Escape Velocity: An Overture
Books come from somewhere. I don’t mean from printing presses or even those inscrutable weapons of mass distraction we call computers. The words themselves are no more the origin of books than are the word processors we authors use to commit them to the page. Books come from somewhere, and I believe authors–at least the good ones–usually are able to tell you that somewhere, the nexus in the unconscious mind, that inscrutable region of grey matter and energy where our font of experience meets the well house of knowledge to form and inform and mold what we think into who we are.
This collection of essays began growing unconsciously in that moment on I-20 when I turned around and headed east, and hundreds more moments just like it. This collection represents a few of the instances in which the gravitational pull of my home town exacts its strongest attraction. Over the last four decades or so, I’ve spent the vast majority of my days, weeks, and years in northeastern Louisiana, specifically in Monroe, a tiny city that has somehow managed to insinuate itself into the fabric of Americana so much that, virtually everywhere I’ve ever traveled, I’ve either met someone from Monroe, talked to people who have visited Monroe, or know people who live in Monroe. So wide and deep does this Monroe thread run through American culture songs have been written about the town. Gatemouth Brown’s “Monroe, Louisiana” pays homage to the city’s tendency to consume vast quantities of Miller and Bud, for example. There are others, too, and the city frequently crops up in references from country and rock musicians–and in more than a few Broadway plays.
Monrovians, and that’s the appropriate demonym, tend to assemble themselves into support groups in their adopted homelands. Like any other diaspora, we gather in coffee shops in Nashville and restaurants in Jackson, and we talk about the old days “back home,” and we reminisce about that time at the theatre when…and that day in Kiroli that…the kinds of stories where we can laugh and again feel connected to something we’ve left behind. Underneath these conversations is the fear, always unstated, tacitly acknowledged, that we might one day find ourselves victim of the yo-yo affect. Almost without fail, each of us has attempted to depart Monroe before only to return. The region’s gravity is always at work.
With a bit of distance, both spatial and temporal, between myself and my homeland, it’s easy to see what draws all of us back home time and again. Scarcely a day goes by when I don’t bitch about the food in Nashville–or the lack of it. Since moving here, I’ve gained about twenty pounds, but not from overeating. Instead, the soft midsection is due to a replacement of good food with those go-to staples of pizza and burgers. I’ve made friends, and good ones, among former clients, coworkers, and my poker buddies, the kind of friends who will always be friends and who will people the rest of my years. Yet, even in these friendships we lack the shorthand, the understandings that come with decades of shared culture. We know what a roux is and understand why it’s almost always appropriate to spell words ending in a long-“O” sound with “-eaux,” as in Geaux Saints, Geaux Tigers, or Geaux Rebels. We abhor the practice of slavery, yet we revel in the beauty of hoop skirts framed beneath oak alleys.
This collection of stories comes from that shared culture, from the mysterious, alluring place of bayous and voodoo, of Mardi Gras and rosaries, that has gripped the American consciousness for the past decade or so. Before we proceed, though, we should take a minute to peel back the veil and explain a few things. Consider this a primer on Louisiana, one that I’m pretty sure everyone in the state will agree is accurate, if incomplete.
A List of Facts
No matter where you are from, Louisiana’s food is better than your food. We aren’t being haughty about it. We’re just stating facts. So there’s no need to get offended. New York has really great food, yes. It has haute cuisine in French restaurants and some of the best pot stickers on the planet in Chinatown. Memphis has barbecue. But guess what? We have all those things in Louisiana, and we have crawfish and étouffée and gumbo, too. Jambalaya? Hell, Hank Senior (and we refer to him that way) wrote a song about the meaty, tomatoed rice. It’s nothing personal. We just like flavor, and our food has more of it than yours. This is true of everywhere with, perhaps, the exception of Italy. That being said, we have Geno’s in Monroe, Irene’s in New Orleans, and Johnny’s Pizza pretty much everywhere else. So make of that what you will.
Speaking of Hank Senior, our music is better than yours, too. Yes, Hank was from Alabama, but his daughter-in-law’s people were from Oak Ridge and he hit the height of his fame at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, connections close enough for us to claim him as our own. Chalk up Elvis’s fame to the Hayride, too. Jazz found its legs in New Orleans. Gospel grew up from the same dirt as cotton on the plantations of the Delta Parishes. And we believe rock music was born here, too, in 1947, when Roy Brown recorded “Good Rocking Tonight” for the Braun brothers in New Orleans — a full two years before Sam Phillips laid the track down at Sun Records in Memphis. Look it up.
Louisiana only has two seasons. There is Summer, a hot, wet period that runs from about mid-February until just before Thanksgiving; and there’s Not Summer, the coolish wet period between. We use words like “spring” and “fall” and “winter,” but almost always to indicate a time of year rather than a meteorological phenomenon. “When I went swimming with your brother last winter,” one might say. Yes, swimming. In winter. Maybe it was hot, or maybe we were at the Holidome. You’ll never know, but if you’re from Louisiana, you won’t think to question it.
We believe in Relativity and ghosts, at the same time. We hold these beliefs absolutely, and we probably can explain neither.
We all know a priest, a preacher, and a witch–and we know what times each is useful to know.
Hillary Clinton once wrote, “It takes a village to raise a child.” That village is in Louisiana, where ‘Mom’ becomes an amorphous name for any woman of a certain age with the authority and desire to guide a herd of teens along the narrow path to adulthood. Discipline is also metted out village style, and in Louisiana the notion of discipline runs from a stern look, a terse word, or a fly swatter wielded a flourish worthy of Errol Flynn. For what it’s worth, throughout this book, “Mom” is used interchangeably–and often without any indication of the titleholder in question–for my mother, Donna Smith Johnson, Tina McPike, and Robin Frazier–all of whom are, to me, part of that globular parental emanation of Mom, and all of whom have loved and helped raise me like I was their own. Unless it’s necessary to explain for separation-of-character purposes, you probably won’t know which Mom is being addressed or doing the addressing, and you should probably get over that right now.
Speaking of discipline, we believe in it and we believe in it almost universally. “Spanking” is just one of the many selections from the Discipline Menu that parents can select, pairing their choice with whichever sin precipitated it much like a diner at French Laundry selects wine. For the record, spanking pairs quite well with serious infractions, such as lying to authority figures–parents, teachers, preachers, anything over the age of 16. More serious infractions, including but not limited to recalcitrant protests of the social order or moments of open defiance, might draw the infamous backhand. As such, backhanding is rare and many Louisiana children avoid this punishment all together, though all have heard of tell it. For moments of brief noncompliance, such as backtalk or being a smart alec, there is switching or flyswattering. Always delivered rapidly, and usually at the hand of an elder of the Adult Tribe, this punishment is used when the parental figure has lost their temper at a persistent child who is pushing them to the point of losing control. Both switching and flyswattering are universally applied in a manner that encourages the child to flee in the direction of a door, lest the child witness a conniption, and that flight is almost universally towards a door outside.
Outside is where the children belong. Inside is where they come for breakfast, dinner, homework, and sleep. Unless a child is bleeding to the point of requiring a sink, chances are they’ll stay outside until they begin to cross the threshold into adolescence, when grown up privileges are trickled down in small doses until, at last, the child becomes a “grown up” and can endure grown up responsibilities.
Your state has one Holy Trinity, but ours has three. And we know when it’s appropriate to worship each. They are:
- Holy Trinity the First
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit
Appropriate for churches, weddings, funerals, prayer time, and as a conscience and guide to moments when your best friend begins a statement, “How awesome would it be to…,” which happens far more often than one might think.
- Holy Trinity the Second
Celery, Onion, and Bell Pepper
The basis for all foods creole, Cajun, Louisiana, Southern, and pretty much anything else you can think of to eat. We even use it in pies, if the people in Natchitoches have anything to say about it. And that’s pronounced Nack-O-Dish, not Natch-ih-toe-chess, so get it right.
- Holy Trinity the Third
High School Football, LSU Football, and Saints Football
Until you have kids who are in the 9th Grade, high school football means your high school, from where you graduated or at least should have. It is appropriately worshiped on Friday nights, often times with praise for or appeal to Holy Trinity the First, depending on how your team’s fairing. Saturday, there is college football, and then there’s LSU Football. If college football is kind of like the hymn we sing before the preacher’s sermon, LSU Football is the moment in the service where the preacher invites the sinners to the alter to repent their wicked ways. And like that repentance, for some, it is a bitter pill to swallow. We aren’t all Tigers fans, but we certainly pray at that alter. Sundays are reserved for worshipping God and then the New Orleans Saints. It’s easy to separate the two because worship of the Saints sometimes requires a paper bag with eye holes cut out.
We don’t talk funny. We talk the way we’re supposed to. Do what everyone else in the world does when “culture” becomes strange: blame the French. Though we’ve covered Natchitoches, we need to talk about New Orleans — New Or-Leans, not N’walins, in spite of what you see on CSI: New Orleans. Monroe is pronounced “Mun-roe,” not “Mohn-roe,” and the emphasis is placed on the first syllable unless it comes at the end of the sentence. “I am from mun-ROE,” and “MUN-roe is a beer drinking town.” Shreveport is kind of like Worchestershire, in that we call it “Shree-port.” If you’re south of I-10, Cheniere is “Shin-eer,” but north of there, it rhymes with “skinny,” as in “shinny.” We understand the difference between Plaquemine and Plaquemines–one is a parish, the other a city–without having to have it explained to us. We can name the streets of the French Quarter faster than a geographer can label a map of the states, and if you want to know how to pronounce Poydras, Esplanade, or Faubourg Marigny, there are videos on YouTube. A helpful tip: if you are planning a trip to New Orleans, watch the videos or people from there will make fun of you after you leave. You won’t know it, but it’ll be brutal and funny nevertheless.
Louisiana’s laws aren’t like your laws. Our laws aren’t based on the Common Law. They are drawn from Napoleonic Code. This curiosity probably won’t matter much to you until you find yourself in court for a speeding ticket, try buying a house, or get married or divorced. Then, in that moment, you’ll understand the difference, or at least wish you did.
Louisiana’s politics aren’t like your politics. That’s partially due to the aforementioned Napoleonic Code, but it has more to do with the period of time Louisiana was part of Spain. Hands down, the governor of Louisiana is the most powerful governor from all of the fifty states, and our governor enjoys a level of power, authority, and control that few dictators achieve and most presidents only dream of. Likewise, the mayors of our cities, towns, and villages enjoy similar powers within their domains. This might help explain why we once voted for “the crook” over the “grand wizard.” Sure, you guys have crooked politicians in California and Virginia, and you’re right to complain about them. But unlike your state, we simply accept our politicians are thieves. We just ask them to have the decency to not get caught.
Swamps, bayous, creeks, and river bottoms are not the same thing. A swamp is shallo, standing water with trees. A bayou, which might cut through a swamp, flows, albeit very slowly. Creeks flow through dry land, and river bottoms are sometimes dry, sometimes wet, and almost always where the best deer hunting is found.
There is only one coffee. That’s Community Coffee. Everything else, from Starbucks to Gevalia, is just trying to be snooty. Unless we’re talking about Folgers, which is what you use when you’re out of coffee.
There are other facts, I’m sure, that I’m leaving out about my beloved homeland. And I hope you’re not too offended that Louisiana is such a great place to be from. We’re sure your home is just as amazing and awesome as ours, but we’re not from there, after all. We’re from Louisiana, where politics isn’t a system of beliefs, it’s a way of life; where notions of God and Jesus are engrained into our consciences whether we’re Christians or not; and where the best chefs don’t avoid burning the flour, they start there. We don’t expect you to understand it, and we would frankly be surprised if you do. In fact, there are times where we don’t get it our own selves. And yes, that’s the way you’re supposed to say that.