Fallen Angel

By Ed Staskus

   The day we told Old Nick we were getting there as fast as we could was our day off. We were leaving Louisiana on our way home. Pete the painter, the Mexican, and I got it into our heads to head south, towards Garden Island Bay, before swinging back around to Cleveland. We got as far as Port Sulphur. It is on the Mississippi River, approximately 50 miles away from New Orleans by way of Route 23.

  We had stayed a week in Metairie, which is on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, between New Orleans and Kenner. There were three of us on the crew, Pete, the Mexican, and me. We worked nights from about six in the evening to about two in the morning, electrostatically painting desks and filing cabinets. The week we spent in Metairie we spent at a ten-story office building on Causeway Blvd.

   Neighborhoods were always blowing up in Metairie, so we avoided the neighborhoods, sticking to the city center. Houses on concrete slab foundations tilted and buckled when laid down on the city’s drained swampland. Buried gas lines twisted and ruptured. Leaking gas accumulated in cavities and wafted into bedrooms and bathrooms. Cap guns and cigarette lighters ignited infernos.

   Since we worked nights, by the time we woke up it was always past breakfast. We made it a habit to have a substantial lunch. It was the only full meal we were going to get. Sometimes we had lunch at R & O’s, a family-owned place that was home to the Roast Beef Debris Po’ Boy. After lunch was our time to do what we wanted

   We went to the Clearview Shopping Center to see an over-sized photograph of a 600-pound birthday cake. One day we went to get a look at the John Calvin Presbyterian Church. There were churches all over, many of them Catholic. Another day we drove across the world’s longest bridge, the twin span 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway that connects Metairie to the north shore of the lake, just to say we had done it. When we got to Mandeville on the other side we turned around and went back the way we had come.

   I told Pete and the Mexican about the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans, about the fancy burial plots, but they begged off, so I went alone.

   The cemetery is on the Metairie Ridge which follows the course of a bayou. It’s on high ground, away from the Mississippi River. A racetrack used to be there. At the time New Orleans was the numero uno horse racing city in the country. At the beginning of the Civil War the Confederate Army built a camp and supply depot there. After the Union Navy invaded and captured the city in 1862, Johnny Reb went somewhere else.

   Charles Howard was a rich man from the Northeast who got richer in New Orleans by running the lottery, but no matter how much money he made the big man couldn’t get his hands on a membership in the Matairie Jockey Club. He vowed, if he ever had the chance to get even, to buy the whole shebang, close it down, and convert it into a cemetery. In 1872 the social climber got his chance.

   He made his investment back in no time selling plots to the best families. The plots were on what he called Millionaire’s Row. Immigrants like Germans and Italians formed benevolent societies so they could build their own mausoleums. The Army of Northern Virginia, Louisiana Division, made a burial mound, burying their dead all together. They erected a 38-foot column at the top of it and hoisted a statue of Stonewall Jackson to the top of it.   

   The Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division, wasn’t going to be outdone. They made their own burial mound near the entrance and put a statue of General Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed at the Battle of Shiloh, up where everybody could see him. His pint-sized buddy P. G. T. “The Little Creole” Beauregard is buried beside him. 

   I could have driven right into the boneyard but parked on a side street and took a streetcar whose roll board said “CEMETERIES.” It dropped me off at the corner of Pontchartrain Blvd. and Metairie Rd. from where I stepped through the original front entrance and made my rounds. 

   I went to see the graves of “Marvelous Melvin” Ott the baseball player who was a small man with a big bat and Louis Prima the jazz musician, who was the orangutan king in Walt Disney’s 1967 movie “The Jungle Book.” I stopped at the headstone of Norman Treigle the opera singer who died unexpectedly in his hometown ‘The City That Care Forgot’ one night when he lost count of how many sleeping pills he was taking. I paid my respects to deLesseps Story Morrison, the long-time mayor of New Orleans in the 1940s and 50s. He got on the wrong plane at the wrong time in 1964. He thought he was going to Mexico. It crashed and he died.

   Rambling down a narrow canal lined with trees I saw a memorial statue that had fallen over sideways. It was a life-sized angel. One of its outstretched wings had stuck into the ground like a spear and stopped its fall. The other wing was pointing up into the sky.

   Pete and the Mexican usually went to Fat City after we knocked off work, where there were plenty of bars restaurants nightclubs and havens of vice that never closed. It was named for a small wooden snowball stand named Fat City Snowballs painted bright yellow that stood at Severn Avenue and Seventeenth Street. I went back to our motel room for seven hours of shut eye. They were able to burn the candle at both ends, but I wasn’t. Whenever we were done in one city and on our way to another city, I always did the driving while the two of them slept, sleeping off the burnt down candle.

   Our last day in Metairie was the day we went to Delerno’s in Old Metairie. It was on Pink St. There were lots of bright colors everywhere. The man who did the cooking was J. B. Delerno. Pete and I had turtle soup, seafood gumbo, and stuffed artichokes. The Mexican had a crawfish festival platter, which was jambalaya, crawfish pie, crawfish etouffee, crawfish salad, and fried crawfish tails. He washed it down with two glasses of home-style steam beer.

   The next day we slept in, packed up, and checked out. We weren’t due back for three days, so we went joyriding along the river, the Big Muddy, heading south before we were obliged to be northbound again.

   It was election day, the first Tuesday of November. Bedtime for Bonzo was going to kick the Peanut Farmer back to the red dirt of Plains. All the lawn signs said so. Some of the signs said, “Let’s Make America Great Again.” The Mexican spit out the side window. Pete was a G.O. P. man through and through but knew better than say anything. The Mexican had a hair-trigger temper. Ronald Reagan had made a deal with the towelheads, who hated Jimmy Carter more than anything. As soon as Dutch was elected President of the USA, Ayatollah the Iranian was going to release the hostages, and that was that. It was in the bag.

   We stopped at Nervous Ned’s Fireworks and All-Night Liquor Store. It was on the wrong side of the road in the middle of nowhere. We parked on the grass since there wasn’t a parking lot. We bought two dozen Texas Pop bottle rockets. Pete bought a bottle of Seagram’s VO while the Mexican and I went halves on a six-pack of Dixie in cans. Pete drank more and more often than the three of us put together.

   Port Sulphur is in Plaquemines Parish. It is one of only two parishes that have kept their same boundaries from the beginning of Louisiana’s parishes in 1807 to today. There wasn’t much to see especially since the Lake Grande Ecaille mine, the largest sulphur deposit in the world for almost fifty years, had closed two years earlier. There was a sprawling brick building right on Route 23 with a broad stand of oak trees next to it. It was the Plaquemines Parish Government building. We took a walk through the oaks.

   Pete smoked Marlboro cigarettes like the Marlboro Man was his best friend, even though he didn’t have any friends. He was a sourpuss with a pork belly. He didn’t like his wife and two kids or anybody. He was a hell of a painter, though, and neither the Mexican nor I had any problem with that since we got paid by the piece cleaned taped painted and put back in place.

   He wanted a smoke bad, so we stopped beside a bench where two older black men were sitting. He lit up. After a couple of minutes, I asked the men if they knew where we might get a bite a drink and maybe kick up our heels.

   “You boys aren’t from around here.”

   “No, we’re from Cleveland.”

   “That be up north?”

   “Yeah, just north of Kentucky.”

   “All right son, here’s what you do, go towards New Orleans on 23 there, until you get to a crossroad with no stop signs, about five six miles, take a left, first gravel road you see, turn left again, and keep going until you get to the juke joint. You’ll know it when you get there. They should have a band there tonight, it being election day and all.”

   “Thanks partner.”

   “I ain’t your partner, but you’re welcome.”

   Walking back to our truck Pete reached for another smoke. “That’s all they ever do is sit in the woodpile,” he said.

   When we found the place, we weren’t sure we had found it. It was a one-story weather-beaten place with a broad front porch. All the windows were boarded up. There wasn’t a sign that said it was a bar a restaurant or a juke joint. There wasn’t a sign of any kind. There were cars motorcycles bicycles and a horse drawn wagon in the dirt parking lot. The nag was tied to a post and had a feedbag on. 

   I parked our extended wheelbase Ford Econoline, even though Pete was complaining about “crazy drunk-ass niggers.” I was driving and stuck the keys deep into my back pocket. The closer we got to the front door the more signs of life we heard. There was a band inside playing Texas blues along the lines of Lil’ Son Jackson, but with a little bit of swing thrown in. I thought Ray Wylie Hubbard might be in the shadows with a double six domino snug in his inside pocket.

   Pete stopped dead in his tracks when we stepped onto the porch. There was no address and no mailbox. There was an ungodly big dried-up rooster claw nailed to the door. 

   “I’m not going in there.”

   The Mexican and I shrugged our way past him and went inside. Pete was hard on our heels. 

   “I’m not staying out there by myself,” he said.

   We crossed the threshold and looked around. The first thing we noticed was everybody inside the joint was black. We were the only whites. The second thing we noticed was that the band had paused in mid-note. The last thing we noticed was that everybody had stopped drinking and eating talking playing pool dancing messing around and were staring at us. We sat down at the bar on the first three vacant seats we came to. A bartender as big as a queen mattress walked up and looked down on us. 

   “We don’t see white boys around here much,” he said.

   “We don’t walk into tar pit bars much,” the Mexican said.

   The bartender shot us a wry grin.

   “How come there’s no sign or address?” I asked.

   “We don’t get no mail,” he said. “Don’t need none. What we got is white lightning in Mason jars buried at the four corners of the house. Nobody knows we are here except those who know. What’ll you have?”

   We ordered three Natty Boh’s from the tap and the joint came back to life. Behind the bar was a framed one-dollar bill. It looked ancient. It was a silver certificate from 1901. Martha Washington was on the face of it. The man sitting next to me was lanky and wearing a handsome jacket. We got to talking.

   “You play heads or tails?”

   “Sometimes,” I said. 

   “You ever win?”

   “Sometimes.”

   He flipped a penny in the air. 

   “You know what this is, boy?”

   “No.” 

   “This is an Indian Head penny made in a leap year.”

   “Does that make it special?”

   “Call heads or tails.”

   I called it ten or twenty times and was wrong every time.

   “My turn, boy.”

   He called it flipped it and was right ten or twenty times every time.

   “That’s my magic, son.”

   “More like black magic,” I said.

   When the pool table opened for next up the Mexican and I shot nine-ball. We ordered another draft of Natty Boh and sandwiches from a sandwich board. When we snagged a table, it was beside four men. One of them was standing in front of a cracked mirror on the wall pulling a comb through his oily hair.

   “Got to look good for the syndicating gals,” he said.

   “Syndicating?” I asked.

   “Yeah, gabbing gossiping,” he said, nodding at a table where four women were talking.

   “My old gal is slow and easy,” one of the seated men said. “I don’t never got to look good for her.”

   “Man, what I got is a mean woman,” another one said. “Thank God she ain’t here.”

   We listened to the band, who were a drummer, an electric bass, and a Fender Stratocaster. They were playing “Be Careful with a Fool.” The man on the Fender was playing it in a shuffle groove, the downbeats twice that of the upbeats. Two young women joined us. When we were done eating, we danced. I had never danced with a black woman. Pressed against me she felt just like a white woman. The slower we danced the better she felt. Something rubbed against my leg. When I looked down it was a cat the color of the dead of night.

   “We call him Snake Eyes,” my dancing partner said.

   When the band picked up the pace a woman wearing a white sweater and knee-high black boots and a man wearing a tie thin belt and snap brim fedora did some showing off. The man did the splits with a hi-ho. “Never give a pig sticker to a man who can’t dance,” the woman said.

   Towards the end of the night a fight broke out. A man cleaning gunk from under his fingernails with a switchblade got into it with another man. We didn’t catch what it was about, although the Mexican thought it had to be about a woman. They started by shoving each other and ended with the switchblade being knocked across the room and the switchblade man taking a right cross in the face.

   When the mattress-sized bartender came around the bar straightening his bow tie and carrying a baseball bat we left.

   I took Route 23 to I-10 and drove east through Biloxi and Pascagoula towards Mobile, where we planned to stop over.  Before we did, we crossed St. Louis Bay and stopped outside of Shaggy’s Pass Harbor. It was the three in the morning. There wasn’t a soul anywhere, except us.

   We lined up our Texas Pop bottle rockets in a field on the far side of the harbor and Pete went down the row lighting the fuses with his BIC lighter. The rockets zoomed into the night sky one after another They left a spark trail behind them as they went up. All of them except one stayed vertical, their fins guiding them. The one of them that went rogue performed several loop de loops and started back down. It headed right for us. It headed right for the Mexican. He noticed it at the last second and hit the deck.

   “Are you OK?” I asked running over to him.

   He nodded yes, tucking the gold crucifix he always wore back inside his Santana World Tour t-shirt.

   “That was a close call.”

   “Dios me poteja,” he said.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Searching for the Surfside

By Ed Staskus

“Whenever we leave home, to Ontario or New Brunswick, I always say we are crossing into another world, into a strange world, into Canada,” said Marie Bachand. “I always ask Louie did you bring our passports?” She always asks in French because her partner Louie Painchaund doesn’t speak English.

It was a cumulus cloud high sky day when they went to Prince Edward Island. They didn’t have their passports. Who wants to look like their passport picture on a sunny summer day, anyway?

They live in Saint-Gregorie in Quebec, a community of the city of Becancour, on the south side of the St. Lawrence River. Their house dates to the 1780s, built by refugee Acadians after the French and Indian War. “They came down the St Lawrence River, four hundred families. It was a rough time. They stopped, said OK, looks good, and settled here.”

It is about six hundred miles to Prince Edward Island, up the St. Lawrence, down New Brunswick, and across the Confederation Bridge to PEI. The first time they went they were touring the Maritimes. The island was a spur of the moment runaround. They drove across the Northumberland Straights on the nine-mile-long bridge to the other side.

“We thought we could run over and visit PEI in one or two days,” Marie said. “It’s so small.”

Even though it is pint-sized, the smallest of the ten Canadian provinces at just a little more than two thousand square miles, compared to Quebec’s almost six hundred thousand square miles, it goes over big.

Ten years later, even after Andy’s Surfside Inn is no more, they still go to Prince Edward Island two weeks in the summer, staying at the Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street, riding their bikes all over the place, still finding substantial fresh things to rack up on the to-do list.

The inn was on the ocean side of North Rustico, near the entrance to the harbor, a white clapboard two-story house with a dozen windows, two dormers and three porches on the side facing the water. A broad lawn slopes down to the cliffs. It wasn’t always the Surfside Inn and isn’t the Surfside Inn anymore, having since taken up where it left off, back to being a home.

“The first house was bigger,” said Kelly Doyle.

Kelly’s grandparents, Mike and Loretta Doyle, were visiting and playing cards at a neighbor’s house one winter night in 1929. Their friends lived about a mile away. At the end of the evening, going home in their horse-drawn sled, they crested a frozen hill. A red glow lit up the sky and flared across the flat cove below them.

The house was being swallowed up by fire. The pitch-dark night was blazing. They had left seven children behind in the care of the eldest.

“It was a flue fire,” said Kelly. “It burnt down because of the stove.”

By the time the Doyle’s raced their sled down to the house, and finding all the children safe and sound outside, there wasn’t much they could do. There were no neighbors nearby to help and there was no fire department. Mike Doyle was able to drag some furniture from the first floor out the front door and saved as many fox furs as he could.

The house was rebuilt the next year and finished the following year.

“The foxes my grandfather saved built the new house.” Kelly’s grandfather was a fox farmer. What he sold the pelts for paid for the work of the itinerant immigrant tradesmen who built the house.

Furry garments are made of furry animal hides. Even though it has lately fallen on hard times, fur is one of the oldest forms of clothing. Once we started globe-trotting out of Africa, to where everywhere else was colder, we started wearing furs. Ever since, people have worn beaver racoon sable rabbit coyote wolf chinchilla opossum mink and foxes.

Mountain men wore the bears they shot and killed.

In the 1880s foxes were bred for the first time, accomplished on Prince Edward Island by locals Charlie Dalton and Robert Oulton. Theirs was the original fur farm in 1884. Within several years the rush was on. But the rush didn’t really and truly mushroom until after a pelt sale a few years later when their harvest of 25 skins brought them nearly $35 thousand dollars. It was a boat load of a barn door of money, bearing in mind that the average island farm worker those days made less than $30 dollars a month.

In 1926 nearly nine hundred live silver foxes were shipped from Summerside to the United States. It was the most valuable shipment in the history of Prince Edward Island up to that time and is still called the ‘Million Dollar Train’. Andy Doyle was born the same year, spunky and healthy, although nobody ever called him the ‘Million Dollar Baby’.

By the 1930s the fox farm industry was strong as a bull, raking in multi-millions of dollars. There were hundreds of thousands of foxes being farmed and skinned coast to coast throughout Canada and the United States.

“The furs my grandfather was able to rescue from the fire were worth five thousand. In the end the new house cost five thousand,” said Kelly.

“We stayed at a country inn, at the information center at the bridge they said it was nice, but it was a little room, yuk,” said Marie. She picked up the official PEI tourist book. Where to stay next? She thumbed through the book. She put her finger on Andy’s Surfside Inn. “I say to Louie, what’s that, the north shore? We had already decided to stay three or four more days. We went looking for it.”

Gavan Andrew “Andy” Doyle was 81 years old in 2007 when Marie and Louie went driving up and down the north shore looking for his eponymous inn. Andy had been born in the white house that was the inn. Years later, grown-up a young man, pushing off after World War Two, he landed in Montreal, married, brought up three stepchildren, and years later, when his wife Vivienne died, went back to Prince Edward Island.

His mother died shortly after and he inherited the house on Doyle’s Cove. “My aunt, his sister in Montreal, always had a soft spot for Gavan. She helped him get the place up and running. She bought a bunch of nice furniture for him,” said Kelly Doyle. It was the late 80s. Andy Doyle resurrected the Surfside Inn that had been his mother’s brainchild in the late 40’s.

“When my grandfather died in 1948, my grandmother wanted to make some money with the house and started taking in tourists,” said Kelly. “There was a white picket fence, she had ducks and geese and sheep in a big barnyard, and she kept a garden.” It was a large working garden. “She fed the bed and breakfasts herself.”

As her six girls and two boys grew up and left home, she converted their rooms to guest rooms.

“She filled those rooms all through the 50s and 60s,” said Kelly. “PEI wasn’t like the rest of the world back then. Tourists found the way of life interesting, honest and down-to-earth. There wasn’t much entertainment, but there was always lots to do. They just liked the place.”

When Marie telephoned the Surfside Inn, a Japanese woman answered the call.

“Andy always had Japanese girls, three girls, housekeepers for the season who were exchange students who wanted to learn English. They shared a small bedroom over the kitchen. She told us, yes, we have a room.”

Louie and Marie drove up and down Route 6 between Cavendish and North Rustico searching for the Surfside Inn. When they couldn’t find it, they finally stopped at a National Parks kiosk and got directions. It was in the park, although on private land, Doyle’s Land on Doyle’s Cove. They drove down the Gulf Shore Parkway, past Cape Turner and Orby Head, and down to the coastal inlet.

When they got there, there wasn’t a room. There were four rooms that shared a bath. They were all taken. What Marie and Louie didn’t know was that there was a fifth room on the ground floor, which was Andy’s bedroom with a private bath.

“When we are full, he gives you that room,” explained the young woman.

“We’ll take that,” said Marie. “Where does Andy go to sleep?”

“He sleeps in the boat.”

The Japanese girls did the heavy lifting in return for being able to learn English. “I don’t know where they learned it, but it wasn’t from Andy,” said Marie. “He never talked to them.”

Outside the house was a castaway wooden lobster boat. The hull and forward cabin were worthy enough, although it needed some planks and rib work. it looked like it still had some spirit to it, like it could still make a living at sea.

“It smelled bad, all old stuff papers tools junk a small bed,” said Marie. “It should have been burned long ago.”

The Surfside Inn had a kitchen with several refrigerators. “We thought it was just for breakfast, but we saw other people storing food and making supper.” They started shopping at Doiron’s Fish Market on the harbor road. One suppertime Andy saw them coming into the kitchen with lobsters.

“Let me fix those for you,” he said.

“Oh, my God,” said Marie, “he was good. Tack, tack, tack, all done.”

They started bringing their own wine from home, though.

“I don’t like PEI Liquor wines. We brought Italian and French whites and rose for the fish.”

Coming back from Doiron’s one day, putting away fresh cod wrapped in Kraft paper, Marie noticed small buckets of frozen milk in the freezer.

“There was a Muslim couple staying at Andy’s, the guy was always in the living room, but she was wrapped up, always going to the bedroom. She didn’t talk. At breakfast, no words. She looked at her iPad, that’s all.”

The mother was expressing her breast milk and storing it. She kept it in the back of the freezer, the coldest part of fridges. One day all the milk was gone.

“We never saw the baby, though, maybe it was somewhere else, with a grandma.”

“Tourists in the 50s and 60s weren’t from Monkton or Toronto,” said Kelly. “Some were from the States, but a lot of them were from Europe. We lived next door and ran around the yard, having fun, meeting people. In 1970 my grandmother got a little bit ill and couldn’t keep it going. She lived alone for seven years until my dad moved her into the senior citizen’s home in North Rustico.”

The white house was empty for about ten years, for most of the 80s. It came back to life as the rooms filled up. In summertime it was never vacant.

“You could see the sea right in front of you,” said Marie. “We sat on the porch every day. It was a special place. After a week we would say, let’s stay another day, then another day. Other people, too, were crazy about this place.”

One day Andy asked Louie to help him take an old heavy bicycle out of the lobster boat. “You’re a big guy, you can do it,” said Andy.

When the bike was on the ground Andy straddled it and pedaled to the downhill on the all-purpose path. “He was going down the hill, but Louie told me there were no brakes. Stop! Stop! I yelled but he yelled back, I’ve been riding this bike for thirty years!”

Whenever Andy pulled his four-door sedan out to run errands or go to the grocery, Marie and Louie kept their distance. “I don’t think there were any brakes on his car, either,” she said.

He seemed to own only three short-sleeve shirts. “I have three nice ones,” he said. “I got them for a dollar each at the Salvation Army.” One was yellow, one green and one blue. The blue shirt was his favorite. He dried all his laundry on an outside clothesline, in the sun and ocean breeze.

“All the guests, they were from Canada, the United States, Italy, England, all over. A Chinese couple had a four-year-old who had been born in Quebec, so they named him Denis. Whenever we saw a Chinese child after that we always called the child Denis Wong. There was a couple from Boston, they lived in the harbor on a boat there. He was 80 and she was in her 70s.”

“I didn’t come with my boat. I came with my girlfriend,” he said.

“There is no age,” said Marie. Until you find out your grade school class is running the town city province country.

Aging and its consequences usually happen step-by-step, sometimes without warning. One minute you’re only as old as you feel and the next minute you don’t feel good. It’s like going on a cruise. It can be smooth sailing or a shipwreck. Once you’re on board, though, there’s not much you can do about it.

“There were always many guests, but suddenly a few years ago Andy started getting mixed up. He forgot reservations, there were two Japanese girls instead of three, it wasn’t the same.” What it takes to make an inn work wasn’t getting done. By 2016 it was far more vacant than occupied and Marie and Louie were staying at Kelly Doyle’s Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street.

“Andy introduced us to him,” Marie said.

Like Dorothy said at the end of ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’, “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”

In 2018 Andy Doyle moved to the Garden Home in Charlottetown and his nephew Erik Brown took the house over, renovating it and transforming it into his home. In November Andy died. He was 92. It was the end of the Surfside Inn.

“On the ocean was wonderful,” said Marie. “Once we found it, Louie and I loved the Surfside.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”