I don’t mean this as a digression from where I left off last week. But I want to convey the fabric of a community, and a snapshot of the times, the moment that I happened on mama sue, or she on me. More on mama sue… coming next week
So, before I get to Mama Sue, and that whole tangled yarn, I have to ask…is it true? That the oil has stopped gushing into the Gulf? I hadn’t heard the news yet while watching footage shot three years ago, of August baiting a hook and casting into one of the still, still rivers of Delacroix Island, which isn’t really an island, but the name of a neighborhood at the southern end of St. Bernard Parish. I couldn’t help but be wistful watching his relaxed way of handling the hooks and lines and setting the rods down on the beach. That day I managed to hook a catfish and he pulled in a striped drum. I was wondering as I logged the scenes of this afternoon hour - so casual I might have forgotten it if I hadn’t caught in on tape – whether August would thread a hook with shrimp pieces again in his life. No, I wouldn’t have forgotten. It was an unusual day, a beautiful, languid, somewhat unnerving day. The water, air, trees, sky all utterly still and it seemed untouched by human beings. And unnerving because I hate fishing. I never go. And here I was with a virtual stranger, who was teaching me how to attach a tiny piece of bait… I was horrified when I actually caught a fish! I didn’t have the strength to haul the thing in. It was heavy, or it was fighting. I couldn’t tell. August, so pleased with me, and himself I think for having taught me how to do any of this, reeled it in. “She caught a fish before August!” he declared. I was a good filmmaker, I thought, keeping focus on the catfish as it thrashed around on the dropped-down gate of August’s pick-up.
And I haven’t forgotten the first afternoon (spring, '07) I returned to my new temporary apartment – a one bedroom on the second floor, above a soon-to-be-renovated row of stores. They, the future stores, all sat empty, holes in sheetrock which would soon accept electric panels, plumbing fixtures. Grimy windows which would one day be clear and showcase some kind of retail activity. Up an exterior iron stair, there were about 6 small, unadorned apartments, all except mine rented by laborers from Latin America. Only one of these construction worker had come with his family – his wife and young daughter – who prepared out of their tiny kitchen (I had the same four impossible electric burners) dozens of tacos every day for sale to the Mexicans who’d relocated up in the NOLA area for Katrina work. The rest shared with one or two other men. Only one of my neighbors spoke any English.
I didn’t know any of these details when I returned home from my first major shop at the newly rebuilt Winn-Dixie, back seat and trunk filled with at least 20 small bags of cereal, soy milk, frozen crawfish pies. It was night, and completely dark. I was startled – putting it mildly – to see at least three small trucks parked in the lot that adjoined our apartment strip, where I too had pulled in, in my Prius. I was surrounded – or so it felt – by a posse of lone-man occupied trucks. All I could think – since I was on Guerra Drive, a street everyone spoke about in dejected terms, shaking their heads – that they were doing drug deals. I froze. Here was I, a gringa woman who lived alone. How could I get out and start carting my grocery bags up the stairs? They would see I saw them making their deals and maybe not that night, but some night not too far in the future, they’d come for me. My thoughts about what “come for me” meant were vague. I think I assumed they’d shoot me. I sat for what seemed like an hour. Then, when the men all seemed to be not going anywhere, I decided that I could either sit all night with my lettuce, or be brave and get out of the car and go to my apartment.
I learned not too long after that evening that these men used the nighttime hours after work to place calls to their families in Central and South America. They were sitting in their trucks, clutching their cell phones and receiving -- who knows? Perhaps stories about this relative or that, reports of illness, death, a new baby, the marriage of a cousin, any news they could strain to hear about their native country in their native language. They were probably describing their day. By March when it started to get warm, I’d look up at at our common balcony, if you want to call that narrow cement strip that ran outside our apartments a balcony, and see many of the men leaning over the metal railing, for hours, the tiny lights on their phones glinting like fireflies. The man who lived in apartment #1, the one who spoke some English, worked part time for our landlord as a sort of super. He’d helped me assemble my sofa bed. One afternoon, he tapped on my door. I opened it hesitantly – still not absolutely sure of things, though by this point I was sure that I didn’t know a thing about my neighbors – and he asked if he could use my laptop to look at the CD his wife had sent. When he sat down at my computer, and the images of four adorable girls, his daughters, the oldest twelve I think, popped into view, he told me that he had left for the United States one afternoon, without letting his wife in on his plans until after he’d reached the States. He hadn’t seen his wife or children in the seven years since.