before the storm. Katrina brought this economy to its knees, yet people here still feel they can afford to demand friendliness from curmudgeonly outsiders. How could that be?
Julie Jackson, a lawyer who helps provides free legal services to artists, told me the signs mean that quality of life is more important than money. In the sharp-elbowed Northeast, it sometimes feels like it’s “be nice and you lose.” But in the Big Easy everyone is expected “to enjoy life without placing too many demands and to take the time to be ‘nice’ to those around you, whether they are strangers or not,” she said.
Connie Zeanah Atkinson, a professor at the University of New Orleans, said history might have something to do with it. Boston was founded by Puritans who shunned fancy clothes and idle chitchat. New Orleans was founded by French-speaking aristocrats who threw lavish costume balls and allowed taverns and gambling dens.
The “Be Nice or Leave’’ signs got popular after the hurricane, Atkinson said: “When we almost lost our beautiful, fragile, damaged city, people started saying ‘Treat her gentle.’ ”
Michael Mizell-Nelson, another historian, said the signs might have originated as a demand for dignity from a hardscrabble underclass whose music and food became the pride of the city.
Mizell-Nelson was one of 2,000 New Orleanian refugees who spent time in Massachusetts after Katrina. The culture shock was severe: Cold weather. Frowning faces. “Bars closing at a certain time,” he recalled. “People would tell me this is something that they really can’t fathom.”
The last stop on my quest was the “Be Nice or Leave” gallery, where an artist called Dr. Bob sells the signs for $35. The place resembles a junkyard that was attacked by a rainbow. Red driftwood with a devil’s face dangles from the ceiling.
Dr. Bob regaled me with tales of riding his motorized bicycle all the way to Biloxi, and an albino hermit called the Onion Man who is said to live in the woods around Lake Pontchartrain, and how a creature called the Honey Island Swamp Monster once briefly abducted his friends.
After 45 minutes, I told him I didn’t want to take too much of his time. I just wanted to know the origin of the signs. He looked deeply disappointed in me. Then told me he just saw one once, at an African-American backwoods bar, and started painting them.
Mystery solved. I’m back in Boston now, where it is considered creepy to make eye contact on the T; where taxi drivers barely pause their telephone conversations long enough to hear your destination. The lady-with-the-dog-in-my-condo didn’t even raise her eyebrow at me. But hey. That means she recognizes me. That I belong here. That I’m home.