I didn’t expect to be thrown into it all that quickly. We were coming across the state line toward Shreveport and it hit me at a gas station. We stopped to fill up, knowing that no matter how fast we flew down the highway, how many corners I cut in the directions to get into New Orleans as fast as possible… we’d never make it on the little bit of fuel left in the tank.
I ran into the convenience store of the station and heard the accent as soon as the attendant opened her mouth to greet a late employee. Apparently, “Miss” “Mister” and “Misses” go as hand in hand with a greeting as beans do with rice down here, and although she was unaware of it, this woman’s salutation coupled with her accent was the best “Welcome to Louisiana” I could have received.
As I stood and pumped gas into my bug-splattered ride a sign on the gas station’s fence caught my eye. “Sno Balls available here!” Even though I knew it wasn’t the season, it wasn’t the time, and this definitely wasn’t the place, the option to buy a Sno Ball was immensely appealing. I’d done shaved ice and snow cones, but this was rumored to be a whole new thing. But, those who rumored it to be something unique also told me that unless I was in shorts and a tank top buying them from an old man’s cart in 100% humidity… it’s not time.
I resisted the urge, topped off the tank and got into the car for the last stretch of our drive. The minute we got back into the car the radio “scan” setting slowly moved through static, static, static, commercials, static and then finally landed on something that sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before but something I’d always wanted to hear. In California I was used to radio shows that weren’t conducted in English, with recognizable changes in tone and voice that implied questions, enthusiasm and other sorts of linguistic cues. The raspy voice of the host was speaking quickly, loudly and in a language that left my ears and brain trying to decipher the end of each sentence while he was halfway through the next.
I listened to the host speak for a while even though I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I knew what should, and hopefully would, be coming next. My eyes stared intently on the road around us. For a few miles, the side of the road had been spotted with Zatairan’s billboards and jet boat tours. The median, full of tall green trees with swooping branches and leaves that seemed to slowly dance with the winter wind that was leading them. The road was slick with dark patches wetted by a recent rain. And at certain parts of the highway bridges disappeared completely with a dense, grey fog that rolled across the road. It was soon after we had gotten back on the freeway that the voice abruptly stopped. Squealing accordions, tin rubboards and French lyrics rolling off the tongue of a smooth-voiced musician.
Zydeco. It was something that I’d romanticized as much as I had a dripping strawberry Sno Ball in April or my first king cake baby. My online radio had been set to “Cajun and zydeco station” at home, despite my roommates complaints that it made them feel like they were at an amusement park. And I must shamefully admit that in some of my over-the-top daydreams during the last few days of Fall Quarter, it brought to mind the images of a backwoods fais do do, booze in a jug and wild-haired women and wild-eyed men who grew up doing dances my feet could never master.
We drove the rest of the way switching between this random Cajun radio station until the static couldn’t be distinguished from the rubboard- and another that played an array of hiphop and bounce music. The rain came and went, the fog rolled in and out, and eventually the countdown of miles we had left to go went from three digits, to two, to one. Rounding the bend of Lake Pontchartrain the silhouettes of dead trees lined the highway, the lights of the city were glowing in the distance and the Orleans Parish sign greeted us as we switched freeways to exit 1A for Canal which we took to our new home, lit by two strings of neatly hung lights on the top porch.
After unloading suitcases, paintings, boxes of art supplies and crates of cookbooks our hunger suddenly trumped our excitement. Our new roommates had promised dinner and they delivered. The five of us, two couples and Harlan Peppercorn the dog, walked two blocks toward the bayou to a joint called Parkway. We walked through what is now our neighborhood, getting directions about which way not to venture at night, which places we had to drink beers on the patio, and which parades we’d be starting the season with. Directly across from the start of the river that leads into the bayou/CityPark my nostrils flared when they sucked in a smell that was very, very familiar. It was fresh, simmering red beans. Since, I have discovered that there are pockets of the city that hit you with that scent. Halfway down a block the window of someone’s shotgun is cracked releasing the sweet smell of thick red beans and sodium rich ham hocks. Or walking down an alley the backdoor of what happens to be a neighborhood bar’s kitchen will swing open and flood the air with that same scent.
We spent the night at the dinner table eating BBQ beef and surf & turf po’ boys, pinching fallen lettuce shreds and shrimp between our fingers and using the crusty bread to sponge remoulade that dare not be wasted on the white butcher paper that was acting as tablecloth, cutting board and plates.