Louisiana Privacy (3 of 3)


My friend Ryan recently moved from an urban Chicago condo to a screen-doored cottage in the Louisiana bayou.

I know all about it—I took shifts on the 17 hour drive with the U-Haul trailer. We leave the heart of the city under the sulphur glow of pre-dawn streetlights and stick it out on south-bound interstates as the towns get smaller and the biscuits get bigger. Midday and gas stations with shirt-n-shoes signs and corn fields giving way to a water-logged landscape and sunset. Finally 10p we pull up to a tidy white porch with a set of trailers across the street, my first step into Opelousas, Louisiana.

Yeah, I couldn’t pronounce it either.

Turns out Opelousas has a rich history that begins 150 years before Chicago was much more than a trading post. Spanish and French, Creole and Cajun. There are old bricked streets and older live oaks, their trucks twisting and caked with moss.

But the thing I notice the most this weekend was the people, the community, and especially something about the place that nobody ever actually said: privacy.

It begins our first waking morning in a nearly empty house—hazy sunlight touching our mattress and bare wood floors. I mix instant coffee into a paper cup and push through the screen door to greet the day from front porch. It’s calm and humid, and there are green palms and pink flowers and—a neighbor. He’s been mowing his yard and I can see he’s already making his way across the street, wiping his brow and hollering a “hello” before he steps foot on the driveway.

I’m not much before coffee, but I manage a smile and a greeting, a little self-conscious that I haven’t yet even put on a shirt. Duane doesn’t seem to mind.

“Y’all get in last night?” he asks.

“Pretty late” I confirm.

“Where from?” he asks, straightforwardly.

“17 hour drive from Chicago,” I reveal.

“Well, welcome to Opelousas!” Duane says, making introductions and pointing out his house. And every other house on the block. The grey house next to his is being flipped. The one next door needs tenants. And the shingles on the house I’m standing in probably could use to be replaced. They’ve got asbestos.

“It’s nice to meet you,” I say.

A well-dressed Jehovah’s Witness pair walks up the front walk and hands us a pamphlet.

“The Baptists will probably come by too,” Duane tells me.

By the time my friend Ryan wakes and makes his way to the porch, a white pick-up has pulled up, deftly maneuvering a trailer up the dirt drive before the white-haired occupant hops out and walks past the SOLD sign out front. Two hours in and we’re already the water cooler of the neighborhood.

“Glad to meet you,” says Brad. He’s a a handyman, a retired IT professor and his wife owns the dance studio. He easily spills stories of the previous owners of Ryan’s new home.

“They’re gone,” he concludes, "but they kept the house real nice.”

"So Chicago huh?” he looks at Ryan. “I wondered. I called my assistant after I heard your name and I had her search all over for you. There was like 15 of you on the internet so who knew? You’re gonna take years to get used to this heat, but don’t worry, your plumbing will change.”

I make a wide-eyed glance at Ryan. Yeah, it’s getting pretty warm on this porch, but Brad seems pretty cool with the fact that he already knows Ryan’s full name (he hadn’t said), and even more, was having his assistant do some googling.

I mean, I may do this, but who admits it?

Only a culture where knowledge about each other isn’t seen as a threat.

We meet lots of other friendly folks besides Duane and Brad, both welcome emissaries. Friends walk up to help us move, they all seem to know each other somehow. Opelousas is about 16,000 folks on a good day, and this house is 3 blocks to the main street, home to city hall, a hardware store that carries farm hats, and not a few boarded-up windows.

For lunch we walk into the local recommendation for a po-boy sandwich (fried shrimp and a side of gumbo - wow), and the host greets us like old friends, except we’re new. "Y’all just move in?" he asks unexpectedly. We’re wowed by the clairvoyance, until we realize he was tipped off by our UHaul. Yet he isn’t shy about asking questions that in the suburbs would be met with more than a little “none of your business.” We don’t mind. But it’s started to feel like the whole town knows we’re here.

Our days are like that—at the coffee shop and at the grocery store (where we run into a couple who we met that morning)—and at dinner where someone from church has already invited us over for roast pork.

I recently wrote an article about privacy in a digitally anxious world. And I noticed that people seem to react in different ways. “Suburbs folks” worry a lot about security settings, “City folks” share everywhere because who really cares, while “country folks” try to stay off the grid entirely. These are more metaphor than actual places, although the stereotypes seemed to work. I feel like I’ve met folks in all three camps.

But visiting Louisiana has maybe given me a fourth category: “small town folks.”

Small town privacy feels nothing like the suburbs approach. People know their neighbors. All of them. Garage doors are up, not down. Nor is it the country approach, where isolation is the ideal. Our first time at the grocery story we’re greeted by a couple who recognizes us. It’s not the city approach, where information overload means that open information is overlooked, like a conversation in a crowded coffee shop. People in Opelousas noticed everything.

So what’s the moral? I don’t know yet. But here’s a few things:

Privacy settings are cultural.

My simple definition of culture is “what’s normal here.” The “what’s normal here” of Opelousas Louisiana was different than where I come from in a urban corner of Chicago. Like all cultural norms, they are set by a complex factors of social memory, language, symbols, and largely unspoken because they are largely unnoticed. It’s why we laud cross-cultural experiences. We not only learn about the new culture. We better see our own.

“Personal” questions were actually community questions

Questions about where you come from or where you are going, who your family is or what you believe felt pretty normal in Opelousas. Even from strangers. But they had the a sense of community inquiry to them. Naming the houses on the row and each family by name was a way of naming the block, not the individuals.

Size allows for hazy specificity.

More than once as we met folks over the course of 4 days, we realized we were bringing together acquaintances who didn’t see each other every day, but had a semi-permenant knowledge of each other. “Good to see you again.” Where you live at?” Over at the corner of Cherry and Main” “Oh... the pink one that got sold last year?” “Nah, the one next to it with the shutters” “oh right, well that’s good then.”

The physical framework of the town provided a framework of reference to refresh memory. Nobody was anonymous, just less recently remembered. And I never saw someone be vague to hide “oh, on the east side of town.” Knowledge about about the other was constructed within a framework, not learned from scratch.

Expectations for privacy shapes values

The practical inability to be anonymous changes the value on being anonymous. In Chicago we can tell folks where we live down to a cross-street, but still know that the density of our neighbors means it’s not enough to get someone zoomed to our front door. But in a small town, houses that are bought or sold, kids enrolled in school or not, church attendance... these things are noticed. And why wouldn’t they be? In Chicago, where grocery shopping is guaranteed to be swimming in sea of strangers unless i choose to broadcast my shopping location to my friends, values of anonymity conform to the experience of it.

The shape of life shapes our values.

So what’s missing?

Lots. I spent only days in Opelousas. I don’t have a long term sense of how a community this small operates in terms of relational flows of knowledge. Only that the questions and answers were noticeably different. The resulting feeling was more increased warmth than threat. And while I’m sure many in this town could tell me of harms (I know they there are, because there’s sin here too), I have a wondering if there’s something about the small town privacy that’s a bit closer to where I think the ecclesial community could be. A small town in a big world.

Chris Ridgeway