I pulled up to the superstore around 11:15 on a steamy Louisiana evening to get a few grocery items for my wife. As I drove into the parking lot I wasn’t sure if this mega-mart, once known for being open 24 hours a day, would be open after 11 in this post-Katrina world I’ve been living in for the past eleven months. To my surprise it wasn’t only open but teeming with tired construction workers, bored teenagers, weary retailers, and a few folks like myself under the illusion that they could get in and get out with their groceries in a timely manner.
So I grabbed the few items my wife had requested and made my way to the check out line. As I pushed my buggy up to the line, I arrived about the same time as a middle-aged woman who, coming from behind a cracker display, didn’t see me. I motioned to her to go ahead of me in line. “But you only have 3 items” she said. I replied, “you only have 4, go on.” I figured one more person in a line that long wouldn’t hold things up much longer than it would otherwise take.
I try my best to never go to Wal-Mart. It’s not that I am protesting Wal-Mart’s lack of care for their employees, their disregard for the environment or how they run the mom and pop markets out of business in small, rural communities, I just don’t like standing in line.
On this particular night shoppers greatly outnumbered checkout clerks. I stood about seventh in line and tried to get as comfortable as I could because I figured I was going to be there a while. The check out isle was a mess of discarded items folks decided they didn’t want to purchase when they got to the counter and the typical fare of impulse buys, tabloids and beauty magazines.
There I stood leaning on my cart under pasty fluorescent lights, the incessant beeping of registers swirling round in the background, trying not to look at the cover of Cosmo for the latest helping of boobs and “sex tips to make him crazy!” The line was slow-moving as expected - a couple feet every couple of minutes. Something about the experience was really disturbing to me. It occurred to me that my fellow shoppers and I were cattle here being herded into a stall. Something within me wanted to cry “MOOOOO!” I think I even said “mooo” under my breathe. I was reminded of why I hate going to Wal-Mart and reminded further of what concerns me about how commercialism and convenience are eroding away at the soul of cities all around the country.
I was recently driving through the suburban sprawl around Houston. I was reminded of old cartoons where the animation backgrounds would loop a repeated scene behind Yogi Bear or Tom and Jerry as the cartoon characters ran after or away from one another.
Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Applebees, Home Depot, TGI Fridays… Repeat
The sad thing is that I could have been driving in the suburbs of Atlanta, Denver, or Kansas City. Our big cities are all starting to look the same. Our cities are loosing their uniqueness, their character - their soul. As I look at and take part in the rebuilding of the New Orleans area after Katrina I am very concerned that this once very soulful city could end up looking like every other city in the country.
When I first returned to the New Orleans area after Katrina I remember feeling so small in the midst of the vast destruction all around. As a musician I felt inadequate to use my best gifts to help in relief work. I thought to myself, “what place does music have in this storm-ravaged area?” Sure at that time the most appropriate thing was not to pick up a guitar and sing but to pick up a hammer and start ripping out sheet-rock. Besides what could I even sing about? However as the immediate relief effort has given way to the rebuilding, I am now beginning to sense how much music is needed, not just music though but art, dancing, architecture, and local cuisine – the intangible but irreplaceable essence of a community. These are some of the things that make up the “soul” of a city. For all of its problems New Orleans is a city with soul. To paraphrase and contextualize the words of Jesus, “what would it profit a city to gain all of the mega marts, trendy coffee shops, and restaurant franchises at the expense of its soul.” The challenge of artists, musicians, architects, painters, photographers, and even restaurateurs is to help get the soul of the city back lest it be lost to the forces at work in every suburban area in the country. We need to be reminded that life is more that commerce and convenience. Life is, at its highest points, realized in community, shared meals, singing, dancing, beauty and music.
In the past few months I have found myself down on Magazine street in New Orleans eating at the local restaurants, drinking coffee at the local coffee shops, and enjoying the charm and simplicity, the local flavor and color of this soulful city. I would hate to see this place replaced and repopulated by Wal-Marts and McDonalds. Sure it’s already happened to a certain extent but much of the city’s destiny is still up in the air. My prayer is that New Orleans just might emerge better of than before, full of soul and just maybe without as much corruption, poverty, and want. We need not trust our future to corporations and developers. As artists we must remind and give a vision of what a city can be.
When commercialism reigns, art is replaced by advertising, photos and music become ways of pushing buttons and seducing money out of the wallet, and architecture becomes homogenized and functional. An air-brushed, squeaky-clean image is dangled in front of us that makes us less human as we chase after it. The uniqueness and diversity of our communities are in turn swallowed up by the bland and mediocre, convenience-peddling giants of corporate America.
So when you find yourself in a mega mart in the middle of the night with the urge to “Mooo” remember you are not a cow, you are not a commodity, you are a human; a human meant to enjoy and engage love, and life, and laughter and tears, and song and dance. So why don’t you pass up that Applebees and go the funky, hole-in-the-wall taco shack. Trade the fluorescent lights and cattle stalls of the mega mart for home-grown produce from your farmers market. Turn off your radio and just start singing. Go out and listen to some live local music and remember what it is you like about life and what it is you like about your community and begin to enjoy it once again.