A Culture of Thugs

In our hotel room now, safe and sound, which is not something we take as much for granted in the wake of what happened only a few hours ago.

We are in New Orleans to celebrate the engagement of my sister and her boyfriend, who both have strong ties to the city. Felix grew up here and still has family here. Tina lived a long time here and has the kind of attachment to the city that so many of us find both alluring and puzzling at the same time. (Even before the storms, the city was deeply troubled.)

Yung-Hsing, Lily, and I joined them and the small number of folks they were able to invite to a party in a really lovely atrium that is part of the condo complex that Felix’s sister lives in. The complex is on Saint Charles and only a few blocks away from the interstate.

It was easy to get to, and we were lucky to find some parking on the street a mere thirty yards or so from the building’s front door. The party was terrific, and we were some of the last to leave. My sister insisted on walking us out, and we paired her with Lily, who was thoroughly enamored of her aunt. I walked out with my backpack on my back and the large roller bag in one of my hands. Yung had her back on her shoulder and Lily’s pink suitcase.

We headed out the door in high spirits because we planned on staying overnight and all getting together again the next day to visit the Aquarium of the Americas. As we stepped out of the building and began our way to the car, coming up the street were four young black men. I really thought nothing of it. The same group in Lafayette would have been just four young men walking down the street. They were taking up the whole sidewalk, but I figured they were just feeling their oats. I even made eye contact and said hey to one of them.

What happened next I don’t really know. I was in the lead, but as the group moved along our group, one of the young men made to grab Yung’s bag. She held on and he went to pull harder. She yelled “Hey!” and I guess she startled him enough that he gave up. I looked back to see my wife stumbling, as if she had tripped, and the four guys sprinting down the sidewalk — and I swear one of them looked back and smiled.

I was caught completely off-guard. Yung was first-rate. She said two things: “I’m okay” and then “Get Lily in the car.” We moved quickly, my poor sister both upset that this had happened. She was particularly worried about Yung.

We explained to Lily as best we could, with as little coloring of the events as possible, what had happened, but in that moment, all I wanted was to get out of the city and put it, and its many problems, behind me. I think the worst of it was that I don’t think those four men set out to rob us. It was simply the case that one of them, with sympathy and support from the others, saw an opportunity and seized it. That’s thuggery. Exploiting others when the chance arises is pure thuggery, and I feel sorry for New Orleans that it has these four roaming its streets.

I am not looking to excuse these four. Far from it. But when I thought about it as we drove to our hotel, I couldn’t hep but think that we are surrounded by images of thuggery. In the days leading up to Christmas, I saw in the local paper that the executives of the failing, flailing banks paid themselves $1.3 billion in bonuses using taxpayer funds. That’s exploiting a momentary weakness for your own benefit, and that’s thuggery. A lot of entrepreneurs and developers bought up hundreds and thousands of properties in New Orleans after Katrina, taking advantage of the poor’s inability to deal with disaster. That’s thuggery, too.

I know thuggery of both kinds stretches back as far as humans. It’s the bandits of the Middle Ages and the Robber Barons. I don’t know if, in this moment, I hold out any great hope for humankind, but I do know that I will be glad to leave New Orleans behind.