January 18, 2018

A Cajun Christmas Carol

CHRISTMAS 2016

Early on Christmas morning I stand beside Mother’s grave in the Greenwood Cemetery of Jennings, Louisiana. It is the first Christmas a headstone marks her burial; the epitaph reads Beautiful Mother. She rests next to her mother Fay who died in 1977 and her grandmother Elizabeth who died on Christmas Day, 1949. It is only 7:30 but the temperature is already 73°. A muggy breeze rustles the oak boughs and migrating geese call soulfully overhead. As I slap a mosquito from my neck and wipe a tear from my eye I get into the car and head to the I-10 junction which is only a quarter mile from Greenwood’s gate.

Early on Christmas morning I stand beside Mother’s grave in the Greenwood Cemetery of Jennings.

Early on Christmas morning I stand beside Mother’s grave in the Greenwood Cemetery of Jennings.

The interstate is practically deserted—the few travelers have Christmas packages piled in their backseats, on their way to celebrate with family and friends. As for my own family Christmas, we met early at my father’s home in Jennings—a decision predicated upon the fact that it was the only time allowing the whole family to gather. The last occasion we were together was Mother’s funeral.

The grandchildren decorated the Christmas tree while my sister, brother, and I prepared side dishes: garlic grits, yams, and salad. I even juiced grapefruits for cocktails. And while Dad’s turkey baked we sat around the living room exchanging gifts. My nephews got high powered cell phone compatible drones and a gun or two; my sister received a Louis Vuitton wallet and a silk scarf; my brother got Yeti coolers and jewelry; my father got a cedar walking stick and a sound bar for his big screen TV; and my loot consisted of a French cuff shirt, a taser gun disguised as a flashlight, and courtesy of my sister and brother-in-law a reservation at The Saint Hotel in New Orleans. It was a moment of family togetherness and good quality loot for all.

It was a moment of family togetherness and good quality loot for all.

It was a moment of family togetherness and good quality loot for all.

Now that the festivities concluded we are once again spread across the miles; I am headed to New Orleans.

***

We are all familiar with A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. A 19th Century novella, it tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge. After declaring his infamous “humbug” on Christmas Eve, Scrooge has a visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Past who transports him to his youth, a visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Present who takes him to a joyous marketplace, and a visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come who shows Scrooge the death of a disliked man. On Christmas morning Scrooge awakens with joy in his heart and sends gifts and food to his employee’s family.

I have my own Christmas humbug—Christmas begins too early every year! Commercialism began about 100 years ago with department stores hosting events such as caroling, live mangers, or Santa’s village, the goal to entice shoppers with their expressions of Christianity. But stores now start Christmas the week before Halloween.

My nephews got high powered cell phone compatible drones and a gun or two; my brother got Yeti coolers and jewelry.

My nephews got high powered cell phone compatible drones and a gun or two; my brother got Yeti coolers and jewelry.

A trillion dollars was spent in the United States in the month of December, making Christmas the most profitable time of year for retailers. Eager for a bigger share of the bucks and realizing the power of children as consumers, the onset of Santa and tinsel in October starts children hounding for presents. As children we are not aware of the rampant commercialism because we are not interested, we are innocent. When I was little, The Peanuts even denounced commercialism in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Lucy van Pelt decries, “Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket.” That originally aired in 1965.

I am no longer sure that Christmas is about giving and receiving as much as it is about buying and selling. I call it prostituting baby Jesus.

Sales and spending have always been a component of modern Christmas, as has lamenting the loss of wonderful white Christmases past. The shop-‘til-you drop phenomenon and media frenzy is nauseating. The lives of Americans have become so vapid that they have nothing better to do than line up at Walmart on Thanksgiving Day for Door-Buster specials causing thousands of hard working employees to break away from family and forfeit an important, traditional day off.

My humbug extends to the suits who have systematically and unapologetically sucked the virtue out of the holidays. The company that employs me requires that we play Christmas music morning, noon, and night, from before Thanksgiving to Christmas in an unrelenting Muzak loop.  Instead of enjoying a magical season, it makes us sick of Christmas. Every child’s favorite holiday has been reduced to music loops and mall tramplings.

I was eager for a respite to the state where I born and raised. But in this Cajun Christmas Carol we do not find Ebenezer Boudreaux decrying (instead of bah humbug) “Mais mudbug!”; and he is not visited by the crawfish of Noel past, the Choupique of Noel Present, nor the alligator of Noel Future. Instead, I chronicle thoughts and events in an autobiographical essay about Christmas.

The Past

As I traverse the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, the world’s tenth-longest bridge connecting Louisiana’s plantation country to the Cajun prairie, allowing travelers to bypass the largest swamp in the United States, the hazy shade of winter begins to burn from the sky revealing the feathery auburn foliage of umber trees mirrored on the still dark water. I cannot help but marvel at the swamp’s vast and serene majesty. But I also know that masked in nature’s splendor is a harsh and dangerous world. Everything in the swamp wants to kill you. And I cannot help but wonder what it was like for early settlers, surviving in such a brutal environment.

My own lineage has been traced through many family lines to Europe, all bloodlines firmly rooted on American soil for centuries. My ancestry is the story of the Boutte and Gonsoulin families, the Mallett family, the Pharr family, but most importantly the Broussard family. And there are other names found on the branches of the family tree: Blanchard, Thibodeaux, Doucet, Bourgeois, Gilbert, Gall, Savoie, Richard, etc. Jean Francois Broussard found his way from France in 1671, settling in the Acadia region of Canada.

Augustin Broussard, one of Beausoleil’s many sons, signed the contract with Antoine Bernard D’Autrive in New Orleans...("Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil in Acadia" by Herb Roe via Wikimedia Commons.)

Augustin Broussard, one of Beausoleil’s many sons, signed the contract with Antoine Bernard D’Autrive in New Orleans…(“Joseph Broussard dit Beausoleil in Acadia” by Herb Roe via Wikimedia Commons.)

The Cajuns are a distinct ethnic group in Louisiana who are descendants of the Acadian exiles of the 18th Century. From early in the 17th Century, Louisiana had already been settled by French colonists. But the Acadian settlers were forced from their homeland during hostilities between the French and British in what is called the Great Expulsion or Le Grand Dérangement. The British took control of French Acadia in 1710 but spent the next 45 years forcing the Acadians to either sign an oath of allegiance or be exiled. Joseph Broussard, known as Beausoleil, is widely known as the most prominent leader of the resistance.

The Acadians were scattered far and wide; families were intentionally split up; people were murdered; children were sold into slavery; refugees were given pox infected blankets.  The Great Expulsion was nothing short of genocide. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow immortalized the upheaval in his epic poem Evangeline.

Eight Broussard men were part of an envoy who negotiated with Spanish governor Bernardo de Galvez for land grants as a permanent settlement. And in 1765 great-grandfather many times over Augustin Broussard, one of Beausoleil’s many sons, signed the contract with Antoine Bernard D’Autrive in New Orleans to lead families into the Attakapas District, a region west of the Atchafalaya and east of the Mermentau River. The Acadian pioneers could continue to speak their native language and practice Catholicism without interference.

I envision the Acadian settlers, arriving into an unfamiliar location full of mosquitoes and strange animals, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and what could be carried in a bag. Their path to settlement was not paved by rules and regulations but rather by grit, and by life and death. Those early Christmases must have been cold and lean with only their faith and willpower as guides.  Christmas was not only the purest commemoration of the birth of Christ but a celebration of survival and togetherness.

Papa Noel, or Pere Noel, was the traditional bringer of Christmas for the French—not dissimilar to Santa Clause. On Christmas Eve children left shoes by the fireplace filled with carrots for Papa Noel’s donkey Gui; the offerings were exchanged with small gifts. In colonial Louisiana, bonfires illuminated levees, some say to guide Papa Noel’s path. Papa Noel has now been corrupted by merchants of New Orleans to discount hotel packages 25%. Additionally, Papa Noel’s legend has been contrived as a Cajun Claus with alligators pulling his pirogue—a typecast as intellectually stymied as a pickaninny with a watermelon. Humbug on these kinds of bastardizations, using the most predictable of stereotypes to profit from Christmas.

It was like driving through an Alexander John Drysdale tableau vivant. (Alexander John Drysdale, Stephenson’s Auctioneers, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

It was like driving through an Alexander John Drysdale tableau vivant. (Alexander John Drysdale, Stephenson’s Auctioneers, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Most regions of the United States celebrate original land grant families. But for centuries the Cajuns were dismissed as unintelligent and unsophisticated. In the 20th Century the Cajuns made advances to assimilate into American society without abandoning their own traditions and history. It is only in recent decades that their value to the cultural economy has been embraced. Now anyone with a Louisiana zip code wants to claim Cajun status and businesses want to profit from the unique Cajun cache’.

I wonder what ancestors two hundred years ago, Francois Cezar Boutte or Martin Louis Broussard in 1816, would have thought about such advances in our culture, as well as to see their progeny flying over a swamp freeway in a sixty mile an hour horseless carriage.

***

Through our line, I am the ninth generation of Broussard born on Louisiana soil–14th generation born in North America. Though no spring chicken, I am an aspiring author; and I am a designer by trade. I have an appreciation for Louisiana, but I live in Texas.

Excluding petro-chemical fields or medical, banking, and law, it is almost impossible to find lucrative employment in Louisiana. Louisianans, especially Cajuns, seem to be ill at ease monetizing the arts. A job is supposed to be sweaty, back-breaking labor; anything else is folly.

Not surprisingly, Louisiana has one of the worst track records for keeping college graduates and creative individuals. In a study commissioned by the state, between the years of 1980 and 2010, 600,000 people (which includes me, my sister, and my brother-in-law) left the state to work elsewhere in what is known as Louisiana’s brain drain—I can only think of one friend from college who resides in the state.

Operation Recall was instituted in 2013 to entice people in computer science, technology, and engineering to return home. But such initiatives are met with skepticism.

Known briefly as Hollywood South, Louisiana built a successful and growing film industry but last year abruptly pulled the plug in its infancy with the mindset, “With so many hurting from the oil industry, why give incentives to the arts?” Diversifying the economy with a creative industry took root but the tax credits to safeguard development were deemed folly. Another casualty of losing the movie business is tourism; every movie shot in Louisiana is essentially a two hour commercial which feeds the cultural economy: hotels, restaurants, stores, museums; the cultural economy in Louisiana is as valuable as oil.

***

New Orleans is so close I feel it. As I near the Bonnet Carré Spillway I enter a shroud of fog so thick that visibility is dangerous—and I do not want to kill anyone or die on Christmas. The taillights of fellow motorists are visible as are the silhouettes of trees lining the roadway, their vibrant detail obscured by the fog’s eerie embrace—it was like driving through an Alexander John Drysdale tableau vivant. A sign indicates 19 miles to New Orleans.

One memorable year I reserved a table at Commander’s Palace and, as favors, made luxurious little birthday hats out of silk and mink and semi-precious stones and gilt ornaments.

One memorable year I reserved a table at Commander’s Palace and, as favors, made luxurious little birthday hats out of silk and mink and semi-precious stones and gilt ornaments.

It is not unusual for me to spend Christmas in New Orleans. For years it was a tradition that included my friend Barry—best friends since adolescence. His birthday is the day after Christmas so every year he and I would celebrate at a fancy restaurant. One memorable year I reserved a table at Commander’s Palace and, as favors, made luxurious little birthday hats out of silk and mink and semi-precious stones and gilt ornaments. Miss Ella Brennen was at the next table with a food writer from the Times Picayune. We let them wear hats and our soirée got a blurb on the society page. I invited Barry to join me on this trip but he has his own family now; I make this pilgrimage alone.

New Orleans is one of the great cities, a hybrid of European and new world cultures. Settled on the natural high levees on the Mississippi River in 1718, La Nouvelle Orleans was named for the Philippe II, Duke of Orleans, Regent for Louis XV from 1715 to 1723. The city’s cross-cultural heritage is known world-wide for food, jazz, Voodoo, Bourbon Street, and Mardi Gras.

Mother was born in New Orleans but raised in Jennings. The grave next to her holds her adopted mother; she was adopted in infancy. After her parents died she tried to locate her biological family, but whether through private investigators or personal research she found dead ends. So she always felt a close bond to the Crescent City. I think she considered New Orleans an ersatz birth mother.

Once when I was with her on a research trip we were walking through the French Quarter and were approached by a tall black man with beads and a colorful shirt. He introduced himself as the Chicken Man and he asked for whom she was searching. From that moment they became friends and she sought his council. The Chicken Man was not only the Voodoo King of New Orleans but High Priest of Haiti. His real name was Fred Staten and he was also known as Prince Ke’eyama. He would often tell her to stop by his shop, that he had a special idol for her; she would pay him a few hundred dollars and take home painted wooden sculptures of various sizes, usually punctuated with nails. They might have been talismans meant for protection but she also considered them art.

At some point in our relationship, the Chicken Man told me that I have three guardian spirits, one who is very powerful and protective and two are more submissive to the stronger—he said that they have been with me always. He also said that the spirits in New Orleans love to entertain them so that I have multiple spirits surrounding me in the city.

I last saw the Chicken Man on Christmas night 1997. It was late in the evening and Barry and I were strolling through the Quarter. From within a darkened alley I heard a man’s voice calling out, “Broussard!” There was the Chicken Man wearing a fur coat, a cowboy hat laden with charms, beads, and he held a high staff topped by a skull. He introduced his protégé and made me a Gris-gris bag, a talisman to carry in my pocket.

The Chicken Man died in 1998 but it is said that his ghost is seen around the French Quarter. Some followers believe that the Chicken Man is not only capable of returning in spirit form but does so on a regular basis, searching out those in need like he had done for Mother so many years prior.

It sounds crazy but it is part of the Louisiana experience.

The French Quarter has yielded several unusual and meaningful relationships—no matter how temporary. During a Christmas holiday in the 1990s I found myself spellbound in front of St. Louis Cathedral as I gazed upon expressive, vibrant, and emotional artwork.  Atypical of work found in Jackson Square, I thought that this work was as raw and guttural as Vincent van Gogh’s must have looked in its day. I stood there for a while but the artist was nowhere in sight.

After fifteen minutes an energetic guy, my age, in paint spattered clothes came sprinting up. His name was David. We spent an hour talking about art, especially about our mutual love for Vincent van Gogh; we had much in common and he eventually asked if I would like a portrait. I met him the next day for the sitting.

David is super Christian, even overzealous. ("Jesus Free Me" by David Baum, courtesy of Malcolm Allred.)

David is super Christian, even overzealous. (“Jesus Free Me” by David Baum, courtesy of Malcolm Allred.)

David was a step away from homeless at the time; I figured that he was living the life of a starving artist—something I never had the courage to do.   We became friends and we would get together on regular visits to the Big Easy. I would dress him up in my nice clothes—we wore the same size—and we would talk for hours over dinner. He was reluctant to join me at my usual restaurants so I toned it down a skosh; but no matter where we went, he always ordered the cheeseburger. In the interim he would write long and detailed letters with tiny little print about his life, his art, and his religious beliefs. David is super Christian, even overzealous.  He has struggled with his art because he believes that his talent is God-given and that he should not glorify himself through it. He has even debated whether to sign his paintings.  But I always insisted that he must sign his work, that God wants him to claim it.

I loved his honesty and inexhaustible passion for painting. But given that we got along so well, I completely overlooked his situation, likening him to the tormented soul of a modern day van Gogh.  Besides, he was far too handsome too be a homeless person in my world.

The last time I saw David was after an epic night out with Barry. Late in the evening we ended up at the Bombay Club on the Rue Conti. Manhattans flowed like the Mississippi River. David wore one of my favorite blue blazers and at some point the club owner opened a display case and allowed David to parade around in one of Napoleon’s hats. He cut a dashing figure marching up and down the aisles of the club like he was invading Eastern Europe. When the night came to an end David agreed to meet the next afternoon to show his artwork to a patron whom, on my recommendation, was excited to see and buy.

Perhaps the over-the-top alcohol fueled party awoke David’s own dormant spirits, perhaps demons. (Lake Scene by David Baum, image courtesy of Michelle Long.)

Perhaps the over-the-top alcohol fueled party awoke David’s own dormant spirits, perhaps demons. (Lake Scene by David Baum, image courtesy of Michelle Long.)

I appeared at the arranged rendezvous point, along with my entourage and art patron, but the artist did not. And there was never another letter. I jokingly accused Barry of selling him into bondage to cover our exorbitant tab. But perhaps the over-the-top alcohol fueled party awoke David’s own dormant spirits, perhaps demons, that should have remained dormant.

A few years ago I found his work online, represented by a gallery in Mississippi. At that time I had an art studio with a bed and bathroom and the power to show his paintings through my job and connections. But after multiple attempts the gallery was uninterested to help me, and in a sense to help David. At least I was reassured that he was not mummified in the bowels of the Prince Conti Hotel. But not a visit to New Orleans goes by without searching for him–a Capricorn will never give up on anyone import to them. And no matter where I travel I hope that I to run into him as I scan the streets for a transient in paint stained clothing.

The Present

Every hotel room in New Orleans has been fucked in, drugged in, eaten in, drunk in, puked in, and generally well used and abused.

Every hotel room in New Orleans has been fucked in, drugged in, eaten in, drunk in, puked in, and generally well used and abused.

The Saint Hotel is the new jewel in the Autograph Collection. Instead of walking into a typical lobby with brightly lit spaces defined by glass, walls, columns, and doors it is like walking into a nightclub with dim lighting and spaces delineated by curtains that disappear into the darkness overhead. Their motto is Play Naughty; Sleep Saintly which I accepted as a plan of action. My room is fresh and bright, but I am under no disillusion, as posh as it is I know that every hotel room in New Orleans has been fucked in, drugged in, eaten in, drunk in, puked in, and generally well used and abused. Besides, I am anxious to tread the centuries old cobblestones of the Vieux Carré.

I am wearing a green sport jacket, blue jeans, my favorite brogues (sockless), big Gucci sunglasses, and an LSU cap. I feel the need to be incognito, and with the cap and glasses I am unrecognizable—except to the spirits. On the tweed lapel I wear my Mam-maw Broussard’s jeweled Christmas pin.

The Saint Hotel is the new jewel in the Autograph Collection.

The Saint Hotel is the new jewel in the Autograph Collection.

In the French Quarter even the atmosphere has texture, the air is kinetic, and the buildings pulsate with energy. It is mind boggling that some structures date before the Louisiana Purchase and that beyond each edifice exists centuries of merriment, love, drama, heartache, despair, and history. I peer into a bar at the very moment a drunk and disheveled Santa falls off a barstool, reaching unsteadily for the floor to catch his fall.  What perfect timing.

Before stopping for food or even a Christmas morning cocktail I walk through Jackson Square on the chance of finding David. Known centuries ago as the military parade ground Place d’Armes, Jackson Square is ground zero for street artists. But the square is deserted. I have little hope, given his religious convictions, that he is hawking wares on such a sacred day even if he is in New Orleans. But it is worth a try.

Desire Oyster Bar is a tourists’ eatery on Bourbon Street. I slow and peer beyond the low awnings into the elegant dining room and recall Christmas Eve during the historic freeze of 1989, as if watching the memory in holographic replay. Ruptured pipes shut down most of the Quarter; Desire was the only restaurants open. Half way through dinner there rose a panic from a table fifteen feet away—a man was choking. Good Samaritans nearest him leapt into action, throwing him to the ground, grabbing him by the legs, and ramming him up and down onto the mosaic floor. The dining room was in hysterics, the man’s wife was screaming. He was dying and his rescuers had no idea what they were doing. A manager ran from the kitchen; he pulled the man off the floor and administered the Heimlich Maneuver. After a lump of crawfish hurled from his gullet, the guy hugged his wife and regained his composure. The dining room simmered; the man and his wife resumed eating like nothing happened; but I had lost my appetite. I chuckle and recommence my hearty gait.

Hoping to find a new talisman, I look for the Chicken Man’s old VooDoo shop but it is not where I remembered it to be; so I journey onward.

Saint Ann at Bourbon Street is referred to as the Lavender Line, the symbolic demarcation between gay and straight New Orleans.

Saint Ann at Bourbon Street is referred to as the Lavender Line, the symbolic demarcation between gay and straight New Orleans.

Saint Ann at Bourbon Street is referred to as the Lavender Line, the symbolic demarcation between gay and straight New Orleans. A pair of 19th Century Creole townhouses converted into gay bars stand as sentinels to the gay district of the French Quarter, their wrought iron balconies festooned with glittered Christmas bunting. The One Way sign at the corner has two Gs added, like letters for a mailbox, changing the message from One Way to Gone Gay. The parade of straight revelers walking up Bourbon instinctively slow, get an eyeful, and usually turn back for another promenade from whence they came.

I find a stool at the Bourbon Pub next to a group of guys from Dallas with Christmas confections in front of them; they have their own Baccarat glassware the bartender uses to serve proper Old Fashioneds. My gin is served in the standard opaque Solo cup.

It has been said that it is easier in Louisiana to be black than gay. Of course this kind of glib, even racist generality is not to negate the unique experiences of African-Americans in the south. But it is rather a way of making a point, a way of emphasizing the lack of acceptance. While New Orleans is the zenith of gay culture on the Gulf Coast, acceptance outside the city is one of the lowest rates in the country. It is tremendously taboo to be gay in Louisiana, a tenet perhaps rooted in Catholic heritage. This is especially true with the Cajuns, a group who for centuries struggled for acceptance of their own. Looking back a hundred years to 1916, I wonder if Edgard Broussard or Alphonsine Boutte would have been shocked to see queers in the open, with specific clubs; such freedom must have been wholly unimaginable and surely scandalous.

***

On the tweed lapel I wear my Mam-maw Broussard’s jeweled Christmas pin.

On the tweed lapel I wear my Mam-maw Broussard’s jeweled Christmas pin.

As a single man I do not mind travelling alone—I even ventured abroad last year by myself. It works well for me, I can do what I want to do and see what I want to see on my own timeline.

After another promenade through Jackson Square there is no sign of David, nor the ghost of the Chicken Man. And as I walk I check my favorite restaurants, hoping to get a reservation for dinner. But not Antoine’s, Palace Café, Brennen’s, nor any of the others are open on Christmas Day. Rather, they were open late the night before for Reveillon, a Christmas tradition celebrated by the early Creoles as a way of ending their daylong fast leading up to midnight mass. There is a disconnection as I ponder Christmas traditions, recognizing how faraway 83°degrees and mosquitoes are from the North Pole.

***

The Roosevelt Hotel is famous for the Christmas extravaganza that encompasses its lavish lobby during December. And as I enter the gleaming brass portals I am once again overcome by the spirit of Christmas.

The Roosevelt Hotel is famous for the Christmas extravaganza that encompasses its lavish lobby during December.

The Roosevelt Hotel is famous for the Christmas extravaganza that encompasses its lavish lobby during December.

In the historic Sazerac Bar the walls are lined with African walnut and murals by Paul Ninas. The murals depict African Americans toiling in the fields and even shining shoes. I recall a controversy when a group of malcontents petitioned to have the murals removed because they are offensive. The petition got less than 100 signatures, but in a city hell-bent on the destruction of historical monuments I am surprised they survive. I order the Sazerac, expensive and exquisite, herbaceous and potent; it is the oldest American cocktail and the libation for which the bar is famous.

As for dinner at the Roosevelt, there is no room at the inn.

With drink in hand I join the Christmas horde in the lobby. The sightseers are nicely dressed, bejeweled, and many attempt selfies with the decor; I offer to snap photos which makes me popular with strangers.

***

The Burgundy Bar on Canal Street is deserted. I am the only patron seated at the sleek granite bar. With red lighting, velvet portieres, and photographs of jazz musicians, the interior is a bordello fantasy. Unlike other places, this establishment is without Christmas décor. I lose track of time; sipping Hendricks, decompressing from the whirlwind day.

I look up to admire the red chandelier when it arbitrarily pops into my head that I never hear of people named Ebenezer anymore—I wonder if A Christmas Carol ruined the name Ebenezer like The Omen ruined Damien. To think of it, I have never heard of a family named Scrooge.

A guy enters and sidles next to me, setting his phone and money clip on the black granite. We are similar of age and stature; he is light complexioned and wears a blue button down shirt, khaki pants, brown boots, and a classic fedora. He orders a drink then disappears. Peering down I see that he has abandoned his money, probably several hundred dollars, and his phone.

Both sloshed, Matthew and I develop an instantaneous bromance and pose for a photo in a giant chair.

Both sloshed, Matthew and I develop an instantaneous bromance and pose for a photo in a giant chair.

Upon his return I comment, “You can’t leave a wad of cash unattended in New Orleans.”

“Why not?”

I am speechless. But I do tend to attract eccentric characters.

He continued, “I trusted you.”

“You don’t even know me!”

He extends his hand, “I’m Matthew.”

I introduce myself.

“Now you know me,” he says. “Merry Christmas.”

“Meeting a stranger at a bar isn’t knowing someone enough to run off and leave your money there.”

“Okay,” he replies. “Then write my phone number down.”

“What?”

“Get out your cell phone and put my number in it.”

I do.

“Now we officially know each other.”

I wonder, Is this my Christmas miracle meet cute?

We drink and talk, trading life stories; and drink some more. I discover that he is awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend’s plane. (So much for my Christmas meet cute.) Both sloshed, we develop an instantaneous bromance, pose for a photo in a giant chair, and tour that corner of the Quarter—I even wear his hat. But eventually his girlfriend lands and the party is over.

The Future

On the day after Christmas I awaken, like Scrooge, with joy in my heart and, also, with a massive hangover. I enter an address into my driving app and a satellite directs my car through Baton Rouge, past the towering State Capital, past the stately Governor’s Mansion, and toward Natchez. I am underway to Zachary, a bedroom community that, because of virgin prairie and new construction, exploded after Katrina.

My holiday meal with my Terry a few nights prior at the Harlequin in Lake Charles was far superior.

My holiday meal with my Terry a few nights prior at the Harlequin in Lake Charles was far superior.

As I zip past miles of Louisiana byway I reflect on finding a table for Christmas dinner. After long hours of travelling and walking and drinking, I settle for a party of one in the hotel dining room with a bottle of wine, a salad, and a lackluster steak. (My holiday meal with my friend Terry a few nights prior at the Harlequin in Lake Charles was far superior.) And I am grateful to be well fed because I know that there are many in the world who are not.

At Barry’s home, his kids are ready with collections of sketches and homemade comic books to show me; his wife has decades of photos from our past (I was so thin). There is also one last gift under the Christmas tree; I unwrap an unusual oil painting done on an oyster shell. I am pleased and think about how civilized it is to receive a gift of fine art.

Barry and I take a walk to see the vegetable garden then head into the woods, but I am still wearing my favorite shoes and worry about mud and feces, not entirely dissimilar to being on Bourbon Street. As we walk I tell Barry about my holiday, and about my usual search for David.

He replies, “I’d be surprised if he’s still alive.”

Back indoors his wife has a homemade cake with a 50 candle. After blowing out the candles we eat big slices of red velvet cake with buttery icing.

Leaving, I encourage the kids to keep up their creative endeavors. “You might have to take care of us when you make it big.”

“I was always counting on you for that,” Barry quips.

It stings because it is my disappointment too.

***

It is a rite of passage to have cake with Barry on a milestone birthday.

It is a rite of passage to have cake with Barry on a milestone birthday.

The roadway is crowded back to Texas. My fellow travelers are anxious to get home—Christmas is over. Time spent in Jennings was precious. And it was a rite of passage to have cake with Barry on a milestone birthday. I wonder what New Orleans would have been like if Barry had joined me.

I did not find David in the French Quarter nor did the Chicken Man’s ghost find me. I think about how much fun I had with Matthew and how unusual it would seem to others, spending hours on Christmas night with a stranger. Then again, he was not a stranger—after all, I do have his phone number. And though I do not mind travelling alone I am glad to have had the encounter and wonder if I will ever see him again.

The glittering skyline of Houston comes into view, a monument built on a diversified economic base rather than just the petroleum rollercoaster; wildcatters built the foundation but innovators created medical, manufacturing, aeronautics, and transportation strongholds—the only city home to more Fortune 500 is New York. Houston also excels in international trade, entertainment, media, culture, fashion, technology, and sports. Strong backs break over time but creative minds invent new ways to tote the weary load.

The largest city on the Third Coast, the population is considered the most diverse in the United States welcoming hard working individuals despite ethnic background, religious belief, or sexual orientation. Houston has been my future.

***

My Mercedes’ trip setting logs 790 miles...

My Mercedes’ trip setting logs 790 miles…

My Mercedes’ trip setting logs 790 miles with 14 ½ hours of total driving—I wonder if in 1616 ancestors Philippe Bienvenu, Germain Doucet, or Antoinette Landry could have imagined traveling 800 miles in such a short time, or travelling such a great distance simply for pleasure. That generation had just emerged from the dark ages and probably never considered what life would be for generations 300 years in the future. I doubt my nephews will ever return to the beautiful state that our family settled so long ago; the boudin has fallen too far from the tree. But it is not even possible, with all of our modern advancements, to imagine the lives of my nephews’ offspring or Barry’s family lines in 2316, 300 years in the future.

This has been a personal journey. New Orleans is like a mental reset button. I am reinvigorated. And I wonder if, in the future, I will ever return permanently to Louisiana. Perhaps someday, if my creative abilities can be honed enough to make a comfortable income. I resolve to be disciplined—to write every day in the coming year and to get my novels published. After all, I see myself knocking around the French Quarter like Tennessee Williams or rattling around a plantation like Frances Parkinson Keyes. What a wish for the future. There are millions of talented people in this world, all vying for the same brass ring; I always thought that my inherent abilities made me special, and I hope that I have not been deluding myself. I remind myself that just because I write it does not guarantee that anyone will read it; but not writing eliminates the possibility all together.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach! ~ A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It is a wonderful vacation. My humbug has been debugged; my disdain for Christmas commercialism has been assuaged (until next year); and I return home with a heart filled with joy and hope. God bless Us, Every One.

Link to The Saint Hotel

Link to The Roosevelt Hotel

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