The First Time

New Orleans Writing Marathon

Day Two, Tuesday, July 11, 2017

One snippet of what I wrote that day.

The first time Jambalaya Joe cooked for us he made – of course – jambalaya. A great black cast iron kettle, suspended over a ring of roaring blue gas jets fed by a rusty steel bottle mounted on his trailer, bubbled furiously and steamed like a witch’s cauldron into the humid Louisiana air.

Rice, mysterious lumps of meat, and bags of vegetables went in – to roil and cook.

Then Jambalaya Joe looked around as if to make sure nobody was watching (though we all were – ravenous after a long, hard working day) extracted a large tin box from a stained canvas bag, lifted it over the boiling pot, and opened the lid with the creak of old hinges.

A cloud of red spice tumbled out to disappear into the boil below. It changed the color of the stew from a flat brown to a fiery red.

“That’s his famous secret spice mix,” said some random stranger next to me, complete with a wink and a subtle elbow to the ribs.

Jambalaya Joe cooked the evening meal for us every night, hired by The Company to feed the work crew until the job was finished.

He made something different each night. Jambalaya became gumbo, then red beans and rice, Irish stew, chili, then spaghetti and meatballs… on and on – visiting every cuisine of the world. I never imagined a cast-iron kettle could be so versatile.

But every meal he dumped the exact same tin box filled with the same secret spice mix into the pot.

On the Bayou

Goodbye Joe me gotta go me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My Yvonne the sweetest one me oh my oh
Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou
Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and fillet gumbo
Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou
—-Jambalaya (On The Bayou), Hank Williams

Bayou St. John
New Orleans, Louisiana
During the Bayou Boogaloo festival

Bayou St. John, New Orleans, La

Bayou St. John,
New Orleans, La

Bayou St. John, New Orleans, La

Bayou St. John,
New Orleans, La

Bayou St. John, New Orleans, La

Bayou St. John,
New Orleans, La

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 3 – Regret

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day three – is Regret, by Kate Chopin.

Read it online, here:
Regret

I read Kate Chopin’s best known work – the novel The Awakening in college, like most people do. It left a strong impression on me – both the story itself, and the strong character of its doomed protagonist.

I must not have been paying too much attention, however. In my defence, I was studying chemistry and literature and didn’t have enough time to do my reading all proper in between the marathon laboratory stints.

You see, the thing is, if you would have asked me about The Awakening I would have told you it was a European story, a French story, and the beach where so much takes place must have been on the Riviera somewhere.

What was I thinking? How could I have been so mistaken? A quick read, and a foggy memory, I guess.

As an adult, I reread The Awakening and realized that it wasn’t European at all – it took place in New Orleans – and the beach was Belle Isle. Now, I suppose in some way I wasn’t too far off – New Orleans is the most European of American cities – the French Influence is hard to miss.

But still….

Now today’s story, Regret… there is no doubt where this is taking place. Nowhere else will you find names like: Mamzelle Aurlie, Ti Nomme, little Lodie, Marcline and Marclette.

In a short story there is plot, and setting (this one has a little plot and an implied setting) and there is characterization. The reward of Regret is in its characterization.

It’s tough to find room in a work this brief for a protagonist to learn and to change – but Chopin pulls it off.

Not only does the protagonist learn and change… but she realizes that it is all in vain, that it is too late.

Isn’t it always?

She turned into the house. There was much work awaiting her, for the children had left a sad disorder behind them; but she did not at once set about the task of righting it. Mamzelle Aurlie seated herself beside the table. She gave one slow glance through the room, into which the evening shadows were creeping and deepening around her solitary figure. She let her head fall down upon her bended arm, and began to cry. Oh, but she cried! Not softly, as women often do. She cried like a man, with sobs that seemed to tear her very soul. She did not notice Ponto licking her hand.

Bike Riding in the Big Easy

My Xootr Swift folding bike on the bike route over Interstate 10 in New Orleans. Downtown and the Superdome are in the background.

My Xootr Swift folding bike on the bike route over Interstate 10 in New Orleans. Downtown and the Superdome are in the background.

We had a trip to New Orleans planned for Tulane Graduation. Lee actually graduated in December, and didn’t plan on walking, but we wanted to go anyway… sort of a closure.

This was the first out of town trip that we had taken since I had bought my folding Xootr Swift bike. One of the reasons I wanted the folder was to be able to take it along, collapsed in the trunk, and pull it out for a ride whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Lee’s friends had arranged a party for the graduates and parents at Parkway Bakery and Tavern. A few years ago I had seen a television show that claimed Parkway had the best Shrimp Po’ Boy sandwiches in New Orleans. That’s a pretty salty claim – but I have eaten there before and can’t really argue (though Domilise’s is close). No way am I going to miss a meal at Parkway, and I wanted to ride my bike. As early as I could rustle my rusty bones out of our guesthouse in the Garden District I walked to the car, unfolded my Xootr from the trunk, and set out across the city.

I had no real idea of a where I was going, but used my phone and the Bicycle Route little green lines on Google Maps and was able to find my way. One good thing is the way the Crescent City is laid out, as confusing as it can be, all the roads seem to run to Parkway’s ‘hood.

I have been going to New Orleans for decades, and I think this was the first day of really, really nice weather I’ve ever seen. I had ridden my commuter bike around Tulane in December, but the wind was howling cold spitting rain.

New Orleans has been working hard on making its streets more bike friendly and they have succeeded. There are bike lanes and recommended streets. There aren’t a lot of dedicated trails, except in a few key choke points – like crossing Interstate 10.

There is no comparison to Dallas (which is well known as the worst city for cycling). First, let’s face it, the city of New Orleans itself isn’t really very big – it’s only four miles or so from the river to Lake Pontchartrain – as opposed to the hundred miles from Mesquite to Benbrook.

New Orleans is hell to drive in – which, ironically, makes it easy to ride a bike in. The streets are narrow and choked which slows and “calms” the traffic. I could ride across town as fast as I can drive. In Dallas it’s not unusual to come across cars going a mile a minute – which is rolling death if you aren’t wrapped in a steel carapace.

The one downside to riding there are the cracked pavement and the potholes. I had to keep my eyes open and those tiny wheels on the folder transmit every shock right to my spine. I learned quickly to stay off the side streets and use the lanes on the larger thoroughfares – the pavement had been better repaired.

But, other than that – it was a blast.

I became lost less often than I had predicted (only once) and arrived at Parkway an hour early. That gave me time for a quick ride around City Park and along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. City Park is beautiful and huge (though people tell me it is a shadow of its pre-Katrina glory) and Pontchartrain feels like an ocean shore.

My Xootr Swift along the shore Lake Pontchartrain, New Orlean, Louisiana. You can see the Pontchartrain causeway on the horizon.

My Xootr Swift along the shore Lake Pontchartrain, New Orlean, Louisiana. You can see the Pontchartrain causeway on the horizon.

I didn’t have time to waste so I kept pedaling and still made it to Parkway before the festivities. I locked the bike out front until Candy and Lee arrived in the car – then all I had to do was fold it back up into the trunk.

Another advantage of the ride – that Shrimp Po’-Boy sure tasted extra good.

Bikes locked up in front of Parkway, New Orleans, Louisiana

Bikes locked up in front of Parkway, New Orleans, Louisiana

Timber

There are a handful of modern sculptures scattered across the various quads on the Tulane campus in New Orleans. One I noticed the first time, more than four years ago, that we took Lee there for a visit was a construction of wood and a stack of handmade multi-colored glass blocks that stands in front of the Architecture building.

I always like to take a look at it when I visit.

Timber
Glass, Steel, and Wood, 1982
by
Gene Koss, American

Timber, by Gene Koss, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana (click to enlarge)

Timber, by Gene Koss, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
(click to enlarge)

Timber, by Gene Koss, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana (click to enlarge)

Timber, by Gene Koss, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
(click to enlarge)

Timber, by Gene Koss, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana (click to enlarge)

Timber, by Gene Koss, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana
(click to enlarge)

FEMA Trailers

Thank You Uncle Sam

Thank You Uncle Sam, FEMA trailers, Opelousas, Louisiana

Thank You Uncle Sam, FEMA trailers, Opelousas, Louisiana

I was driving to New Orleans, moving down Interstate 49, south of Alexandria. My plan was to get on Interstate 10 in Lafayette and then go east over the Atchafalaya to Baton Rouge and on into New Orleans.

But I decided to take a look at my GPS and saw the I10 highway marked in a solid bright red line all the way from Lafayette to Baton Rouge.

If you have never driven that stretch – and you will remember it if you did – that’s an almost twenty mile long bridge high up in the air over the most desolate scary swamp, the Atchafalaya River Basin, that you will ever see. It is not the place you want to spend a few hours stuck in bumper to bumper traffic as the sun sets.

My GPS showed an alternate, older route – US190 splitting off east at Opelousas and going through a more northern section of swamp to Baton Rouge. The GPS showed that route as yellow and green. As I approached the turnoff a sign promised “Alternate Route.” That was all the encouragement I needed and I drove that way.

It was a good choice. Under normal conditions it would have been slower than the uninterrupted expanse of fast concrete belonging to the I10 bridge – but today it wasn’t jammed with stopped vehicles. I only had to wait through the shorter delays caused by stoplights, fish camps, sugarcane factories, bait shops, fireworks stands, fried fish restaurants, local casinos… and the other flotsam and jetsam of the Louisiana backlands.

One thing that did catch my eye was a huge field, just east of Opalousas filled with thousands of mouldering empty portable housing units. FEMA trailers.

There were once hundreds of thousands of these left over after Katrina. Cheaply made, even by government standards, spewing formaldehyde vapors, leaking and harboring black mold – they were a controversial response to the disaster – sometimes welcomed, often maligned.

But here they still are, eight years later. Come on down and buy one, they are for sale, pennies on the dollar. What a bargain.

FEMA Trailers (click to enlarge)

FEMA Trailers
(click to enlarge)