Does a book signing at New Orleans International Airport the day after Mardi Gras seem an unlikely illustration of the city’s culture? Actually, it provided the perfect setting for the ordinary interactions that we locals think add extraordinary value to our lives. I sat at the table shown in the photo, with tantalizing books at my back, wearing and displaying beads from the season that culminated the day before, looking at the stream of visitors walking past the bigger-than-life statue of Louis Armstrong on their way back to Atlanta, San Antonio, San Francisco, Idaho, England, Belgium, and elsewhere. Many looked tired, but smiled when I asked the same question of each, “Did you have a good time?” To a person the answer was, “Yes!” Needless to say, that was music to this native’s ears, as was a particular reason mentioned, “the friendliness of the people.”
Throughout the book signing, I experience that friendliness firsthand in the delightful exchanges that come so easily in New Orleans among locals and former strangers, where in a matter of moments, through comfortable conversation, connections are found. “May all of your flights be safe ones,” I tell the pilot who is seemingly in a hurry. He slows down for a few moments. He finds out I used to fly for Pan Am and he for Delta. We reflect on the differences in the industry now, and then he is gone. I ask a policeman if he worked yesterday, and nodding, he happily reports that his beat on Mardi Gras was incident-free despite the large attendance. He moves on, but I recognize him when he passes a little later, because in that short, friendly exchange, he became a person and not a uniform. Two gentlemen walk up and read my author description on the poster. They nod to a young girl with them and say, “She wants to be an author, too.” The girl and I chat about what she currently writes. I mention that she can see children her age in my book, because they were among the people I interviewed to ensure multiple points of view. When her guardians so lovingly buy her a book, the written best wishes with her writing that accompany my signature hold the memory of our connection. A musician from Algiers, just across the river from New Orleans, warmly congratulates me on my book. He asks my opinion on future possibilities in our area and emphasizes the need to develop concrete strategies to build on the positive energy from the Superbowl win and new mayor just elected. He excuses himself as someone else seeks information about my book. During all this time I witness the respect and friendliness Luisa Chinchilla (standing with me in the photo) and her assistants give people who enter Hudson Bookstore, even those simply looking for airport information.
I felt quite at ease throughout the book signing, because these connections and others with airport employees and travelers were easy. There is a culture of openness to each other here. As resident Marilyn O’Connor says in Why People Live in New Orleans, “People are friendly. I can be at a shopping center and hold a conversation with almost anyone.” That obviously holds true for the airport, even the day after Mardi Gras!