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.”
“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?”
He flipped a penny in the air.
“You know what this is, boy?”
“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.”