Au Bonheur des Aubergines
Now Playing: Serge Gainsbourg--"Chatterton"
Happy Bastille Day! Aux Barricades! Ecrasez l'Infame! Algerie Fra--hey, wait...
I went home to attend my dad's wedding in Baton Rouge last weekend. Usually my visits home are almost entirely family-centric, but this time proved an interesting contrast. My brother and sister-in-law were scheduled to volunteer at "Art Melt," an LSU-affiliated exhibition and festvial along Third Street downtown. They asked if I wanted to hang out downtown for a few hours while this was going on, and it was really a no-brainer. Downtown and the general area around the LSU campus are the only parts of town for which I ever had all that much time. Baton Rouge technically "dates" from 1699, when Bienville first sailed past and saw the famous "Red Stick," but the town itself wasn't much more than a fort with attached buildings (the site of a now largely forgotten battle in 1778 between Spanish and British troops, part of a campaign associated with the American Revolution, in which my Canary Islander ancestor took part) until the early nineteenth century and the layout of still-extant "Beauregard Town," where I used to live for a while.
I hadn't explored downtown in several years, and was curious to see what had happened. Back in the late 90s, downtown was a deservedly well-kept secret, with only a few places to hang out; the quality/quantity disparity was pretty intense. After the state and financial sector's work concluded for the day, the place effectively became a ghost town with a few exceptions. The Thirsty Tiger on Main (and one had to look hard to find it), M's Fine and Mellow Cafe on Third Street, and The Spanish Moon towards the head of the interminable Highland Road--that was pretty much it. It was always a kick to wander the place in the small hours of the morning, nearly able to imagine a genuinely deserted city. In the decade since I lived in Baton Rouge, I'd heard rumors that downtown was undergoing a small revitalization, and was pleased, as it's a fantastic location and if there's a city that could use a density makeover, it's Baton Rouge. After checking it out, I have mixed feelings. There are a number of new places open--bars and restaurants--but the ones open past 5 or so all seem to congregate along lower Third Street and part of North Boulevard. Bogart's, a gay bar where the Desiree's staff would frequently congregate after work, was either gone or massively overshadowed by its next-door neighbor. At least one excellent if overly "hipsterish" new bar, The Red Star (of which more later), lies near the former site of lame "alternative" coffeeshop Insomneeack's, but the establishments down towards North are decidedly more mainstream, almost aiming for a "poor man's Bourbon Street" vibe (although I may be prejudiced in that there was a major festival going on). Boudreaux and Thibodeaux's sounds like what it is, a Cajun-themed bar/restaurant with live music, poboys, and other staples. The Roux House, on the former site of M's, was inoffensive if overpriced, although the lack of character and the crap music made an unfortunate comparison with its predecessor (including the absence of the latter's gloriously certifiable owner). The less said about Happy's Irish Pub the better--it's definitely one of the most grotesque, repulsive "Irish pubs" I've ever seen. Between all these and the river lies the Shaw Center for the Arts, containing a number of galleries and restaurants including the unexpectedly good LSU Museum of Art (greatly expanded from the lackluster Anglo-American Museum that used to hide in the ground floor of Memorial Tower on campus), including Hogarth's Portrait of a Lady from around 1740, G.P.A. Healy's lovely 1845 Lady in a Black Gown, and Thomas Badger's 1820 portrait of Captain Cleves Symmes, who may or may not be John Cleves Symmes, the wacko who tried to organize an expedition to explore the earth's core well before Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs.
So I had a nice long ramble, hitting the two State Capitols, communing with the river and discovering that they'd put a bike trail atop the levee. I'd made the mistake of entering the Roux House, drifting into the courtyard (their sole improvement) and surveying the crowd outside on Third Street, when I caught sight of an old friend of mine. I'd met this friend through my ex-girlfriend when I was home from college one summer and we got to be quite chummy over the years, taking long drives down River Road, rooting through old graveyards in St. Gabriel, and up to St. Francisville--again, rooting through old graveyards--without my ever figuring out that she had a crush on me (a real shocker that, considering my legendary--to me, anyway--incompetence at picking up signals). Now, of the surprising number of women about which this has been the case, she's way up there. She was and is really cool and I always had a great time hanging out with her. Indeed, I often had twinges while we hung out, wondering, but again, nothing ever came of it. I said hello and we talked for a while, sitting on the curb and then at the Red Star. Great jukebox (Toots and the Maytals and Joy Division both available), good beer, terrific company--one can rail about hipster bars all one wants (and I have), but when one lives in a hipster town (genuine or no), the bar's charms can seem all the more rewarding. We chatted with her friends (among them, astonishingly enough, a guy I used to live with ten years ago, in a boarding house on State Street, a time in my life which still generates great dollops of nostalgia) and we had a long, involved discussion of various sorts. While really cool, she's also genuinely admirable. She not only stayed in Baton Rouge while just about everyone else I know, myself included, hi-tailed it as far away from the place as possible once we'd gotten inevitably sick of it, but also gets involved with and fights for progressive causes, notably sensible transportation (especially bicycle use), in what's surely an unhappy environment in which to do so (and what's with this guy, incidentally?).
I have never seriously considered moving back to my hometown or home state for various reasons. The whole "ingrained conservative" thing was never that big of an issue (I was, after all, a captive audience for my first two decades and became known as one of my high school's "house liberals"); I'd just lived there too long and wanted to try somewhere else. Those who can't understand this can take comfort from the fact that I've never been able to fathom the need or desire to stay in one place for an entire lifespan or anything remotely approaching it. That said, my friend came closer than anyone else has--or probably ever will--in making me rethink my resolve. At the very least, I plan to keep in better touch with her. I also need to stop mentally writing the place off. In my darkest and most cynical moments, I expect that within a couple of decades, given the present habits of energy use and general attitudes, half of Louisiana will be underwater while the other half will look like the second act of A Boy And His Dog (1975). I should probably stop doing that. After all, how would I feel if people from other countries (to say nothing of online chums from abroad) wrote off the US just because of the past six years (which they probably already have)?
With all this rattling around in my brain, I was unexpectedly preoccupied when my dad's wedding rolled around. It was one of those huge family-society functions to which I used to have a severe allergy and can still only get through with the aid of certain "fluids." To be sure, this had nothing to do with my dad or his new wife. I've met her only twice but she seems really cool and is by all accounts very good with my half-brothers, whose mother tragically passed away two years ago. All in all, it was the usual whirl of mini-family reunions and commiserations with the McKay family "center-left sleeper cell and associates." Good times, all told.