Apr 14, 2014

Tony's Seafood Market

Now the seafood market is a different story. The one Mark likes is called Tony's, it's in North Baton Rouge, and it's more upscale than our little tiny local one in Port Allen. North Baton Rouge has a bad reputation for being the city's ghetto. A lot of poverty and gang related violence exists there, and it is one of the more interesting parts of town. From hand-painted shop signs -"Same day car wash, shiney as a diamond"-, to threatening graffitti on concrete walls - "ShawnRee Daquan Williams is a Dead WHORE"-, to gas stations offering things like "hot tamales" and "crawfish pies" for a couple of bucks, it is like a whole part of town is wearing its heart on its sleeve, and ticking to the sounds of a different clock altogether.

[An alien such as myself can only imagine the codes, modes and rules governing a place like this, and no matter how hard I try I will always and forever be on the periphery of its experience. That's why when passing through I make a conscious effort to keep my thoughts quiet, and my senses and heart open. This is what I ask you, reader, to do too when going through my stories. Let's accept that we are standing on a massive structure made of giant hoops placed inside one another. These are the hoops of experience, and each place in the world has a structure like that. We have landed on the American structure, which encloses within it the Southern experience, which encloses the Louisiana experience, which encloses the Baton Rouge experience and so on and so forth. As we hop from the periphery closer to the centre with each day, hoop to hoop, lets keep an open heart and an open mind. Now back to the story.]

Of course we never venture deep into the ghetto, but sometimes we pass by some run down areas to get someplace else. Mark says that you can tell a neigbourhood is poor if it has a pawn shop, a rim shop, and a fast cheque cashing facility. I'm not sure, but I guess Tony's seafood market is somewhere on the perimeter of one such area. It's a very popular place, so people drive from all over to get their seafood there. They've got a security officer in the parking lot, because of all the cars and the traffic in there. 

Once you walk in the smell of seafood hits you, and you're overwhelmed by the amount of people in this large open plan store. It's a smell of sea, but not the kind I'm used to, a smell not as salty but rather more ripe and muddy. There are two sections: the raw section and the cooked section. The raw section is a long line of window freezers full of crawfish, catfish, shrimp, oysters and crabs that you can buy by the pound. Some of the animals are still alive, and under the human chatter and bustle you can almost hear their exoskeletons clicking as they move around slowly, cramped and frozen, clashing claws. I am struck by the diversity of beasts and people, probably for the first time since being in Baton Rouge, hunger and love of seafood uniting people of all backgrounds and colours. We join the long queue at the cooked section because we're super hungry, and I'm trying to catch a glimpse of what's on offer today. The guy in front of us is Mexican and he's talking on the phone, and suddenly my brain is seized by a strange homely but at the same time unfamiliar feeling, and I decide that Tony's seafood market is "where it's at". Across from me a black mother is holding a funny-looking but cute child of around two, his sandy-coloured curly hair nebulously framing his toffee-coloured face. He is wearing a white shirt with a green bowtie, and khaki shorts with brown leather moccasins, a rather serious attire for a two year old boy. He is waving hello at the people in the queue with a slightly confused look on his face. A boy, clinging on his mum's leg, waves back. 

"Whatcha getting honey?", the lady behind the counter asks me as I throw a panicked look at the peculiar food selection in front of me. I try to ask Mark what everything is but he's busy salivating and working his fast mind up to bursting excitement. I see the "familiar" etouffee, jambalaya, gumbo, fried catfish, but then my eye catches an intriguing mix of rice, shrimp, sausage, okra and a mysterious sauce, which might sound disgusting but right then I swear it looked divine. Mark's indecisive so we end up over-ordering as usual, and I'm slightly frustrated because I know I will end up eating everything cause it's delicious, with the risk of becoming what almost everyone else looked like in the store: LARGE. In fact it wasn't almost everyone, it was everyone apart from me, and I must say I never felt more embarrassed or apologetic about my size than I was that day in the store. I guess if we somehow transported Tony's seafood market back to Renaissance Europe, Botticelli or Michelangelo would have pushed me aside in disgust, in their rush to get to the fat lady at the front of the queue eyeing a great big hamburger steak.

"What sides you want, honey?" "I'll get the mac n' cheese, potato salad and red beans", please. -"Can we get a medium crab soup too?", Mark adds. "And cornbread".

At the till our orders get jumbled up with the Mexican man's order, who is still on his phone chatting away. While they clear that up I take a look at the massively long drinks fridge, and pick out a chocolate drink, which reminds me so much of the galataki we used to drink every evening with dinner at home. 

Mark insists we get some boiled shrimp. "But babe, we got all this food!!" Once again, we join the line, Mark thinking about how much shrimp he's going to get, me thinking I need to learn how to peel shrimp. The guy behind us in baggy jeans and a baggy white t-shirt, who must have been around our age, is looking at the shrimp and shaking his head, his neat braids flying around his head, whipping the air: "Yo, they got the head on, man, thas fucked up, they used to sell em without the head man, thas fucked up. You can tell I ain't been here in a minute". Mark said something in agreement and then ordered a pound of shrimp, watching the lady scooping up the boiled animals -legs, tentacles, beady eyes and all- and throwing them in a paper bag. 

On our way to the second till to pay and finally get out, Mark grabbed a bag of cracklins. "No way", I say irritated, "you are NOT getting cracklins". I snatch them from his hand and put them back.

Stepping outside in the parking lot chaos, I ask Mark what the guy meant about the shrimp being sold with the head. "They used to sell them without the head. Now they leave the head on so that they weigh more, and you pay more for less quantity. Times have changed".

I look at the plastic bags we're holding and admire in disgust the amount of food we just bought. Suddenly I glimpse a little bag of cracklins wedged between a drinks can and the shrimp.  Mark glances at me sideways with a cheeky smile. I roll my eyes and whistle through my teeth: "These damn Louisianians..."

Apr 11, 2014

The Daiquiri Shop

I have noticed that perhaps the places where one can most genuinely interact in a real way with their neighbours around here are: the bar, the market, the sex shop. 

They are all places where people are united by their need to satisfy the same thing, and so there is a strange sense of camaraderie and understanding I have not sensed in other places in this town. 

I mean, I've been to church, and I enjoy the music and the pep-talks, and people are very friendly in church, but it's not really a place to stick around and chit chat about life and stuff. People in church are busy catering to their souls, re-counting the sins of the week, taking in the spiritual experience, looking around to see who is there and who isn't, judging this week's selection of songs and whether they were sung well. People are not especially looking to talk to a stranger, and besides, the pastor makes sure to extend a warm welcome to visitors, so the congregation is covered. At service, each person is trying to connect to God through the choir or through the pastor, but not necessarily through one another, and each of his/her spiritual needs are strictly individual, leaving no space for much actual person to person interaction other than the friendly hello and brief talk with your fellow church goers after the service, and before you get into your big car and drive away. 

I guess if you want more interaction through church you have to go through the whole signing up, paying your offerings and tithes, joining a ministry and meeting up every other afternoon to organise charitable teas and events. 

At the neighborhood daiquiri bar however, though everyone's problems and life may be completely different, the needs are the same: booze is booze. Plus booze makes you talk. So you inevitably hear a lot of stories and meet a lot of people when you spend time there. People might be less quick to judge what you're wearing or where you're from, because after a long day, they don't feel like being judged themselves. 

Like Lenny, the ex-cop who was abused by his wife and ended up running away from her. Once, when they were living up in Indiana, he woke up to her sitting by the side of the bed holding a knife over him - "I musta had an angel, or heard the Lord, wakin up when I did". Their neighbours always assumed he was the one abusing her during their fights, and called the police on him several times. "I turned myself in, and tried to explain the situation to them, but they told me to get out of the city and never come back again, else they'd lock me up". Lenny has no home, so he spends most of his time in the bar, from morning to evening, sipping on water or pepsi and watching TV. We might as well have dropped from different planets, but he always greets me with a "Hey, lady". Sometimes people will buy him drinks for laughs. One time he was so drunk he fell off the chair laughing. One of the bartenders took him home and let him sleep on his couch. Another time he was making out with a married woman all night. He rarely has money for food but will insist on buying you a burger from next door if you haven't tried one. "It's the best burger you've ever had". Everyone loves Lenny. 

Some people feel the need to impart some drunken wisdom to you, like the couple who have been married for 20 years and insisted on the importance of this advice: "When he's tired and doesn't wanna clean the house, or wash the dishes, or cook, you do it. In fact, just do it anyway." "Listen, once a month women go crazy, when that happens you gotta understand that her hormones are taking over and just put up with it, you know what I'm saying, it's the moon turning them all crazy". "Sometimes, you will feel like you wanna put a knife to his throat, but just be nice to him instead". "Find a competitive game you both like, and play it often - we like playin' pool, I let her win sometimes", leaning closer and whispering now, "especially during those days of the month". After giving this last piece advice to Mark, the man turned to me, put his face really close to mine, poked his eyeball with his finger and said proudly: "I got shot in the face, lost my eye. Got a glass one in but you can't really tell it's fake". My brain buzzing with alcohol and in nervous response I threw my head back, my legs jerking up off the bar stool, and gave a hearty laugh. 

People's masks come off easier in the bar, but, in the words of one regular: "noone's trippin'". The drunk middle aged white neigbhour might utter to the black bartender, in her southern accent: "Hey Jackson 5, get me another Tropicolada, double shot", to which he might turn to the other laughing black patrons, comically roll his eyes and say "Coming right up, ma'am". 

Wednesdays are probably the busiest days for the daiquiri shop. Happy hour is 5-7, and you get two drinks for the price of one, an irresistible offer even for myself. You get to see a lot of your neighbours if you sit at the bar during those hours on a Wednesday. And their lives might surprise you. People living in trailer parks, people who have divorced and re-married several times, or who have many kids with several babies mamas even they've lost count, UPS truck drivers who live their life in traffic day in day out. Some pop in and out, grabbing daiquiris on the go. The other day, one guy popped in to get one for himself, and one for his wife, who was waiting in the car. Two minutes later, he walks back in with her drink in his hand and a terrified look on his face: "My lady say she don't like this flavour, can I switch, man?" The bartender sighs, and for what seems like the thousandth time in his bartending career says "Sorry, man, you popped the cap, I can't give you another drink". Seeing the beads of sweat starting to form on the man's forehead, a woman sitting at the bar, with her seventh Jagermeister shot in front of her, tries to cheer him up: "I'll buy this drink from ya, give this guy another drink on me, Jim". 

The neighborhood daiquiri shop feels like a place people go to when they have nowhere else to go, like a community centre, but with bar stools and poker machines. Some of the bartenders hang out there even when they don't have a shift, spending hours playing video games or magic cards with each other. It can get stuffy and asphyxiating, what with the strange urine smell mixed with stale cigarette smoke and the aura of people's stalled lives. It's a place where addictions flourish, daily problems are briefly drowned and the jukebox oscillates between classic rock and southern rap. Here you will find men and women bent over an icy slush of rum and sugar, or sitting at a poker booth blowing the month's paycheck.Their lives sometimes resemble the exterior of the bar itself: a half-lit neon sign with letters missing, and long, dark drapes over the shop windows keeping the sun out and hiding the inside from the world outside. It's always dark inside, even in the middle of the day. A box of a building, enclosing many heartaches. 

Apr 9, 2014

One of the great things about living in the South...

...is that you get to listen to music like this live every Sunday. Isn't it enough to make a non-believer sing about God? Yea, it's so beautiful. But even if you don't go to church, this wonderful music finds you everywhere. Last Sunday, I found myself at Mrs. N's house, watching her make an arrangement out of flowers, while gospel was blurting out the radio, and the house was filled with the beautiful smell of different things being fried or boiled on the gas stove. Her son was cooking and singing along in a kitchen full of steam and gospel ("Joy, joy, God's great joy!") while her husband was laid back on the couch, cigarette hanging from his lips as usual, and I could swear that through the smoke and the steam and the flower musk I saw the beans in the pot dancing, and the frying eggs shivering in Lord's praise. Even Chance the crazy little barking dog ("we found 'im in a pound and we took a chance on 'im"), that has to be tied on a cement block with a cable when guests are over to stop him from jumping at them with his snapping teeth, was quiet, basking in the warmth of a beautiful Sunday morning.

Mrs N. used to be a florist, and she owned the shop we now occupy, but multiple sclerosis confined her to a wheelchair, and a life full of little bottles of pills and daytime TV. She also worked as a nurse, and told me that her knowledge and persistence saved her life, because the doctors didn't seem to pay enough attention to her symptoms, and were ready to write them off as nothing. Next to her, the kitchen counter top is always covered with herbal supplements, and she advises me to practice restraint in my use of antibiotics and conventional medications ("Get you some Shiitake mushroom for that, increase your Vitamin D dose to a thousand, and take coconut oil for your heart).

Next to her collection of strange-sounding remedies are her florist tools, a box full of wire, wire cutters, scissors, shears, Aqua-hold, ribbon and other tools of the trade that were forgotten in some cupboard for a few years and have now resurfaced, ready to take on a new life. Since we wanted to learn how to be florists and open up the shop one day, and she was bored all day at home, we struck a wonderful agreement: that she would show us how to make flower arrangements, and that we would keep her busy. 

And so here is one chapter of my current life, my regular visits to Mrs N's house, walking in carrying buckets of roses, carnations, delphiniums, snapdragons and chrysanthemums, and walking out with meticulous arrangements, and the latest 'Young and the Restless' gossip, Mrs N's favourite TV show. 

Life here is good. Even though I try so hard to adapt and fit in a world so different from mine, there are beautiful moments that spark this small suspicion I have that a part of my soul really belongs here, or was born here but accidentally found its way to Cyprus on some easterly wind just in time to enter my little body back on 25 April, 1988. Like the other day, when the sun was shining a brilliant, brimming light all over this small, Misissippi rivertown, and I was working outside on the patio, sitting crosslegged on the floor among compost, pots and tools, planting my new garden: basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, bay and jasmin to remind me of home. Some neighbour was blasting old school Merry Claytonesque soul music, and I could hear the distant but loud cries of a pastor giving a sermon somewhere outside through a loudspeaker - "...Halelujah! Halelujah!.." - a lively crowd must have been gathered around him to hear the pep-talk, because I could also hear them shouting in agreement - "Yes indeed", "Praise the Lord!" "Alright now", "Preach it!". Just then my best friend walked out of the house carrying coffee, smiling. I looked up at him, eyes squinting from the sun's strong glare, and smiling back broadly I thought: "Joy, joy, down in my soul."

P.S: I strongly suggest you go on youtube to watch this video, then click on the right hand side where youtube has a playlist 'Mix', to hear all the wonderful songs in this recording.