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Gator Sunday Comics

A day trip to an interactive museum in a South Louisiana bayou offers our Sunday Comics columnist the chance to sample a different reality

Jim Gabour
28 July 2013

My next-door neighbors, a husband and wife, lived for years in a lovely farm house near his Cajun French family down Bayou Lafourche.  This winding waterway remains a primary route for commercial and recreational fishermen of all sorts, and was originally named the Chittimachas River after the indigenous Indian tribe who populated its banks.  But recently the nabes sold their country place on the bayou and moved into New Orleans, as the pasture behind their house was being developed by speculative realtors into a high-end subdivision. Without the cows to talk to every morning the neighborhood had become less attractive for the couple’s idea of rural life.  The pair are a working team of filmmakers, writing, producing and directing, and had already been actively looking for a house in town because they now do so much work here in the city:  travel books, documentary and museum films, and French-language features.

They also had a condo in L.A., because that’s where the work used to originate, and also is where their agent is located. That well-connected gent still finds them the occasional script assignment or a gig directing a movie of the week for television.  But with the local government’s huge movie tax rebates now in place in Louisiana, the production business is actually moving here en masse, to New Orleans.  This town is now the second-largest production center in the country, even ahead of New York.  So the couple were looking to consolidate residences and come home.

Naturally, when I found out that the house next to mine was going on the market, I got word to them quickly, and sure enough they bought it.  It is a huge shotgun double, with two apartments in the front, and the previous owner, a dancer, had done a breathtaking renovation of the back half of the house as a third apartment for herself, with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto a deck and a patio with plants and a water garden.  She also had the floors done up perfectly so she could rehearse her craft.  Their patio adjoins mine and we have installed a gate so we can open our yards into a huge L-shape and host parties together, especially at Carnival season.  Also so we can have coffee together in the mornings they are in town, and so all of our mutual collection of cats can enjoy a bigger safe space.  And we talk films, our mutual livelihood.

As a coincidence, big-name directors Taylor Hackford and Francis Ford Coppola own homes a few blocks away in the French Quarter.  We call that the “A Director’s Row”.  Where we live side-by-side in the Faubourg Marigny we call the “C+ Director’s Row”.

That’s the background.  So, to the actual movie.

The couple got a commission four years ago to design and build an interactive Waterlife Museum on Bayou Terrebonne near the Gulf in a little town called Houma, named after yet another Indian tribe, the Houma, many of whom still live in the area.  For the Grand Opening of the facility, the whole downtown was to be closed off for celebration and speechmaking.

My partner Faun and my friend Max from Atlanta and I decided we badly needed diversion from life dramas, so we banded together and left noonish for the prospect of fun, trying to beat the Friday traffic that locks up the roads with work prisoners escaping the city prison for the weekend.  We were also figuring to enjoy as much time in quiet respite as we could get in the countryside.  As I said, all three of us needed it.

I refused to google maps for this brief holiday, and a phone was just not in the script.  Neither was GPS to be used, no matter how slight this plotline might be.  All those devices are too close to work mode.  But with the aid of a crumpled and multi-folded paper map, we found our way to the town pretty easily, especially considering it is totally surrounded by marshland and tidewater swamp.  Driving into the town limits was our first taste of the day’s different reality.  From the car we could see clustered groups of algae-covered bull alligators sunning on the edge of the water-hyacinth-filled canal that bordered the road.  The real thing.  Not a prop amongst them.  Great blue herons stood on single legs nearby, waiting to spear one of the black-skinned catfish we saw repeatedly breaking the surface of the water.  Right off the asphalt surface of the road was another world, untouched by time.

Gator Sunday Comics

Sort of amazing, like the twenty-first and sixteenth century existing side by side. The Indians who had prospered here then were almost invisible and completely incorporated into the landscape, unlike us as we moved about in our loud metal box this day.  But none of the big lizards moved at the noise of the car.  That’s the frightening part for the locals, that many of the gators are no longer afraid of humans.  They are used to us, and no longer run off at the sound of human approach.  The beasts were as calm and stoic as the old Cowan and colorful box turtles that were sitting on every other log.  But when they get hungry, the alligators can be decidedly indiscriminate when it comes to food sources.  And, for the first fifty feet, they are very very fast.  We did not get out of the car.

To make sure of where we were ultimately going, we sorted out the location of the museum first.  Frantic last-minute work was still proceeding inside, so we decided not to intrude until the actual opening.  Driving down the nearby main street of the town, which hadn’t been closed yet, we noticed an upstairs bar that had been carved out of a newly-rehabbed but quite old stucco and brick building.  A perfect place to await the evening’s activities and soak up some local flavor, among other things.  The sun was well past the noon hour, so the vacation day scenario called for a bloody mary.  We walked up and asked for that liquid commodity.  

The coffeehouse downstairs was bustling, and the balcony of the establishment overlooked a picturesque street that really did look like a nineteenth century stage set.  Snacks were to be had, and the bar menu was, unapologetically, all in French.  Happily, this was to be a foreign film.  To make the opening scene even more dramatic, as soon as we sat down and drinks arrived, the sky opened.  The deluge came down in a dense white sheet for five minutes, then abruptly someone turned off the shower.   Steam steam steam rose as the hot brick streets cooled.  Tall inverted cones of airborne water spiraled upwards from a wide round base to disappear in a perfect point. Reaching all the way up to the second floor where we sat.  A beautiful phenomenon, and so evocative of the place.  All I could think of was that I could never afford that effect if this were a real film.  And on that note, I requested a second beverage.

As the curtain of water subsided and visibility increased, we discovered that we were situated on the corner of the courthouse square.  There were a few law offices below us in renovated buildings, a musical instrument shop and a cafe, a bakery and a pottery. Two small restaurants, both signed as Italian, were located at either end of the block, open for lunch, with chalked menus posted outside.  People were entering and leaving, most walking away while simultaneously cleaning red gravy from their business attire.

We asked the bartender for a recommendation.  He said one of the Italian joints was too high-priced and the other was no good.  The rest of the food downtown was for the business people who worked there, he said, mostly lawyers, pretty unimaginative and not at all local.  He recommended we try Big Joe’s on Route Grand Caillou -- Big Rocks Road.  Locals only, good South Louisiana food, and inexpensive.

We took his advice and remounted the car.  The Route was easily located on our map.

The road proved much better than its name, and was actually nicely paved, with crushed oyster shell shoulders.  Big Joe’s itself was set in an orchard of peach trees loaded with fruit, framed by tall feathery bald cypress trees. Everything other than the logo-infested drug store across the street was tinted electric green set off by bright primary-colored flowers.  Even the fences along the road and around the parking lot were covered with muscadine grape vines.

We got there early in the afternoon, but the place was already packed. Luckily a family was just leaving as we walked in and we were offered their table. The main room seated maybe 150, all at picnic tables.  There was a covered outdoor porch in front, but the staff had dropped clear plastic curtains around that area so the air conditioning would offer some relief from the sweltering swamp outside.  

The menu is hard to describe.  There was actually quite a selection of foodstuffs printed in blue on both sides, but the menu’s typography was scaled down to fit in between columns of advertising that largely filled all the margins of the sheet, so it was a bit deceptive at first.  A taxi provider, hairdresser, and hauling service adjoined at least six different culinary preparations of alligator meat.  But we had been talking boiled crabs all day, those being prominently in season, and crabs was what we saw on almost every table.  Huge blue lake crabs, some weighing two pounds or more. Boiled spicy, and served warm.  We ordered a half dozen apiece, plus a serving of the seasoned corn-on-the-cob and new potatoes, an extra salad and a gigantic Cajun-spice-battered onion mum.  And a round of beers, of course.

We ate incredibly sweet white crab meat and cracked claws as large as any lobster’s for two hours, listening to the melodically-accented French being spoken all around us.  Hearing someone order ouaouaron, the wonderfully onomatopoeic Cajun word for frog. And its now-detached legs.  All the while being subconsciously aware that we stuck out as the only non-locals in the crowd of farmers and fishermen.  When Max and I went to the bathroom, the woman behind my partner tapped her on the shoulder and asked: “Y’all in a band, honey?”  I had thought we were dressed rather plainly.

The people who worked there and the people who were eating around us were to a person gracious and accommodating.  They wanted to meet and engage us, no matter the setting.  I had two great conversations in the bathroom about the food:  no, the female crabs didn’t have as much tasty fat as they did in the wintertime, but yes, Joe the owner put one female on every plate of crabs anyway, so folks could have a choice of flavors, even in the summer.  And yessir, he was glad some folks from out of town had found the place.  Where did we all come from?  Were we in a band?

In the end, I ate almost all the corn and most of the giant fried onion by myself.  It was served with a mixture of local honey and Creole mustard and Louisiana cayenne hot sauce, and the combination tasted so good it almost made me cry.  Maybe it was the cayenne.  My accomplices each ate seven of the monster crabs to my four.  We ate and drank and laughed until we could eat and drink and laugh no more, at least without walking around for a bit.  The check total was $29, for everything, including the beer.  We tipped largely. Hell, just the comfortable feel of the place, and the gracious company, was worth $29.

We walked out Big Joe’s doors after 7pm, and made our way to the museum. Happily so, because since we were slightly late we had missed most of the political speeches.  Our husband-and-wife friends were happy to see us and show off their work.  We met her mother for the first time.  The gentle-faced woman spoke English with barely an accent to us, but only French to family.  

An oysterman, a tenor, was singing an aria of sorts as we walked up, with only an Acadian squeeze-box accordion and a frottoir (a scrub board, rubbed with spoons as percussion) for accompaniment.  The regal gentleman wore a bright orange cravat fastened with a silver oyster-shaped tie tack under his stiffly-starched blue-jean overalls.  He was wearing the standard low white rubber fisherman’s boots to complement the outfit.  His final notes brought on a wave of appreciative clapping and much smiling and embracing all around.  The setting was restorative and positive and refreshing, as if we had walked into a G-rated love fest.  I hadn’t know anyone was still making “general audience” movies, but here was one in Houma, Louisiana, and we were cast as extras.

We walked through the museum, which was full of mounted and stuffed crabs and shrimp and oysters and redfish.  And gators.  

Hard to believe, but I found that I was getting hungry again, so I went back outside.  Prior visits to other museums have seldom given me an appetite.

The staff was floating Chinese lanterns down the dark bayou.  Each tiny vessel was embossed with the name of a museum patron, and carried a lit candle in the center of a paper boat shaped like a lotus blossom.  By this time of the evening the black water also carried the starry sky and the outlines of the massive live oaks overhead, the limbs of which had been festooned with strings of old-fashioned white light bulbs.  The bayou’s surface was alight with stars and the lights, through which the deep water and tiny drifting flowers moved in wind-aided choreography.

Someone started playing an accordion again in the nearby Square.  The museum closed its doors, the beer cart relocated with the crowd’s movement, and the dancing started in earnest.  First things first.  A museum was one thing, but a party? Precedence was reaffirmed.  Couples took each other in hand and swirled across the grass, keeping step to the rhythm of the frottoir.

We drove home happy that night, and in a much better state of mind than when we left the city.  In the car, driving through the darkness alongside Bayou Lafourche toward the lights of New Orleans, it almost seemed like no time had passed, like the day hadn’t actually happened.  It was an overly familiar feeling, like what we had experienced was indeed just the workings of faux cinema.  But Big Joe himself had come from the kitchen as I approached the exit door, and had awarded me with a menu to take home.  I had it in my lap as we drove into town.  Yes, he exists in real life, I was reminded.  Joe’s place is no fantasy, and I can go experience one of the daily matinees first-hand whenever I wish.  Yes, I can.

Especially since it seems, according to the menu/script, that Joe has a boiled crab drive-thru window opening onto the alley behind the kitchen.  A drive-in movie.  And I had thought that they had all disappeared.

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