Saturday, May 29, 2010

First decade in Louisiana, to 1992: (a) Varsity Village

I reached Baton Rouge in August of 1981, and the first real interruption of my life in Louisiana occurred with the arrival, I thought intended as a visit, of one of my nieces in September of 1990. By then I had earned tenure and had reassembled most of my belongings that had not been bequeathed to others in 1973 in the house that I bought in 1986. No one unfamiliar with the South, and particularly unfamiliar with southern Louisiana, knows what to make of it at first. It is so very flat, though Baton Rouge is still, barely, on the continental shelf, and the air is at most times warm and moist; at first it seems like breathing broth. But when it is cold, it is colder than California, even colder than Oregon. The cold is brief and seldom and dry, and, since "it never freezes" (as they say), on Christmas Eve of 1989, descending to 4° F. during the night, it caused an O ring at the Exxon refinery here to break, and a huge explosion to ensue, which broke glass all over the north end and the center of town. Since it would be 48 hours before the temperature crept above freezing, it also broke every pipe under every house built in the traditional way. Plumbers had long waiting lists, and pipe supplies ran out immediately. Still, between my arrival and Andrew in 1992, there was no major hurricane that affected Baton Rouge. Hurricane Camille of 1969 was already history, though remembered by all who had been alive then. I had never heard of it in fact, living then in Oregon and without 24/7 News coverage. Andrew was dreadful, and, of course, even worse in Homestead, FL. Still, in Baton Rouge, it came straight up the river, it took down almost every pecan tree and red oak, and it left almost the entire city, all spread out as it is, without electricity for a week, not only ripping off transformers but toppling the poles themselves. It tore up oaks that it couldn't split and exposed immodestly their great undersides. In other words, there really are long serene periods without major Atlantic storms that come into the Gulf, and I wish (in defiance of NOAA) that we might have one this year, so as not to further complicate the consequences of the exploded and sunken drill platform, and broken pipe a mile down, currently in the news every day.
In sum, my first decade in Louisiana, a state that I immediately liked better than the mid-West (which I might think praiseworthy but not identify with), was very easy, and by 1992, when Andrew made a mess, even the niece that I could not understand or help was back where she had come from and back with that other side of her family with which she had so much in common and with whom she had shared childhood. Her problem was not addiction; it was schizophrenia, one affliction that the weak strain in my mother's family was mercifully free of. Also, in the sequence of cats I have had, I had lost Lydos to old age.
Gradually I came to understand and feel comfortable with the different society of Louisiana, with Cajuns instead of the California Hispanics I'd known all my life, with African Americans who knew their own identities and place from their own deep roots here, even though they had transplanted relatives in California who might have succeeded in more obvious ways both educationally and financially (this was not true of all, and I quickly learned not to generalize); above all, Louisiana is different from the rest of the South, a difference usually ascribed to the difference between the French and the Anglo-Irish towards color. That is not to say that one kind of racism is nicer, but only that, like everything else, it comes in different shapes and patterns. Visually, too, southern Louisiana has an odd light, most of the year. It makes black shadows, or brownish black, unlike the violet tinged shadows on the undersides of life oak trees in California. Now, I love live oaks, and when I drove into the LSU campus in 1981 and saw the great oaks, I was much consoled, having grown up so near the rolling golden hills around Paso Robles. Finally, I had never lived in the midst of so much water. It is not only the Atchafalaya basin and Lake Pontchartrain but so many bayous (not to mention the River and its tributaries). You drive along a highway or freeway without realizing that beyond the trees screening it is not fields but trees growing in swamp, covered with pond scum. I've never been to the Everglades, but I've seen part of Okefenokee and I think that Pogo the Possum would like southern Louisiana better; certainly opossums, to the horror of our outdoor pets, live comfortably all over our neighborhoods. Anyhow, as you drive through what you suppose is solid land, and you see hawks circling overhead, you suddenly realize where you are. On the University Lake we have egrets and their cousins as well as pelicans. I think white egrets are the finest of birds. At the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans I saw a flock of pink flamingos, but in town the plastic garden variety (which are regarded as humorous, as tempting humorless outsideers to think Louisianans really do have gaudy bad taste) are all you see. I hope they have replenished the real flock after Katrina.
I never can give an adequate idea of what I have learned down here. I will say that it is like California in being impossible to put in a nutshell, except that it really IS flat. But the Florida Parishes, the most English part of the state, are both lovely and distinctive, though it's the mixed world of East Baton Rouge that I like best, on the edge of Acadiana, with its industry—the big refineries in north Baton Rouge and the chemical companies across the river, with the port and the bridges—and yet with such lovely trees and streets and two fine campuses (Southern University being historically Black and very proud of it). No, we don't have such bad air here, just because we have chemical plants. The only bad thing is the annual threat of hurricanes. LSU has an excellent School of Music, too. I think that if a Californian who also loves NYC has to be transplanted in a strange place, and it can't be Paris or Athens or Rome, Southern Louisiana is a fortunate landing place. A person like me actually likes a place full of contradictions but also inhabited by natives, both white and black, who love the place dearly, just as it is. I can understand that. I also like what I have seen of Baltimore and Chicago.
After living that first year right on campus, at the Faculty Club, and happily eaten cafeteria food in the Student Uniion in front of a big projection TV (at that time they also sold keg bear with popcorn), I got to enjoy Barney Miller, M*A*S*H*, and The Jefferesons every afternoon. Then I got my dinner tray and watched the 6pm News before retiring to my room, just across the street, diagonally, in the Faculty Club. I had neither a radio nor a TV nor a phonograph nor a casette player that year, so unless I wanted to curl up with a book I might go back to my office or to the library, instead. In fact, if I could have had an apartment on campus, I'd have been happy to stay there for years. Those facilities, however, were already a thing of the past. After all, I'd lived in Loring Hall at the School in Athens, in the International House while attending the American Numismatic Society seminar, and I'd just come from seven years in a convent, and so long as it came with upkeep I could be very happy with institutional living. I did want my own recorded music, though, and to cook what I chose when and if I chose. At least Louisiana coffee was delicious. This first year, with the Episcopal Church less than a block away, most of those I met were there. Churches on campus at a State University were another novelty.
In 1982 I got the apartment, a couple of blocks north of campus, in Varsity Village, and there I met persons, in particular Wood Grigsby, who knew southern Louisiana intimately. He it was who took me in early Spring to the place just south of LSU where you could drive up onto the levee (where some LSU cattle were grazing) and go down to the flooded willows, the river being high at this time. It was late afternoon and the place looked like a calendar picture of a swamp.
The edge of the Mississippi where mushrooms can be found at this time of year

In the shipyard across from Lockport (so actually in Rita, LA)
Wood also recommended driving down Louisiana Hwy. 1, which goes straight down the west side of the river. I haven't yet located the pictures of notable houses, such as Madewood, photographed as we drove south. The ones posted here date from April of 1986. After meeting Wood's family and some neighbors, we crossed over the lock to a shipyard to practice 20th c. industrial-subject photography and not far from there to make my first attempt at photographing bayous.
On Bayou LaFourche, a real houseboat cabin, much better than the reconstruction of one in the Audubon Zoo

Actually, in 1986 at the zoo in New Orleans I saw a reconstruction of a Cajun houseboat on a bayou, which can't hold a candle to the one above. I had yet to see the film, Louisiana Story of 1947, where a real one is shown in use; I got a vhs casette of the film at the State Library downtown, but now, of course, I have a dvd of it. It may have been made by Standard Oil, but it is beautiful and so is the Virgil Thomson score. I might have seen it in Oakland when it was shown at major theaters nationally, and was advertised on the movie pages, but I didn't.
At the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, complete with pond scum, a Cajun houseboat. As I recall, there are even neutrias. Still, it looks slightly Orlando, compared with the one I saw on Bayou LaFourche.

Finally, here is one of the February 1985 Kodachromes of the LSU campus. As soon as I have all these relatively early photos in the Picasa albums, I'll add the album names at the bottom here.
Two of the most mature crêpe myrtle tree in their nude beauty in February of 1985.
I'll put some live oaks in the album, too.

For photos giving context for the above images, see the album:
Captions will be completed soon.