I’m always late to the party…
Today is Tuesday, May 14, and I am ensconced in the airport Motel 6 in Monroe, Louisiana for a second night and possibly until Friday morning. I haven’t figured out why yet, but the air here smells particularly unappetizing. Nothing has smelled right since somewhere past Lafayette Sunday evening, not long after I left New Orleans, and now three distinct regions of Louisiana bring a certain olfactory expectation with them according to their cuisine. The Creole cooking of New Orleans I associate with subtle spice and night blooming jasmine, the Cajun cooking I’ve yet to try in the central/southern part of the state I already associate with the bayou air of the Atchafalaya Basin, while the barbecue of the western and northern ridges redoles of overpopulous refineries and freshly dead livestock.
I didn’t notice the drop in appetite until today when I went to a Chinese buffet against my better judgment. Some Asian buffets in Louisiana excel. There’s one in particular I like in Hammond, when I’m there. Any Chinese restaurant bearing the Englished-over name of Peking rather than its phonetically more Chinese rendering of Beijing is bound to disappoint but, tired of breathing the air outside, I relented and went inside. I ate for protein and vitamins, but even the sushi and salad seemed distressed, the cucumbers tasting like they had lived very unhappy, water-starved, little lives.
You’re probably wondering what the hell I’m doing in Monroe, Louisiana working out of the cab and choking down sad cucumbers. It’s a good question, a fair question — after all, just a little over two weeks ago, the Kickstarter for Sonuvabitch ended and we didn’t make our goal. I’ve been quiet on the social media since. Many have ascribed emotions to me that I haven’t felt. Mainly, I’ve just been working. The good news: Of the backers I’ve been able to talk to, all but two have renewed their pledges so that we may shoot this fall. The better news: I’m one of the drivers working on the other side of the state out of motel rooms and, if the work lasts long enough, I should be able to finance the remainder of the film. I’ve asked cast and crew to work without pay. For the most part, I’m not receiving much resistance. Right now, it’s good to have a break from the madness of trying to make and finance a film. Breaks can be invigorating, as can changes of scenery and routine. The last three days have provided a lot of scenery and are not yet routine.
Those closest to me in the last year know how I’ve grown to almost despise the cabbying life. It takes too much energy and time away from the writing and filming life. It requires too much of my attention — any — and often for little recompense. In times of feast, a driver has to lay plenty by for the famine, which often stretches from just after jazz fest until Halloween or later. It is a 70-75 hour week just to get by even in fair times and there have been far too many weeks where I was ready to split and the only reason I didn’t was because of the archetypal mystique of cabbying and its meager rewards. People think it’s cool. They want to know more.
What a sorry crutch for any writer or creator to nurse, and I haven’t even nursed it well. My cabbying days are numbered, have no doubt.
But the numbers haven’t come to an end just yet.
As with everything in life, nothing’s worth doing if it isn’t worth writing about. This new state-wide view from my steering wheel has pumped fresh blood to my brain and writing arm alike. This is Day Three of my new adventure and already I know more about this place in which I have lived for three years. I’ve driven through towns the Louisiana born and bred taxi company manager hasn’t even heard of.
I’ve seen a few things. I won’t surround your senses with Cajun country just yet. I haven’t seen enough of it and there’s too much I don’t know. But the insulating borders of the state intrigue me.
Some say that the western and northernmost borderlands of Louisiana might as well be Texas and Texarkana, respectively. These areas have verifiable similarities in styles of living, architecture and in accents. The architecture strikes me the most. There’s no joy in much of it. It isn’t typically hardcore western frontiers that might only last a few months before a new gold rush dictates a move of business and which demands, then, a prominent place for a sign more than any other consideration. It’s mainly low ceilinged structures with posts extending across the front porch so that the inhabitants can sit on the porch and catch the breezes without the other weather intruding.
Function trumps comfort; blandness, decoration.
I have often thought in the last three years that I would have trouble after this living anywhere a person identifying as male and heterosexual might have a problem emerging day after day from a house painted pink. So the juxtaposition of houses found in New Orleans and, say, Mansfield is sharp. The construction of them may as well be a century apart.
Last week, before I began living out of motels and had to drive back to New Orleans after every increasingly tiring trip, I was making my way back from the city I’m stationed outside of now, via US 61 south, when I saw a billboard telling me to stop at the plantation home of President Jefferson Davis. My memory has been failing a lot lately and so the only thought that really ran through my mind was that if there was a president I couldn’t recall, then it must be my duty as a lover of history to stop and refresh my memory. I needed a stretch anyway. I got to a pair of pillars off a state highway and read the following sign:
Please do not drive through the lane unless you plan to tour the house. It causes damage to the road. Thank you.
I shrug and continue down the lane. Of course I’ll take the tour.
After I park and go into the lobby of a converted outer building, I am greeted by a woman with a Texas accent I can’t quite place and am distracted during our entire conversation by the conversation between a man to my left and the couple with whom he is talking. The woman, the docent, tells me that the couple is from Maine — a man from Connecticut and a woman from Boothbay — and yet the man with whom they are speaking is prattling on about how he doesn’t understand how America could have “given it all away” in reparations. The couple is being polite in the New England sense — which is to say that they are listening to what he has to say without replying. I get a mild sense of vertigo as the docent takes ten dollars from me and directs me toward a gazebo-like structure to listen to a full ten minutes of audio touting what a good man Jefferson Davis was.
That’s Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy of the United States. Oh yes, it’s all coming back to me now…
I sit and listen to the audio which insists that Davis didn’t want to secede from the Union, but rather wanted states’ rights and state sovereignty. I actually don’t care about this. I believe in states’ rights as well, as long as we can all agree that human life is sacred. The bit about how the northern states used slavery as an emotional and political issue, though, leaves me a little cold. I’ve read the Civil War era letters insisting that Lincoln was a puppet being used against the South. I have no time for such speculation. The only thing that should matter is that an imbalance was corrected that had nothing to do with money or land or the price of cotton.
The rest of the tour is easier to take. It involves the plantation’s original architecture and heirlooms and graves and I even get to sit on the back verandah and listen to some audio that is supposed to be the voice of Jane Davis, Jefferson’s mother. I sniffed the pollen laden breezes and watched the lizards leap on her prize roses.
Sometimes New Orleans makes it easy to forget where I am. The day I left was Mother’s Day and there was a shooting at the parade. Many Louisianans fear and despise New Orleans and its drunkenness, violence, and excess. I see the looks on their faces when they realize a New Orleans cab driver has crossed their paths. They often cannot look away, wondering what on earth could have brought a cab so many miles away from all the very busy, important people who have to get to their hotels, restaurants, and bars. What could there possibly be here for someone who would prefer all that to God’s country?
Yet, when I drive through the town of Bastrop, Louisiana at 3:30 am — an eleven thousand person establishment whose city page lauds it as ‘a place where business is done by a handshake, where folks still wave to one another and say “how are you?” and where newcomers are welcomed with open arms’ — the only gas station open has a night box where newcomers and town folks alike stand in line to pay for gas.
I’ll take the dangerous place with less fear on pump one, please. Fill ‘er up.
Jo Custer is a New Orleans writer/director/producer and cab driver who has recently discovered the simple joy of a frozen strawberry daiquiri in a motel room with nothing to do but hit “publish.”