Walking In New Orleans

April 12, 2012

My AERA 1994 annual meeting program for New Orleans, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Only in the past two decades have I done any travel worth mentioning (see “My First Vacation, Valedictorian Included” post from March ’12). When I have traveled, it’s mostly been for work or for career.

Some of my most significant career-related trips have been as a result of presentations at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meetings, which will be in Vancouver, British Columbia (I won’t be in attendance this year — too expensive, and other reasons beyond that). It is just about the largest gathering of academic professionals that I know of in the US/Canada, with 15,000-20,000 attendees and presenters.

Over the years, I’ve attendance five AERA conferences, and presented at three (in ’94, ’96 and ’07). The first one, though, was the most memorable, for a variety of reasons. For one, I actually spent my first two days of this nine-day trip in Houston, as I managed to arrange a layover before heading out to New Orleans to visit the Gill side of my lineage for the first time (see my “We Are Family” post from April ’09). That was strange, mostly in a good way, as I could see my mother reflected in the eyes and accents of my uncles and cousins.

Holiday Inn, French Quarter, New Orleans, 2012. (Google Maps), where folks stayed for AERA 1994.

But New Orleans was a unique experience beyond my two days with my extended family in Houston. The night I arrived, there were five homicides, including at least two in the French Quarter. About an hour after I check in at the rundown Holiday Inn in which I roomed with my professor Bruce Anthony Jones, another professor, and a doctoral student from Pitt’s School of Education, we went for a walk on Bourbon Street. It was a nice, warm and breezy night for the walk, at least until I saw two people doing ballistic vomiting on a corner about two blocks from our hotel.

The next day, that Monday afternoon, was our presentation on multicultural education. We went and met up with another Pitt education doctoral student at some restaurant a couple of blocks away for lunch, all dressed up and ramped up for our presentations. It was sunny and warm at midday, the perfect day to eat outdoors. When we ordered, I hadn’t really noticed the fact that all of the drinks on the menu were alcoholic ones. I asked Bruce about the Citron Lemonade, and he said, “That’s a good choice.” Despite years around my alcohol dad, I didn’t know that the Citron part was Absolut Vodka with a lemon twist.

Apparently, neither did my fellow grad students. I was on my second one when I felt a serious buzz, before I

1-liter bottle of Absolut Citron Vodka, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

slowed down to savor the taste of lemons, sugar and vodka on my tongue. The other two students seemed similarly relaxed. I said to Bruce, “[y]ou didn’t tell me that this drink had vodka in it!”  Bruce said to all of us in response, “but you’re all relaxed now, right?,” in reference to our presentation. His comment reminded me to look at my watch, which showed that our presentation was in fifteen minutes. We hurried to pay our bill, walked quickly to the Marriott, and did what turned out to be a solid presentation.

The business part of the week was over, but the rest of the week in New Orleans became a learning experience. I did an informational interview with two professors from Illinois State University, who told me to finish my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. Barbara (one of the two Pitt doctoral students) and me checked out the blues and jazz bars in the Quarter, and went to Armstrong Park for an Afrocentric event that Saturday. I took the trolley out of downtown to the Tulane district and then back to experience more of the city. And I bought pralines on behalf of Kate Lynch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, who apparently loved the stuff.

But the most disturbing part of the trip occurred between that Friday morning and Sunday morning. The other Pitt grad student had been acting a bit strange during the week, spending less time at AERA, sleeping in late at our hotel, and not interested in hanging out with the rest of us. Then, he just disappeared. He packed up and left without a note and without paying his share of the hotel bill. We didn’t know until the following Tuesday that he had spent the weekend in Biloxi, Mississippi, allegedly hanging out on the beach.

I said to Bruce, “[m]aybe there was just too much testosterone in the room for him.” Bruce didn’t say anything, as he looked completely confused. I knew that at least one of the professors with which we roomed was gay, and that Bruce was in the closet as well. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that my grad student roommate bugged out because he needed a release from the tension he felt being around these professors. Me being heterosexual and spending the week at AERA and on the town, I didn’t notice that my grad student was gay until after he’d disappeared himself.

It was a sad way to end such a wonderfully strange trip. New Orleans was a great city with a diverse culture and history, and despite Katrina and the city’s Whitening, maybe it still is.  I just have no desire to return, as once was enough for me, good and bad.


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