Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Man in the Red and White Suit

For the first few weeks of December, I was in one of those moods that kept me from getting into the spirit of the season. I knew that I needed a jump-start to help me feel jolly, and so I decided that I would apply for a job that had a holiday theme.

I thought about my options, and came up with toy maker, Christmas tree grower and reindeer handler, none of which I thought I was qualified for. But several days ago, while reading The Abbeville Meridional, I found the perfect job to help get me in the holiday spirit. I would apply to work directly for Santa Claus.

After reading about his appearance at the recently passed Cattle Festival, I made a few phone calls and found out that he was going to be in Abbeville the week before Christmas. I managed to get in touch with him directly, and set up an interview at a place called T-Boy’s Flea Market.

I brought my mother with me, and as I drove down Charity Street towards the courthouse, she helped me look for a big blue metallic building. I found it easily because Mr. Claus was sitting in front of it in his red and white suit.

“Why are we here?” my mother asked as we pulled into the parking lot.

“I’m interviewing for a job with Santa Claus,” I said.

She told me that I was too skinny to fit in the suit, and I explained to her that I was applying for a job to work for Santa Claus, not to actually be Santa Claus.

“I’m not even sure who you would have to talk to about becoming the big man,” I said. “But who cares. Maybe he’ll give you something like a bag of aluminum cans.”

We got out of the car and walked towards the front door of the building. Before we arrived, a woman walked out of the store and stood next to the man in the red and white suit.

“This is my daughter, Kimberly,” Santa Claus said.

I hadn’t realized that Santa Claus had a daughter, and I wondered if he’d accidentally told me some big family secret. I thought about threatening to call the National Enquirer with this information unless he gave me a brightly wrapped present from his big black bag of toys.

As I fantasized about what I’d get, my mother asked Santa Claus who his daddy was. Within twenty seconds she knew more about his family than everything I’d learned as a child from watching all of his Christmas specials.

“He’s too skinny,” my mother said and pointed at me. “He can’t be you.”

I didn’t feel like explaining to her again that I wasn’t applying for a job to be the man who slid down people’s chimneys and put gifts into stockings and under trees. So I suggested that she check out what was inside the flea market, and to look for something for me. Mr. Claus’s daughter said she’d be happy to show my mother around, and then the two of them went into the store.

I sat outside in front of the flea market with the man in the red and white suit and wondered how I should address him. I didn’t know if I should call him Santa Claus or go with something more formal like Mr. Claus or Monsieur Kringle. I decided to try and avoid calling him by name, and then looked down at my list of questions.

There was note for me to ask him what types of jobs were available with Santa Claus. I didn’t think I’d like making toys, and probably wouldn’t want to live in the North Pole. I wondered if I could become his sleigh-driver, and if I should tell him about my experience of driving my mother around.

I imagined her sitting in the back seat of the sleigh and yelling at me about speeding as we flew across the sky. I wondered how I would explain to her that sometimes Rudolph got a little freaked out and went faster than he should. Just the image of the situation made me not want to be a sleigh-driver anymore, and so I thought I would ask Santa what it was like to take care of reindeer.

“Have Dasher, Comet or Cupid ever bitten you?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “But because I’m Santa Claus, I didn’t get rabies.”

He laughed, and I felt happy to know that Kris Kringle had a sense of humor. This was a requirement I looked for in all of my employers, and I became more enthusiastic about driving his sleigh. I decided that if the position included insurance, and I received a brightly colored package from the big black bag of toys, I would take the job.

A few seconds later, someone walked up and called Mr. Claus by the name, T-Boy. I asked him why, and he said that it was his nickname, and when he was in Vermilion Parish, he liked to be addressed by it. I felt relieved that I hadn’t embarrassed myself by calling him, Monsieur Kringle.

I knew that a man like this had probably seen a lot in his life, and so I asked him to tell me about his favorite Christmas memory. He told me that one time he helped Saint Theresa’s church hand out bicycles to 125 orphans throughout the parish.

“I love working with kids,” he said. “I can’t tell you how good it made me feel to see the smiles on their faces. That is why I do this.”

The story was just what I needed to jump-start my holiday spirit, and I didn’t care anymore if Santa Claus or T-Boy gave me a brightly colored package. The expression on his face told me that this was a man who truly believed in giving, and his words were the only Christmas present I needed.

I realized that since I had become filled with holiday spirit, I didn’t need to get a job working for Santa Claus anymore. I was going to end the interview, but then became confused about why the man in the red and white suit was just hanging out in Abbeville the week before Christmas.

“Shouldn’t you be building toys or something?” I asked.

He shook his head and said, “No. I get a lot of my stuff here at the Flea Market.”

He showed me inside the store, which was a large room filled with amazing collectibles ranging from coffee pots our grandma’s used before cappuccino makers were introduced, and glass bowls and vases of every size, shape and color.

My eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store, and I explored this treasure chest of days passed. As I meandered around a corner, I saw that there was something under the tree for me. It was a used black leather desk chair similar to ones I’d seen new for a couple of hundred dollars.

“I’ll give it to you for $20,” Mr. Kringle said. “Consider it an early Christmas present.”

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Celebrating the Holidays

The holidays are here, and for some of us the brightly colored lights, neatly wrapped presents, and shimmering ice cycles surround and comfort us like our favorite warm sweater or blanket. But for others, this time of year is one of sadness, stress and loneliness. I have experienced the latter of the two feelings several times, but a few years ago I realized why.

At the time, I was living in New York and working as a tie salesman at Ralph Lauren. It was my first Holiday season at that store, but I knew from previous retail experience that since I was paid on commission, it could be very profitable. This was important to me because I was in a difficult financial situation. I could barely afford rent and other bills, and would not be able to exchange gifts with friends, or fly home to see my family.

On Christmas Eve, a customer came into the store looking for a last minute gift for her daughter’s new husband. I showed her our most popular items like golf shirts, cuff links and ties, but the customer vetoed all of them because she said she didn’t know her son-in-law’s taste. She finally decided on a pair of $150 red cashmere socks.

“I don’t know if he’ll like them,” she said. “But he better appreciate them because of how much they cost.”

I should have been happy because of the commission, but I was suddenly filled with sadness and a little anger. When the woman left, I excused myself from the sales floor and went to the employee kitchen to think about what I was feeling.
At first I felt hate towards the customer because she had the money to spend $150 on socks, and I had been surviving on cans of soup so I could pay rent. I became more angry as I thought about how I would be spending Christmas day alone, and her son-in-law would have his feet wrapped in cashmere.

But then I realized that what I was truly feeling was jealously, and that the emotion would neither solve or change anything. It would only fill me with more hate and anger and grow like a cancerous tumor.

It was at this moment that I decided to re-evaluate the meaning of the holidays. I knew that to some the time of year was about profit, but to others it was about the celebration of life, and the overcoming of obstacles.

To me, it was a time to get together with family and friends and be thankful for all that I had going for me. I had my health, and people who loved and supported me.

I realized that in a strange way, my interaction with the customer had been a blessing. She hadn’t change what the holidays meant to me, but she had made me think about how I would celebrate them.

I decided that I would no longer let the fact that I couldn’t afford expensive gifts, keep me from enjoying the holidays. I would instead give my loved ones something that I felt was more valuable; time. Socks wear out, but memories of a nice dinner or a walk in the park will stay with people forever.

Later that evening, I called a friend who I knew would also be alone in New York for Christmas. I asked him if he wanted to come to my apartment for lunch.

“I don’t have a Christmas tree, or a gift for you,” I said. “But I can open up the best can of soup I have and maybe even spring for some eggnog.”

There was no cashmere, or mounds of wrapping paper and presents to celebrate the holidays. But I consider the lesson I learned, one of the most valuable gifts I’ve ever received.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gator Business

My mother has recently threatened to kick me out of her house if I don’t make an effort to find a full time job. She said that this unstable economy has negatively influenced the earnings she receives from recycling cans. I’ve reassured her that I’ve been going on exploratory interviews, and to provide proof, I’ve been writing about my experiences for the paper. But when I told her that she would read about my time at an alligator farm this week, she said that she didn’t believe me.

“Reading about the interviews in the paper, isn’t proof,” she said. “You could be making all that stuff up. I’m going with you to that alligator farm to make sure you’re telling the truth.”

Vermilion Gator Farm is located in the community of Mouton Cove. Surrounded by marsh, canals and swamps, it is the perfect location for Mr. Wayne Sagrera’s family run business. He has been the Wildlife and Fisheries Commissioner for six years, and his son, Stephen, currently holds the position.

“My family has been living off of the marshes of Vermilion Parish for five generations,” said Mr. Sagrera when my mother and I sat down with him in his office. “I started in this business with my father when I was thirteen.”

According to Mr. Sagrera, the alligator industry took off in the early 1980’s. He started his company in 1984, and over the course of twenty years became the largest exporter of alligator skins in the world.

“It was a lot of eighteen hour days,” said Mr. Sagrera. “But I get help from my four sons, Raphael, Kevin, Craig and Stephen.”

It was at that point I realized that I wouldn’t like working on an alligator farm. I didn’t want to work eighteen-hour days, and I didn’t have any children to help me. Then I started to get a little worried that my mother would ask Mr. Sagrera to hire me on the spot.

“How much does it pay?” my mother asked.

Before Mr. Sagrera answered, I asked him if he could tell the difference between a male and a female alligator by looking at them. He told me that the only way to really tell is by putting your finger into the animal’s cloaca.

“How much does it pay?” my mother asked again.

I didn’t know what a cloaca was, and I didn’t want to find out. I knew that the best way to avoid this was to get Mr. Sagrera away from my mother. So I asked him if he could give me a tour (without my mother) of the alligator farm.

We walked outside and up to a row of short buildings with roofs that looked like giant triangles or capital A’s. Mr. Sagrera said it wasn’t a good idea for us to go into a building with the live alligators, because there was a very strong odor, and the heat would fog up the lens cap on my camera.

“We raise the alligators in those buildings over there,” he said and pointed. “And over here is where we grade their skins.”

We walked into the building, and I saw a young lady with a ruler and several piles of skins laid side by side across a long table. Mr. Sagrera introduced me to his Quality Control Agent, Velma Stelly, who showed me how alligator skins were measured and graded.

“These skins are shipped all over the world,” Mr. Sagrera said. “Many are going to be used as watch bands for luxury brands like Gucci, Prada and Ralph Lauren.”

As we walked back towards his office, I became worried that my mother would ask Mr. Sagrera to give me a job, and I’d have to work eighteen-hour days. I started to wonder if I should ask a lot of stupid questions so he would think I was a little weird and tell my mother that he didn’t want me around his gators.

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever found in an alligator?” I asked.

Mr. Sagrera looked at me and smiled and said, “Another alligator.”

I managed to get my mother off of the farm before she enlisted me in the gator business. As we were driving home, I wondered if I should tell her that Mr. Sagrera said he wasn’t hiring at the moment. But before I could work out all of the details of the lie in my head, I realized that a thirty-nine year old man lying to my mother was a bit pathetic.

So I decided to sit still, and be quiet, and hope that she didn’t ask me when I was going to start working with Mr. Sagrera. But my plan didn’t work, and half-way home she turned and looked at me.

“You don’t want a job there,” she said. “If you had to work eighteen hour days, you wouldn’t have time to help me recycle cans.”

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sheer Family

This crazy economy has taken its toll on my bank account, so I’ve hit the roads of Vermilion Parish to find out what other sources of income are out there. So far, I worked as a Maytag Man, and learned how NOT to shuck an oyster. This week, I decided to visit one of the most interesting, yet dangerous places for a man to be; my mother’s beauty parlor.

Sheer Country by Angie LeMaire is a one-chair shop located on Highway 14 between Kaplan and Gueydan in the quaint community of Mulvey (my sister-in-law is from there). I had been on that drive many times as a kid, but never realized the beauty of the continuous roadside prairie decorated with ranch style houses and fields of grazing cattle.

When I saw the green and white sign advertising Le Doux’s Jumps and More, I knew it was time to take a right on Hemlock Lane to get to Angie’s shop. About a mile later, I came to the little brown building with a sign that said, “Sheer Country.”

“Angie’s so nice,” my mother said to me when I told her about the interview. “I love going there every week because she’s like my family. Don’t write anything bad about her or I’ll have to find another beauty shop.”

I know that the fastest way to get kicked out of my mother’s house is to steal her aluminum cans, or insult one of her beauticians. So I have spent more time than usual on this article in order to avoid offending Angie in any way.

But it isn’t hard to write nice things about her, because she truly is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. When I called Angie earlier that morning to ask if I could interview her, she seemed a little nervous. I wanted her to be relaxed when I interviewed her, so I asked if I could get a haircut.

“Sure,” she said. “Just come a few minutes before your mom’s appointment, and I’ll squeeze you in.”

When I walked into her shop, she hugged me and said it had been a long time since we’d seen each other. She pointed out of the back window of the shop at the home she and her family recently rebuilt.

“Our old house burnt down just before the holidays last year,” she said. “We just moved into the new one a few months ago.”

Angie told me to have a seat, and then asked me how I wanted my haircut. I had memorized some of my questions, so I could secretly interview her and decided that the best way to do this was by being causal.

“Make the sides short,” I said. “And oh yeah. How long have you been in the beauty business?”

Through my secret investigation, I found out that Angie’s owned her shop for five years, but has been in the beauty profession for over twenty. She is a graduate of Abbeville Beauty Academy, and has worked at several salons throughout Vermilion Parish.

“Can you thin out the top?” I asked. “And how long was the training?”

“The program was about a year,” Angie told me.

I thought about that for a second, and realized that being a beautician probably wasn’t the best choice for me, because I needed an immediate source of income. I couldn’t afford to study for a year, let alone the tuition to beauty school. But Angie had already begun cutting my hair, and so I figured I might as well continue with the interview.

My mother showed up for her appointment before I could remember my next question. The next several minutes were spent discussing the traffic in Kaplan, the Bonne Nouvelle and why men are so hateful. I was saved from having to explain all of mankind’s actions when another customer named Callie Trahan showed up for her appointment.

“Callie was a hair dresser too,” my mother said to me.

“Well, good,” I said. “So I’ll ask the two of you. Can you share a secret for great hair with the people of Vermilion parish?”

Angie said it’s important to remember that what you put into your body affects your hair. She said to eat healthy, and experiment with different products. That made sense to me, but I figured that two hair secrets were better than one, and so I asked Ms. Callie if she had any.

“Start with a clean head of hair,” she said. “And buy good products. You’re not saving any money if the cheap ones don’t work.”

Angie finished my haircut, and I told her to go ahead and put it on my mother’s tab because she was making all that money from recycling cans. My mother scrunched her face up at me like she’d eaten a lemon, and then walked over to the shampoo chair and sat down.

“So, Angie,” I said. “Do you have a most memorable moment from working in this profession?”

Angie leaned my mother back in the chair, and turned the nozzles on the sink until water poured out of a fixture resembling a small showerhead attached to a hose. She took a deep breath, and then looked down at the ground.

“I’d have to say it was after our house burnt down,” she said. “I started working again the next week because I needed an escape from everything that was going on. When I was at the shop, I felt like I had a huge family who was there for me to talk. It was my therapy, and my customers helped me get through that tough time in my life.”

I began to understand why my mother enjoyed coming to Sheer Country each week. It was a place to talk, and be amongst friends and family. Something that I’ve learned we all need in order to lead happy and healthy lives.

I promised my editor at the Abbeville Meridional that I would try every job I went to, and since I didn’t think anyone would trust me to cut their or put it up in rollers, I figured the only thing I could do was shampoo someone. But I wasn’t sure if I felt comfortable doing that to Miss Callie, who I’d only met a few times. So I looked down at my mother, who was reclining in the chair of the shampoo sink.

“I never thought I would ask this question in my life, Angie,” I said. “But would it be okay if I washed my mother’s hair?”

Angie told me that she would start the process because the hose was a lot harder to operate than it looked. She put a couple of squirts of shampoo in her hand, and then rubbed my mother’s head until it was white from the suds.

“Your turn,” Angie said. “Massage the scalp. You want to get the hair clean, but you want the customer to enjoy it.”

I closed my eyes and put my hands on top of my mother’s head and massage it the way Angie had told me to. I thought to myself that it felt nothing like it did when I shampooed my own head. Then I opened my eyes and saw my mother staring up at me.

“How am I doing?” I asked.

“You’re fired,” she said. “And I recycle cans to save the earth. Not to pay for your haircuts.”

For more information about training to become a beautician, call Louisiana Technical College at 893-4984. For info on recycling cans: Abbeville Scrap, Ph: 523-9322, Address: 723 AA Comeaux Memorial Drive.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Whole Lotta Shuckin Goin On!

I’ve recently started searching for an extra income source so that I will no longer need to ask my mother for a share of the earnings she makes from recycling cans. I’ve decided that before I commit to anything, I’d like to see what jobs are available in Vermilion Parish, and what qualifications I would need in order to be successful in them. This week I had the opportunity to learn how to shuck a good oyster, and have a conversation with one of the two owners of Shuck’s restaurant, Bert Istre.

“He’s the hardest working man in the parish,” my mother said to me when I told her about the interview. “He owns a restaurant, a day care center and a uniform store. Listen good to what he has to say.”

I told her that I would, and then headed on to Abbeville to the restaurant. When I arrived, I was greeted by a young lady named, Courtney Picou. After I told her why I was there, she smiled and said that she used to work for the Meridional, and that she missed all the people from the paper.

“I loved working there, but I wasn’t crazy about the sales position that I had,” she said. “I prefer the atmosphere of the restaurant because customers come here wanting to be served, and I love helping people.”

Mr. Istre showed up then, and we sat down for our interview in the corner of the restaurant. From my right eye, I could see a glass room that reminded me of the Silent Booth that Bob Barker used to put the Miss USA beauty contestants in so they couldn’t hear each other’s Question and Answer session. Above it there was a sign that said, “a whole lotta shuckin goin on.”

It took me a couple of seconds to put two and two together, and I felt a little ignorant when I did. But then I was relieved that I’d realized my mistake before I asked Mr. Istre if they were going to have a beauty pageant in the restaurant.

Instead I asked him how long he’d been in the restaurant business. He told me that twenty years ago he started as a dishwasher and grass cutter at Golden Corral. He worked his way up through the ranks and eventually became the owner of the restaurant in Abbeville.

“I’ve been working in this industry for most of my life,” Mr. Istre said. “I love the hustle and bustle of the employees, and watching the customers enjoy themselves.”

Mr. Istre said one of the toughest parts of the business is the constant upkeep and maintenance of the equipment. He said it was vital because if something like a stove breaks, it can shut down operations.

“It’s like having a stick thrown in the wheel of a bicycle,” he said.

My brother Jude did that to me when I was a kid, causing me to fly into a ditch and scar my knee, which ended up ruining my chance of ever being a professional leg model. But I didn’t tell that to Mr. Istre because I figured he’d think it was a little weird and ask me to leave.

So instead I asked him what qualities he looked for in an employee. He responded that he looks for people who are well groomed, courteous and makes the customer feel at home.

“To be successful in this business, you need to have a desire to serve people and make them happy,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll be miserable.”

“I don’t like to be rushed, or sweat,” I said. “Would this be a problem if I worked in a restaurant?”

Mr. Istre laughed and said, “Yes. A very big one.”

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to meet the co-owner of Shuck’s, David Bertrand. Mr. Istre told me that his partner also worked in the restaurant industry for a number of years. He is the former owner of Bertrand’s Drive Thru, and Bertrand’s Riverfront.

“David’s a great guy,” Mr. Istre said. “I love having a partner because it gives me a little flexibility in my schedule, and gives me a chance to spend time with my family.”

I knew that in order to get the full experience of what it would be like to work in a seafood restaurant, I’d have to get my hands a little dirty and possibly break a sweat. So I asked Mr. Istre if he could teach me how to shuck an oyster.

He gave me an apron and led me to the door of the glass room in the corner of the restaurant. He handed me one rubber glove and a utensil that looked like a knife without a point, which I found out later is called a shucking or oyster knife. Then we walked inside the room, where two piles of oysters were laying on a bed of ice.

Mr. Istre grabbed one from the pile in front of him, and said that the first thing I needed to do was find the opening between the shells, and then use the shucking knife to pry it open and break the seal. He said I should then run the knife along the edges of the oyster, around to the other side.

After he explained the entire process, and shucked three complete oysters from his pile in under ten seconds, I picked one up and looked for the opening between the shells. By the time I found it, Mr. Istre had shucked three more oysters. I noticed that the pile in front of him had become a lot smaller than the pile in front of me.

I figured I should try to catch up, and so I stuck the shucking knife in the hinge and tried to pry it open. It wouldn’t budge, and so I looked for a hammer. But I didn’t see one, and so I rested all of my weight on the handle of the shucking knife, causing the oyster to slip out and fall on the floor.

“Use your wrist,” Mr. Istre said. “It’s a lot easier.”

He only had two oysters left in his pile, and even though I knew I couldn’t win the imaginary shucking contest I was having in my head, I knew my restaurant experience wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t shuck at least one. So I picked the oyster up off of the floor and watched Mr. Istre finish his final two and then start on my pile. Then I used his wrist technique and pried open my first oyster, and gave it a complete shucking.

When I got home from the interview, my momma called me over to her chair in our living room. She asked me if I’d spoken to the hardest working man in Vermilion Parish and if I’d learned anything from him. I told her that I learned a person needs to have a desire to do something in order to be successful. I let her know about the young lady I’d met who taught me that not every job is for everybody, and that’s okay because we all have to find our own way.

“But most importantly,” I said. “I learned that you need a strong wrist to get a whole lot of shucking going on.”

My mother stood up from her chair and then folded her arms in front of her. Then she picked her left arm up in the air and blinked her eyes.

“So?” she asked. “Is he going to give you a job or not?”

Instructions On How to Shuck an Oyster: Find the opening between the two shells and then hold the oyster firmly in one hand and shucking knife in the other. Slip the knife blade between the top and bottom shell right by the hinge on back. Twist your wrist to break the seal and then run the knife along the edges of the oyster around to the other side. Cut the eye of the oyster off of the top shell and then pry the top and bottom shells apart. Then slide your knife under the oyster and cut it free from the bottom shell.

Shucks is currently looking for an Oyster Shucker. If interested, apply in person or call 898-3311 and ask for David or Bert.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

My Mother Has Something to Say

Fixing a Dishwasher With My Brother

A few years ago when I decided to become a full time writer, I gave up a position in finance at a wine and spirits company in New York. It was a tough decision to leave that security, but something that I felt I had to do in order to devote my energy to my passion.

The path I chose hasn’t been easy, and I often find myself scrambling around to earn extra income. My mother has offered her assistant with this on several occasions by letting me know about job openings she reads in the paper.

“They’re looking for a school bus driver,” she told me one day. “It pays more than you make now.”

“I don’t think I’m qualified,” I said. “But you might be, considering you used to drive eight kids around in a station wagon.”

She’s offered other suggestions like positions for fry cooks, backhoe operators and Lieutenant Governor. I vetoed all of them because for one, I didn’t think I was qualified, and two, I wasn’t really looking for a full time job. I needed an income source that was flexible so I could work around working on my second manuscript, book signings and school visits.

More recently, my mother told me that my brother, Jude of Jude Couvillon’s Appliances, was looking for someone to help with servicing appliances. I was going to veto that suggestion also, but realized that maybe I no longer had a choice to be so selective. I’ve learned the true meaning of, “starving artist,” and have to come to realize that if I don’t start selling more books, I will have to return to the work force full time and put my writing career on hold.

I am ready to fight for my passion, but am also aware of the reality of life. So I’ve come up with a creative way to combine writing and looking for other sources of income. For the next several weeks, I will go to different jobs throughout Vermilion Parish and find out what they entail, and what kinds of qualifications I will need. Hopefully, my book The Chicken Dance will sell well during the holiday season and I’ll be able to continue writing. If it doesn’t though, I’ll at least have a head start on my job search.

The first job I decided to try out was for the position my brother Jude had advertised in the Meridional. I hadn’t worked with him since I was a teenager and we’d run my dad’s crawfish cages together. While I emptied the cages, Jude would drive the boat and yell at me if I was too slow.

“The Golden Rule is that if there’s one crawfish left in the cage, forget about it,” he’d tell me. “I don’t want to have to stop this boat again.”

On the morning I got dressed to head over to Jude’s store in Abbeville (3221 Veterans Memorial), I decided that since my mother had suggested that I go and work for him, that maybe she should also consider re-entering the work force and come with me. So I woke her up and told her to get dressed for the job I got her.

“I’m retired,” my mother said. “And just living with you is like work.”

I convinced her to come with me by telling her that Jude had a bag of aluminum cans that he’d saved for her. She was ready in ten minutes, and then the two of us headed to Abbeville for our new job.

When we walked into Jude’s store, we were greeted by him and his office manager, Debra. I told her that my mother and I were there to work for a couple of hours so I could find out if it was the right job for us.

“I’m only here to pick up the cans so I can save the earth,” my mother said. “Where are they?”

“You’ll get them after you do some work,” I said. “Why don’t you start by cleaning the toilet?”

My mother told me that I would be disinherited if I made her do that. I let her know that she couldn’t threaten me with that anymore because I had already lost my inheritance in high school for staying out past my curfew. I lost it again in college because I didn’t major in Education, and a few weeks ago when I forgot to feed her cats.

“I’ve already lost my inheritance too,” Jude said to my mother. “So if you want those cans, make sure you clean that toilet good.”

Shortly after, I brought my mother to her sister’s house (with her cans) and then headed out on the road with Jude to learn about being a small business owner, and an appliance service technician. Along the way, I asked Jude what was the best and worst part of his career.

“The worst part is the lack of security, and the unsteady flow of income,” he said. “The best part is being my own boss and meeting so many great and friendly people in the parish.”

Jude has been servicing appliances for over twenty years, and has owned his business since 1999. His credentials include a degree in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration from Louisiana Technical College in Abbeville, and several years of experience as an assistant manager at Robie’s.

“I wrote a book about chickens and I know how to type,” I said. “Does that make me qualified to do what you do?”

“Not at all,” he said. “But I’d be willing to train you if you aren’t scared of lifting heavy equipment and getting your hands dirty.”

We pulled into the driveway of one of Jude’s customers and were greeted by a lovely woman who said she was having problems with her dishwasher. Jude introduced me as his brother and told her that I was with him because I was writing an article for the paper.

“He’s going to need to know how many cavities you have,” Jude said to the woman. “I told him six. Is that right?”

The woman laughed and said that she loved Jude’s sense of humor and it was one of the reasons she was a faithful customer and let him work on all of her appliances. After she showed us the problem with her dishwasher, she excused herself and went outside. While Jude was unscrewing panels on the appliance, I began looking at pictures that were hanging on the wall in the kitchen. Within a few minutes, I found myself walking down the hallway to check out the rest of the house.

“Get over here, Jacques!” Jude yelled. “You need to respect people’s privacy. That’s the Golden Rule.”

“I’m confused,” I said. “I thought the Golden Rule was that I shouldn’t waste time trying to get one crawfish out of the cage.”

Jude told me that for the rest of the day, I wasn’t allowed to be more than five feet away from the appliance or that my interview would end sooner than I’d planned. I decided that since I didn’t want to have to tell my mother that my own brother fired me, I should probably listen.

As I watched Jude unscrew bolts and examine the parts of the dishwasher with the certainty and confidence of a surgeon, I knew that he was a man who loved working with his hands and mechanical objects. I envied my brother for his gift, because I myself have a difficult time getting the chain back on my bike, and I couldn’t fathom fixing a machine that ran off of electricity and water.

When Jude was finished, the dishwasher worked as if new and the customer thank him with the same amount of gratitude my mother gave when people handed her a sack of aluminum cans they’d been saving for her. Jude told the customer to have a nice Halloween, and then he and I got back in the truck and headed out.

“I don’t think this is the right job for me because I might have a problem following the Golden Rule,” I said. “But if I decided to start my own business, what piece of advice would you give to me?”

“Be sure to budget your money because you never know what tomorrow is going to bring,” he told me. “And you have to be friendly, and understand customers’ wants and needs. They are the ones who sign your paycheck.”

For more information on courses and degrees available at Louisiana Technical College, call 893-4984. For more information on starting your own business, call the Small Business Administration at 504-589-6685 or visit their website at

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

A Message Just for You!

You and I have always been pretty close and between you and me, I’ve always liked you better than those others. That’s why I feel comfortable in telling you that my dog, Joanne, needs to have an operation. She keeps chewing through the chastity belt I put on her and so I thought I might get her one of those rubber fake chew newspapers (like the Daily Growl) and spayed as a Christmas present. Here’s where I might be able to use your assistance.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s something totally in it for you. I know you’re probably involved in some Holiday Gift Giving scheme and there’s a $20 limit. Well, it would help Joanne and me out if you purchased The Chicken Dance as your gift so we could afford that chew toy and spayed operation.

But, here’s the genius part about it. The book is normally $16.95, which after taxes comes out to $18. If you buy it on or Barnes and though, it’s a lot cheaper. But the person you bought it for doesn’t need to know that and will think you fulfilled your $20 minimum. Throw in some coupons for some Lean Cuisine and Mrs. Paul’s Filet of Fish and you’ll become the hit of the Holiday party!

So again, purchase The Chicken Dance on or Barnes and and save a dog from having to wear a chastity belt and me from having to live with my momma for the rest of my life. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Discovery of Music

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about using music to cope with the difficult times that our parish is experiencing at the moment. Although I know that songs and words cannot always heal some of the wounds we’ve incurred, I do strongly feel that stories can inspire, encourage and support. I recently met a Vermilion Parish family whose story inspired me, and I wanted to share it with you.

When Gracie Babineaux of Cow Island began stuttering at two years old, her mother, Shannon, became alarmed and brought her to a pediatrician. After asking Gracie a few questions about her life and the things she enjoyed, the doctor suggested to Mrs. Babineaux that she rent several musicals for her daughter.

“How is this going to help with Gracie’s stuttering?” Mrs. Babineaux asked.

“I think your daughter has the gift of music,” the pediatrician responded. “We can use this to help her.”

Although skeptical, Mrs. Babineaux went to the public library and rented classic musicals such as South Pacific and Oklahoma for her daughter. Within two months, Gracie’s stuttering stopped.

“She would watch them over and over again,” Mrs. Babineaux said. “She knew every line after a while, and would sing the songs with the actors and actresses.”

Although she knew her daughter enjoyed singing, Mrs. Babineaux wasn’t sure what the doctor had meant when she said Gracie had the gift of music. She was grateful that Gracie had stopped stuttering, but wondered when this gift would reveal itself.

That event happened three years ago in 2005, after the Babineauxs lost their Forked Island home in Hurricane Rita. They moved in with Mr. Babineaux’s parents with not much more than what they were carrying in their pockets.

Gracie, who was seven at the time, and her younger sister, Julie, who was five, quickly became bored at their grandparents’ home because they had lost all of their toys. Their grandfather, Timothy Babineaux, who happened to be learning to play the accordion at the time, decided to entertain Gracie by teaching her how to play.

“She picked it up, and after one lesson was able to play,” said Mrs. Babineaux. “Within a few months, she was better than her grandpa, and she was writing her own songs.”

Gracie started taking lessons with Grammy Nominee Steve Riley, and shortly after began performing on stages all over Louisiana. Her younger sister, Julie, initially accompanied her by singing or playing the triangle, but soon learned how to play the piano and guitar.

“I started playing the piano when I was six,” said Julie. “It’s my favorite instrument because the songs are more fun to play.”

Gracie and Julie have played with musicians including Jimmy Breaux of Beau Soleil and The Lafayette Rhythm Devils. They’ve performed in front of six thousand people at the Lake Charles Civic Center, and are now part of a band called Cajun Grace.

“It’s been an amazing opportunity for not only the kids, but also for us,” said Mr. Babineaux. “We’ve learned about Cajun and Zydeco music, and have met people from all over the world.”

Mrs. Babineaux said that the experience has opened her eyes to the value of encouraging children to develop their gifts and talents at an early age. She feels that although the music lessons and performances can sometimes be overwhelming, the investment is worth it, because of the wonderful moments that the family is sharing together.

“I think every child has a gift,” said Mrs. Babineaux. “It’s just a matter of allowing them to find it.”

I first heard of the talented Babineaux girls when I visited the New Harmonies music exhibit in Kaplan a few weeks ago. I was told that a talent agent from The Ellen Degeneres Show in Los Angeles had contacted the Babineauxs and requested an audition tape of Gracie and Julie.

I found it amazing that the girls were not even teenagers yet, and had already made a name for themselves. I was fortunate to run into the girls and their mother a few nights later at another New Harmonies event at the American Legion. After speaking to them for a few minutes, I asked them if I could interview them for the paper.

When I went to their home, I was going to focus my questions on their musical accomplishments and their possible appearance on The Ellen Degeneres show. But as I listened to the family talk about how much music has influenced their lives, I realized that this was more than a news story about local kids finding fame.

This is a story about an exceptional Vermilion Parish family who had faced tragedy, but overcame it with the discovery of music. It is a song about the power of encouragement, and the importance of support. It is a musical about the obstacles we encounter in life, and the value of the journey we take to overcome them.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ending With Music

I’ve been very fortunate to visit the towns and communities in Vermilion Parish over the last few months. In my travels I met amazing people, tasted innovative cuisine and learned about my Cajun heritage. What I remember most though, are the stories of people who suffered loss from Hurricane Rita, but more importantly how they fought back and worked hard to rebuild their homes and lives.

I watched Hurricane Rita hit Vermilion Parish from a television in a New York City apartment. I was disturbed by the images of flooded homes and towns, but to tell the truth, I didn’t really recognize the destroyed areas. It had been almost twenty years since I’d lived in the parish, and I’d forgotten where I’d come from.

When Hurricane Ike hit us a week and a half ago, it was a different experience for me. I had to put sandbags against the back door of our house to keep the water out, and I watched my brother and neighbor board up our windows. I had to evacuate, which I’d never done before, and wait in front of a television set to see if our home was going to be flooded.

This time as I watched, I recognized the flooded towns, and people who had lost everything for a second time. I saw the mayor of Delcambre, who I’d met only a couple of months before. He had told me when I interviewed him that although it had been a rough three years since Rita hit, the town was coming back, and had plans for a new waterfront development.

My mother and I were very fortunate to have no damage to our home, and as she’s repeated to me often, at least we didn’t bury anyone. However, evidence of Hurricane Ike’s destruction surrounds us. It’s at the Esther cemetery, where parishioners had to wash out mud, and the National Guard had to replace tombstones. It’s up the road at the flooded home of my cousin, who had just finished rebuilding from Hurricane Rita at the end of this August. It’s on the faces of people when you run into them at the grocery store or gas station.

Last week I sat at my desk and wondered why this had happened again to good and honest people who were working and fighting to create the lives they’d imagined for themselves. I stared out of my window and realized that it was a clear and beautiful night with a nearly full moon, and I couldn’t help but feel the irony, considering there was so much destruction surrounding us. I wondered if it meant that something good was ahead, or if it was a pure coincidence. I wasn’t sure how to cope with all of it, but the next morning I received my answer.

I was sitting at my desk again, and listening to a rap C.D. that a friend of mine had given to me. My mother walked into my room and then threw a pile of clothes on my bed.

“You’re getting new underwear for Christmas,” she said. “All of these have holes in them. What if you fall dead one day, and people see you’re wearing torn underwear?”

“If I’m dead,” I said. “I think I’ll have bigger problems.”

Then my mother started moving her arms up and down like a baby shakes a rattle. She bent her knees a little and then hopped forwarded. I asked if she was okay, and if I should call 911.

“I’m dancing,” she said. “I used to love to listen to music and go dancing when I was young with your dad. Who is this singing this song now? Is he from around here?”

“The singer’s name is Snoop Doggy Dog,” I said. “I think he’s from another parish.”

When my mother left, I smiled and realized that I felt relaxed and at peace for the first time since Hurricane Ike had appeared in our lives. I hadn’t found a reason for the destruction, but I’d found a way to cope with it. Music.

That afternoon, I drove my mother to the New Harmonies exhibit at the former building of Bill’s Dollar store (311 N. Cushing) in Kaplan. One of my former school teachers, Mrs. Ann Langlinais was there to greet us and show us around the music exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian.

“It’s a very interactive exhibit,” Mrs. Ann said. “You can listen to the different genres of music and see how some of the first instruments were made.”

Mrs. Ann also showed us music themed art-work from Kaplan students, and information about local musicians. She gave me a brochure that highlighted all of the different events occurring until October 12th. They ranged from an instrument-making workshop to a Jazz Brunch to a duck-calling contest.

It was nice to see Mrs. Ann and to learn a little about something that affects on a daily basis. My mother enjoyed it as well, and the next day suggested we attend another musical event.

“Get dressed and be in the car in twenty minutes,” she told me. “You’re taking me to see that play your nephew, Matthew choreographed. I think it’s about a store that sells scary stuff.”

The musical, “Little Shop of Horrors”, which is sponsored by The Vermilion Players, was held in the auditorium at Abbeville High. I was pleasantly surprised to see many people I recognized, including my cousin Wayne, and my former Catechism teacher, Joan Suire, who I see regularly on my weekly trip to Suire’s for shrimp fettuccini.

Although I had seen the musical before on Broadway, it was extremely enjoyable to see young people up on stage singing and dancing. Wayne’s daughter was one of the Fantasy Doo-Wop singers, and every time she walked on stage, Wayne would jump up and shout out words of encouragement the way I’d seen my father do at my brother’s basketball games.

I enjoyed myself so much at the play that the next evening I decided to take my mother on another music adventure. This program called, “Traditional Cajun Music Heritage Across Generations” was sponsored by New Harmonies and was held at The American Legion Hall in Kaplan.

When we walked in, we were greeted by the singer J.B. Pere. He hugged and kissed my mother, and told me that he’d known her for over fifty years.

“That’s impossible,” she said. “I’m only 39.”

Later that evening we sat and watched musicians of all ages perform and tell their stories of how they found happiest. There was J.B. Pere, who had been singing for over fifty years, followed by Bernie David who had at age sixty-one decided to pick up an accordion and start his dream of producing music. There was the veteran, Donny Broussard, who accompanied the new comers, Mitch Schexnaider (Age 19), and Gracie (Age 10) and Julie Babineaux (Age 8).

The images of these diverse musicians working together to create one of the world’s most powerful treasures, was amazing. It caused people of all ages to dance around the room, and I even saw my mother tap her foot and slap her knee to the beat of the music.

Unfortunately, because of the florescent lighting, my camera wasn’t able to pick up many of the shots. Then I remembered that I was in Vermilion Parish, and so I looked around the room for a friendly face with a nice camera. It wasn’t long before I found Brett Hebert, who snapped some wonderful images for me so that I can share the night with you.

Yes, I realize that last week started with the floodwaters of a hurricane. They destroyed people’s hard work and faith for a second time in three years. I can’t explain why it happened or pretend that it didn’t. However, if you look around past the watermarks on the homes, and the ruined furniture laying on the sides of the road waiting to be hauled away, you’ll see that there is hope.

I see good people who are willing to support and lend a hand to their neighbors, family and friends. I see a community with incredible strength that was founded on hard work, and has rebuilt before. I see Vermilion Parish, whose week started with a hurricane, but who has the power and hope of its citizens, so that its week will end with music.

Saving Our Earth

Last spring, I awoke to one of the most beautiful days I’d ever seen. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the blackberries alongside the roads were beginning to ripen.

I had spent many of my childhood years picking berries for my grandmother, who baked them into pies and tarts. Those were some of my favorite memories and I wanted to experience them again.

I asked my mother if she would like to pick blackberries with me and she responded, “I would rather take a nap.”

“I want to be near nature,” I told her. “I want to reconnect with my childhood and I want you to help me.”

“Why don’t you just mow the yard?” she responded. “That’s nature and should help you connect with your childhood. Oh wait, you never mowed the yard during your childhood either.”

I took a deep breath and thought of another strategy to entice my mother. Then I remembered how much she enjoyed recycling aluminum cans and bragging about how much money she earned. So I told her that there would probably be tons of cans alongside the road.

“Let me grab a trash bag and I’ll be ready to go,” she answered.

We walked along the road and as I picked berries, my mother collected cans and told me how much money she’d made.

“This one is a twenty-four ounce,” she said. “I bet I can get at least ten cents for it.”

I laughed and felt happy that my mother was having a nice time. But then I noticed that in addition to the cans, she was picking up other things like plastic and glass bottles, paper cups and styrofoam plates. A few minutes later, a truck drove by us and a grocery bag filled with garbage flew from its bed and landed in the ditch about twenty feet from where we were standing.

I became furious because although we were on public property, I felt as if someone was destroying my own back yard. I realized shortly after that they were. But they weren’t only destroying my property, they were destroying the property of everyone who lives in Vermilion Parish; of everyone who lives in Louisiana; of everyone who lives on this earth.

Garbage alongside the road is not only unsightly, but puts our health in danger and destroys our environment. Chemicals from plastic bottles leak into the water we drink, and contaminate wildlife in our fields and canals. Aluminum and glass containers tossed on the ground puts our horses, livestock and us at risk of injury if stepped on.

I am asking you as someone who loves his community, to help me prevent littering. Please don’t throw garbage along our roads, and be careful when putting empty containers in the beds of trucks. When having a large function, consider setting up separate containers for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Many local schools and churches recycle cans for money to pay for much needed programs.

Vermilion Parish is our community and part of our earth. I know that we can work together to maintain its natural beauty for us, and the many generations who follow.

Two recycling centers in Abbeville are RDS (Ph: 319-5875, Address: Located on Jacqulyn between South Hospital Drive and Airport Road), and Abbeville Scrap (Ph: 523-9322, Address: 723 AA Comeaux Memorial Drive). For more information on recycling, go to or

My Walk

When I lived in New York, one of my favorite things to do was leave my apartment early in the morning and walk around the city all day long. When I moved back to Vermilion Parish, I became a driver again and I rarely walked anywhere except to and from my truck. I missed my days of walking, and assumed that they were long gone. But then one morning, I figured out that they didn’t have to be.

I had just had breakfast at one of the restaurants on South State Street in downtown Abbeville and walked to my truck. I had planned on driving to the library, but as I was putting on my seat belt, I realized that the library was only about five minutes away by foot. I remembered a time when I had walked twice that distance just to get to the grocery store in New York. I began to feel guilty about my carbon footprint on the world, and so I got back out of my truck and let my feet hit the street.

It was a picture perfect day, and on my walk I was surprised by incredible homes and churches that I didn’t know existed. Within minutes, I found myself at the front doors of the library, but felt sad at the thought of being cooped up in a dark corner on a beautiful day. So I turned back around and walked.

I discovered historic architecture, cool little eateries and quaint gift shops. I visited the stain glass windows of St. Mary Magdalen and then sat in the square and listened to the sound of the water bubbling up from the fountain. As I stared at the view of the majestic church and the Port Street Bridge, I realized that it was moments like that one, I missed most about slowing down and walking.

Since that day, I often park my truck in downtown Kaplan and Abbeville and spend hours walking. People stare at me with confused faces and occasionally someone will stop alongside me in their car and ask if I need a ride. I smile and thank them and let them know that I’m fine.

I told my mom one day about my walking and she said, “You better stop all that or people are going to think you’re weird.”

“Why?” I asked her. “Because I live with you?”

She ignored my snide remark (as she often does) but no longer questions my walking. In fact, she now joins me on some of my excursions. She makes me pick up aluminum cans from the side of the road and talks nonstop about people I’ve never heard of in my life. But we’ve grown closer and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.

I encourage all of you to find the time to walk through the towns of the area and down little country roads. Right now is the perfect time of year because the weather is beautiful, and Vermilion Parish is in full bloom with azaleas and roses and flowers of which I don’t know the names. Walking is not only great for the environment and your health, but can also help you grow closer with others, and with yourself.

The Wonderful Town of Erath

Before you begin reading, I should warn you that I wrote this article before July 4th. You may now read on.

Independence Day is right around the corner, so I thought it might be a nice time to visit Erath, which is famous for its 4th of July celebration.

I had arranged with Mr. Warrin Perrin to meet someone at the Acadian Museum for that afternoon, but drove into Erath early to have some lunch. I noticed a sign for a place called, “Museum Café,” and so I decided to check it out.

When I walked in, I saw about five or six people sitting on stools next to a long bar. They all turned and looked at me at the same exact time, and I froze and felt like a kid does when he thinks he’s just been caught doing something wrong.

“Can I help you?” a blonde woman standing behind the bar smiled and asked.

“I was looking for a place to eat,” I said.

“We don’t serve food anymore,” said a gentleman standing next to the woman. “But you can go over to Champagnes and get a plate lunch and come back here and eat it.”

The rest of the crowd encouraged me to do the same thing, and then started introducing themselves. It began to rain outside, and so I decided to take a seat along the bar. The gentleman who had told me I could go and get a plate lunch introduced himself as Sonny Moss.

“I’m Jacques Couvillon,” I said.

“Are you Mike’s brother?” another gentleman asked. “Tell him Cowboy said hello.”

Then he raised his hand to the blonde woman behind the bar and told her, “Cynthia. Get my boy here some orange juice.”

Although I like orange juice for breakfast, I wasn’t craving it just then. So I turned to ask if I could get a Coke. But before I could speak, Cynthia put a brown bottle down in front of me.

“That’s what we call orange juice around here,” Cowboy said.

Mr. Moss asked me what I was doing in town, and I said that I worked for the Abbeville Meridinal and was writing a story about Erath. He grabbed me by the arm and told me to follow him. We walked around the room while he pointed out antiques varying from musical instruments to wooden farm tools to an actual ice-box. Then he pointed out a large mural painted on the wall behind a stage.

“This is D.L. Menard,” said Mr. Moss. “He’s a great musician from Erath.”

It was getting time for me to head to the museum then, and so I thanked everyone for their friendliness and hospitality. They smiled and waved, and told me that I needed to stop by again soon.

When I stepped around the corner, a man standing on the other side of the street was staring at me. I didn’t recognize him, but he screamed my name out and walked towards me. He introduced himself as Carlin Trahan and told me that he’d be my guide in the museum.

He opened the door of the building and I followed him into a small room, which was filled with photographs and documents explaining the history of Erath. Within a few seconds, I heard a bell ringing in the same cadence as a telephone. My eyes found the source, which was an old wooden phone similar to the ones in television shows such as Andy Griffin and Petticoat Junction.

Mr. Trahan walked up to the antique phone and picked up the receiver and spoke into the mouthpiece coming out of the wooden box. At first I thought that he was playing a joke on me, because I couldn’t believe that the phone really worked. But I watched him have a conversation with someone, and that’s when I knew this man was serious about history and keeping things authentic, and that I had great admiration for him.

Mr. Trahan brought me into another room, which not only had a painting of the famous Beausoleil Broussard, but was filled with books, music and videotapes about Acadian Culture.

“There’s even a computer here so people can research their ancestry,” said Mr. Trahan. “Did you know that Couvillon isn’t of Acadian descent?”

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me because of what he’d said. I had been identified as a Cajun by many of my friends in other states, and I wondered if Mr. Trahan would make me call them and announce that I had been living a lie. Then I remembered that my grandma was a Broussard, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“My grandma was a descendant of Beausoleil,” I said. “So that still makes me a Cajun right?”

“I’ll let you slide,” Mr. Trahan laughed.

We discussed everything from the difference between a “Creole,” and a “Cajun,” to the origin of gumbo. I could have spent several hours in the museum talking to Mr. Trahan, but sadly had to leave to do some research on the 4th of July Celebration.
Mr. Trahan suggested that I call a man named Robert Vincent, who told me that although he knew the first festival was before World War II, he wasn’t sure of its exact date.

“There weren’t any festivals during the war,” he said. “But in 1946, the town started them up again and made them annual.”
Mr. Vincent told me that in addition to a week filled with live music and carnival rides, Erath would host a fireworks display and parade on the 4th.

“We’ll also have a water fight between local parish fire departments,” Mr. Vincent said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch grown men try to knock each other down with a hose.”

When I sat down to write this article, I wondered which aspects of my visit I should share with you. I didn’t know if I should focus on the culturally rich community, or the friendly people who enjoy life and take great pride in the place that they call home. When I looked at my notes and thought about my afternoon, I realized that the best way for me to really tell you the story of the wonderful town of Erath, is to suggest you visit this jewel yourself.

The Paradise Called Maurice

From the day I got my license to only a few hours ago, my mother told me not to speed when driving through Maurice. She said her sister had gotten a ticket there and she’d heard there had been others.

“It’s 40 miles per hour,” she said. “I like to set it on cruise at 37 just to make sure I don’t go over.”

I knew my mother was correct, because I’d often seen police cars patrolling the area when I drove through town. When I was a teenager, I used to dream about speeding through at 55 just to see if I would get caught. I would always chicken out about fifteen feet after I passed the 40 MPH sign, and was only able to reach a maximum speed of 43 and a half.
When I drove into Maurice this week, I saw a big flashing sign in front of G&H Tires that said, “Slow Down. 40 MPH.”

I immediately pressed on my brakes because I wasn’t feeling as rebellious as I did in my teen years, and I didn’t think the interview I’d hoped to have with Mayor Ferguson would go well if I got a speeding ticket. I wanted to speak to him because my editor told me that Maurice was doubling in size and was going to grow from a village to a town.

“According to a 2000 census, our population was 643 people,” said Mayor Ferguson. “It’s estimated that number will double by the 2010 census. Because of this growth, Senator Nick Gautreaux is helping us to find a way to build our own civic center.”

I asked Mayor Ferguson if he’d heard that Maurice was known for being tough on speeders. He said yes, and although he didn’t want the village to be known as a speed trap, the police would continue to enforce the law.

“Approximately forty thousand cars drive through Maurice each day,” said Mayor Ferguson. “We want to ensure they do it safely.”

It was getting near lunch, and so I thanked the Mayor for taking the time to speak with me and then I headed over to one of my favorite places to eat, Villager’s Café. I had my first experience with their fried shrimp po-boys about a year ago when I was driving through Maurice from Abbeville to Lafayette. I had planned on eating it at a later time, but it smelled so good that I had to take a bite. By the time I got to that traffic light where the McDonald’s is, I’d eaten the entire twelve inches. It was life changing because I realized that I could never eat a po-boy outside of Louisiana again.

The café was packed, but I managed to find a table. I’d eaten inside before, but on that day noticed for the first time that the tables were made from old wooden spools, which were once used to hold coils of steel wire. I looked around at the walls, which were decorated with items such as vintage hats, pictures of Lucille Ball and a sign that said, “Good Food, Good Friends, Good Times”. The room was filled with families, friends and a table of construction workers eating salad.

“Salad?” I thought. “I didn’t even know they had salad here.”

It looked really good, but I decided to stick with old faithful and ordered a fried shrimp po-boy, which I ate in about three minutes.

My next stop was the Maurice Flea Market. I was greeted by the owner, Cynthia Trahan, who told me that she represented thirteen different vendors who sold items such as Victorian furniture, depression glass and antique jewelry.

“Where are you from?” Ms. Trahan asked me.

I told her that I was from Cow Island and she asked me if I knew a couple named Rita and David Faulk. It was a strange coincidence because I had just seen them the night before. Ms. Trahan told me that the Faulks had a booth in the flea market, and showed me some of their original pieces, which they had designed and built together. My second favorite item was a hat rack made from recycled hammer heads. But my favorite was a magazine holder made from a wooden sawhorse, which I bought and plan to have Rita and David sign for me.

The last stop on my trip was the Vivian Alexander Gallery, which is a little outside the city limits in Milton. A gravel road led me up to an unpainted wooden building, which resembled some of the majestic old barns on the farms of Vermilion Parish. In front of, a green pasture surrounded a grand metal sculpture, which Alexander Caldwell (The Alexander in Vivian Alexander) had designed and built himself.

Vivian Alexander is the designer of objects such as time pieces, sculptures and purses, which are inspired by eggs, and are craved by art collectors around the world. Each piece is signed by the artist, and one of them was featured in the movie, Ocean’s 12.
I got a chance to sit down in the middle of the gallery and speak with Mr. Caldwell himself. He explained that his girlfriend was the Vivian in the gallery’s name, and then told me about when he’d first moved to Milton.

“I moved to Vermilion Parish from Baton Rouge because I was ready to live in paradise,” said Mr. Caldwell. “My girlfriend and I became farmers and we had geese and chickens and ducks. We had all these eggs and Vivian suggested that we decorate them. The rest is history.”

I imagined the two of them wearing aprons and dipping eggs into mugs filled with Easter Egg dye like my brothers and I did when we were children. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a beautifully decorated goose sized egg, which was also a clock. It was so brilliant, I pretended in my mind that he gave it to me because I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be able to see it everyday.

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” I said. “How did designing these pieces of art get rid of your eggs?”

Mr. Caldwell explained that the objects in his gallery weren’t only inspired by eggs, but many of them were actually eggs, which had been covered in a thick enamel. Some of his first pieces hadn’t been covered though, which was amazing because the shell had been intricately carved into designs similar to the patterns in lace.

“How did you do that?” I asked. “Are you a witch?”

It was one of those moments when I wished my mouth had a rewind button. I was so nervous about interviewing this incredible gentleman and artist, that I wasn’t using my brain filter before I spoke. I couldn’t understand how he’d created some of the patterns in the shell without breaking it, and was trying to show how impressed I was. But I began to feel embarrassed, and wondered if Mr. Caldwell would ask me to get off of his property.

Luckily, in addition to the gift of talent, he also has the gift of humor and laughed and said, “No. I was an engineer by trade. I always had a creative side and one day decided to turn to it.”

Mr. Caldwell told me that the gallery teaches classes to those interested in creating their own decorated eggs. I told him that I would probably take one this fall and asked if it would be okay if I brought a picnic and sat out in the pasture near the metal sculpture. He said that he’d welcome anyone who wanted to walk around and enjoy the property, but that he’d appreciate it if they called first so he could make sure the lawn was cut.

I wondered if I should ask Mr. Caldwell if he’d ever gotten a ticket in Maurice, but remembered something Mayor Ferguson had told me. He’d said that speeding laws needed to be enforced in order to keep citizens safe, which I agreed with completely. But I also realized that another reason to slow down when driving through this huge village, which will soon be a small town, is to experience innovative art, life changing cuisine and the friendliness of the people who were ready to live in paradise.

For information on the Vivian Alexander Gallery, check out their website at or call 898-0803. .

Cajuns, Coffee and Hidden Treasure in Gueydan

I recently wrote an article about travel writers who visited Vermilion Parish, and their impressions of the area. After reading quotes about their adventures, it occurred to me that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about where I lived. So I called up Alison Miller at the Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission, who provided me with information about the diverse towns that surround us, and told me that according to a 2000 census, I lived in the most Cajun place on earth.

I decided that since I wanted to learn more about what made us so Cajun, I should explore the towns of our parish. I hope to visit one town per week, and share my experiences with all of you.

This week I selected Gueydan, and since I prefer co-pilots on road trips, I told my mother, “Get dressed and grab your purse. I’m taking you on a trip to the Duck Capital of the World.”

“You’re not going to charge me for that?” she asked.

“No,” I told her. “But put on some lipstick, because I might need you to flirt with some men so they can tell me what makes us so Cajun.”

Our first stop in Gueydan was Patti’s Book Nook (410 Second Street), where we were greeted by the Gayle family. Sean, the father, gave us each a cup of coffee (my mother loves FREE so she was very happy) and sat down and told us all about his shop.

“Patti’s Book Nook, which is named after my wife, is the only full service book store between Lafayette and Lake Charles,” said Sean. “We’re also an internet café, computer service and retail store, and outlet for the Rosary House in New Iberia.”

I learned from James Gayle (son) that there are three murals painted on buildings in Gueydan. Located all on Main Street, the first is on T’s Crawfish Trap (by Robert Baxter), the second is on The Gift Box (by Robert Dafford) and the third is on Thibodaux’s Pharmacy (by Theresa de Perrodil Trahan).

The next stop on our adventure was the Gueydan Museum (Main Street), where we were given big smiles and offered another cup of coffee, (my mother was elated). The curator, Jane Hair, showed us French antiques, art from local artists, a leather German officer uniform, paintings by a Polish prisoner held in a World War II POW camp located in Gueydan, and one of the only two albino nutrias in Louisiana.

“Right now we’re featuring art by local artist, Kathleen Simone Little,” said Ms. Hair. “But starting next month we’re going to have the Butterflies Galore exhibit, which will consists of paintings, glass sculptures and much more.”

My mother and I crossed the street to Cormier’s Creole Kitchen (current owner John Bertrand) where rumor has it, former owner Eugene Cormier serves up homemade biscuits for breakfast.

My mother and I were fortunate enough to visit while locals who call themselves the Knights of the Round Table were having their daily cup of coffee at a round shaped table.

“Some of us have been coming here for years since it was called The Pool Hall,” said one of its members. “We meet at 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. to discuss politics and solve the world’s problems.”

When I told them my name, one of them joked, “Couvillon. That sounds French. Mais, we don’t have any Cajuns here, us, no.”

Then they all laughed and started speaking French. I asked if I could take a picture and one of them said I would need to ask the leader of their group, King Arthritis, who smiled and nodded his head up and down.

I asked my mother if she wanted to sit on the king’s lap for the photo, but she shook her head and looked at the men and said, “I did the best I could.”

One of the knights laughed and replied, “C’est pas ta faute.” (It’s not your fault)

My mother and I took a detour on our way out of Gueydan to see the spectacular grounds of the Florence Club.

Although I’ve been surrounded by marsh and water for a good part of my life, I was still stunned by its beauty.

“It’s kind of weird,” I said to my mother. “I used to come to Gueydan for track meets when I was in high school. But I never realized that it was a such a wonderful treasure.”

“I know,” she said. “People are so friendly. And we got two free cups of coffee.”

The Parisian Side of Kaplan

A few years ago, I moved to Paris to study French. There was nothing I enjoyed more than sitting in cafés and listening to all of the stories being told around me. So when my brother, Joey, told me that he went to a café every morning, I thought I might be able to relive my time in France. But when he told me that I would have to meet him at 6:45 a.m. and that we’d be going to a feed store in Kaplan, I had the feeling that I was in for a whole other experience.

Joey led me passed sacks of bran and corn to a rectangular shaped table in the corner of Premier Farm and Ranch Supply. Surrounding it was a group of men who smiled and looked up when we walked in.

“Everybody,” Joey said. “I’d like to introduce you to my brother, Jacques.”

One of the gentlemen, Mr. Donald Greene, told me that he’d read an article I’d written about Gueydan, and wondered if I was going to write one about Kaplan.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “There’s a group of men over there that meets and drinks coffee and they call themselves the Knights of the Round Table. Do you guys have a name?”

“Yeah,” Owner, Scott Esthay said. “They’re the, “One Foot in the Grave,” club.”

I pulled a chair up to the table and drank coffee while the men spoke about everything from the price of bailing hay, to farm supplements, to the good old days when the train pulled into Kaplan and people gathered around to purchase and collect goods.

When I asked Mr. Esthay why he set up the coffee pot and table, he responded, “I just like having the company, and I learn a lot of things about the cattle and farming industry by listening to the people who have been around for years.”

Since I was wide-awake and began to feel hungry, I drove on over to the Donut Queen (Veterans Memorial Dr.) owned by the husband and wife team, Makay and Sophanna Akanhay. I tried the jalapeno kolache, which was delicious. Makay told me I should try their special boudin kolache, but I scrunched up my face and shook my head from side to side.

“A lot of people make that same face when I suggest it to them,” Mr. Akanhay said. “But once they have a bite, they order another one. Even the people who don’t like boudin.”

I told him I’d try one the next time (and I will be back) and then decided to head over to Comeaux’s French Market for some fresh fruits and vegetables. Decorated with hand painted signs, the little stand is reminiscent of ones I’ve seen along the French countryside. I was waited on by Ruby and Paula Hargrave, who have worked there for over thirty years.

“My husband and I opened the fruit stand in 1975,” said Mrs. Ruby Hargrave. “After he passed, I sold the business to Russell Comeaux and Joel Howard. I’m happy to still be able to work here.”

I wanted some fresh air, so I strolled through the rows of the market’s outdoor inventory of flowering plants and trees. I was enjoying my time outside, and so walked across the street to Backyard Pottery and Plants. Once Margaret Abbott’s private garden, it is now an opened aired space filled with fountains, outdoor art, and peach and pecan trees. I joked with Mrs. Abbott that I might come back with some lemonade and sit right in the middle of her store.

“Feel free,” she laughed. “I want people to enjoy their time here.”

I decided I wanted to see some great architecture, and so I headed to the home of Henri and Carol Ann Deshotels. The 4,000 square foot house is not only fascinating because of its grand porch and stairway, but because it was originally purchased out of a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog back in 1909.

“Most of it is original,” said Mr. Deshotels. “I still have a catalog with pictures of the houses you could buy.”

I knew a trip to Kaplan wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Le Musee de la Ville on Cushing. I was very excited to learn that although the Louvre may have Mona Lisa, the Kaplan museum has Gladys, a mannequin who sits in front of an antique telephone switchboard.

“She just looks like a Gladys,” said museum representative, Velma Touchet. “She and a lot of the antiques were donated by the late Lytle Turnley. He’s also the one who donated the building.”

Ms. Touchet showed me displays of beautifully crafted Mardi Gras gowns, paintings by local artists Beth Mouton and Dustin Schexneider, and a display honoring musicians like Klaby Meaux, Sammy Kershaw, Cedric Benoit and Shel Reaux.

“Music is a big part of Kaplan,” said museum representative, Betty Girouard. “In fact, the Smithsonian is having an exhibit here this fall.”

The exhibit entitled, “New Harmonies,” examines the roots of music and its tremendous affect on society. Kaplan is one of six Louisiana towns, which will host the event.

As I drove out of town, I realized that although I hadn’t exactly relived my time in Paris, I had experienced something special. I’d discovered innovative cuisine, historic architecture, beautiful gardens and a plastic woman named Gladys. But more importantly, I met some of the warm and friendly people who give Kaplan that certain, “Je ne sais quoi.”

For more information on Kaplan, you may call the Chamber of Commerce at 643-2400, City Hall at 643-7118, or the Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission at 898-6600. If you have any old pictures of Kaplan and would like to share them, please call Mr. Deshotels at 643-7100.