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Excerpts of Louisiana Travel Diary
State 46 - LOUISIANA 10 APR 00 - 14 APR 00

 

The Long & Short of It

On every street corner the memory of the controversial, Depression-era governor, Huey P. Long, overshadows Baton Rouge. The State Capitol bears his imprint, not only in the very smallest detail of its design, but also by the fact that he was slain by an assassin in its very halls. Bullet holes remain in the walls, punctuating his mortal fate. While touring the Capitol, and, as always, eavesdropping on other tourists' conversatons, "Huey Long" is all I hear among the lowered voices. All are curious about him, including me. He was a fascinating man. At the Observation Deck on the 27th floor, there's a small gift shop called Shop at the Top. While there I speak with the thin, frail, smartly dressed elderly lady manning the counter and ask her to recommend a book on Huey Long. She tosses three books on the counter: one, a thick 1,000-page biography; another dedicated solely to the assassination; and a thin paperback, written by Huey Long, himself called Share Our Wealth. Normally I would go for the thick biography, but the pages reveal obese writing. I hate fat words and bloated phrases. Disappointed, I put the book down and pick up the assassination book, autographed by the author. That's a plus, but, his writing is too roundabout, too indirect. Like Goldilocks and the three bears I find the third try is "just right." What better way to learn about a man than to read, in his own words, his propsal to change the world? So I purchase the book and find a bench to sit on and to begin this adventure. I shake my head in disbelief. Did he really think he could redistribute the wealth in this country? At that time most of the nation's wealth was in the hands of a few men who owned just about everything. Long says, "and their pleasure consists in the starvation of the masses and their possessing things they cannot use." These people owned more than one house, denying others of home-ownership, Long claimed, they owned more things than they could possibly use, which were purchased from the fruits of the labor of the masses. Long believed that many contributed to that one man's wealth, but only he got to buy things with the money earned. He was able to purchase the most outrageous luxuries while his workers were denied the most basic necessities. Long's solution was to limit this extreme wealth. He writes:

"We do not propose to say there shall be no rich men. We do not ask to divide the wealth. We only propose that, when one man gets more than he and his children and children's children can spend or use in their lifetime, that then we shall say that such a person has his share. That means that a few million dollars is the limit to what any one man can own. When we limit how high one man can go, we then limit how low one man can fall."

It's an interesting concept. Not like communism, because Long doesn't claim "everyone according to his needs." No. Long says there can be rich men, but not so disproportionately rich that they pervert society in that they have extra houses that remeain empty while other Americans remain homeless. Long allows for their wealth and even the wealth of their children and children's children, but not a perverse wealth that is attained by oppression. After all, the wealthy would not have achieved their riches without the labor of the masses, he asserts.

The only problem with Long's thesis is that he never proposed HOW he would accomplish this. WHO would monitor this? And that is what people feared. They feared him a dictator at heart, using the wealthy as Vote Bait. It was the Depression, after all, and people were starving while the oil men, railroad barons, and steel magnates were living in cruel excess. Lost in lavish luxury. So Long's slogan "Share Our Wealth" had a popular appeal, but it lacked administrative details. President Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced him as a demagogue, saying he feared only two men: Huey Long on the left and General McArthur on the right. Nevertheless, the book is interesting, but I'm afraid Long does fall short in his pronouncements by not detailing how the plan would be administered.

In the Pink

As I'm sitting on the bench engrossed in Share Our Wealth, the eldery lady from the gift shop leaves her post at the cash register and approaches me carrying a fuschia rose in her hand. "You know, I'm a rose gardener." She boasts. "I've got hundreds of roses in my yard. But this is the very best." She says, extending the hot pink bloom. "Smell this." She insists, as she plunges the rose under my nose. I'm mildly annoyed at this interruption from my book, but when I put the book down and bend my head into this exquisite cup of sweet pink velvet, I am transported. My spirit is lifted, carried on the magic fragrance of this sweet scent, a perfume that one rarely experiences in any garden today. I'm told that this is indeed a rare rose. "This rose," the woman begins, "is very unsual." She says with a tinge of mystery to her voice. "When it's a bud, it's bright orange. When it blooms, it turns lemon-yellow. And when it's about to die, it turns this deep pink, as though it's embarrassed to leave the world. That's when its scent is strongest." She smiles benevolently, basking in my adoration. "I'm lucky to have this rose bush, because a visiting horticulturist once came to the University of Louisiana and gave a lecture and when I talked to her after the lecture, she told me these roses are very temperamental and quite un-American. This famous horticulturist didn't believe I could grow this rose in American soil and made a special visit to my garden to see for herself." The Gift shop lady beams proudly. "So I'm quite priviledged." I feel privileged too, to experience this rose, to hear of this lady's accomplishment, and wish that I, too, could visit her dazzling garden of 100 roses.

NO

The headline reads "NO POLICE TAKE ACTION AGAINST DRUGS." What it means is that "New Orldeans Police take action against drugs." New Orleanians refer to their city, as "NO." Signs on the roads read: NO MUSEUM. NO PARK. NO CITY HALL. NO POLICE. And so on. It takes a while to get used to.

Concrete, Carolers and Coffee

This RV park is a city park, like the one we stayed in when we visited St. Louis. We're parked in a parking lot type of environment, surrounded by hostile city life, and yet every morning I'm greeted by chirping birds caroling in the wet morning air while the aroma of rich Louisiana coffee wafts in from the trailer next door. It's amazing how, before I pull the shade, I feel like I'm in some wonderful countryside. but the uncurling of the shade shows a treeless lot of tar and concrete.

Steele Magnolias

In Baton Rouge there is a place called the Rural Life Museum, which houses artifacts belonging to 19th century farm life on cotton plantations, sugar plantations and fishing villages. Outside the museum building they've created a village that represents different dwellings, such a the shotgun house, Acadian house, Overseer's house, slave houses and a sugar house. This is all fascinating, but what's more interesting, more captivating is a tree-lined lane that leads to the "Windrush Gardens." This quiet lane doesn't seem like much and the tiny wooden sign seems to suggest disappointment beyond the gate, but those who venture past the sign are rewarded with a total surprise. Turn down one of the narrower paths off the lane and enter a maze of greenery -- magnolia trees, palm trees, live oaks -- adorned in strategic points with marvelous stone sculptures. Each path leads to a different lush garden until the end of the maze opens up to a blue pond with bridges, lilies, a fountain and even a goat island. The garden was donated by a brother and sister who inherited the property but they themselves never married, and had no immediate heirs. The woman's name was Ione Burden and her brother was named Steele Burden. Steele died in 1991, at the age of 92, outliving his sister by a few years. He spent his last years making pottery that is now on display in the museum. (Weird stuff.) He said he wanted to donate the garden to others so they may experience a bit of quiet solitude, a haven from this rushed world. Ken and I walk this garden and do not see another human being. It is all that Steele hoped it would be, and we are grateful for people like him and his sister.

Beads, trinkets, fortune tellers and swollen faces

The Mardi Gras Museum is housed in the old 18th century Presbytere overlooking Jackson Square. The museum is wonderful for people like me who, although attracted to the concept of Mardi Gras, shun parades, queues and drunken, costumed crowds. I've always been curious about Mardi Gras but my curiosity could never conquer my loathing of intoxicated crowds. So I'm thrilled to find that I can experience Mardi Gras without someone stepping on my toes or vomiting on my shoes. The museum has done a fantastic job of capturing the essence of Mardi Gras, from all vantage points . . .from the discriminating regal balls, to the cajun countryside's peripatetic begging in its equestrian "Courir de Mardi Gras" (the running of the Mardi Gras), where costumed riders gallup to farms, foraging for food to make gumbo. The museum has it all, and its staged so that you feel you're actually there . . .wrought iron balconies that makes you feel as though you're on top of a float, and even restrooms with a "Port-A-Toilet" facade. (They thought of everything). You can even go into a screening room to see clips of movies that feature the Mardi Gras. But my all-time favorite is the exhibit that shows all the costumes and invitations for the regal balls. Some of these bejeweled crowns, tiaras and mantles display elegant craftsmanship. And the 19th century invitations and dance cards are colorful pieces of exquisite artwork. I'm fascinated by the concept of dance cards. Women got this little card with all the dances numbered and a line beside each one in which you picked a partner for each dance, and entered his name next to that number on the line provided. I'd like to have a party some day and do the same thing. Must be fun to run around asking people, "Can I have dance #7, the Rumba?" The icing on the cake is the dressing room with brilliant costumes hanging on racks where you can try on costumes and hats in front of a full length mirror and see "What kind of fool am I?" All in all it's a grand experience. By the way, the official colors of the Mardi Gras are Purple, Green and Gold. They used to represent Royalty, Truth and Purity, respectively but have since changed to represent Justice, Faith, and Power. (I like the old symbols better.)

But something peculiar occurs on the second floor of this museum. As I examine some old-fashioned invitations and trinkets my eyes begin tearing up, my nose starts running, my throat tightens. I can't swallow. Ken looks at me, and is frightened. "Oh my God, what's the matter with you!" He exclaims. "Your face is all swollen, your eyes are red as Satan's. You look like some of the masks." In my grotesque state, my distorted countenance does not yet cloud my mind which tells me it's the carpet. This is the only room with carpeting, I deduce. I leave the room and all symptoms disappear. Very odd. My escape from the "magic carpet" leads me to the gallery, an enclosed second story balcony. It's a beautiful room, lined with French doors that look down on the action below in Jackson Square. We are lucky because today is the New Orleans Festival where Jackson Square and the riverfront are loaded with booths from all the local restaurants, allowing visitors to sample New Orleans' restaurant fare for just a few dollars. Local musicians are playing all day at various makeshift stages and fortune tellers line the sidewalk. This is the view I have from the enclosed balcony of the museum. There must be at least a dozen fortune tellers on the sidewalk below. I've always wondered about fortune tellers. They always seem so poor and shabby. If they can see into the future, why aren't they more financially secure? I often wondered. I do not frequent fortune tellers because I don't believe in them, and if I did believe in them, then I stay even further away, because I sure don't want to know my future. (It's burdensome enough that I carry my past with me). But there they are. It's interesting to see the type of people who cling to every word the fortune teller speaks. Some seers have lines waiting to see them, while others sit bored under there colorful, optimistic umbrellas, waiting for the customer that never comes. One of these is a man who looks like David Bowie (in his early years). Quite handsome, but not the typecast fortune teller. Understandably no one comes to his booth. He gets up, removes the jacket to his silk suit, lights a cigarette and glances comtemptuously beneath his cigarette at the undeserving crowd. Instantly I feel a pang of pity for him. Meanwhile a woman who's sign says she's a "Native American Seer" has a long line of people waiting to see her, while David Bowie clandestinely watches in restrained jealousy. A feathery "Spirit Catcher" hangs from her table. A customer is engrossed in what this woman is telling her. David Bowie casts an envious eye her way, gives an almost imperceptible shrug and takes his seat again, waiting for a future-seeking customer. It's intriguing to watch. Why did they choose to make a living this way, I wonder. Surely they can't make much money. Didn't their cards, or crystal ball tell them to pursue more lucrative work? I'm surprised that here in New Orleans, the Voodoo capital of America that there are no Voodoo queens plying their trade on this mystic-laden sidewalk.

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