Francis, the vagabond poet of Airline Highway raises his voice in an impromptu ode to the authentic experience: Tourists don’t want a coyote ugly – chain – training wheel – strip joint, they don’t want a parade INSIDE the Convention Center sponsored by Coke. They want some dirty shit to happen, authentic top shelf shit. Tucked away under the counter, ya gotta ask for it – sit it in the back room with the owner and a one eyed banjo player named Biff… For my money, Francis is right. When I talk about my trip to New Orleans, I don’t talk about the French Quarter bars, or the beignets at the famous Café du Monde. Instead, I talk about the night I followed a fierce local playwright and a dear director friend down some railroad tracks, shimmied under some box cars, and climbed a fence to break into a now-defunct riverfront park. We walked the manicured-yet-abandoned paths in a dense fog, until a breeze that blew straight from the Gulf split the haze and laid the city bare before us. Best. Night. Ever. What is it we get out of these encounters with “authentic top shelf shit?” Fun, of course. A hint of danger. The promise of pleasure—sexual and otherwise—the flavor of which you have never known before. But there’s another reason we like to flirt with the wild side safe: we allow ourselves to conflate authenticity of experience with authenticity of self. Admittedly, I’m playing fast and loose here, fueled by the false confidence that comes from scanning Wikipedia. But take a walk with me and let’s see if we can end up drinking with a banjo player named Biff. In aesthetics, the term “authenticity” refers to how well a work of art adheres to a particular artistic tradition. It’s this kind of authenticity that is tossed about in those dorm-room debates about what constitutes “real” rock-n-roll or “real” hip-hop. It’s the currency of the holier-than-thou-hipster. The seekers of aesthetic authenticity are looking for a work of art – or an experience – unsoiled by commercial considerations. There’s some paradox here because creating aesthetic authenticity has become big business. It is part of what Francis is acknowledging when he argues that he and his friends should get paid for making New Orleans interesting. In existentialist philosophy, the term “authenticity” refers to being true to oneself despite external pressures. Expectations set by family, the media, religion and the broader culture present obstacles to living authentically. Existentialist authenticity is potentially frightening. Sartre, for example, discusses “vertiginous” experience of realizing that one has the absolute freedom to determine one’s own values and live in accordance with them. The fear of this freedom leads people to lead inauthentic lives. Now: to apply all that to us, the tourists that Francis tells us are seeking authentic dirty shit. We, with our mainstream ordered lives, are too afraid to live authentically. We shirk the responsibility of living in accordance with our own views, and substitute the safety of societal expectations. But, despite that fear, we desire more authentic lives. So we seek out aesthetic authenticity: experiences supposedly unmediated by those same societal expectations we chafe against. And when we find ourselves drinking the under-the-counter liquor with the one-eyed banjo player named Biff, we imagine that we are surrounded by people who are living in a manner true to themselves. We can pretend that we are living authentically in the philosophical sense, without the messy existential terror. It’s an act of make-believe because it is safe: the moment it gets too real—to frightening—we can always run home. In support of my hypothesis, I ask you to think about how often you trot out a story from your more radical, bohemian youth in order to demonstrate that you are “real” and not the slave to convention you might appear to be. One of my cocktail party staples, for example, is a tale of my days on the slam poetry scene. An open mic in a neighborhood I’d never been in before leads to an after-party in some warehouse, which leads to ending up on the arm of a beautiful wreck of a rock singer, and the two of us end up in someone’s basement music studio while we spit lyrics and put down a few tracks. In the telling I make it sound like a weekly occurrence. It did happen… but just the once. Still, I prefer to wear that badge of authenticity to the far more accurate one: I am a married guy with two kids, a desk job and a condo. For most of us, substituting a couple of wild experiences for the far more difficult discipline of being true to one’s self is fairly harmless. We might be hiding from our true selves, but we’re doing so in comfortable homes and steady jobs. But for many of the characters of Airline Highway, trying to negotiate the overlap between living on the edge and living authentically has done some damage. Tanya has given up children. Krista is on the verge of homelessness. Most of these characters did not have the escape hatch of privilege. But Miss Ruby, the matriarch of this community, minimizes the distinction. “Don’t you start telling me,” she says “about how some people get to have more fuck ups than others, because of the amount of many they have or the fancy last names they were born into. We’ve got no time for that.” Miss Ruby is much more interested in what we are going to do with our mistakes. Are we going to keep chasing the illusion authenticity in the form of a great high, a destructive romance, a wild life? Or will we have the courage to face ourselves? Miss Ruby believes her friends have that courage. After lovingly describing them as “the most gorgeous group of fuck ups I have ever seen” she implores “Don’t run from your ragged self. Be WITH it. Be WITH each other. Be WITH this moment that is slipping through our fingers as I speak…” And in the end, I think that is what we are all navigating: identifying those moments when the search for an authentic experience has gotten in the way of leading an authentic life. Whether we are Francis’ tourists looking for a little walk on the wild side, or Bait Boy who left New Orleans for a cushy life in the Atlanta suburbs, or Sissy NaNa finding a place to escape violence, we are all trying to figure out if we’re running from our ragged self, or running towards it.