In the Catholic Center across the street, a brick chapel with a wall of stained glass overlooks a small grassy oasis. A swinging wooden bench sits next to a row of soothing pink azalea bushes. Black iron benches face a bubbling fountain that creates an aura of peace, almost drowning out the cars and yells from the sports fields. Two swans flank a plaster Christ of the Sacred Heart, the red of his heart the only color. I sit on a chair next to him shaded by a small tree with long red flowers shaped like test tube cleaners and apparently very attractive to bees. The Catholic Center offers free lunch twice a week and keeps the leftovers in a “starving student” fridge which is very attractive to Lexes.
I found Hammond, a college town an hour north of NOLA, to be a quiet place to rest after the wonderful craziness of the Crescent City. At the Big Green House, my friend Melanie puts me up in the trash room, a large empty space storing several months of bottles and cardboard due for recycling. I find an old single mattress for my sleeping bag and a small lamp to make one of my customary nests: a dim corner cut off from the outside world where I can smoke and stare at the checkerboard wood ceiling. I keep my few clothes and books organized in small piles. The first rule of traveling light: keep organized so you can leave quickly with all the necessities if the prevailing winds unexpectedly turn against you (only happened once so far this trip).
I’m here to visit Melanie, an old friend with a luminous smile. We met in Texas and then spent six weeks together in Nepal where she connected with the local people while I annoyed the leadership (I like to wander off). She spent several years at a YWAM base in New Castle, Australia before coming back to the States for an undergrad degree in psychology. By day, she works with an agency to prevent child abuse, acting as a liaison with the judicial system to represent the best interests of the child. By night, she works on her counseling MS, a perfect field for a girl with an amazing amount of empathy.
Unlimited free food: one of my favorite things and the focus of my first day in Hammond. I walk into the campus dining hall and the card swiper doesn’t notice me until I’m well past. It looks like she won’t bother me unless I go for the food so until her shift ends, I spend three hours writing and listening to Rimsky (my new favorite composer). Now it’s just me and a giant buffet. Heaven. I consider it eight hours well spent.
After a drunken 80’s night at a college bar, I meet Melanie the next morning at a coffee shop for study time. She introduces me to her friend Earl, an octogenarian with a hunched back and a spring in his step. He wears a sweater vest over a flannel shirt and declares in his warm baritone voice, “I spent 30 years in broadcast radio. I’m a talker.” But he listens as well as he talks. He asks Melanie about her family and her test last week showing his gift for remembering others. He even wrote a song about Melanie but can only remember the first line. He apologizes profusely for not being able to remember more off the top of his head. He receives a wave or a hello from most of the people who walk through the door and he usually pauses to mention a kind aside about them before continuing our conversation.
He tells us about his work as a radio operator on ships during the war and starting the first radio station in Hammond, Louisiana. After telling a long story, he often stops to apologize and say with a big grin, “Well, look at me. I guess that’s my life. So tell me about you.” Melanie or I talk for a little until we trigger another story from him. They always paint the picture of a kind man. He speaks reverentially about his deceased wife: meeting her on leave from the Army, marrying her in Yuma, Arizona before shipping out to the Pacific, the jelly business they ran together, their many road trips around the country and her eight year struggle with Alzheimers. He nursed her through it all and thanked the Lord that she never turned against him like so many victims of that disease. She died in his arms as they declared their love for each other.
He insists on buying us each a drink before we leave so he shuffles over to the bar for two large hot chocolates with cream. The two baristas, cute college girls, watch him with big smiles as he walks back to us. Before I leave, the girls tell me they both love having him here, “he’s a treasure.” Part of the importance of this trip for me is meeting people like Earl, a man who makes the world a little bit happier place with his presence, someone to emulate.
Melanie’s parents come early to pick us up for a day at the New Orleans Aquarium with the whole family. We take 55 over the swamps with miles of cypress stretching to the horizon. It’s raining hard but I catch a smug grin from two guys protected under the north bound side with beers in their hand, a content day of fishing in the rain. Shacks on the open waterways, accessible only by boat, remind me of my relative’s small town outside Amsterdam where life also revolves around the water. The Cajuns here live off the fresh and saltwater fish that live in the brackish waters in addition to deer, gator and nutria (a large invasive rodent from South America). A remote area until a crew had the unenviable job of building this raised highway over the swamps, it still retains its solitude and mystery. A haunting place and one I wish to explore some day.
I feel strange returning to New Orleans after already saying my goodbyes, a clandestine last visit. With a touch of pride at my knowledge of the city, I direct Melanie’s father to the parking lot near the aquarium. I leave them at the casino to quickly visit Tom and Jann across the river. Jann makes fun of me, “You just can’t stay away from here. We think you’re gone but then you just show up again.” It’s good to see them if only for a few minutes. I catch the ferry back and manage to duck under the rope at the aquarium, saving myself the pricey admission fee. Not worth 17 bucks: Hot, crowded and too many kids even for Lex. I never liked fish much anyway but the big sea otters captured my imagination (another creature to add to the Swiss Family Robinson menagerie I’m planning for my household). I enjoy the enthusiasm of Melanie’s niece and nephew but a few hours at the aquarium is enough.
We spend an hour trapped in the parking lot because of the Italian American parade before we finally got on the highway. We pass Lee Circle and I point it out to Melanie adding, “I can’t quite remember his first name.”
Her father, a quiet bear with the paws of a blacksmith, rumbles ominously, “Forgot his name?”. He pauses to consider and adds, “If we hadn’t run out of food and ammo, we’d still be kicking your butt.”
“I think you’re right sir,” I reply quickly but I don’t think he believes me.
Hammond: I’ll miss the mysterious live oaks of rural Louisiana, thick arms spread spiderishly with some almost touching the ground. The gray spanish moss contrasts the small green ferns that cover the sunny side of the branches, enhancing the mystery and haunting power of these trees, the most beautiful that I’ve seen in this country. I will miss the long walks along the railroack tracks overshadowed by trees, a perfect photograph. I will not miss the bored police force who needed two cars to make me pour out my beer on the street and three cars to stop me from taking a nap next to the railroad tracks. I relished the rest provided by Hammond and the girls of the Big Green House and now I’m ready to head West.
Lex’s Book Corner:
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe:
I read this classic of African literature in one shot on the bus ride from Waco to Denver. My mentor Tom Laird once told me that great writing captures the world in a grain of sand, the universality of the experience. He tells a simple story of a man who takes pride in his strength, motivated by fear:
Perhaps down in his heart Okonkwo was not a cruel man. But his whole life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness… It was the fear of himself lest he should resemble his father. Even as a little boy he had resented his father’s failure and weakness… And so Okonkwo was ruled by one passion – to hate everything that his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness and another was idleness.
In addition to the story of a man who probably reminds all of us of someone we know, the book also immerses the reader in the daily life of a village in Nigeria with vivid descriptions of wrestling matches, the farming of the yams, ghostly visits from the gods and ancestors or simply a description of the night:
The night was very quiet. It was always quiet except on moonlight nights. Darkness held a vague terror for these people, even the bravest among them. Children were warned not to whistle at night for fear of evil spirits. Dangerous animals became even more sinister and uncanny in the dark. A snake was never called by its name at night, because it would hear. It was called a string. And so on this particular night as the crier’s voice was gradually swallowed up in the distance, silence returned to the world, a vibrant silence made more intense by the universal trill of a million million forest insects.
On a moonlight night it would be different. The happy voices of children playing in the open fields would then be heard. And perhaps those not so young would be playing in pairs in less open places, and old men and women would remember their youth. As the Ibo say, “When the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.”
In their language of Ibo, “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten” and this book overflowed with them. I liked this on about the importance of paying attention to signs and warnings: “A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing.”