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!