If pre-Katrina Baton Rouge was crowded, post-Katrina Baton Rouge is bulging. The crowding reminds me of those sacks of crawfish stuffed full and taunt, and the squirming wet sound they make as they jostle to fit. In South Louisiana, I see the familiar swirling with the new. The ancient oaks still hold their spilling moss. On the LSU campus, the hundred-year-old grandfather oaks branches are as big as the trunks of every tree in the state of Texas, some of those limbs so heavy they curve down and touch the ground—lovely. In spring, the Azaleas spill out on nearly every yard; they arrive early, because they do not want to share the spotlight. Lush colors of reds, pinks, purples, white, some allowed to spread and grow however they please, and others pruned and cut back to fit a gardener’s idea of beauty. Azaleas inhabit the yards of the rich, the poor, the black, the white, everyone, for the azalea is the great equalizer.
Places where I’d last seen pasture, trees, vacant lots, or old buildings gone to ruin, have in their place new apartments, retail shops, restaurants. Cars line up to sit through two or three red lights, the interstate is noisy and slow, the surface streets are over-filled with cars that have futilely escaped the interstate. It’s as if a great foot stomped across an anthill and caused the ants to rush out and scurry here, there, and yonder…chaos. And I, now country-come-to-town, gaze wide-eyed with both wonder and terror when visiting my former adoptive city.
While watching WAFB Channel 9, I can’t help but compare little Maggie Valley to Big Baton Rouge. Newscasts begin with shootings—not one, not two, but in multiples. The camera pans over sheet-covered bodies, first on this part of town, and then on that part of town; the camera operators and the reporters scurry about to include all of the lumps under draped sheets, which seems so surreal I have to remind myself those “lumps” are people. People who were once children who ran laughing across summer-burnt grass. People whose mothers will rock back and forth, clutching chests that once cradled their infants’ heads, their lost-child moans inconsolable. I have to stop thinking about it.
I ask my friends, “Do you feel a change in Baton Rouge since Katrina?”
One answers, “Well, at first it was bad, then it leveled off.”
Another says, “It’s gotten a bit crowded, I suppose.”
And yet another, “Maybe, but I love it here and would never want to move. This is home.” At this, she eyes me as if to say, “Unlike some traitors who move away from their best friends in the whole wild world to live on some mountain where I bet your booties the food ain’t good and it snows and gets too dang cold and big mountains where a body is likely to fall off a cliff never to be found!” Matter of fact, she does say this, loud and opinionated, and I laugh at her; tell her she’s such a flatlander. Tell her the mountains are Home for me and I’ve missed them, ached for them, knew I’d someday return to them. She harrumphs, tosses her head, and then pushes more food at me, tells me I’ve gotten too skinny since moving to “them mountains where I repeat the food ain’t good.” It’s all about the food in South Louisiana, everything is considered in terms of food. At breakfast, lunch is discussed; at lunch, dinner (or supper) is discussed; at dinner (supper), dessert is discussed; at dessert, the food eaten during the day is discussed. Funerals, weddings, birthdays, Just Because I’m Sad or Happy or Mad days, any excuse for a party where food is King and Queen and Subject: this is South Louisiana.
South Louisiana has always been a diverse, colorful, energized place. And Baton Rouge has never been a stationary, stagnant city. Baton Rouge is like that pot of spicy water waiting for the crawfish, roiling, bubbling—hot, steamy, pungent.
My visit ends. I drive back to the Smokies. I was born a mountain girl, and a mountain girl is who I am, but my visits to Baton Rouge are different now, for I now see it from the eyes of distance. I feel a tug for the Spanish moss, the great oaks, the swamps filled with cypress, the spicy flavor of the food and the people, the friends I’ve left there, the memories, the old ways squirming with the new ways, the gulf shrimp, the boiling frying grilling blackening, the jambalaya, the real gumbo,—the rich dark kind with goody goodness floating in it—the etoufee, Louie’s, George’s, Mike Andersons, Don’s, Calandro’s, Bet R, the bait stores that are also groceries with cheeses and wines and Stage Plank gingerbread.
I come back home to my mountains and with a strange awe, I ask, “What just happened to me?”