We met a man last summer in Coastal Louisiana who was raised on the bayou. He used to hunt for and collect alligator eggs as a child, then hatch them and raise them in his bathtub until they got too big, then he and his brothers would take them back out to the swamp and drop them near where they found them. He spoke Louisiana-French, a creole language spoken across ethnic and racial lines, by people who consider themselves to be Cajun or Louisiana Creole, as well as Chitimacha, Houma, Biloxi, Tunica, Choctaw, Acadian, and/or French. Creole is the type of language they speak, but Cajun is derived from that. There is always a dominate language with pidgin languages known as the superstrate language, while the lesser is the substrate. In the case of the Cajun there is English, then French, then African, Spanish, and Native American. When it all converges in one person, the result can be wonderful and confusing. He told us how to “pinch the tail and suck the head,” showed us places we had never seen before, and explained that Lagniappe just means getting a little something extra than you paid for.
He would speak to the alligators primarily in French, then speak to us in English, then speak to his friend in Creole. He would codeswitch from one being to another, never skipping a beat, never missing an opportunity to tell his story to whomever would listen. Always with an eye on the alligator.
The man was our tour guide on the Atchafalaya River Basin, a combination of wetlands and river delta where the Atchafalaya and the Gulf of Mexico converge. The basin contains 70% forest habitat, and 30% open water. As far as wetland river basins go, it’s almost stable. It’s the largest contiguous block of forested wetlands left in the lower Mississippi River Valley, and the largest block of floodplain forest in the United States, with 260,000 acres of cypress-tupelo. It’s iconic, and terrifying, and a little bit surreal.
Soaring over the Atchafalaya Swamp we watched a baby and momma Osprey spread their wings from the top of a hollowed cypress. We saw a 12-foot alligator lead his blind friend to food. We overheard the story of the Louisiana Black Bear, and the floods, and the inoperable South Farm, and the ATV-traffic that threatens many of the existence there. We saw beaver dams, and otter running for their lives. We felt the slap of an alligator tail against the oiled metal of the boat. For the first time in my five years in The South, I let it grip me. Take ahold of my head and my heart. It was something I didn’t expect to happen, but something I am glad did. Like when you get an extra donut in the box.
We’ve been listening to Randy Newman as of late. He’s an artist whose work has always sort of lived in the edges of my life. I’d heard of him, I’d heard strong opinions about his music, both good and bad, but I’d never really invested until recently. Jerimiah, Jackson, and I have been spending more time in Louisiana, and while it’s not necessarily by choice (Jerimiah’s job has him traveling to Baton Rouge twice a month on average, and Jackson and I tag along when we can) we’ve taken these trips as an opportunity to learn more about the bayou, the history, the people, and somewhere in there Randy Newman showed up, but it didn’t start with him.
It started with the story of Lester Maddox, the 75th governor of Georgia. A raging, racist lunatic, and his appearance on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, and as it does, it sort of just snowballed.
“Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a tv show/ With some smart ass New York Jew/And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox/And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too…”
This is one of the first Newman songs we came across. After we watched the YouTube video of Lester Maddox and Jim Brown. Which by the way, you should totally watch if you are into this kind of thing. This kind of thing being how racism operates and has operated in our country. So yeah, you should be into this kind of thing.
Anyway, the Randy Newman album that sort of punctuated our summer is called Good Old Boys and there are a lot of good tracks on this particular album, but none of them compare to the song Louisiana 1927. The song is about the Mississippi flood from 1927 that flooded 17 million acres of land and killed 250 people in a prominent Black community. It resembled Hurricane Katrina in scope, and there is something haunting and so very sad about driving across the Claiborne Avenue Bridge in New Orleans and hearing this song. And that’s where I found myself one hot, summer afternoon and I couldn’t do anything but cry.
The song is rife with racial undertones. Matter fact, the whole album is. But it’s clear to those who listen what Randy Newman was trying to say. And it’s true. And it’s sad. And sure it makes us uncomfortable, but we have to hear it. We have to see it. We have to know how they treated, and are still treating, the Black communities in the Deep South. That was the number one takeaway I had from my travels this summer: Racism is alive and well in the Deep South. And it touches EVERY SINGLE part of a person’s life down there, whether they want to admit it or not. And for the record, I’m including Georgia in this, though Atlanta is different, it isn’t hard to see open racism here too, if you know where to look.
This summer was unusual, to say the least. And I made mad fun of Louisiana, particularly Baton Rouge, and although the city and the state deserve it, the people don’t. Not all of them. Louisiana seems a place to me that you just have to see for yourself. And no, I don’t mean getting drunk on Bourbon Street or buying a piece of art at Jackson Square. I mean the seeing the nitty-gritty of the place. Talking to the locals. Understanding how their history, their culture, their language, and their religion has been shaped, by years of torture, from Mother Nature, from their own government, and from each other.
I always run the risk of preaching on here, so I will stop. But I guess I’m starting to realize that I might have been unfair to Louisiana. I might have been unfair to the people, anyway. And without the people, what would there be?
I’m leaving one more video below. It’s the song Rednecks from the same album. **Warning: The N-Word is used freely in this song. It might be hard for some to hear. It was hard for me, but it’s necessary.** The history of this song is even more bizarre. The actual real, rednecks of Louisiana didn’t really listen to the words when this song came out, they didn’t think much on it (you know those important critical thinking skills I always talk about), and they adopted it as their “mantra” for years, without realizing that they were being made fun of and that the whole song was about the rampant racism they were creating. So, yeah… #GoLSU
I’ve been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I should really stop there. Save myself from the inevitable torment that comes every single time I recount the story. I get tense, and anxious. I can’t sleep. My body gets achy, like the flu is about to take over. Or maybe it’s just the ghost of Marie Laveau II, who still rightly frightens me. That’s what it is. I am afraid that if I delve into the past, and recount the events that transpired on those four sleepless nights at the end of February in 2011, the ghost of Marie Laveau II will come back into my life, spitting and shrieking, assuring me all the bad things will happen again. But here I am, acting against my better judgment, just like my time spent on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal many moons ago. This story is so varied, so full of life, so mysterious and wonderful and dreadful and wrong, I would be a disservice to attempt to tell it all at once, so I won’t. I will tell the tale of my time at Mardi Gras in parts, and if you feel like hopping down this dangerous, but ultimately delightfully stinky rabbit hole, then read on. But it’s certainly at your own risk.
I honestly don’t remember how it started. I’m not sure if my friends, Melody and Kasey, suggested we go, or if my mother-in-law decided she would go and invite us along. Someone decided they would go to Mardi Gras that year, and invited the other. My MIL took the reins, being the only person in the group who had ever been to NOLA before. She cashed in some of her hotel points and got us a pimp view at the Crown Plaza Hotel on the corner of Bourbon and Canal Streets. Right in the heart of the French Quarter, a stone’s throw away from Old Man River, and smack dab in the middle of the Carnival action. I think her friend Peggy was supposed to come along, then couldn’t last minute, but my MIL had already secured Peggy’s PIMP minivan, so she decided to invite a few other ladies she knew from her home town. So my MIL (I won’t use her real name to protect the guilty), Janie, Tammie, Pasty-girl, and Titty Tina (I’m using aliases here for a couple of the girls for two reasons. 1. I don’t remember Pasty-girl’s name but she legit wore pasties on her nips one night, and 2. Nah, it’s really just number 1) all hopped in the van in Southeast Kansas and headed south. Mind you, none of these women had ever been to NOLA, and two of the five had never been outside Southeast Kansas (unless you count Joplin, MO and anywhere in Oklahoma, and I don’t.)
Kasey and Melody and I set out from my house in Branson, Missouri on the morning of February 24th. I guess someone watched my kid, cause yeah, I was the only one who had a kid-kid at the time. A toddler, and I would suppose that my husband took the time off work to stay home with him. What a saint that man is. We left on a Thursday, cause why not? We loaded up my VW Passat, which meant I was the only one who could drive, since I was the only one who could drive a manual. Really smart on my part. (I guess maybe I had the safest car of the lot. Eek!) I should take a minute to inform you all that I was 29 years old. So on the FAR, FAR end of the proper age to be going to Mardi Gras. Kasey was closest in age to me at a whopping 26, and Mel was, well, Mel was giving us the gift of her youth at 24. Which left me as the Mommy, Kasey as the annoying big sister, and Melody as the spoiled baby, as it were. Which is why when the first fight happened, somewhere in Arkansas, over whether or not Kasey should have included Dave Matthews Band on the mix cd, I jumped into “Mom” mode and never really recovered. Which made me, well, uncool, and also a bit out of sorts for the rest of the trip. More on that later.
My MIL left a bit before we did from Kansas, and the plan was to meet up somewhere near Memphis several hours later. Remember, she had a van full of women who had barely ventured outside of Kansas, with her being the only exception. She was in the military for many moons and is a worldly-traveler. Which is why it took so long to valet park the cars at the hotel. She had to explain over and over again that it was totally safe, that we would get Peggy’s PIMP van back, and that they needed to be “fast”, like storming the beaches of Normandy fast, and they should have money in hand to tip all the people helping us. They were confounded. It was painful to watch. But, whoa now, I am getting ahead of myself.
We ended up meeting on some sketch-ass back road along the Arkansas/Tennessee line. If you haven’t spent a lot of time on the Arkansas/Tennessee line, you should thank your lucky stars. It’s scary. This is where we were first introduced to the rag-tag team that came with MIL. We pulled into a gas station to see them all crawling out of Peggy’s van. As Melody, Kasey, and I approached the van, one of the doors slid open and a loud and robust woman said, “Y’all gonna show your titties?!” You guessed it, that was Tina. Then we met Tammie, who I already kinda, sorta knew, and then that one girl, then Janie, who looked like all of our grandmas, explained she had never been outside of Columbus, Kansas. Awesome! This is sort of where the regret started to set in.
After a quick stop we were back on the road. We decided to follow Peggy’s Sweet-ass van, since MIL knew where she was going. However, it wasn’t too long before MIL seemed to not know where she was going and Snoop Dogg (we programed my GPS to sound like Snoop Dogg) was all, “Hey Cuz, you missed your turn back there, ya dig?” And I was frantically calling MIL to tell her what Snoop had said. Meanwhile, the chatter in the van was so loud she couldn’t really hear me, and we kept on going that way. In the end it only added thirty minutes or so, but that was a LONG-ASS thirty minutes or so, Cuz.
Our next stop was at a Walmart right outside of NOLA. By this time we were in Creeper Louisiana and everyone we met asked if we were headed down to “M’gra”, I think. I didn’t understand a lot of what was said to me. Everyone seemed drunk and there was so much Mardi Gras merchandise that we lost all our senses. We loaded up gobs and gobs of 25 cent beads, and noise-makers, ribbon, t-shirts, masks, and King Cake. We left Walmart thinking we were prepared for all that was coming.
Below is a pic of the whole crew, minus me, the photographer, at the Walmart gas station somewhere along Lake Pontchartrain after a supercalifragilistically-long trip to a Walmart, where maybe some of the ladies saw Black people for the first time, I can’t be sure.
It wasn’t long before we were pulling up to the Crown Plaza on the corner of Bourbon and Canal. It was late, probably 10 pm or so, and we were dog-ass tired, but seeing the lights of the French Quarter and having eaten fifteen or so Blow Pops on the way, gave us a jolt of excitement that carried us through the next half hour or so of the “check-in” process. First there was the valet parking. If you have been to NOLA, to the French Quarter to be exact, and have stayed in a hotel you probably know that there is zero parking. You valet your car, then they take it to some undisclosed location and bring it to you whenever you call for it. This is the case for many big cities with limited parking, and you would know that if you had, say, every been to one of those big cities. My car was cool. We knew what to do. We hopped out to a barrage of people yelling orders, slipping tips into palms, drunk people barfing on the corner, men fighting, and cars honking. We took on thing at a time. We knew we had to get our bags to the bellhop, then hand over the keys, then get to our room, then we would be able to take it all in.
The occupants of Peggy’s Sweet-ass van, however, were totally numb to everything. They stood, wide-eyed, mouths agape, on the street taking it all in at that exact moment, as MIL unloaded the ENTIRE van and yelled at them to get their asses over there and help because we were holding up the valet line and people were pissed. Whew. Melody, Kasey, and I got our shit unloaded, our car sent away, our tips distributed, and quickly found ourselves inside this beautiful hotel with everything we needed except one bottle of purple nail polish that Mel had accidentally left in the back seat. No big deal. Right? Right.
After we all reconvened, they all had their eyes filled with enough sin, and MIL checked us in, we headed upstairs to our rooms. One of the first things I recall was standing outside our rooms (two doubles next door to each other) and we realized for the first time that we had to share our room with one of the occupants of Peggy’s Sweet-ass van. Our inclination, was to pick MIL, if we had the pick, because duh. But as we were waiting at our door for our keys, Janie walked over to us like she as rooming with us. Now, listen. Janie is a sweet woman. Totes someone who knows a lot, she’s smart, and kind. But I can’t beat around the bush here. She was way outta her league, and honestly she would have been appalled by some of the shit that we talked about. So we all stood politely and smiled at her, waiting for MIL to sort it out. Of which she did by yelling, “Janie, get your ass over here” and pointing to the room with the other girls. Whew. Crisis averted. So that left MIL, Kasey, Melody, and me in one room. And Janie, Tammie, Titty-Tina, and Pasty-Girl in the other.
Let me pause here and explain something. This all happened eight years ago. We are far enough removed from the events that transpired to look back with rose-colored glasses and laugh. But at the time, some of this felt very serious and very wrong and very scary and very amusing and very fun and very fucked up. But again, I am choosing rose-colored glasses and I hope the other ladies are too.
As I said before, this story has to be told in sections. So I think this is a great place to stop. We went out and explored that evening, as late as it was. Melody had her ear licked by a stranger, we drank HUGE ASS beers. We saw a couple having sex. We saw several people vomit. We met our first Voodoo Priestess. We walked with the crowd, as one does at Mardi Gras, as one big wave headed deeper and deeper into the French Quarter. And for all the grossness we encountered that night. For all the laughs we had. For all the beer we drank. It only went down from there. Even after we found out that Titty-Tina had an ex named Bitch Slap who was in town and was coming to find us. But that is best saved for another time.
Enjoy some pics from the first night of Mardi Gras in February, 2011.