Editor’s note: Sunday night, June 10. We’re loitering at the Holiday Inn in SeaTac, Wash. We came here for a deferred Mother’s Day gift. We came to watch the season finale of Mad Men. The greatest among the litany of disappointments that greeted us upon our arrival: This hotel’s cable provider doesn’t include AMC, Mad Men’s network. Mother’s Day mullered. As the planner of this getaway, I bear responsibility. As Becky attempts to work off some of her chagrin in the gym downstairs, I wander backward to June of 2007, when I roamed post-Katrina/Rita Louisiana with the one and only Lauri Lebo. Extra-special note: We just started watching Season 2 of Treme, which arrived in our mailbox last week, a gift from Lauri Lebo herself. Thanks again, Lauri!
Sunday, June 3, 2007
We check out of the Shoney’s in Metairie and chart a course to include a voyeuristic ramble through the Treme and the Lower Ninth Ward.
We get lost, as usual, but it hardly matters. Everywhere we go, we trip over the devastating remnants of Hurricane Katrina.
Nearly two years after levee walls failed and unleashed a catastrophic flood, ominous X’s, scrawled in spray paint on houses by post-diluvian searchers, are ubiquitous. They are, in the parlance of disaster relief, referred to as X-codes or, locally, Katrina crosses. They indicate time of search, searching unit, bodies found, animals found and other information inscrutable to the layman.
They offer stark, eerie evidence of tragedy. They are alive with potent symbolism.
The disemboweled innards of rotted dwellings lay jumbled on a hundred sidewalks. Soggy insulation. Waterlogged wood. Mounds of molding rubble.
We cross over a bridge on N. Clairborne into the wreckage of the Ninth Ward. Pitiless destruction on display. Feeling a trifle uncomfortable as voyeurs, we leave the wreckage, and crawl through the Quarter, looking for a cash machine.
We do this without irony. Such is the detachment of the disaster tourist. As long as your vehicle is running, you’re only passing through, minutes away from bourgeois comfort and plenty.
The heat is palpable, insistent. How do they live down here, when they aren’t dying?
We drive up Canal Street, doubling back, past the Superdome. They oughta change the name. Too disrespectful. I look over and at Lauri. There are tears on her cheek. She’s remembering a story about a boy and his dog, Snowball, who got separated in the evacuation.
We get lost in a neighborhood not far from the Dome. No relief. An aimless drive, no known direction, a guideless tour of omnipresent heartbreak.
A broken city in a heartless world.
The sadness is chaotic and overwhelming.
(Which, from the perspective of 2012, make me appreciate all the more the brilliance with which David Simon & Co. have brought it all to life in HBO’s “Treme.”)
Finally we found our way back to the Treme and visit a grocery called Soprano’s at the corner of Ursulines and Crete, a block off Broad. Insulation damage in rear. Up and running, though. Promises the cheapest and tastiest po boys in town. We take them up on the boast, sampling the shrimp po boy. Not bad. Not mind-blowing or anything, but not bad. Tasteless greens. Friendly service.
The flies have come back to New Orleans in droves.
I guess they never left.
Did I mention the stench hanging off the Treme?
Signs of the times: “You loot, we shoot.”
“Survived Betsy, but Katrina was a Bitch.”
The stench overwhelms houses that have ceased being homes.
A great American city, in a word, gutted.
Thoughts too trite for the sights.
Shouldn’t have said anything.
Where were we? American Routes on at 6. Good. Old Nick Spitzer’s a New Orleans institution. We’re bound for Lafayette on the southern route, taking in a sublime rust panorama. Gentle-Ben boats and alligator tours. Rambling desultorily.
Then a fruitless drive south in search of Pete the feetless alligator. We make a brief stop at Crown Point. Locals fish on the canal while barges slide past like water moccasins, pushing great, unknowable cargo on to the gulf.
Another sign of the times:
“Benzine. Warning. Cancer Causing Agent. Authorized personnel only.”
Pressing westward, we eventually make Thibodaux, hard by Nicholls State University.
It is in Thibodaux that we we stumble upon the peculiarly Louisiana libation that is the drive-through daiquiri.
A co-ed pulls back the window and recommends the following deal: $5.50 for a large “Pain Killer.”
It’s today’s “drive-away special.” Two kinds of rum, light and dark.
The Pain Killer. You can get one of these while never having to turn your car off. Twenty-four ounces of fruit laced with rum. Delicious, too.
Welcome to Louisiana, U.S.A.
It’s the next-best thing to drive-through opiates – which I guess you can get easily enough in the Pharmaceutical States of America, but you have to arrive at the window with a prescription for Oxycontin or Percocet. But I digress, as is customary.
And looky there. Pain Killer’s now the mascot of Daiquiris and Company. He’s kind of strong, our mixologist warns. That’s OK.
We’ve only got 90-some miles to make before Lafayette.
Strong? We are skeptical. Something is fishy. These fruity concoctions must contain very little, if any, alcohol. Otherwise … well, it’s simply unfathomable.
Everywhere else in America, we crack down ruthlessly on drinking and driving. Here, they encourage the same. Boggles the mind, it does.
Crazy, it seems. As Jefferson Pepper said, it seems in some way unsafe.
I hesitate for a minute before pulling back onto the road. Perhaps we were unwitting dupes in a sting operation.
A pseudo-scientific study is in order. What follows is a time-lapse investigation into our respective frames of mind.
8:07 p.m. CDT: We take possession of two, 24-ounce “Pain Killers”
8:11: No observable change in behavior
(Though the onset of giddiness is instantaneous.)
8:42: Lauri cackles maniacally. I do believe the prominent taste of booze in the Pain Killer is not a chemical sleight-of-hand.
9:02: We are certifiably drunk. Hammered, even.
We traveled from stone-cold sober to agreeably shitfaced in 55 minutes and 60 miles.
This can’t be good.
Who can be sure how much inebriated silliness stems from measurable blood-alcohol incursions, and how much, if any, is purely psychological? That unanswerable question reminds me of the classic scene from “The Honeymooners,” where Ralph and Ed get wasted on a bottle of grape juice.
Nonetheless, I’d swear on the Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita or Baseball Almanac, whatever you consider holy, that I am constitutionally fucked up. Anyway, that’s what I think when I get out of the car to relieve myself at a rest stop.
Only in Louisiana.
I’m missing too much. Writing whilst drunk. Very dangerous. …
Monday, June 4
It’s pushing toward noon in Lafayette. We’re still in the motel room.
At least one omen of inspiration: I went out to the car to get the map a little while back and ran across a neighbor two doors down who was returning to his room with a six-pack. He was already halfway through his first Budweiser.
He’s obviously not guilty of procrastination.
Last night, worn out from lack of sleep and sledgehammered by drive-by daiquiris, it was all we could do to push past the fatigue and make a late run into Opelousas.
Lauri did some advance reading and discovered the town had just enacted an ordinance forcing bars to close at 2.
Don’t they know this is Lou-easy-fucking-anna?
We made the weary drive up I-49 for about 25 miles, pulled off at the final Opelousas exit and drove into town. I steered Lauri’s black Jetta into a large parking lot bulging with
cars parked in all directions.
I noted that we were the only white people in our orbit. Lauri noted we were older than everyone else, too.
At half-past midnight on a Sunday night in Opelousas, the Charcoal Lounge was thrumming. We opened the door and were nearly pushed back by a fusillade of high-decibel, new-age rhythm and blues. Lauri headed straight for the bar, until one large man tapped her on the shoulder and informed her of the $5 cover charge.
Imagine that, a $5 cover after midnight on a Sunday in Opelousas. Sure, it wasn’t our kind of music, but you have to respect a town where the people are hellbent on having a good time regardless of the day or the hour.
We retraced our steps out of there. I think someone might’ve called out with an offer to let us in at a reduced rate. While I was expendable, I don’t think they wanted Lauri to get away.
We wandered around the corner to a little dive of a diner named Roma’s Place, an inviting greasy spoon that elevates the linguistic notion of “greasy spoon” to a perch of eminence and respect.
Inside, nine stools line a veneer-topped counter. Other amenities: four booths, four ceiling fans and two restrooms, one for each known gender, both bearing “out of order” signs.
Looks like it’s been a while since either was in working order. A wall-unit air conditioner hummed, providing backdrop to a playful conversation at the other end of the counter.
The waitress, a black woman exuding dignity, has worked here 32 or 33 years. The white cook is the broad and sturdy daughter of the owner, a wheelchair-bound, frosty-haired lady who later was helped through the front door.
They’ve endured in this relationship for more than three decades: owner and employee. White and black. Plantation master and house slave.
Perhaps that’s over the top.
It didn’t help that the song on the jukebox, which of course I didn’t know because I’m an old and ignorant white man, seemed to include a refrain along the lines of, “I’m your house nigga, baby.”
Perhaps I just imagined this.
We were both quite taken by Roma’s. I had an egg and cheese sandwich, Lauri opted for French fries and a diet Coke.
When it all was over, our friendly counterwoman totaled the bill: $3.
Really, three dollars.
“I took Louisiana 14: roadsides of pink thistle, cemeteries jammed with aboveground tombs, cane fields under high smokestacks of sugar factories, the salt-domed country, then shrimp trawlers at Delcambre.”
First rule of thumb for would-be writers struggling to animate their travels: Don’t read so much as one sentence by the inimitable, unmatchable William Least Heat-Moon.
Nonetheless, with imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that rot, we drive to Breaux Bridge on the 10 so we might follow Heat-Moon’s path along the atmospheric Bayou Teche. Along the way, we pass billboards advertising Roman feasts of crawfish gluttony.
In town, we glimpse a shiny new beacon of not-so-free enterprise, a Walmart rising. It will be a Super Walmart, complete with a Food Center. Then we pass the current Walmart, the retrograde big-box facility, a half-mile up the road without a Food Center.
Breaux Bridge, which bills itself as the Crawfish Capital of the World, seems to be doing OK for itself. We drive past a freshly minted development of sprawling houses with handsome brick exteriors, then forge south on 31 into a glowering horizon. Sullen clouds guard the approaches to New Iberia.
We turn off at 96 in St. Martinville looking for Acadian history marker. No such luck, but we do take in more of the bleakness and despair that has enveloped this Acadian outpost. Maybe “despair” is a tad judgmental.
My Nana’s Treats is no longer serving Nana’s treats. People do, however, remain sugar proud in these parts. Along 31 a smokestack from a bygone factory rises five stories above a junkyard, looking as if might topple to earth any day now.
St. Martinville has its own Walmart, but no Food Center. It boasts a tourist-baiting statue of Evangeline-Emmeline-Delores Del Rio, but has more shut-up groceries and boarded storefronts than is generally healthy.
Thunder catches up with lightning, and the skies above Cajun country open up with sheets of Louisiana rain about the time we pull off 31 and into the parking lot at Joyce’s Supermarket, where “prices are born, not raised.”
Joyce’s is a meat locker posing as a grocery store. An electronic signboard promises “Fresh sausage made daily.”
Lauri exits the Jetta quickly and walks purposefully into Joyce’s. She needs to fill a prescription to forestall an attack of allergy-induced asthma. I follow in a few minutes, avail myself of Joyce’s boy’s room and then notice the spectacular array of meat.
You’d have to be blind not to notice.
Among Joyce’s specials: The Mother-in-Law, the Junk in the Trunk, the Louisiana Blues, the Catahoula and too many more to mention, let alone remember.
My favorite: The “Runaway Bride,” which packs 29 pounds of bowel-encrusting flesh into one low, low price. It includes 10 pounds of leg quarters; 4 lb. gravy steaks; 4 lb. fresh sausage; 4 lb. pork fingers or pork steaks; 4 lb. Richard’s smoke sausage; and 3 lb. ground meat. Regularly $49.99, Joyce is letting this truckload of comestible flesh go for the ridiculous price of $47.99.
Have I said I love Louisiana?
(I posted the above video because it was the first time I heard of places like Catahoula and Johnson Bay. The guy who wrote it, Joshua Caffery, is no longer a member of the Red Stick Ramblers. Last I saw he was teaching English at Louisiana-Lafayette. It also reminds me of our abiding friendship with Lauri Lebo and Jefferson Pepper. We were with them in 2003 at Merlefest in North Carolina when we stumbled across the Red Stick Ramblers for the first time. We were together again in Augusta, N.J., at Michael Arnone’s Crawfish Festival. Though I’m not so sure Jefferson Pepper was too in love with the Red Stick Ramblers. Too much fun, not enough social-consciousness raising.)
James Derouine shows us his oyster-shucking chops in Black’s Oyster Bar and Restaurant in Abbeville.
James says he’s been working there since he was 15, and he’s going on 42 now.
I ask him about Mr. Black, whose real name was Wilton Bourque. He opened Black’s here in the heart of Vermilion Parish in 1967 along with his wife, Rena. It has been here, on Pere Megret Street directly across from St. Mary Magdalen Church, since 1989.
“He was a nice feller. stayed drunk all the time, but he was nice. didn’t hurt nobody but himself,” Derouine says of Bourque.”They took his liquor away from him, but he was slicker than they were. He had a spare. They couldn’t stop him.”
The bartender’s amiable and chatty. Her name is Theresa Decuire. The surname is pronounced “de-queer.” Apparently her husband Lawrence is a “grouch head” and doesn’t take kindly to sophomoric jokes about such.
(2012 note: I am sure we sampled the oysters here, though I have no outstanding memory of them. I’d categorize Lauri and myself as “fellow-traveler vegetarians.” When we have the chance, we always employ regional rationalization as an excuse for straying. For instance, I recall the time we sampled oysters at a crawfish festival in New Jersey. I also regret to report Black’s has closed since our visit.)
Before Abbeville, we met a hopelessly cute, blue-eyed couple south of New Iberia at the Chevron station store called LeLeux’s.
Kenson Verret sold us two links of homemade Boudin while his girl, Bethany Edler, offered advice on places to see.
Kenson got his name because his dad, Kenny Verret, is his dad, and he is his dad’s son.
Kenny Sr. owns the joint. He bought it from his wife’s grandfather, Mr. LeLeux, who opened the place in 1927.
I asked Kenny Sr. if he was glad he bought it, and he said, “most of the time.”
He took a deep breath before answering, so I guess this isn’t one of those times.
Before we had a chance to leave and sample the Cajun sausage, a guy came in and got
in on the tail-end of the conversation. Nice Cajun gentleman, tall with gray hair.
The rain started to fall again, and we made a polite exit.
As we passed through the door, he bellowed, “Now y’all got some of this Coonass weather!”
We leave Abbeville and head west. We exit 14 at Kaplan and begin winding our way south and west toward the gulf coast of southwestern Louisiana. We stop at a reeking little fishing pier that’s supposed to be administered by the Louisiana Department of
Culture, Recreation and Tourism in conjunction with the U.S. Department of the Interior.
One look at this scene fills the dumbfounded observer with renewed wonder for the legendary corruption of Louisiana officialdom.
A rusting shell of a garbage can sits conveniently next to a “no dumping” sign, providing a jarring scene of revolting detritus. A horde of flies attacks a plastic grocery bag that holds something foul and rotten. We walk on the rickety pier and look for gators. We see one or two idling in the distance, nothing close or dramatic though.
We drive through Cow Island, home of our bartender, whose daughter recently “turned 7 in heaven.” She said it’s not really an island (which it isn’t). The name derives from a long-ago storm. A bunch of cows found a refuge on an elevated patch of land surrounded by a sea of high water.
The road turns west at Pecan Island and runs along the coast in the direction of east Texas.
Before we reach Pecan (or pe-kawn” as Theresa said it) Island, we start noticing strange signs of wreckage, decay and abandonment.
We pass five or six used-to-be gas stations. The wreckage looks like photography from a bombed-out war zone. Violently uprooted pumps tumble into each other and repose in a surrealistic jumble. Signs have blown away.
This is Rita’s calling card.
June 4, 8:13 p.m. CDT, Cameron, La.
We admire a lovely petroleum sunset as we wait for the free ferry to the other side. Over there we’ll drive through Holly Beach, Johnson Bayou and on to Port Arthur, Texas. The Golden Triangle.
We have stumbled blindly onto a moonscape of devastation, the physical likes of which even New Orleans fails to match. You can see that nature hit with much greater ferocity here. While the failure of levees and flood walls rendered the New Orleans disaster at least in part a man-made disaster, such is not the case here
Rita ripped into this lonely region without remorse. A few houses on stilts survived the blow. Most did not. Holly Beach was disappeared entirely.
Everywhere you look, buildings have been refashioned into ghostly skeletons. Rusting beams and battered frames stand with nothing beneath them but eerie foundations. What were once homes and stores are now grotesque curiosities.
Mounds of twisted metal and broken siding and building material are heaped in corners of the yards of rebuilt homes, as if owners await industrial-sized-garbage pickup day.
In Cameron, where the free ferry takes us across a narrow break in the land, a couple sits upon plastic chairs in the remains of one such exoskeleton and chats quietly.
One day churches, grocery stores and gas stations were open for business, the next they were closed for eternity.
Both the Creole 1 Stop and Sha Sha’s had to rebuild entirely.
In Creole, a sign above the bar in Sha Sha’s shares the news: “9-24-2005, Rita. What a bitch!”
Sha Sha’s is a cozy and clean little bar and grill with ill-fitting metal chairs at the bar. A sign on the wall notes the building, in a fashion, has survived two natural assaults, the first from Audrey on 6-27-57, the second from Rita, almost exactly 48 years later.
The young barmaid is nice, just not overly friendly or welcoming of inquiries from strangers. We slum in earnest, ordering Bud lights without even the aid of lime slices, the great equalizer for crap beer. Put a slice of lime in any old-school domestic beer and you have an American Corona. It never fails.
Three photographs sit on a small table outside the restrooms. They’re fascinating archival pieces, group shots of local men. Once scene depicts the aftermath of an apparent fishing derby. Another captures a similar group of men, but this time they have exchanged fishing poles and whopper-sized catches for fiddles, drum and a jug.
The third reveals a baseball team, though the catcher’s gear and bat are the only prominent clues. The men wear hats and assume a sober, businesslike mien.
I ask the bartender about them, but she isn’t much interested.
Where good folk struggle in the wake of disaster, opportunists and charlatans will flock to relieve them of what little they have left. That is a rare certainty, testified to by the ubiquity of payday loan establishments in these parts. The are a blight on the landscape.
“It was bad,” says Joanne, who worked the cash register at the Creole 1 Stop, the only gas and grocery store in roughly 80 miles. She and her husband evacuated to Singer, a little town about an hour to the north and west of Lake Charles, which also had been evacuated.
The approach of Rita rendered Creole a ghost town, or nearly so.
“Only one man stayed here, and he was sort of a wino,” she says. “He thought he could ride it out. He didn’t make it.”
Joanne was only 7 when Audrey hit and remembers riding out the storm at her grandmother’s house. The physical destruction wasn’t as great in 1957, she says, but the death toll was higher because the storm arrived before everyone had left town.
“My husband and I have decided we’ll just come back and start again,” she says. “If another one hits, we’ll evacuate and come back. This is our home. This is where we live.”
Not that the living ever has been easy around here. (The region was devastated again the following fall by Hurricane Ike.)
“There have been a lot of funerals,” she says. “The stress of wanting to come back, having to rebuild. Just a lot of stress. It’s taken its toll. I’ve been to a lot of funerals.”