Research Notes, Day 1

Starting work on the novel for the summer.


May 9, 2013

The voodoo priestess chided me a little for my presumption that a ritual cleansing could be performed on short notice. She was brusquely professional. All spiritual work had to be booked two weeks in advance, minimum, and couldn’t be put together on a moment’s notice. There would need to be a prior reading to determine the nature and quality of the ceremony to be performed. Together, even over the phone, we would consult the spirits. Once it was determined what was needed, a kit from the store might suffice for me to do the cleansing myself. If it was necessary to have a cleansing/blessing done in person, I could then make an appointment to come to the Temple to proceed. She was very good—fees weren’t even mentioned, since if you have to ask, etc. I felt gauche.

The midsized rental, a Corolla or equivalent, turned out to be a GMC Beast, and for the first time in years I drove along looking down into other cars and even trucks. It was a nice day, the heat of the Louisiana summer still not upon us, and on I-10 I passed rice fields, billboards for the Gator Chateau and many fishmongers and butcher shops specializing in local sausage. The traffic is always heavy, from Texas past Baton Rouge, on roads that were probably slow and picturesque until very recently. It’s little hard to reconcile apparent boom times in the region when the governor is fighting the legislature over policies he calls tax increases, while proposed state university budgets are 1/20th what they were only half a dozen years ago. There’s a kind of centeredness about American capitalism at the start of the millennium. It knows what it wants and gets it without having to pay toward the infrastructure and society it draws on. News in the last week says they’ll start fracking in Southern Illinois soon. About all we had there, after coal went bust, was the area’s natural beauty.

As I drove I decided heading out on a trip is like writing fiction, there’s anticipation of what will be revealed in time. This is different from the lyric impulse of literary nonfiction, which is so often sifting through past events looking for patterns and meaning. I said as much to Crazy Larry, who called before I got to New Orleans. I told him there was an odd anxiety for me in heading out, and he said I was crazy, reminding me of a visit he paid in my last hours in Miami, years ago. He’d stuffed himself to the gills then insisted we drive to Key West for pie. It was nearly midnight, and I was exhausted. Nobody, I had said, drives to Key West at this hour. We went, in the end, but of course there was no sleep that night, and I had to move the next day. He remembers it simply as something reasonable that I resisted, and that there were no consequences. As we spoke, my department head texted to say he wished he was going on vacation. Larry said he never thought of our travel together as vacation; there was too much work staying alert and observational. He said Facebook studies show people suffer when they see their FB friends posting evidence of a good time. I said that the proof that what I was doing was no vacation, would be that no one would envy or even want to read it. But as Mario Vargas Llosa says,

"The defining characteristic of the literary vocation may be that those who possess it experience the exercise of their craft as its own best reward…writing is the best possible way of life, never mind the social, political, or financial rewards of what [they] might achieve through it."

I picked up Frenchy at the airport in New Orleans. We drove over to Gretna and wandered, looking for Vietnamese restaurants. The highway was a ribbon of concrete a hundred feet overhead. Maneuvering The Beast among the stilts took concentration. “Hey, there’s the Sneaker and T-shirts Gang,” he said, pointing to a group of young men walking along with their 40s. “Look at that: the New Jerusalem Car Wash.”

After a long career in the army, he has a way of recognizing ex-military and knows how to speak to them. I guess it wouldn’t be any different if he’d been a biker, a trucker, or a cowboy. Carl, who owns the restaurant, went to Saigon in 1963. He was in military intelligence, despite the fact that he wasn’t a US citizen for the first part of that service. He was born on the Austrian-Hungarian border, and his folks emigrated to New York City. The army had to fly him to Hawaii for a couple of weeks for mock-residence and give him special audience with a judge to be naturalized, then he went back to Vietnam with his new security clearance. He eventually married a Vietnamese woman, got out of the service and stayed in Vietnam until 1973. After a number of years back in the States he moved his family from the northeast to Louisiana for the climate, and eased into being a restaurateur just to make ends meet. He didn’t feel the local Vietnamese liked his presence in the business, but he’d lasted and many of them had gone under. One of his regular customers used to be Nguyen Cao Ky, who brought an entourage and let them pay. Ky had plans to fly a planeload of exiled South Vietnamese back to Vietnam to take back what was theirs. Carl asked loudly, from the backline: Where are you going to land?


I turned at the F-18 Hornet, weaved through the concrete barriers, dimmed my lights, got my paperwork ready. The young marines at the gate of the Naval air station, were courteous. Frenchy, as a retired sergeant-major, is able to use the services at military installations all over the world, and we were staying in this base’s military lodge, hotel-like rooms usually used as temp housing while transients process in or out. It’s a Joint Reserve base, meaning all services work from there. The atmosphere is much different from the army posts I lived on in the mid-80s. Here it’s quiet, orderly, well-kept; young couples laugh and talk as they walk to nice automobiles; a mother walks twins in their Maclaren stroller. Service members jog past an elementary school on the main road through the base. A colonel passes; somewhere inside I tense up, preparing, ridiculously, for the need to salute 25 years after the need has passed. Rooms are small but perfectly laid out, and clean as only the military can get them. We each have a bedroom with a flatscreen on the wall, cable, free wi-fi, a comfortable bed with crisp sheets and a comforter, a desk, K-cup coffee, mints, a bottle of water. Tastefully-framed photos of New Orleans’ architectural details. Common bathroom, and a large entryway with a long counter, sink, and coffeemaker. Despite amenities, it’s vaguely institutional, but who cares? Frenchy paid 70 bucks for our accommodation, a kind of military hostel system, and a good benefit for retirees.

The hodgepodge and density of Belle Chasse, strip malls, industry, a 12-story rusted-out railroad gantry for lifting track out of the way on the intracoastal canal. I ask Frenchy if, since he just got off a plane, all this is as ugly as I see it now, and he says yeah, it looks just like Lake Charles. Over the bridge, more girders and dredging and trucks with mysterious pump-engine-contraptions on the back, but the river and city before us, the blood-red sun in our faces, the swirl and scramble of highway exits running over each other. We’ve gotten to know the French Quarter a little in the last year and quickly found a place to park. A perfect night, the summer odor of the city not rising yet, artists with their paintings hung on the fence, chatting with visitors, people sitting in folding chairs in front of the cathedral. A quick beer at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, timber joists overhead, real character, but the piano singer flat and awful, the jukebox blaring over her voice—purposely?


I have to duck and contort my body to get in the door through the hanging bead curtain and door. The door shuts mysteriously behind me. The lady tells me she’d done many things in her life, had worked behind the bar at a downtown hotel for 17 years, doing palm- and card-readings part time, but now she is past 70 and does it like this, full time. She looks a bit like my 95-year old stepmother. My indications: Long life, but many will have it, she says, what with technology and all. I do have a double life line, which means I get second chances when I mess things up. Her hands are warm and dry, feel good. She doesn’t use tarot cards, she says; Marie Leveau herself used playing cards, it was the hippies that popularized tarot. She has me cut the deck, in threes, and pick three cards with my left hand and slide them to her for reading. It’s all positive. She tells me voodoo started as a Black version of Christianity, that it’s misunderstood, and that the person who cursed me not only will not influence my fate but will get that negativity rolled back 10 times over. On the last hand there are three kings, and she cheers and rises a little off her seat. My children will be very well off financially, especially the one son, though the other will shine in other ways. She sees a young woman, perhaps a granddaughter, who will be a terrific success.

I buy a little mermaid doll charm for four dollars, because it has something to do with all this and looked at me like someone I know. On the street I bought a Lucky Dog, in honor of Ignatius. What’s the difference between the five-dollar regular hot dog and the six-dollar Lucky Dog, I ask, since the condiments listed are the same? “It’s lucky,” the man says. Well, why not. All sorts of magical thinking.

It’s very late driving back to the base, through the sodium light dripping tunnel under the canal. Keeping The Beast in the narrow lane is a bit of a challenge, the thing sits so high and bluff, and my progressive lenses, which I chose over bifocals now I’ve reached a certain age, making it hard to find just the right place in the glass to get the right focal length. Sleep, finally, after only 4 hours in the last 36.

“You finally get up?” Frenchy says when I emerge. “I thought you were dead.” I begin to type, and at eight a.m. the Star Spangled Banner on the base loudspeakers. The fire alarm goes off in the whole building. Sitting on the curb with a styrofoam cup of coffee, typing, as a flight of gray fighters dart across the near horizon, low behind the tank farm, and emerge thundering into the sky.


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