Monday, March 15, 2010

Why I Gave My Coat to Death Bear

So, there is more downtime on my job then I thought there'd be. Good. As a lot of you know, I invited Death Bear over to my sister's house a couple of weeks ago as a way to part with the Northeast before I made my move to the south.

As we were searching for parties to go to that night, we came across Death Bear's number. In one sense, Death Bear is a performance artist. His concept is to dress up in a ridiculous outfit, come to your house and take things away for you to put into his 'cave', where you will never see them again. Once he takes these things, he says, they will be gone forever. My friend Olivia suggested that I give him my winter coat, since I was going to New Orleans and wouldn't need it anymore. My instant reaction was complete resistance, how utterly ridiculous it would be to give away my coat, so I realized that I had to give my coat away.

A note on this coat. For one thing, I really loved it. I had gotten it 2 months earlier at a thrift store in North Philly, and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have it immediately.
It was that rare winter coat that was both stylish and incredibly warm, who's previous owner, Diane Sague, had written her name inside the pocket. To me, the coat was a symbol of my integration with north: after a 4 year struggle with winter, I had found a coat that was both functional and stylish, and all winter long, when I had it on, I was comfortable in my environment.

So why give it away? Well, for one, since I valued it highly, I thought giving it away would give my experience with Death Bear more weight. Plus, without a winter coat that I liked so much, my incentive to return to the Northeast would be a lot lower, my exit more final. The truth is, my arrival in the northeast was fueled mostly by my own geographic insecurity: growing up in New Orleans, no matter how much I loved it, I felt that if I wanted to do something important or interesting in the world I had to get out of the South and go to the Northeast. This myth was a very difficult one for me to shake, as both Northeners and Southeners perpetuate it.

When I was a kid, my teachers pushed me to leave the south to get an 'real' education, and while adults lamented that 'all the good students go away', they seemed to accept its inevitability. Once my sister left for college and spent time in New York, she would return laughing at the Times-Picayune's living section, as articles on 'trendy' Yoga seemed hilariously outdated. Clearly, New Orleans was not where it was going on. I needed to get out if I wanted to get anywhere.

Once I arrived in Connecticut, this continued. My classmates assumed I was racist before I even finished a sentence that had the words 'black people' in it, and they lectured me on the absolute stupidity of anyone on the right, especially those in the South, who at the time were running our country. People would constantly ask, "Oh, why don't you have an accent?", meaning, usually, "Oh, you're southern? Why couldn't I immediately tell you were an idiot?".

With all the attention New Orleans got from Katrina, New Orleans became a unique or interesting place to be in the eyes of the nation, but it was my renewed snobbiness after 4 years in the north that kept me from returning immediately after I graduated---yea, New Orleans was a good place to stop by for a bit but it still wasn't a place where 'real' things were going on. So, at the time when I gave my coat to DeathBear, I thought these were the reasons. I was shedding this insecurity that I had, and feeling confident that New Orleans is a place where I can do interesting things.

But I've come to realize that giving up the coat was more complicated than that. I think being in the Northeast, at an ivy league college, had given me a confidence I needed to shed. It gave me a false sense of self-importance that could only be sustained by staying in that general area, where the Ivy league is most revered. It's always difficult to let go of the one that rejects you, and the Northeast, New York and Yale in particular, is filled with opportunities to feel less-than. People are almost completely segregated by money, education, ambition, sub-culture affiliation, and ideology, and these gates are very difficult to pierce. Luckily, being from an Ivy League college and having friends and relatives who were successful in New York made it easy for me to feel cool when I visited. And there's nothing quite like feeling cool in 'the City'. And there was nothing that I owned, right then, that made me feel cooler than my coat.

And so I decided to give it to Death Bear, and all that came with it. I think I'm going to save what happened when Death Bear came for another post. But I think it's funny to point out here that even calling Death Bear was something that I did, in some ways, to seem cool. So it was paradoxical in that sense, but the experience was so realistic that it transcended my baser motives for it. And now, I see that shedding the coat really represented shedding the external structures I had constructed to ensure me that I was cool, accepted, alright.

Of course my impressions of the Northeast that I expressed above were in some ways just manifestations of my own insecurities. But I do think the North's cultural emphasis on ambition, status, and class and the inherent competition based on the increased population make it a uniquely difficult place for an insecure person. Now, being back in New Orleans, I still feel hampered at times by the biases and snobberies that have blocked me from seeing past the arbitrary social measures of college attended, future plans, etc., to determine value. But I'm getting better at judging for myself, and it feels quite good.

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