Monday, August 29, 2005

We're all Louisiana in this House

Right before I left the oh-so-sunny Central Coast of California for graduate school at Louisiana State University, my Aunt Marge came down to visit my folks from her home in Oregon.

One cool Paso Robles night, Marge and I sat on my parent's patio, smoking Winstons and drinking Canadian Mist. A lot of Canadian Mist. Marge, technically my great-aunt and in her 80s, kept a-pourin' and being the gentleman I am, I kept on a-drinkin'.

When both of us were well gone past any limit of sobriety, Marge looked me dead in my eyes and asked me a rather intriguing question.

"Why in damned hell do you want to move to Louisiana, boy?" Marge asked. "Don't you know our family fought tooth and nail to get out of that damned place?!?

She was right, of course. For at least four generations, part of my family had fought tooth and nail to escape the confines of, or so the story goes, East and West Carroll, East Baton Rouge, St. Tammany and La Salle parishes (for those unfamiliar with the parish thing, Louisiana doesn't have counties).

Marge's brother Hube, who once played with Hank Williams, was known as a suave lady-killer from Slidell to Alexandria before he was 18. The man didn't leave the state by choice; rather, he was probably chased out by concerned kinfolk. Marge joined the military and rarely, if ever, looked back. My dad's dad, Desmond LeRoy, joined the Navy. Even their mother, my great grandmother, packed up and left for the brighter shores of Oakland, California, the first chance she got.

And I was going choice. No warrants. No outstanding debts to elderly relatives or loansharks. No inherited cotton fields long past the point of growing anything.

Just an unemployed reporter heading to grad become a librarian.

It is one of the few choices I've made in my life that I'm certain to never regret.

Louisiana, particularly southern Louisiana, is one of those magical, mystical places to a lot of people. To me, it was the first place I'd actually felt at home in a long time. I was comfortable there - not too comfortable, but just right. It was probably the first time in my life that I actually felt like I belonged somewhere. The sheer artistry of New Orleans, the strangely dangerous and seductive Baton Rouge, the gorgeous drives through Ascension Parish, the simplistic, yet impoverished, lives of good folks out in Plaquemine.

There's, of course, Mardi Gras. New Orleans krewes (parade sponsors) put on some amazing parades, but my favorite is still the Spanish Town Parade. My last Mardi Gras in the state, I went to a party right on the parade route of the biggest party in Baton Rouge. I drank a lot of Miller High Life, threw up, flashed for beads, and failed in my attempt, fortunately, to scale my friend Mary's apartment building. Then I wandered from house-to-house, taking in the costumed revelry and free gumbo and jambalaya.

Some may say the cuisine in other parts of the country are the most exquisite cuisine in the States; having eaten elsewhere, I can say beyond any doubt that Louisiana boasts the most flavorful and fun dishes anywhere in the world.

The Silver Moon Cafe on Chimes Street in Baton Rouge boasts the world's greastest $7 lunch - smothered chicken and a side of greens and cornbread, complete with sweet tea. The crawfish etouffee at the Chimes - just up the street - is what college food should be.

And the coffee, oh Lord, the coffee! A cafe au lait and some beignet from either Coffee Call in BR or the legendary Cafe du Monde or Cafe Beignet in NOLA huddled over a notebook is still my idea of a perfect evening.

I've teared up a couple of times today looking at the photos of Katrina's destruction. I felt so damned helpless. Garbage that was once somebody's furniture litters Canal Street. Collapsed buildings I once leaned on during rambunctious nights and mornings in the Quarter. Trees wiped from the face of BR's Garden District. Sugar cane crops - part of the state's lifebood - ground into dirty pulp.

What the damned hell did I learn in Louisiana anyway, boy?

Compassion and friendship. Union, Justice, Confidence.

And Marge, I'd move back in a heartbeat.



Anonymous said...

Watching the coverage was horrifying, for me as someone who has never been there. I can't even imagine how it would be to watch such coverage of a place you once lived ... oy.

Here's hoping friends were able to escape unharmed from Katrina's wrath.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Hoping that to, my friend. May be taking some sick days to go down and help out when they reopen the state.