Monday, September 28, 2009

Acadiana

The Mardi Gras song is exceedingly mournful. Every note of its minor melody seems weightier than the last; its beginning, rising figure has a glorious and stoic quality but then the harmony shifts to a lower, major chord and the melody descends with it and everything that ever mattered in the world seems to fall to pieces in an immense, appalling tragedy. There's a sweet, sad void inside your chest and you want to hang your head and weep for all mankind, for all its sins, for its desperate desire to be saved. This is the Cajun people's party song.

We cross a truss bridge out of Baton Rouge. Jesse at the wheel, Chris in the passenger seat and me in back. Chris says when he was at LSU he and his friends climbed it one night, up its lattices and girders to a beam at the top where one by one they proceeded to the other side, arms held out, fortified by liquor and compelled by death. The lights of cars below. They crossed the road that crossed the Mississippi River.

It's too bad all the highways look the same. Same signs, all ping-pong table green with their white, luminescent rings. Same guardrails, same weedy valley in between. Same dividing lines and lanes. Because the country they cross is very different. Sometimes you know you're someplace different because of the names on the same old signs. Butte La Rose, Courtableau, Champagne. I spy a shotgun shack on the edge of a marsh, a dirty trailer in the woods. There's a cow standing on a patch of mud in a flooded field. We're in Cajun country now, driving west on I-10, chasing the sun into the bayou.

We stop at D.I.'s on Route 97, outside Basile. I say outside 'cause the horizon is distant, treeless; there's nothing else in sight. Just a windswept gravel lot and some patchy grass to the edge of the woods, swampy rice fields across the road. But maybe this is Basile.

Inside it's a bright, warm family restaurant. There's a banner on the wall with big, block letters: THANK YOU MR. FRUGE FOR THE BOILED CRAWFISH OUR CLASS REALLY ENJOYED THEM. The boiled crawfish are the thing to get here: big mounds of them, so hot from cayenne pepper they sting your fingers when you peel them. After every two or three I eat, I tilt my beer to my mouth and hold it there before drinking; the beer's a balm to my burning lips.

We pay our ticket and head to the Purple Peacock bar in Eunice, killing time before picking up Cissy at her dad's house. All you can drink 8-9, it says on the door, and lucky us, it's eight-thirty. It's a cold, dark bar; cavernous; all black lights and neon. Thumping dance music plays to an empty floor. Everyone in this place, staff and patrons alike, seems to be about nineteen years old. White boys in baggy pants and black girls in tight ones.

The Purple Peacock is sticky. Put your finger on a table, on a wall, on the back of a chair: every surface is a little tacky, like used Scotch tape. Like the entire room has just been scrubbed and mopped with Coca-Cola. We settle in by the pool table. On one trip to the bar I notice a portly, older man in a Stetson hat making the rounds of tables, chatting with the kids, laughing, sometimes patting a cheek. Gleaming handcuffs jangle on his belt and a big iron bounces on his hip. The sheriff.

The following morning we drive through town, inspecting it in all its dilapidated splendor. It's like an old movie. The Gulf sun shines in Technicolor on furniture stores and barbershops and diners. But dark, green weeds pop through the cracks.

Chris's hair is short but down south it's always haircut time, so we go to Gerald Manuel's on Second Street, la Deuxième Rue, and Chris sits in the solitary chair. Gerald, a kindly, jowly old man, cuts and banters as Bullfrog looks on, occasionally erupting with a thunderous interjection. "Where y'all from?" We tell him. Then Bullfrog tells us who he is and where he comes from. "There's two kindsa coon-ass," he says. "You got your emigrated coon-ass and your coon-ass. I'm a coon-ass." Bullfrog points at Gerald. "So's he." Gerald smiles. Finally, Bullfrog makes a grand exit. "Been bothering me all morning," Gerald says, shaking his head. When we leave, he says "Y'all come back again, now."

Where y'all from? and y'all come back again. It's the Acadian hello and goodbye, and more. The phrases are automatic, yet convincingly sincere. "In Los Angeles," Jesse remarks, "no one gives a shit where you're from."

We visit Johnson's Grocery on Maple Street for some boudin. Our tour starts out back, where they smoke the sausages, and works backward through the backdoor to the kitchen, where the only black people we've seen in town so far boil the pork and grind the parsley and the peppers. Used to be, you could only get boudin on Saturdays. Farmers worked the fields all week, slaughtered the pig early in the morning, boiled it, scraped the hair, gutted it, got the pots ready; you'd have to buy and eat your boudin by the end of the day. Refrigeration changed all that, 'round about World War Two, so Wallace Johnson's got time enough to paint. His portraits of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis hang in the window. "Been foolin' around with it for about twenty-five years," he says with a shrug. When we leave everyone shakes our hands. "Y'all come back here sometime, OK?" says Wallace.

We drive out through the crawfish fields to Mamou, the "Capital of the Courir de Mardi Gras," the traditional Mardi Gras run. Along the way we stop at Ville Platte, a town that Cissy characterizes as Mamou's unhappy twin. It's got a high suicide rate, violence, drugs. We go to Floyd's Record Shop on Main Street and at a little past two on Friday afternoon the place is empty. There isn't even any music in the air. Just particles of dust suspended in the silence.

On Saturday morning we go to Fred's Lounge, like everybody else, like the locals and those who come from half a world away. The bar was featured in a 1990 National Geographic article and has been the area's solitary international tourist destination ever since. On the side of the building it says Laissez les bon temps rouler. Inside, an old lady sits in the dark by the wall, waiting for the music to start. "I'm not drunk yet but I'm gonna be in a little while," she declares, wide-eyed, emphatic. Like a child.

Calvin Daigle introduces himself to us and presents his wife: "This is my femme, Nonie." He hands me his card, which reads:

CALVIN AND NONIE DAIGLE
"Cajun Dancers"

Calvin worked at the sugar mill for forty-three years and has been coming to Fred's for twenty. He excuses himself with great politesse and joins the gathering crowd in the middle of the room.

The band starts up. T. P. Thibodeau & the Cajun Fever. They play raggedy, unfathomable French folk songs on the accordion, fiddle, acoustic guitar, pedal steel and drums. No bass. No low end. A young man with an crooked grin clangs a triangle out of time. Calvin and Nonie crisscross the floor in light, quick steps, weaving between those less graceful.

The songs don't end so much as they come to a rest. When they do, the DJ from the radio station broadcasting the show often gets on the mic. He speaks French peppered with English phrases, usually in reference to sponsors: Western Auto, microwaves, sporting goods. He breaks into full English to address the tourists: And who do we have from outside the state of Louisiana here today? One language encroaches upon the other. But which?

Tante Sue has a pint of Hot Damn cinnamon schnapps sticking out of her back pocket. She drifts from the bar to the floor and back, laughing, dancing, joking with the regulars. She pinches her T-shirt above her bosom and makes like she's playing the accordion. She sold the joint some time ago – to some dead-in-the-water dullards, we're told – but she has said if she gets cancer, she wants to die here.

To great fanfare, an Australian couple wins the prize for coming from farthest away: Cajun pepper.

We're at the bar with Stud and Frenchie. Stud raises his glass: "It's good to be us," he says. Stud is drinking bourbon and Coke, but the drink of choice here is ten-ounce cans of Budweiser. We obey local custom and pour salt on the rim. It's the sort of thing that's fantastic in the moment. You wouldn't want it any other way. And yet I am certain I will never drink it again.

"Where y'all from?" people ask us. An old man in a Navy cap tells me, "I know what a Connecticut Yankee looks like in King Arthur's court, but this is the first time I've seen a Connecticut Yankee in a Coon-ass court. Welcome." Lee from Alexandria says, "You got a lot of foreigners in Connecticut. All we got down here is Coon-asses and jackasses." He pauses. "I'm a jackass."

It's almost noon and everybody's wasted. The jumbly, discordant waltzes and two-steps intensify the intoxication, like the rolling of a ship. We finally stumble out into the light, aglow with good will and assured of the goodness of man. Then Cissy jolts us with a sobering observation: "If a black person tried to walk into that place all hell would break loose." And we know she's right.

We got a tip to go to Bourque's for real Cajun dancing. It's in Lewisburg, a minuscule town defined not by an X but by a T, the abutment of Route 759 on 357. We walk in and it's dark, musty. There's a front room with a bar along the wall and another room with tables, a stage, a dance floor. There are maybe twenty people there, none younger than forty. In contrast to Fred's, this place seems entirely local, undiscovered. Unselfconscious. The band plays the same Cajun music as the band at Fred's, the same old-time French songs, but they're considerably sloppier, more out-of-tune. They're no more sober than the crowd. The ballroom is bathed in a hazy emerald glow, like some underwater realm. Dancers shuffle drowsily across the floor, clutching each other not for music, not for love, but to keep from drifting down into the depths.

A waitress walks in from the bar carrying a silver tray with a fifth of Old Forester, six miniature bottles of 7-Up and two rocks glasses filled with ice. She places it on a table occupied by an elderly couple. The amber fluid, the ice cubes and the bubbles. Green bottles. White sevens and a little red dot. I'm not sure I saw anything more beautiful in all of Louisiana.

We sit at the bar and talk to Marie, the owner. She's an old, dark-haired Cajun who's seen it all, seen 'em come and go. She pridefully points out a newspaper clipping about her bar that's laminated and tacked up to the wall. Somehow the conversation turns to race. I don't know why we thought that would be an agreeable topic. I guess it's northern naiveté: we expect everyone to toe the line on tolerance, whether they believe in it or not. And we like to flatter ourselves by making people do it. Turns out not everybody's happy to oblige.

"Used to be, we didn't let 'em in here," Marie says. "Then they passed a law, said you can't refuse to serve no one. But you know what? Ain't a single one a dem try to come in here since." She knocks on wood. "God willing, none a dem ever will."

I'll not soon forget the sound of the old lady's knuckle rapping on her bar.

There's a concert that evening at the Liberty Theater in Eunice. Hadley Castille, the great Cajun fiddler, is among those playing. He's a white-haired, lanky figure in a bowler hat and vest with a deep, brassy voice. His fiddle playing is authoritative and his band is tight, professional. Sober, evidently. Everyone gets up on the dance floor during his set. The whole town: old timers, mothers leading daughters. A mentally disabled couple.

The following day we visit Hadley at his big, white farmhouse out in the country. Every now and again he goes to the big city, he says, and by that he means Opelousas. Jesse takes some pictures of him on the lawn with his granddaughter, Jayde. She plays the fiddle just like grandpa. She plays us a screechy little tune. She's acutely adorable.

We hear the screen door banging at the back of the house. We look up and there's a flash of blue: a burly figure in a ski jacket slipping furtively inside. Hadley sighs.

"That's my son," he says. "He not doin' so good."

His son was a promising musician once, a guitarist and singer. He knew all the songs and all the melodies, Hadley says. But then he lost his mind. Hadley says he never touches the guitar anymore.

"The last time he played, he played 'The City of New Orleans' note-for-note perfect, jus' beautiful," says Hadley. "Then he put the guitar down an' he never played again."

I sit inside with Hadley and he plays Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" with Jayde singing. We talk about music, about Fred's, about Tante Sue. I ask him to play the Mardi Gras song. A bit trepidatiously, because you're only supposed to play it on Mardi Gras. But he obliges. He plays the haunting melody a few times, improvising here and there, ornamenting it, extending it. Then he pulls off his bow and sings:

Capitaine, capitaine, raise ton flag
Allons s'mettre sur le chemin
Capitaine, capitaine, raise ton flag
Allons aller chez l'aut' voisin

Les Mardi Gras sont rassemblés
Pour demander la charité
Les Mardi Gras vous remercient
Pour vot' bonne volonté


Acadiana is lost America. It's the place we forgot on our way to the mall, on our way to Disneyland. It's long been in the shadows, occupying a parallel realm in which the Beatles never invaded, no one landed on the moon, and Martin Luther King never marched. It's straining for the light now, and catching glimpses of itself. Its peculiar, 18th-century French, long suppressed in schools, is now celebrated, tentatively held out as an attraction. Its music draws visitors from Australia. Fishermen take tourists through the swamps to look for gators. Trouble is, Cajun French is an endangered language; it might not last another generation. Evangeline Parish is among the poorest counties in the U.S. There's work in sugar cane fields, rice and crawfish farms. Not much else.

And there's more trouble still. There's another, hidden world within Acadiana, a shadow in the shadows: the blacks and the Creoles. They're in the margins of Cajun society just like the Cajuns are in the margins of ours. We've only glimpsed a few here and there: at the Purple Peacock, in the kitchen at Johnson's. Cissy tells us there's a party at the Assumption Catholic Church in Basile and the great zydeco musician Geno Delafose is playing. Geno is a Creole, a man of mixed African, Indian and French descent. We resolve to go, though Cissy is apprehensive. She's not sure we'll be welcome.

The church and its adjoining hall are small, twin whitewashed structures on a barren stretch of Glasper Street. We pull into the dirt lot and park among a dozen or so cars. Cissy says wait here. She wants to check it out, make sure it's OK for the white boys to come in. A couple minutes later she comes back out and nods. We get out and walk up to the door.

Inside the hall Geno and his band are in midsong: it's a French tune, not unlike what the Cajuns would play, but it's louder and it rocks harder; there's electric bass, drums, someone scraping a mad syncopation on a metal rubboard hanging from his shoulders. There are maybe fifty people in the room, a mix of blacks and lighter-skinned Creoles. Many are dancing, others are sitting, drinking beer. Matriarchs sit along the wall, behind tables covered with foil trays of food.

People notice us, sure. Many heads are turned in our direction. But the expressions are surprised, intrigued – not hostile. I haven't taken seven steps inside the door when a man walks up to me and extends his hand. I shake it and he looks me in the eye.

"I just wanted to welcome you here and tell you how happy I am that you came," he says.

We dance and drink for hours. We meet a man named Calvin Thomas, who invites us to his house for a crawfish boil. We talk to the Cesar brothers. They fish by hand. They tell us about their brother who rides the giant alligator gar. One day he rode one till it burrowed into the sand at the bottom of the swamp. The Cesars invite us to their annual family catfish fry.

We leave drunk and elated, babbling, delirious. But about a mile down the road I realize I forgot my coat. We turn around. When I walk back into the hall it's mostly empty now; the band's gone and a few people are cleaning up. Three men are holding my coat in the middle of room, stretching out its arms and inspecting it quizzically, like an object from an alien civilization. I claim it contritely. There are smiles and nods as one of them hands it to me. I thank him, shake his hand, and tell him what a great time I had.

"Y'all come back again!" he says.

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