Finally, I return with a tale of my travels. For those interested in the rest of the pictures, they're up on Flickr. Herein you get to see a bit of my world, with various reminiscences and suchlike. I enjoyed writing it, and hope you find it worth reading.
Houston was not my favorite town. I'd been there oh a decade before, and hadn't liked it either. For a good time, I'd go down to Galveston, a good long drive down I-45. My hotel was in Greenspoint, just west of the George Bush airport, but the locals called it Gunspoint. Each night, the wail of ambulances fire trucks and police cars would compete with the white noise rush of sound from southbound I-45.
Leaving Houston took longer than I'd expected. The client and consulting firm wanted more paperwork on me than a mortgage application. I knew I should have brought a printer down to Houston, but in an effort to save some space in the Beast of Burden, I'd left it beyond, along with my USB hub, scanner and graphics tablet. This oversight would cost me dear.
The hotel in Houston didn't have one of those handy business nooks. As the previous gig had ended, I no longer had the option of running over to work to get things printed. Generally speaking, the front desk would print and fax things for me on an as-needed basis, but when I really needed them, the manager was nowhere to be found.
I hadn't started the truck in a while: most of what I did on the previous gig was out of the hotel room. Cleaned out the beast of burden, sprayed it down with Febreze and made ready for my journey, carefully packing everything in its proper place. Years of doing this, I take some surprising things on the road: books, a rice cooker, an electric wok and my own kitchen utensils. There's only so long I can eat restaurant food before I either get sick or put on weight. I'm not especially frugal, but buying my own groceries is far cheaper. Besides, nothing tastes better than my own gumbo, which I've perfected in that electric wok. I drive everywhere these days: I've gotten to hate airports on principle. The delays, the piggy-eyed morons from TSA making me turn on my laptop and take off my shoes. I travel heavy: I carry my life with me.
The indignity of a urinalysis drug screen has become routine. I drove down to the clinic, a sordid institution. I could have been in Guatemala: everyone spoke Spanish and so did I. Back in the area where the Special Restrooms with the blue dye in the toilet, a young gentleman of color had failed to produce urine at the proper temperature. After it was explained to him that he would either produce a urine sample at the correct temperature or be marked as refusing the test, he whined a while and made some phone calls.
"Do you see this sort of thing a lot?" I asked the attendant. "Oh, every day" he replied. "It adds some drama to our otherwise dull lives."
So I peed in the cup, had them fax the paperwork along, loaded fresh batteries and screwed on a medium polarizing filter onto my camera, and departed Houston.
Houston is best thought of as two concentric rings, with crosshairs through the middle. I took the outer ring from north to east, through the grim industrial parks and sprouting ticky-tacky suburbs, past mounds of uprooted trees in yellow dirt lots, to meet up with I-10. East, through oil country, to Beaumont, I ran the air conditioner about half the time. I have no radio in my truck: it died a while back and I just never replaced it. The truck gives me time to contemplate.
Seven months alone in a hotel room, with periodic forays down to the office. Oh I was connected to the world, probably too well. The laptop had become my window to the world. Through Skype and Yahoo and my headset and cam, I'd stayed in touch with everyone. But I'd been alone, completely and fundamentally, and found I liked it almost too much. A bit of Auden came to mind:
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.
To Beaumont I came, and got an oil change. It's odd, to be among human beings again. At the massive bridge over the Trinity River, the world came back into focus. In February of 2003 in the last few days of my time on that gig, I'd driven the loop from Baton Rouge south to the Gulf, west along the shoreline of Louisiana to Texas, then up to Beaumont, and over this same bridge. A sudden hunger to see the places I'd loved washed over me. How far would it be to Henderson?
I roll down the passenger side window, put my camera on the Golf Swing setting (Sony's got the best semiotics on its cameras), carefully aim the truck down the highway and plan the next three seconds, roughly point the camera in the right direction, then perilously look at the digital viewfinder panel for the brief moment needed to take the shot. I put the camera down and get back to driving. Then, even more dangerously, when conditions were okay, I'd roll the window back up. My elderly and much-beloved Isuzu Rodeo lacks power windows, an effete convenience in my opinion. Previous cars I've had with power windows would get gouty with salt during the winter.
To take pictures to the left, I roll down the driver's side window, wrap the camera strap around my wrist and aim the camera down the highway. No looking in the viewfinder, just point roughly and shoot.
From Beaumont Texas to Henderson Louisiana is 143 miles. My Oakley sunglasses (tax deductible safety equipment) are as dark as they come, and still the harsh white Gulf light can't quite be escaped. I roll off I-10 at Exit 152 south less than a stone's throw then west along 352. It is as if I have never left, though it has been five years since I've been here. Cheerful, expectant, I drive to the bridge, past the windmill at Paul's, to the road's end. Take the right onto the Henderson Levee Road, my camera poked out the driver's side window.
Why do I harbor such fierce affection for this place? I suppose I'll never really know. The people of this place are shy, often poor people, not especially open to outsiders. The Cajun people aren't easy to understand: for many years their culture was despised. Their own private word for themselves is "coonass": a nasty slur if said in the wrong context. My friend Glen the Dancing Bear once wistfully told me in an odd moment he envied my French: you know, he said, our parents were ashamed of their French and we didn't learn it. Now we want to speak French, and the old people are dying off.
The levee road unwinds. Last time I drove down this road was a Saturday night, to the fais do-do. Glen had mysteriously demanded I come that night, said I shouldn't miss it. The gig had ended the day before and they'd had my farewell dinner at Lagniappe. I'd come into Whiskey River, as always, to find several old friends, who led me to the front of the stage where they had made me an honorary Cajun. When the music began again in earnest, I retreated out to the dock, stood in the dark and had quietly cried.
The bandoneon swirled to life from within the hall, and the plaintive cry of the song began: Héya - ïe, chère 'tit monde / P'quo' faire t'es comme ça, / autant dans les misères? I'd always been ashamed of my French, open my mouth and anyone can tell where I'd learned it: in Africa. Seems Glen wasn't alone in being ashamed. So much of Cajun music is lamentation. There's a lot of sadness in their world. It's poor and often ugly to outside eyes, when it isn't quaint and touristy. Cajuns know both the shame and pride of being deeply misunderstood: they are Southern, yes, but a subculture apart and often despised, the butt of jokes, until recently forbidden to speak their own language yet eager to have heard me speak it to their old people. And such odd cadences, antique turns of phrase unused in France for centuries. Their own country forgot them when Katrina destroyed their world. These people had made me one of them, a humbling and deeply shocking thing.
Everyone knows of the Acadians, expelled from Canada, but there were two waves of French speakers who arrived along the Gulf Coast. The second had arrived as refugees from Haiti, once the pearl of the Caribbean, when the slave Toussaint L'Ouverture had come to power, his armies' banners had been white babies stuck to pitchforks. The upper crust had brought their slaves in tow, and it would be this second wave which built the famous French Quarter of New Orleans. It was a strange and ugly world: the expression "sold down the river" meant selling a troublesome slave into a hell of being worked to death, chopping sugar cane among the cottonmouth snakes and infernal heat of this place. Sugar had been the making of Haiti and it was the making of Louisiana, and it was slave labor which built those lovely plantation homes at New Iberia and along the bayous. It is still a troubled and violent place: there's no sugar-coating Louisiana. It's an acquired taste.
May I advise anyone who wishes to know the real Louisiana to stay far, far away from New Orleans and see it last, if at all. The reality of Cajun culture begins in Lafayette going east toward Baton Rouge, extending south and west to the Texas border, and it is not an easy thing to find. It will grin at you, in plain sight and you may miss it. Your only real hope of finding it is to befriend a Cajun, not an easy thing to manage, but a little humility and patience will be well rewarded: they are an utterly unique people, beyond all power to describe truly. They say as much in their silences as they will in their speech: and you may know them by this sign, they pause before they speak of anything.
The reverie ends: I find myself at the dirt road turnoff to the left, up and over the levee. I park the little truck and take a picture of the sign. Another pickup truck comes over the crest of the levee, I'm in his way. I pull far enough out of his way, he stops with his window down, to say hello.
"Bonjour…. I know the place is probably closed, just came by for old time's sake. Does Terry still run the place?"
"No, place changed hands year or so back, Kelly and Susan bought the place."
"Oh I had such fun here, probably was never happier in my life than I was right here. Are they doing right by the place?"
"Oh sure, they're down there now."
I shot a panoramic series of images off the top of the levee, a few insets with the zoom. I drive down into the gravel parking lot. A boy and a woman are fishing off the dock.
"Bonjour… I've come to ask permission to take some pictures of the place."
"Well, sure. Come on in."
I've learned never to drag my camera and tripod around when I ask for an invitation to shoot. I wander into the dark, un-air-conditioned space of the hall, past a lime-green ice machine. I explain myself: tell of my adventures and my sudden urge to revisit this place. The women sit smoking at a table: we talk of this and that. They offer me a frosty can of lager beer on the house. I offer them two dollars, for the house.
Once introductions are done, I go back to the truck and haul in my gear. The place is full of little details: the women make me welcome, point out funny little signs. I set my camera to shoot in available light, exposure times will be long, but off a tripod I think they'll work. Some shots need a flash to fill in detail. For my benefit, Kelly turns on the sign she made with Christmas lights. It's a tough shot, backlit by the bright sky. I work around the hall, composing, guessing. Maybe the camera will love me, sometimes it doesn't. I go through one pair of AA batteries and dump them in my pocket. I buy a red t-shirt for eighteen dollars. I get my two dollars back in change.
The women show me all the loose planks in the dock as I go out for a few images. A little bream swims in a plastic bucket, hopelessly fanning his fins. There's an old houseboat tied off, the SS Minneaux. There's a guy living in it. He's the handyman for the Whiskey River Landing, trading his labor for electricity and Lord knows what.
All done shooting, I come back into the hall, sit down for a spell. The ladies offer me another beer. We sit and smoke, talking slowly.
"Are you hot?" they ask.
"Heh. I grew up in Africa. I'm sweating, mais not really hot. This weather is fine by me. I wouldn't mind moving down here. It's perverse. It's like falling in love with someone I don't really know. This whole countryside, trés charmant."
"We've got neighbors, came down from Ohio. They love it here, too."
"So who was really responsible for the Katrina screw-up?"
"Everyone says it was FEMA, but it's hard to say. So many things went wrong at once."
"I'll send y'all pictures when I get to Atlanta."
They get out a business card and write a personal address on the back. "No mail arrives here. You'll have to send it to the house."
One of the best dance saloons in the country does not have a street address. I say my goodbyes, pack up my gear and pull out of the gravel driveway, up over the levee. I'll return. I know I will.
When I was a little boy, my grandmother's land bordered a lovely pond. I remember sitting on the basement steps, leading down into the earthen floored basement, She put a kitten in my hand, one of old Sugarfoot's progeny. She brought out a pair of bamboo fishing poles. We walked down through the pine trees my father had planted, to the pond. She helped me bait the hook with a red worm. Our bobbers floated among the lily pads. Down went my bobber, and I pulled up a wriggling sunfish, sparkling like no earthly jewel. It is perhaps my happiest memory of childhood. Perhaps one day I will catch a fish in Louisiana and recapture that memory. It is among my fondest hopes.
I get back to the interstate, merging into traffic. 411 call to Bayou Tobacco, Baton Rouge.
"Hello, Sarah. This is a voice from your distant past."
"Well, hello there, honey!"
"When do you close?"
Between Henderson and Baton Rouge is one of the longest elevated stretches of highway in the world. I stick my camera out the window, trying to capture a sense of it. At a certain spot, I pull over into the breakdown lane, wrestle out my gear, sliding along the side of my car, inches from the traffic and set up the camera for a panorama spread. I screw on my polarizing filter and take the shots. I throw the gear back into the truck, slither back along the driver's side of the truck and get back in. Religiously putting the camera back into its bag, collapsing the tripod, stowing things away, putting on my seat belt, I prepare to hurtle back into traffic. The truck roars to life, I work through the gears, cutting back into the 70 mile per hour traffic.
Time drags, I can't get to Baton Rouge fast enough. A watched pot never boils and a watched trip odometer doesn't either.
I finally exit onto Acadian Thruway, through a few lights. Off to the left is the old cigar shop. Greetings all round. I buy a Los Blancos Criollo and fire it up. What a smoke! Again, I ask permission if I can shoot inside the store. No problem. The store is a shrine to the LSU Tigers and Mardi Gras with smatterings of Irish and US Army Artillery regalia here and there.
I recollect when first I came to this little store. I found a little society of people. Here was where I first asked for advice on how to approach Louisiana, and what I got was good. In the months I was there, I went out every weekend and often during the week after work, sometimes even at lunch, to shoot. Then, I'd been shooting with disposable cameras: my good SLR and lenses had been stolen in Chicago, along with my car. I evolved a strategy of taking my disposable cameras to the CVS drugstore, where they'd make me digital images. I'd sit in my hotel room at night, removing noise from the images, cropping, assiduously hammering away at the images. I'd bring my laptop in to the cigar store and an old retired state prosecutor named Roy Cangelosi would help me caption them. His knowledge of the area was encyclopedic. We'd sit around smoking, talking of the places I'd shot, I found friends there. My photograph of the rainy allée behind Café du Monde in New Orleans is still on the wall.
Back then, I made gumbo in my hotel room, preparing to watch LSU play in the Sugar Bowl at Bayou Tobacco. While the roux browned and I drank more Abita beer than was strictly speaking good for me. Combining all my ingredients, I saw some leftover button mushrooms in the fridge and threw them in. Next morning, I made popcorn rice in my rice cooker, packed it all up and took it over for the game. Sarah looked in my crock pot and said "Now I know you are a Cajun!"
"Sarah, you know I'm a Yankee: that just can't be so."
"You put eyeballs in your gumbo! Oh you won't believe what I've seen in gumbo."
The rich scents of cigars and pipe tobacco flood the place. I've got maybe an hour to shoot the place. The light's terrible, all fluorescent. The camera won't cooperate for macro shots. I do the best I can. I try to shoot Sarah, the shots aren't working. Sarah says her goodbyes and leaves, taking her dog with her. I stay and talk for a while, then get back on the road.
The sun begins to set. East toward Gulfport, skirting Lake Pontchartain: I-10 changes to I-12 and back to I-10. Pulling off the highway to refuel, I ask if there are any restaurants in the town that aren't name brand food. The girl behind the counter looks at me, asks someone. There isn't any such restaurant in town. Here, in the paradise of food, this mecca of gourmands, they eat Hardee's hamburgers. Well, I should have eaten in Baton Rouge, but I'd hoped to find something good in a small town. Ah well, I've got to be at work in Atlanta in the morning anyway and I'll be driving all night, I'll eat about the time I need to stop.
I pull into a Waffle House in Gulfport. Hard to screw up an omelet I figure. Rain begins to pour down. Striking up a conversation with an old truck driver, he tells me his computer's giving him trouble. While it thunders and gusts outside, I try to boot his machine. Turns out a driver's bad and he doesn't have his boot CD. I remember I have a Microsoft XP box in my truck. I go out in the rain and wrestle open a suitcase only to find it's an upgrade CD, one for my wife's box. Fat lot of good my Linux distro will do him, though I'm of half a mind to tell him to give Mandriva a try. He calls his wife, who calls his tech guy, and he cusses out the tech guy for letting him down. More talk of Katrina: an obviously mentally disturbed woman and an electrical contractor tell me of her mold-infested house, the trailer she lives in now and his go-round with tetanus after their go-rounds with Katrina. The place just isn't the same. Something was destroyed in these people by that storm, and they bore the brunt of it here in Gulfport. Endless cups of coffee while the storm rages outside.
The rain passes, I saddle up again. I get a call from the hotel, I'm about to miss check-in. I tell them to cycle me over to the next morning: I'll just be popping in for a wash-up and shave before going to work the next day. Pascagoula, circling around Mobile then the long slog north by east through Alabama toward Montgomery. Along the highway, strange white strobe lights fire every four seconds from atop tall towers, powered by colossal capacitors, probably to keep truckers awake. There is nothing here but the miles themselves. Old habits from the military arise: I carefully gauge how tired I am. When I begin to hallucinate, I pull into the next rest stop, set my wristwatch alarm for 15 minutes and fall dead asleep and dream immediately, a dream of startling beauty. A glowing blob, like a cell pulses and presents pseudopods in the form of faces and things I have known. The alarm went off, I woke somewhat refreshed. I'd take two more naps like that, but the dream did not return.
Crossing into Georgia, I encountered long stretches of construction. The sky went from black to blue in a heartbeat. I stuck the camera out the window to capture the glow of the illuminated cirrus clouds. The sun rose like a bomb over the far ridge. I pointed the camera through the windshield and took its picture. The camera hates me today: it focused on the windshield, blurring the shot I wanted. Still I like the shot; it means something to me if to nobody else.
On that act of sodomy called 285, I call the client and tell them I'll be around ten o'clock. I check into my hotel, get a shower and shave, put on clean clothes and drive into the shady office park off Holcomb Bridge Road. Everyone's in jeans and flip flops, nobody cared I came in late. They did like the fact I had my own laptop, since they didn't have a development machine ready for me.
The next three weeks were a blur, developing the web service. It's good work, clean independent work. I don't need any of the client's code to get it working. They trust me to do the right thing. Faced with an architecture decision, I cornered the chief architect for a moment and demonstrated the problem. "Fine," he said, "sounds good to me, go ahead and do it." I damned near fall off my chair. I never have clients who make decisions so quickly. This gig is damned near a vacation. The far end of the web service remains unavailable. Finally they present it online, and I have four days to integrate.
Delivery last Monday meant I had to work over the weekend and there were complications. Again, the client's alpha coder got my code integrated with no fuss and bother on Sunday afternoon. They may not dress in business casual, but they've also got a fine work ethic. We met the deadline, with two hours to spare, and everyone's happy, with the possible exception of the crew at the far end of the web service, who had to implement a few things they'd forgotten to handle.
Now the client wants to hire me. I might take the job, but then again I might not. It's a strange life, consulting. The money's so good and the adventures so delicious, it's hard to settle in anywhere, but if I did get off the road, I'd probably like it here. I took a few days off to recuperate. The client took me out for wonderful barbeque at Dreamland, at the intersection of two streets named Peachtree: thank God for Mapquest or I'd never have found the place. I drove back through old Norcross, now the province of Dominicans and a significant population of Bangla Deshis. My Spanish and rudimentary Hindi serve me well around here.
Here the tale ends for now. I have not done it justice, but I put it up for your amusement. It's been several weeks since I posted here, and with nothing of political substance to say, this will have to suffice. Life's rich pageant often resolves to its little details. Within each of us lies a great mystery, we are the sum of all our experiences. Da Vinci once said all we know has its origins in our perceptions. Interviewing with this client, I said, the zen of the Big Picture is that there is no Big Picture. It's all use cases, the actions, the people who take those actions. A well-trained chimpanzee can code, but you can't train people to care about this stuff. You either care or you don't.
The road takes me far away: it stretches out before me ever and always. My life is condensed to what fits into my little truck, but my world is vast and I am known in many places. My camera and my diaries record my movements and I am ever far from home, even when I am there. Perhaps I find some solace, watching the logs in my fireplace, with my wife, herself a nomad. But at the end of the day, with my children grown, I hope to find a place to call my own, where life moves at a slower pace, the oysters fresh and sweet, where the music brings the old times to life. I may have found it in Louisiana, or perhaps it found me. I cannot say. But I was happy there once, and may yet be again.