The Deepwater Horizon spill is working some kind of rear-view mirror mojo on me. I attribute it, in no small part, to have just read James Lee Burke’s Tin Roof Blowdown, his Dave Robicheaux novel revolving around Katrina.
Owing to his wounded protagonist, Officer Robicheaux, his whacked-out long-time pal, Clete Purcell and the nature of the area and the crimes relayed, the books in the series often have a darkness to them. Sometimes, it is a welcome darkness. Other times, it is disturbing and resonant, staying with me like a bad dream I wake up from in the middle of the night. I’m sometimes uncomfortable around Dave, but I do like him and the way he keeps the code. Burke is such a talented and atmospheric storyteller that I have smelled the ion in the pre-rain air over Lake Pontchartrain when he’s described it. The first time I went to Louisiana, I was staying at the Holiday Inn in Metairie. I had just finished the first book in the series, Neon Rain. I saddled up to the bar in the hotel and ordered a Jax. The lady bartender smiled gently at me, showing no sign of judgment. “Darlin’, we haven’t had Jax in twenty years.” Burke led me to believe in the past so much I thought it was the present.
Bea and I went to New Orleans many times during the first half of the ‘90’s. One trip we drove out to Lafayette and stayed a couple nights, out near Breaux Bridge and the Bayou Vermilion. Robicheaux territory. One day, we drove south, through Houma, towards a place I had read about where the freshwater and salt water commingled, creating the tree cemetery. I wanted to shoot some snaps, and try to replicate the spookiness I had seen in others’ photos, where the dead tree trunks rise out of the mist.. I blew it. The mist over the shallow water of the basin in caused by the characteristic humidity. We were there in April, when the air was crisp and there was no mystery at all.
I took some pictures and we wandered further south, coming upon the docked shrimp boats. The season was about to begin and the shrimpers were prepping for the blessing of the boats before heading out to the gulf. I started taking some pics of the boats—one in particular—when someone behind the boat I was photographing asked if he could help me. The man was big and black and big as a house. I was intimidated, feeling I may have been trespassing and about to be warned off. In my fiction-influenced mind, the man reminded me of Batiste, the man that ran the boathouse in some of the earlier Robicheaux novels.
“I was just looking at the boats, taking some photographs.” I said as the behemoth approached me.
“Well, then, let me show you the inside… ”
He gave us a tour of the cramped interior of the boat and then cracked open a photo album. He described the content of the snapshots from previous blessings of the boats ceremonies, turning the pages slowly. He was proud of his blessed boat, and of his independent life, save for his need of the sea—for the shrimp… and the oil.
Morgan City has held a Shrimp & Petroleum Festival for 74 years. This September, will mark the 75th. Time Magazine called it “ …one of the best, most unusual, the most down-home, the most moving and the most fun the country has to offer.” I’m not sure what they will say about this year’s. It may indeed be moving.
(photographs of Southern Louisiana, Capt. Stiff ©Barry Shapiro)