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Just another poor boy

Our Sunday Comics columnist reflects on the various origins of poor boys

Jim Gabour
23 June 2013

INLET BEACH, FLA – I am in Paradise without a poboy.  A hermit from New Orleans, lonesome for the proximity of a decent sandwich for Christ’sake.  You would think that would be an easy one.  But no.  I am not describing a soul-wrenching hunger for a Whopper® or a Big Mac®, a Wendy’s® double with cheese or a Subway® footlong with olive mix.  All of which are ritually passed into a worshiper’s trembling hands through a moveable non-stained-glass drive-thru window.  No, nourishment in my hometown holds deeper implications than can be mass-manufactured in convenient hand-sized packets and shipped cross-country as a pallet in refrigerated eighteen-wheelers.  We are indeed talking religion here, even if it is at the level of a filling between two pieces of sacred bread.

And yes, I am preaching Food once again.  What you ingest as a starting point to who/what you are is no new concept.  And why not think about it, since I am currently ensconced in a place blessed with some of the best raw ingredients in the world?  Unfortunately, if I want those ingredients cooked properly I really have to do it myself.  And yes, that statement sounds elitist, I know, but you can check my opinions with others of the same delectations.  I have seen the local residents actually “chicken fry” exquisite just-caught fish, and even perform the same obscene ritual with their nigh-perfect spiny lobsters.  And the hotels, the expensive faux grande hotels, they hire maliciously bland though publicity-canonized chefs de cuisine, who haven’t a clue as to how to concoct a dish that touches the soul.   These establishments adhere to the formula that it really does take a completely flavourless Canadian to cook a completely flavourless Canadian meal, which is what your average Toronto snow bird wants when he or she comes south, and decides to spend money on eating out.  Spice is almost as rare as conjugal sex for those cool-climed visitors.  Pitiful state of affairs, that.

So I am needing a poboy.  Simple as that.    Also known as a poor boy or poor-boy or po’boy.  A length-sliced crispy fresh white-bread baguette with something spectacularly flavourful in between the pieces. 

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Incredibly tasty and elemental in its appeal, and yet it is known as “poor”.  The best origin for the name, and the best narrative version of the invention, one that suits the City’s legend, is that the poor boy was first cooked up by two brothers, Clovis and Benjamin Martin, in 1929. Originally from down the bayou in Raceland, Louisiana, the two country boys made a living driving New Orleans streetcars for many years, saving and investing the financial stake from that occupation, to finally purchase their own food business and co-own a restaurant.

Even today, the streetcar system in the City is touted by the tourist commission as the “oldest continually operating streetcar system in the world”.  I suppose that soundbite-ready fact might actually be true, because south Louisiana did not suffer the same interruptive fate as many of the systems operating in much older burgs in various parts of Europe and Asia.  World Wars I & II took the lives of bravely motivated New Orleans citizens fighting overseas, but the bars back home never closed, and the transport never halted.

In 1929, though, with the advent of electricity, suddenly there was no need for drivers who could handle the rough old mules which were the cars’ original source of locomotion. Hundreds of drivers were laid off, prompting all the remaining drivers to go on strike, and in retaliation the company brought in scabs to keep the cars rolling and the City functioning.  Like any strike in those days, it was a brutal affair,  

People got beaten, killed.  Families starved.  Streetcars were attacked and burned.  Hungry and impoverished mule drivers, ex-cohorts of the Martin brothers, started showing up at the back door of their restaurant, looking for a semblance of a meal, any free handout that would allow another day of existence.  So the brothers would take day-old French baguettes, artisanally baked only doors away from their business, slice them down the middle, pour on the gras du gravy made from pan scrapings, add leftover bits and ends of roast beef, and feed as many people as they could, for the length of the strike.  Supposedly, every noontime when they opened the kitchen doors, one or the other brother would look outside and say “here comes another poor boy.”  And thus the sandwich got its name.

And now in 2013 I needs me one.  Not necessarily a roast beef poboy, which would be rather a sacrilege here at the pristine Gulf waters shore, but at least a variety that includes that perfect combination of bread with crunch outside and soft flexibility inside, a sandwich that does not include a thick coating of unspiced and unsalted flour on the filling.  For that is truly the failsafe norm here – the “chicken fry” technique – taking any ingredient, no matter its quality, batter and flour it into anonymity, deep fry it into a brown greasy blob, and then drop the dripping mess onto automaton-created cardboard-flavored bread. 

For such is the aesthetic.  The restaurants here also want to cater to south Louisiana part-timers like me, so they know they should serve some foods from that region. Problem is, as I have said, they know how to deal with Canadians, but have no clue as to how to actually make real people food.  On one of my first trips to the Emerald Coast, ages ago, I had been so excited to see a “Florida swordfish poboy” on the menu that I was practically drooling by the time they served my meal.  There was a massive piece of fresh fish under there, alright, but it had indeed been battered into oblivion, chicken-fried in stale oil, and then dropped on an inedible soggy bread-like substance to soak up the grease, with nothing else to provide flavor or texture.  Sacrilege.  They could have at least disguised the poor quality of the sandwich by “dressing” it, i.e., adding lettuce and tomatoes, butter and pickles.  And hot sauce.  But no.

The manner of preparation has not changed in all these years.  So I have to make things myself.  Which brings me to the odd synaptic connection that the bad Florida poboy made in my brain to a learning incident my own life, before I started this all-over-the-map rant.

You see I was a seriously disguised poor boy myself at one point.  And a crucial juncture in that same painful period also had to do with public transport.  And being hungry.

* * *

A self-employed writer/producer/director can often find him/herself in a position where well-meaning people who have provided that freelancer with projects and funding in the past have over the progress of time and a full schedule forgotten that person exists.  And needs to eat and pay rent.  Even when the freelancer has a track record of successfully completed projects, and provided the executive producer personally with both cash and renown.  The old “What have you done for me lately?” rule of thumb applies, no matter.

I was in one of those fallow periods, following the production of a huge show that had been seen literally by millions, aired in many countries, and sold lots of VHS tapes and laserdiscs, in what you have probably now correctly dated as the early Pleistocene era.   When we carved television shows into stone tablets, frame by frame.  It had been four months since the last paycheck cleared, and being the ever-optimistic creature of impulse that I am, I had not possessed the good sense to realize that another slump in my production schedule might very well occur, once again.  I had spent everything, saved nothing in the rainy-day fund.  And I had nothing left.

I was indeed in talks with top-level executives at the BBC about a vast television spectacle, a possible four-hour world-wide broadcast of Mardi Gras, simultaneously originating in Rio, Trinidad and New Orleans, with me directing from my home town.  But that seemed too far-fetched to imagine, much less happen, even though the net’s Commissioning Editors were incredibly creative, positive, and empathetic with all three country’s cultures.  They were really good guys, in a vast wasteland of TV populated by TV schmucks.  But it was too much to ask.  And it had been three weeks since last contact.

So, huge pie-in-the-sky speculation or no, I found myself on a New Orleans city bus heading into the Central Business District from the Faubourg Marigny where I lived.  I had paid my one-dollar fare in pennies, the counting of which had delayed the bus and made every passenger on the vehicle angry at me: “I gotta get to work!”  “Screw that guy, let’s go!”  “What the hell is wrong with this picture?”  Like that.

Pennies were all I had.  A large, heavy bag full of pennies.  Pounds upon pounds of copperish coins, in fact, which I was carrying to the bank to try and get them metamorphed into more readily spendable paper.  It was all the money I possessed, and not very convenient.

Maybe I felt encouraged at first because I was riding on New Orleans’ historic Desire bus – which had twenty years earlier supplanted the more poetic “Streetcar Named Desire”.  Maybe I did not feel completely dismal and lost because of Tennessee Williams’ literary legacy.  Though a positive state of mind thirty years after the play/movie was indeed difficult, considering my present-day mode of travel.  Standing swaying on the crowded bus, I basically hoped for survival of the journey, and for unmolested disembarkation at my stop.  The only impediment being the crush of passengers around me, none of whom saw my continued existence as of any use to their own plans for happiness. 

At its far eastern terminus, the line originates in what was then the Desire street projects, one of the most dilapidated, crime-infested, notorious, and dangerous public housing conglomerates in a City known for its dominant criminal element.  The less desirable residents of Desire had predictably not placed a nominee among those annually offered Rhodes scholarships.  Not for a while.  Weapons were frequently proffered as IDs on the streets of the projects:  “Oh you mean the tall dude with the black-handled shiv?”  “No, I talkin’ ‘bout dat nasty sucker wit’ the silver Glock.”  When I had first moved back into New Orleans proper in the early eighties, I lived in the Bywater, only blocks outside the boundaries of the project.  For those three years, without a working car, I moved very carefully about the neighborhood and its public transport.

And now here I was again on the bus, with a large bag of coins in one hand and in the other the only thing remaining from my last working production: a cell phone.  The device was one of those very early Motorolas, about nine inches long and weighing at least a pound and a half.  With another six inches of plastic coated antenna protruding from the top.  Not something that could ever be stashed in a pocket.  But in those days it was a sign of true glamor, and true money.  Most people had never seen one.  I carried it as a talisman, along with its practical application, hoping that somehow good news would catch up to me and come through it, a transmitted word of prospective work.  Especially since it was the only connection I had with the outside world at the time.

The bus hit a bump, and the metal discs in my bag jingled.  Half a dozen eyes turned toward me. 

“Money.  He got money.  And he got one of those phones.”  

I could immediately read the message in a wall of faces.  I was standing mid-bus, holding onto a strap with my phone hand, unwillingly advertising the possession.  And now a bag of coins had asserted itself.  Bodies moved toward me.  I was becoming quite worried.  Sweating.  I could feel people touching me. 

“Ohmigod, How can this get any worse?”

The phone rang.  Loudly.  Things got worse.

Within a few seconds, every single eye on the bus turned toward me, as I struggled to get my hand down and answer the call.  Even the driver looked over his shoulder.  If you are old enough, you might remember that in those days, this noise was novel, not a matter of constant environment.  But I had to stop the obnoxious ringing.

In trying to do so, I bumped into an elderly woman seated in the row next to me.  “Shit, man, watch what you doin,’” she said, brushing off my apology.  

“Lady, that dude botherin’ you?”  This from immediately behind me.

Losing my sweaty grip, I dropped the coin bag.  Several pennies rolled out.  Every eye, every eye was now watching the unfolding drama.  I righted myself, cornering the cloth bag with my feet, and answered the phone.  “Gabour,” I intonated, vocally acting for all the world like I was enclosed in a mahogany-paneled office, seated behind a massive oak desk and attended to by three doting ivory and ebony assistants.

It was the lead network exec in London.  Good news.  The longshot project was somehow actually approved. Did I think I could direct a four-hour worldwide broadcast, while keeping spending under a million pounds? 

“I couldn’t really commit to that figure, but I can indeed sit down and bring in a preliminary budget, just a dummy, you know, to see how the numbers break out. I am away from my office, and my accounts books, at the moment, but by this time tomorrow, I am sure I can have a definitive answer for you.” 

The bus was slowing to a stop.  I balanced myself precipitously, reaching down to the floor and picking up my bag.  Leaving what moments before I would have considered a crucial dozen or so pennies spread out in the filth.  I lurched to my feet, got upright and determinedly fought my way through a burly and resistant clump of particularly disgruntled-looking, singularly-focused and gold-toothed thugs clustered at the back door.   The bus came to a halt.   The instant the green exit lamp came on, I bullied my way out through the door panels and literally fell onto the broken concrete sidewalk. 

I stumbled, but found my footing.  Only to discover that I was still at least a mile from my destination.  The bus was already moving down the street.  I could see a phalanx of eager faces still watching me from the windows, and knew the next stop was only two blocks away.  The riders all had confirmed that I possessed things of value on my immediate person, and that I had been talking as a person of possible wealth. 

I breathlessly continued my unconcerned business patter in the phone, talking animatedly while running a block out of my way with the phone at my ear to get to the relative safety of a populated street.  And finally say: “Well, yes, thanks for the call.  I think this could be a truly historical bit of programming.  Yes, tomorrow.  As soon as I do the numbers.  Bye now.

And then stood hyperventilating, holding onto a light pole for a good twenty minutes, trying to quell nausea, happiness, fear and lightheadedness.                                                                                                                           

I made it to the bank about half an hour later, and to this day I remember the outcome: $22.78.  Three bills and three quarters, three pennies left over.   

A lot of money for a poor boy.

NOTE: "Mardi Gras to the World" aired live worldwide on Carnival Day, 16 FEB 1988, from 8-10pm on BBC1 and from 10-midnight on BBC2. The four-hour show was produced by Nigel Finch and Anthony Wall, Commissioning Editors of the BBC Arena series, originating from Rio, Trinidad and New Orleans.  It was directed by Jim Gabour from a control room in New Orleans.

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