One day I chose to go down the length of Highway 14. It starts in Lake Charles and goes south and then east through the very southern reaches of the state all the way to New Iberia 75 miles away. It crosses Jefferson Davis Parish – before the most of it in Vermillion parish, spitting out at the other end in New Iberia. I got up in the morning, Danny and the guys went off to work, and I drove off. I had a list of around 10 companies with products on the shelves at Abe’s. I was going to visit them. None of them knew I was coming.
The first one was in Holmwood, more a settlement than a town, and maybe some 20 miles south of Lake Charles. Some guy was making a green hot sauce there. I found the place, which wasn’t easy, because it was a small shed behind the guy’s house. I expected a business, I found a hobby. He was – or had been – in the oil industry. He was unemployed now, hanging on, and trying something new. It was his mother’s recipe, or maybe several generations before her. I walked into the shed to find the man at work. I gave him my card and explained my purpose. His labels were typed, then copied, and taped on the bottles. The name, something like “Landry’s Green Picante Sauce”was in capital letters, the rest was lower case. There was an ink splotch of the silhouette of the state as his logo. He showed me his “plant” as he called it. It was barely 2,000 square feet, maybe. It was more shed than factory.
He had about 200 lbs of green peppers in a heap in the corner, and gallons of vinegar and bins and cans of various spices. He was smashing and mashing and adding and tasting when I walked in. He was a one man operation. “Sometimes the wife helps,” he said, “Mostly putting the labels on.” Only they weren’t ‘labels’ in any professional sense. I had my notebook with me, as I always did. I drew him up some logo ideas. Showed him how colors should be added. How he should get them printed professionally. I wrote up his ingredient list from most to least as they are done, which he didn’t seem to realize was normal. I wrote a blurb about the family recipe. We talked for a good 2 hours about his business, what he hoped to achieve and how that might happen. He didn’t want to go national. Regional was good enough for him. As I came to joke, many of these people wanted to earn just enough to buy a bass boat and a new pickup truck to pull it. Maybe two, three months later, my buddy at Abe’s showed me the guy’s new label. Oh, he followed my advice. He didn’t pay me cash, I didn’t ask. But I did walk away with a dozen bottles of the stuff. I met him once at a food show, 10 years later, in Lafayette – he had done well enough for himself.
Then I was off to Gueydan. Only, Hayes is in the way, and there’s a 90 degree dogleg in the highway, so you sort of have to stop there. I didn’t know about this place. I pulled into the town at this intersection and there straight in front of me I saw this huge 20 foot high crawfish statue on a poll on the front lawn of a business there. One of those combined businesses that are scattered across the state. It was a bar. It was a restaurant. It was a store! And it made its own sausages and boudin. I stopped there and went in. It was a very strange environment. In one big open space were all these purposes. The store part had shelves with products like any convenience store. Chips, snacks, soups, quick meals, cans of chili, and some of those hand labeled Cajun products. There was a cooler and meat case like at a deli for the perishables; they would make you a po’boy in a flash. You could take it to go or eat it right there, they had a few tables set up. There was a beer and soda cooler. Behind that, beyond a half wall, was a bar with liquor bottles and a mirror at the back and stools – a bar! There was a small stage too.
I spoke to the folks there for about one hour, they weren’t even the owners, not even a manager, but like, the guy in charge at the moment, and a few of the staff. I had a beer with them. They were happy just the way they were. They had no dreams, hopes or plans for expansion. They did, though, like my ideas for placing ads in Lagniappe in Lake Charles, and the Lafayette weeklies too. Bringing people to the bar and to the music interested them very much. Why they had never sought to advertise or get mentioned in the calendar lists in the two large cities east and west of them for upcoming events I do not know. But, they began to do so. They became this sort of ‘go to’ place for Zydeco and honky-tonk and clanky-clank Cajun music. It became artsy, in a way, though, not too much of course. They did not hang ferns, I assure you. I told Lagniappe to do an article on the place – and they did. Over the years I was probably there 15 times. Their grocery selections were bigger, and their Cajun products fancier, and their deli offerings more eclectic, but their music and bar stayed the same, but were filled now every night. They became this night club that was well known, and people were willing to drive the 45 minutes to get there. Tourists came by. It developed nicely, yet kept its character, which is what they wanted to do.
I got to Gueydan and met with some crawfish processors. They were selling sacks at Abe’s in Lake Charles – and they were selling peeled tails there too. You can buy crawfish in one of two ways. There’s live crawfish by the sack – and you boil them yourself. Or you can buy one or two pound packages of peeled crawfish. The sacks are easy. The sweet thing is if you chill the sacks of creepy crawling crawfish to about 50 degrees – they go to sleep. They squirm a bit, but, they’re asleep. So sacks of the things – each weighing 20 to 50 pounds – are kept in coolers. Easier to control them that way. They wake up as you take them home. These plants were at the edge of rice fields. Rice and crawfish grow together nicely. Only this was not really known until the late 1960s, early 1970s it took off. By the time I showed up nearly all rice fields were also given over to raising crawfish. For the previous oh, 250 years, it was wild crawfish that were caught and consumed. There was a season, and the mudbugs just were out there to be gathered. Someone figured out that if you pour a family or two of crawfish into a rice field – you will get a crawfish convention, and then you can harvest them.
There are thousands of acres of rice fields in Vermillion Parish – and the surrounding parishes. South Louisiana is prime rice growing land – or watery land. Lake Charles, in fact, is the nation’s largest rice exporting port. It’s a weed there. But it is intensive work, for each rice plug must be planted individually. It’s mechanized now of course, but it was done by hand, by slaves at first, and then after the fall of Saigon – by Vietnamese. South Louisiana resembles the Mekong River delta southeast of Saigon in Vietnam – that country of major contention in this world – it is flat, marshy, rice-driven, hot sticky humid and on and on. The deltas of the Mekong and Mississippi are amazingly alike. Those who got to escape settled in South Louisiana. The Catholic Church brought in the first, probably with no recognition of the similarities between the mouths of two great rivers – and the word spread, and there are now at least 200,000 people of Vietnamese heritage from Lake Charles to East New Orleans.
Vietnamese ladies moved into the crawfish peeling industry. Peeling crawfish is labor intensive. People for years tried to invent a machine to do it, but no one succeeded. The crawfish are boiled first – in huge vats. 1000 gallon vats! Then they are spilled out on to a yard wide stainless steel table, maybe 20, up to 50 feet long. Some plants that were bigger had 2 or 4 tables – 2 facing each other. There’s a trough at the back, with a drop to a garbage bin. There were bins behind them, ready to get the meat. The ladies stand there and start peeling. Crawfish are tiny lobsters – they are crustaceans. Though, while the meat of lobster claws is substantial, it is nothing from crawfish. It’s the tail meat that is the prize, and the head fat. You have to twist the body in half, then peel the tail shell off. It’s not easy at first, but quickly one becomes proficient. These ladies were speed demons. They all chatted amiably in Vietnamese as they worked, and the owners said “beats us, they do their jobs well.”
Several months later I was back there talking to a crawfish farmer. He had given up on rice, or really, made that his secondary crop. He was pumping out crawfish, for that’s where the money was. Rice is labor intensive, crawfish just wander around making babies. He had a 4 table peeling operation going on. He was experimenting with an etoufee recipe. I sent him to LSU and the agricultural extension service to work on his ideas. He took me out on a boat to collect the crawfish. It was a small Cajun skiff, a type of flat bottomed boat with a small motor that rode high in the water – for the water is not deep in a rice field. They set out traps, baited with chicken parts, that rot, and the crawfish love the detritus and crawl in, and can’t get out. You cruise through the ponds – acres of them – and pick up the traps and dump the crawfish into bins on the boat and go to the next trap. I spent maybe 2 hours out there. It’s backbreaking work. The traps are maybe 10 pounds of steel mesh, the crawfish another 20 or 30 pounds.
You still can’t buy frozen Crawfish Etoufee meals in a supermarket like you can almost any other cuisine. You can find Asian and Mexican and Italian and Polish and so on – but Cajun? Nope. There is something about crawfish that do not allow it. Sad to say.
To make etoufee you need peeled crawfish. The problem is peeling them – and then making the etoufee – and then! – making it a product that can be sold. There seems to be no way yet. Canning it was tried, and failed. Bottling it was tried, and failed. Freezing it in bags was tried, and failed. There is something about the roux and cream that breaks down in these processes. Plus, crawfish are delicate. They are not hardy like shrimp. Not at all. Shrimp you can freeze for months – and they are fine. Crawfish last about one month, then turn to mush. It is a fresh crop, and that’s the problem.
I got to Kaplan and met the mayor. It’s a “big” town for that area. Has a downtown even, even if just about 6 or 7 blocks long and a block wide. There’s maybe 30 businesses, 40 at tops. I parked and went for a stroll through it. I stopped in the office supply place – they always knew local businesses of course. Turned out to be the mayor. Didn’t know if he owned it or worked there – or was just there for something else. We all got to talking. There were several gentlemen there. They were as fascinated as I was about the fact that my grandmother Ludmila’s maiden name was Kaplan – and so was this town.
They didn’t have much going for them. But, they did have a few honky tonk saloons and quite a number of bands. They had rice and crawfish too. So I told them to get listed on the Lafayette music calendar listings and to work on the crawfish angle.
I went on to Abbeville where I met with more crawfish farmers, and a few sausage companies, and a hot sauce plant. This place was bustling. It was big compared to Kaplan, Gueydan and Hayes. Why, this was a city! I went to the chamber of commerce. They shared an office with the tourist commission. They had no idea what they were doing. They thought bringing people in from Kaplan and New Iberia, barely 20 miles away in each direction, was bringing people in. We had a meeting right then and there, about a dozen of us. I told them people from New York and Chicago and Atlanta would love to come here.
“Why?” they asked with amazement.
“Because it’s unique. You all need to band together and take out an ad in some fancy Atlanta travel journal. You have restaurants, historic homes, a historic district …”
“Historic district?” They were confused.
I said “The entire downtown core of this place is historic! Don’t you know that?”
They did not. To them it was home. It was the way things always were. But there, on street after street was this incredible architecture – sprinkled with restaurants, gardens, parks, boutiques, antique stores and more. It was this tourist midden. They had no idea. Within a year they had a thing going.
The day done, I got to New Iberia and had some dinner at some restaurant where I quickly gave them some suggestions for a better menu and then I headed up to Lafayette for the interstate and the drive home.
Natchitoches meat pies were such a big thing that they have a festival for them! Only, they really weren’t that big yet. I had never heard of such a food. I found out that was because there was a very limited distribution of these wonders of gastronomy. It was all centered on this little city with the ridiculously absurd pronunciation from its spelling. “Nah-ka-desh” is how you say it. But that’s the way it’s spelled too – clearly no real relation, maybe a dash at most. The city is the “metropolis” of the parish of the same name, and the surrounding parishes of Winn, Grant, Sabine, Red River, DeSoto, Bienville – and that’s where you could find the pies. Any store in this region carried one brand or another. But that was the only area they were available in. People from across the state and east Texas, would go to the festival just to get the pies. In fact, right across the border, maybe oh, 60 miles to the west, is Nacagdoches, Texas. They are sister cities. But in Texas they pronounce it “Nah-ka-do-chase.” Anyway, in Texas, no pies, in Louisiana – these wondrous “pies.” They were not even available in Lake Charles, Lafayette or Baton Rouge. Somehow I heard of the festival and I went.
It’s not a pie at all. In a way it’s like an apple turnover, the crust flaky and fluffy – but with spiced meats and rice and whatever else they can shove in them. Crawfish, shrimp – some of the daring ones went for turtle and ostrich. I went to the festival. It had been going on for a decade or more. There must have been oh, 50 little mom & pop operations making the pies all over the parish and beyond. Some were obviously more commercial than others. Some really were just mom and dad making grandma’s recipe and perhaps just there to have fun. They didn’t want to start a business, they made them for friends, and this was a way to preserve their family’s heritage while having a party. Others clearly were in business. A few had food trucks that I found out would go to festivals across the state and perhaps Texas and Mississippi, and up to Arkansas.
I found at least 4 that had factories, plants, whatever you wish to call them. They had employees churning these pies out by the 1000s a day. They supplied local restaurants and grocery stores. They were though, limited to the closest few parishes.
I spoke to every single producer at the festival. They were charming people. I did not eat a meat pie from every station – no one can eat 50 meat pies, can they? But many had little sample bites on a plate – so I would try those. I introduced myself to everyone cooking or serving them. They were all surprised a New Yorker was right there talking to them about their business. I took every piece of literature they were handing out, not that it was much. I found out what they were doing and what their dreams and plans were. I gave my card to everyone. It’s a two day festival, so I had time enough. I discovered which were the people most serious about growing their business, and I made arrangements to visit them at their production facilities. One was in Sabine Parish, the others were in the Natchitoches city area.
Each of the four had very similar operations in about 10,000 square feet – the standard Louisiana steel frame and corrugated roof building. There are 1000s of them across the state. It was also stainless steel tables and equipment as was modern professional at the time. They were under state regulation for health and such, they were ready for some serious expansion. They had excess capacity, but no markets. There are, after all, only so many meat pies one can sell in a 100 mile radius to mostly empty piney woods. In a sense they were enormous kitchens. I was given tours of it all. I spent maybe 2 to 4 hours with the owners looking at every detail of production from raw ingredients to finished packaged product. I assure you, the aroma was so delectable. It was like walking into a meat pie and swimming through the foggy air. Wondrous.
The couple who owned the company in Sabine Parish were perhaps the most keen on expansion. It was actually her business. He had a real job, a banker or lawyer or something, which we never spoke about. In fact, I barely met him at all. Perhaps at most he had to approve my presence with his wife. He did tell me “You get a ticket in this parish, you come see me,” and I was “OK,” and that was not the first time that had been said to me. She was the guiding force of this venture. Sad to say – I simply do not remember her name or her company’s name. But I remember her. She was a very charmingly intense petite woman with a sandy blond bob hairdo and a willingness to explore new ideas. I only met with her about 4 or 5 times. Her place was about a half mile off of Highway 171. It wasn’t in any town. It was in the woods. Beautiful grounds actually. Azaleas abounded, they were in bloom at the time I visited her, so it must have been April.
We sat a good long while and went over expansion ideas. I explained to her that going to food industry trade shows in Houston and Dallas and Little Rock and New Orleans would be good. She had never heard of such things. Well, yeah, in Sabine Parish there are no such things. Her family had been there for a century or more. The idea of going to such cities actually alarmed her – but also jostled something in the brain. “I can do this,” I think she realized, however scary those big cities were. They were huge compared to where she spent her life. The parish only has 25,000 people.
I sent her to LSU to get the official imprimatur of ingredients and nutrition information. She was hesitant. I said “If you wish to sell beyond this region you must get this done. Yes, it will cost you a few hundred dollars, maybe a $1,000. Yes, there is work involved. You must write up a detailed recipe – per pie. They will tell you what to do. Only you can do this – this is your product.”
But she embraced it. The next time I went back, like 6 weeks later maybe, she had her information and I went over it with her. I had also come up with a business plan. The point of it was to expand the ring of sales territory in a slow, steady, deliberate way – to make sure sales did not exceed capacity – but produced a tension of more sales with more production in lockstep. I said head north to Shreveport first, for they knew what the product was mostly. Then go south to Acadiana. These regional meat pies are not Cajun at all, but everyone in Louisiana had heard of them. The knowledge was state wide, and even over into East Texas – it was the product that was not available.
I had also designed her new packaging, with more information, and including space for the ingredients and nutrition info, and a better logo, with more color contrast and flair, so that all of it was a coherent whole. She took it all in. She paid me $200 or so – I don’t even remember. I didn’t even set a price. I said “Pay me as you wish.” She also gave me 100s of pies, cases of them! I really loved those Crawfish Pies of hers. Oh my lordy! Delicious. I handed them out to many people in Lake Charles – what could I do with 100 meat pies!
The other three companies were in somewhat similar straits. I had less dealings with them. Still, I met with all of them and got the tour of their places, wallowing in that incredible aroma of meat pies in the making, and worked with them for a day or half a day about their strong and weak points. I don’t remember their names either.
I only dealt with this in this limited way – over maybe 6 months I met with them all – and many others too, for different reasons. And today, at least, you can get them on the internet. https://www.natchitochesmeatpies.com/
To what extent this is because of me – you can wonder.
My Hlife in New York
On the day I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in May of 1958 the probability of me ever setting foot in Louisiana was nil – or infinity. Take your pick. My parents were born in Queens, and their parents, my four grandparents, were born in the Czech Republic. Well, my mom’s mom was born in the Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to my Great-grandparents, who were born in the Czech lands, but it was as if she was born over there. They are all from there and they all spoke the language. All their brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and family friends, everyone, at summer camp, in Sokol, a Czech gymnastics association, at family barbecues – all the adults spoke Czech. I showed up into this Czech family as the second grandson to be born in America. My older brother was the first. I learned Czech at my grandma’s knee. Somewhat; it is abysmally difficult, but I can handle it. Our food and culture, our music and many political concerns were Czech. In 1968 during the “Prague Spring” the Czechoslovak Philharmonic Orchestra came to our house for a barbecue. Some 40 people showed up on a bus. The backyard was thronged with people speaking Czech and Slovak. I was 10 years old. That’s prime language learning years. I belonged to Czech sports and religious and community organizations. In fact, I have a book in mind called “Growing up Czech.” I even have cousins in the Czech Republic today that I know well and can speak to in Czech. Some are facebook friends. Which I must, because most of them don’t speak English! My youth, particularly the first 10 years, before the elders started passing on to their reward as Providence dictates will happen to all of us – my youth was very Czech.
I was American, of course. I mean, life was in American English for me, in East Northport, Long Island, New York. It’s on the north shore out in the western end of Suffolk County. My parents bought a brand new house there in 1958 – and that’s where I spent the first 10 years of my life. When I was 11, in 1969 we moved to Baldwin, in southern Nassau County. Barely 15 miles from Manhattan really. You could see the glow of the city at night from my 2nd floor bedroom window as a teenager. There was a citywide blackout in like 1976 or something, and the glow disappeared – we could see it missing. Manhattan was a half hour express train ride’s away. Easy to get to by the Long Island Railroad whose Baldwin station was one mile from our house. I can still rattle off the stops on the lines of the Long Island “Snailroad.” I have jokes and stories galore to tell about one of the world’s largest commuter train networks. Including taking Czech cousins visiting America on it to Manhattan to show them the sights.
I have two brothers and a sister – and a huge Czech family of cousins, aunts, uncles, and more – across the New York area, across America, and across the ocean to the Czech lands where we know the families of all four of my grandparents. And some cousins I discovered in 2013 living in Australia. One big family on three continents in two languages. It’s like living in New York and having cousins in California – but the other way in a different language. See? Hmm.
Anyway – that’s where and when I grew up. When I was 20 I headed out on my own. But first I worked in a supermarket exactly7/8th s of a mile from my house. King Kullen was the name, I was on the night crew, and I stocked the dog food, cat food, vegetable, rice and beans aisle. It was not a big place, and their slogan for a while was “Never open on Sundays!” as the Blue Laws discussion raged in New York in the 1970s. I have been urged to write a book about those incredible two years – and I have started on it. In 1978 I bought a one way ticket to San Francisco. I wrote a journal for the year I was gone and published it as “An Improbable Traveler: the journey of a 20 year old guy.” A year later when I got back to New York from Florida where I spent a wondrous month with my mom’s parents, Joe and Nettie – I moved to Brooklyn and got involved in printing in New York. Lower Manhattan actually. Across the street from City Hall really. A high school friend I met in my neighbor hood brought me to a company called Louis Frey, who asked me to stuff envelopes one day. They were at 9 Murray Street. City Hall is sort of “Number One Murray Street” in the way the British Prime Minister is at “Number 10 Downing Street.”
Louis Frey hired me that very day. Well, there was no such person. It was the last names of two gentlemen in the 1930s, maybe earlier even, or something, but two guys, Mr. Louis and Mr. Frey, who started it. Now Mark Weaver ran it. He hired me that very day. He was my mentor. I learned so much about life and reality from that man it is hard to recount. A book of philosophy might be written about the conversations we had. I was even a summer roommate with his daughter Sherry – my mission was to make sure she and her two kids were safe in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was still a little sketchy. I took the kids to school. I went with them all to the grocery store. Sherry and Mark were happy. It was he who recommended me for countless jobs, it was she who had this in-plant company. Zoom into someplace and do some special project – and get out.
From Mark it was a springboard to specialty printing in lower Manhattan. Engineering firms, law firms, financial service firms, banks – and Ebasco – the “Electric Bond and Shareholders Company” – who built nuclear power plants, including a few in Louisiana – and a mile long cable stayed bridge at Lutcher, across the Mississippi river. To my knowledge it is the largest such bridge of its kind in the nation. Perhaps the newest bridge in the state, at St. Francisville, is bigger. I worked from the sub-basement of 55 Water Street – one of the largest office buildings in the world, with its own zip code – to the 105th floor of Tower Two of the World Trade Center. I worked for Printemps, Job Recovery, Ticor and more. For the Oliphant Press on Hudson Street I folded thousands of very fancy invitations printed on a hand turned press, embossed and sparkled and more – and the guy who ran the place, a very quiet man, would only hire me to fold these works of art – for places like the Frick Museum, and Edith Haupt Conservatory in the Bronx, and events at the Met and MoMA. I folded them by hand, using a whale bone as my crease-maker. As I sat quietly folding hour after hour he ran his press at the same pace. We rarely spoke, we listened to classical music over the radio, and he paid me in cash at the end of the day. Sweet.
Anyway – I was embedded in this printing industry in downtown Manhattan. The phone rang daily for me to come to some place and do some printing – the machines I ran, the processes I know, the printing trades – I know them intimately. Then Esteban’s called me up. Offered me a job at a good salary. I took it. It was on 23rd Street, at the foot of Madison Avenue. Our massive picture window in the loft like space – 20 or so feet wide by oh, 300 feet deep – faced straight up the fabled avenue, Madison Square Park just to the left of the view. The Flatiron building a block to the west. I worked there. That’s where I met the guys. I know them all today. I am a part of this Esteban family. In a way, even today, I have an office on West 35th Street, across from Macy’s of Thanksgiving Day Parade fame, and 3 blocks from the Empire State Building, which can be seen from the windows, at Esteban’s. The core employees have been there for decades – and I helped boost them up from messenger jobs. There’s a book in that too!
Anyway – Esteban’s let their printing office be my office for Cajun Commodities Corporation. Al Esteban, founder of the company – and one of the grandest, greatest men one could ever meet – a friend of mine in a very deep way – a man who stuck up for me in certain areas of life not germane to this book, but another – let me make any call I wanted to Louisiana on the company phone – without asking for a dime. He allowed me to print whatever I wanted to without charge. If I needed 500 brochures for some company in Louisiana I printed them without even having to give notice. He invested his space, his paper and machinery, the cost of printing and his money in my venture. More than any other person.
He also allowed me the most flexible schedule a printer – or any worker – could have. When I needed to or wanted to go to Louisiana – I could. When he needed me to come back, I did. When I wanted to come back, I could. I was in constant contact with Esteban’s about work. I was particularly engaged in New York City Housing Authority contracts, and New York City Sewer and Water Board’s North River Control Plant (aka the Hudson pooh pools,) where they were building some huge sewerage treatment plant. Hazen & Sawyer were the chief engineers. Eddy Christopher, shop foreman at the time, would call my New York City number, which was an answering service, and leave a message. I would get the message in a day or so as I checked the service frequently.
I had a live operator answer all calls. I paid good money for this service. They would answer “Cajun Commodities Corporation, may I help you?” and they would say “Mr Hlavac is not in at the moment, you can leave a message for him, and he will get back to you.” With my company number there was no way to actually reach me. When I needed to be reached, I gave Esteban’s number – 212-989-7000. I would be printing, I’d get a call – the guys at the front desk would say “Hey Hlavac, you got a call.” Then I’d take a call from Louisiana. The guys just listened with some sense of amazement, sort of chuckling at the weirdness of it all. When I checked my messages a live woman – they were always women – would read me my messages and go over any details. It was really a great service. I never spoke to a man at this service. I found them in an ad in the New York Times.
Like I said, Al Esteban allowed and enabled all this. He paid me when I asked. He overpaid me when I asked. He gave me money – hundreds, not thousands, but a few extra none the less – when I said “Hey, Al, this is what I need to do in Louisiana.” He would take out the company checkbook and write me one for a few hundred. He made it out to Cajun Commodities Corporation and I would deposit it in my corporate account. He and I would sit around in his office, or go for drinks or dinner and discuss what I was doing. He was a successful entrepreneur. He set up a printing company and now had 25 employees, me included. He gave me much good advice. He encouraged me in this weird adventure I was on. He laughed a lot and told me I was out of my mind. This was a man of Puerto Rican heritage raised in the West Side of Manhattan projects. He was able to start a “Minority Business Enterprise” and build it into a major company that it is today. When I go back everyone wonders why I alone get to walk into his son’s office, Chris Esteban, who runs the company today. I alone can just waltz in. Why? Eh, I used to babysit Chris as a 13 year old while working. I taught him the business.
Al, I think, more than anyone else, believed in what I was doing. He didn’t know exactly what I was doing. But he knew I was doing something. He allowed me to do it – and he provided means to do it. I cannot thank the man enough.
And then, in March 1990 I moved to Louisiana permanently, and never worked at Esteban’s again. However, like I say, I have an office there, and when I want something printed, or need to use the phone, or receive a package, or send one or two for that matter – Esteban’s gives me total liberty to do as I please to day in 2018 as they did in 1981 when I started there.
But for five years – 1985 to1990 – Esteban’s was the backbone of my life. It cannot be denied, however much I did in Louisiana, Esteban’s in New York City provide many of the means.
Thanks, Al, from my heart.
All this because of that fateful day in May of 1985 when I got to Lake Charles.
Houma was a city of less than 1,500 people when our first Czech immigrants arrived in the city. Two of the families were to make a significant contribution in the history of the city, but two were to just surface briefly and disappear. In this section we will look at the trajectory of these families as they came and went through Houma. The city was on the verge of a boom brought about by the plantation economy that was spreading in the former wilderness surrounding the city in the 1850s when James Blahut first appeared. The city was prosperous and growing during the last decades of the 1800s when the Zelenka’s made their mark. The city was enjoying new found oil wealth when the last members of the Blahut and Zelenka families either died or moved away, but they did leave an indelible trace on the face of Houma.
The story of the plantation owner James Blahut and his family’s 75 years in Houma begins with a record in the Terrebone Parish Court House: James Blahut, “native of the city of Prague in the Kingdom of Bohemia, age 31 years, and emigrated to the United States in the month of March 1851,” applied for naturalization April 21, 1853. James could not have been the name he was given at birth. Naming conventions of the time dictate that James was most often the translation for the Czech Vaclav. He quickly moved into the social scene in the area. James Blahut was a master mason at Houma Lodge No 139, F & AM. He was initiated in 1854, and became a full member in 1855. He was treasurer for the lodge in 1864, 1865, and 1866. Prague, where James Blahut was born in 1822 or 1823, was a major city of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and had several hundred thousand residents.
In the 1850s his residence was listed as Houma, a town of less than 2,000 people. His occupation was said to be merchant. And we have one odd transaction confirming his job, on the 23rd of October, 1855, “Blahut and Wright” sold a “mortgage recording book” for $15.50 to the Parish police jury. Blahut was in business with his brother-in-law, Abraham Wright. In 1854, the year before Holden Wright was to become his father-in-law, Wright produced 146 hogsheads of sugar. So James was making a good economic step when on July 25, 1855, he married Maria Elizabeth Wright, Holden’s daughter. She was born January 28, 1829. The nuptials took place at the Bayou Black residence of her father; a Reverend Wilson did the honors. The marriage record says he was “the son of Mathiew Blahut and Marguerite Fomayer.” The marriage was short lived, and Maria died 15 April, 1858. They had one son, William Holden Blahut.
Things could not have been good between the young couple for a petition for divorce was filed at Houma Civil Court, in an action titled “James Blahut vs. Maria Wright.” It was dated June 22, 1857. This was not the first litigation that James was involved in. The record is unclear as to whether the divorce was granted, though it did not matter for Marie had died. A year after Maria died, James Blahut married Madeline Zulinda Porche. His new father-in-law, Evariste Porche, was producing 225 hhs of sugar. While in 1859, when Holden Wright produced only 98 hhs of sugar, James Blahut is mentioned for the first time as a sugar producer, with a paltry 12 hhs. In the record his name is misspelled as “Blaut.” All three plantations were adjacent to each other. Could Blahut have been carrying on an affair with Madeline while he was still married to Marie? Is this the reason for the divorce?
In the 1860 Slave Schedule for Terrebonne Parish, James Blahut is listed as owning 3 slaves, in Precinct 11 of Houma’s 6th Ward. There is also a record seeming to indicate that Blahut rented out 6 slaves that he owned to a Mr. N. B. Neal. Some of the planters were listed as owning as many as 200. For the following year we find sugar records, this being 1861 to 1862. James Blahut, spelled Blaut again, produced just 12 hhs. Holden Wright produced 117 and Evariste Porche, 236 hhs of sugar.
The 1860 Terrebonne Census shows that James Blahut was now 36 years old and married to “Zulinda Porche.” They were married on April 27, 1859. She was born on November 27, 1833, and was 27 years old. His son, William, whose birthday was October 2, 1856, lived with them. He was eventually married to Josephine Theriot on 19 February, 1878; he was just 22 years old. He died March 1, 1926, in Hot Springs Arkansas. Also in 1859, the will of John Thuer, left “to his friends James Blahut and Valentin Berger” his property on Little Caillou Bayou, 22 miles below Houma.
Blahut entered the Civil War years owning at least two plantations, and a handful of slaves, as well as a merchant business in Houma. Things seemed to be going well for this Czech immigrant. He and Zulinda had added a daughter to the family. Marguerite was just one month old when the census was taken. According to the 1860 census he was worth $43,000 in real estate and $11,700 in personal property. This was a huge amount of money for the times, and shows a very successful business man. He traveled in the exclusive circles of people at the top of the social order. Terrebonne parish had 110 plantations with 80 sugar houses through the 1850s and into the 1860s. He clearly owned slaves.
But the ravages of the Civil War befell Houma. The slaves were freed, and the Yankee armies took what provisions and stock they needed from the plantations. There is an extant letter, from “W. J. Minor, et al. to Major Genl. Banks, 14 Jan. 1862” signed by 170 leading citizens of Houma, including presumably James Blahut and the surrounding plantations that asks the Union commander of the district to restore some of the property looted, and to get the freed African-Americans to get back to work, or the region would face “dire straits and even catastrophe.”
Blahut faced these trials and tribulations as best he could. But he did not fare well economically. In a suit titled “Oliva Theriot vs. James Blahut,” which was filed December 24, 1866, Theriot claims “he was employed as an overseer on James Blahut’s plantation on Bayou Dularge.” He was suing for $500.00 wages. He also claimed a share of the crop. But Peet, Simmes & Company had already seized the crop in their own suit against Blahut and Wright. We do not know the dates of that suit. But on January 12, 1869, judgment was made against Blahut for $500. Witnesses summoned to record the event were B. F. Bazet, who was a leading citizen of Houma and who was to become the father-in-law of another Czech in Houma, and Lucien Arcenaux.
A second suit recorded was “Gaune & Eichelberger vs. Blahut & Wright.” Filed in December, 1867, the suit says Guane & Eichelberger, a commercial firm in New Orleans composed of Peter Guane and Edwards Eichelberger, was suing Blahut & Wright, a firm in Terrebone Parish, composed of James Blahut and Abraham Wright. Wright was James’s ex-brother-in-law. The suit concerned an overdue account of $442.90 for goods delivered on credit. The account dated from September, 1861, at the beginning of the war.
The Terrebonne Parish Census for 1870 has James Blahut in Ward 14. His wife, whom he had married on April 14, 1859, was listed as “Maddlin.” She was now 36. Besides their son, William Holden there were joined by five daughters: “Elmise,” 10, really Elmire Marguerite, born June 14, 1860; “Mary,” 8, real name Marie Elfride Alida, born December 12, 1861; “Emily,” 5, who was born Emilie Barras on April 10, 1864; “Anna,” 3, born as Ann Georgina on November 15, 1867; and Alice Elizabeth, born on February 20, 1871. There was a sixth daughter, Franklina Wilhelmina, who was born November 22, 1865, and died on May 22, 1866, aged just 6 months. None of these daughters were to marry.
There are three “Emancipation from Parental Control” petitions listed in the 1870s and 1880s. From the petition of William Holden we learn that John P. Vigurie was appointed as a special tutor. The abstract states “William Wright, his maternal uncle testifies that he [William Holden] has been supporting himself for the past two years. James Blahut is now residing in Texas.” Mary Alfrida Blahut and her sister Emily Barras Blahut also filed for emancipation. These were done while the children were still considered minors, but they had to be at least 18 or 19 when they sought this. They were all filed before James Blahut died on the 18th of April, 1875. He was 53 years old.
We must move to Arkansas to follow the family of William Holden Blahut. He must have died before the 1910 census, because we find that Isaac W. Hill was married to Lettie C. Blahut. They had two children in the household. Isaac Wayne Blahut, age 7, and Frank Blahut, listed as grandsons. In the 1920 Arkansas Census we find Frank Blahut, age 22, born in Arkansas and Agnes, age 23, born Missouri. They had a son Francis, aged 2 months. Living with them was “Wayne Blahut, aged 17 and born also in Arkansas.” According to what was found in the census of Arkansas, William Holden Blahut was a farmer. Josephine Theriot was the first 1st wife of William Holden, (and she may have been the daughter of the overseer who sued James Blahut,) and Lettie C must have been his second wife. He died and was buried, possibly in Hotsprings, Arkansas. But it surely brings to an end the Blahut family name.
In the 1900 census we find the five Blahut sisters, all working as milliners with their own store in downtown Houma. This census erroneously lists Germany as the birthplace of James Blahut. The five woman were Alice, Emily, Mary, Elizabeth and Elmire. The 1910 Census lists only Mary and Alice. Also in the household was Alphonse, listed as an “adopted son” He was a 25 year old dentist. They also had a “helper” named Nara Parchic. As the years rolled by nothing much changed for the sisters and in 1920 Mary and Alice where still in the census. This time their father was listed as born in Prague, Austria. Also in the household were Alphonse Veret, listed as the now 34 year old cousin, and a dentist. He was married to the 25 year old Lillian, identified as “cousin-in-law.” She worked at a shoe store, which was probably the Blahut sister’s store. They had a daughter Marie who was 4 years and 5 months old. Also in the house was Lydia Wirth, a “friend,” a 59 year old widow.
There is still a two story, large brick building at the corner of Main and Roussell Streets in downtown Houma which housed the store of the Blahut sisters for more than 50 years. It was known as the Blahut Building for many decades because the sisters built it. That five spinster sisters built one of the biggest buildings in town was surely an eye-raising situation. Their store sold the usual items required by women of the era: bolts of cloth by the yard, feathers, hats, notions and other household wares. “They were the fashionable milliners of their day” according to our best source on the Blahut’s, Helen Emmeline Wurzlow. She wrote a series of newspaper articles, which were later joined into several volumes called “I Dug Up Houma.” The other Czech in town, Rudolph Zelenka built a building with the Blahut sisters, since torn down, shortly after a major fire in 1892 which destroyed several blocks.
This series is sprinkled with references to the Blahut sisters, mostly how this or that important and fashionable woman had their wedding dress, hats, and other clothing made or finished by the Blahut’s. There was also a Blahut shoe store. One clerk was Albert Chauvin. Several other businesses were at one time or another in the Blahut Building. One was the office of the well respected Dr. Collins. He was known for making people feel better “before they swallowed their pills.” Charles Daspit ran his drug store, called the Standard, out of one side of the lower floor. The Theriot drug store also apparently occupied this space for a short while. So the ladies owned the building, owned the store, and rented out the rest of the space, which was quite enterprising for women of the era.
Elmira Blahut died in a tragic accident when the horse pulling her buggy went wild and overturned it. This accident happened on School Street, not far from the sister’s home on Belanger Street.
Mary Blahut died at Hotel Dieu, on Monday September 7, 1936. She was survived by her two sisters and also “adopted brother, Dr. A A Verrat of Houma.” Religious service was held at St. Francis de Sales Church. On Friday, January 8, 1954, at the residence of Mrs.. Mamie Toups, 433 Columbus Street in Houma, Alice Elizabeth Blahut, died at the age of 83. After a funeral at St.. Francis De Sales Catholic she was buried in the church cemetery. The last Blahut sister to die was Sister Mary of St. Theodora MBC, “in the world, Annie Blahut.” She died at the Marianite Provincial House, 3523 North Rampart Street, in New Orleans, on Tuesday June 22, 1956. She had been a resident of New Orleans for 6 years, working at the Holy Angels Academy. Interment was in St. Vincent De Paul cemetery No. 2. None of the daughters had gotten married and this spelled the end of the promising start of James Blahut in the New World.
This is the first draft of my Cameron Parish Adventure:
It was during this trip that I had my first major trip outside of Lake Charles. I went exploring Cameron Parish. Prior to that I had stayed in the city. They were getting for work and I told them what I was going to do. Danny, Paul and Rob looked at me like I was insane. “There’s nothing there,” they told me. I replied “I have never seen nothing.” They were sorely perplexed. I was going to take the Highway 27 loop. It’s the “Creole Nature Trail” – what Creoles had to do with it I do not know, I think now that perhaps the “Cajun” trail would be better, but well, that is the name. So I went down the highway, and it got wetter and wetter. Not the road, but the surrounding land seemed to melt away into marshes. I could swear that at times surface tension alone kept the water off the highway.
To get to the Highway I had to go to Sulfur, which meant west on I-10 across the bridge and through these chemical plants the likes of which I had never seen. Massive conglomerations of steel and pipes and towers and flames shooting out of this at that orifice. It was Oz. There were many pipes that went up one side and over the interstate and down the other side in some strange sort of arch, but very squared. Huge pipes, small pipes, and what looked like valves. Every inch alongside both sides of the interstate was covered with tanks and canisters the size of houses.
As Craig had showed me once at night in the first trips – at night they really do look like the skylines of cities not to far away. During the day they were industrial. At the time I had no idea what they even made in these plants. They went on for miles! I was sort of in shock. This was scene from some sci-fy movie, or perhaps “Brazil.” There were tanker trains stretching for a 100 cars. It was stunning to me. I got to 27 and made the left and headed south. I had no idea what I would see, even though I was told it was nothing it had to be something. Not to far south of the city the houses gave way to trailers and farm like places, a few horses or cows scattered about. On and on and I went and then all signs of human inhabiting disappeared. There was me, the road, the endless marsh and birds. Hundreds of birds, maybe 1000s, slashing through the sky, lifting off from what plot they no longer liked, zooming and soaring. I was in this nature preserve of sorts. I recall wondering “who owns this all?”
From time to time there was some industrial looking splotch. Perhaps a trailer that seemed more an office, of the sort I was used to seeing at New York City construction sites. There might be some derrick reaching into the sky about 200 feet. Or there were pipes just coming out of the ground – going somewhere – and then right back into the ground. I sort of new they were oil, I guess. Though not so long after I found out why the town was named Sulfur. Then there would be another few miles of no sign of humanity. There were no cars, no buildings, no people, nothing. It was so eerie to me. A week earlier I was in Manhattan, now I was truly in the middle of nowhere. I had the tourist map, so I wasn’t worried, and since there seemed to be but one road I figured I could just turn around and go back the other way.
For the first time in my life really, there was more sky than land. The sky was a cerulean blue with puffy clouds by the 100s moving very fast. I had never seen clouds move that fast either. What birds I saw then I don’t know, but I came to know they were egrets and ducks mostly. Occasionally there would be some blue heron pecking in the ditch; a sort of bird I had never seen. I noticed every so often some obviously man made little pile of dirt maybe 2 feet wide and a foot or two wide stretching straight off into the distance. I had no clue what purpose they were. There were also small wooden watch towers, something. Kind of looking like lifeguard stands, but with an enclosed top. I had no idea what they were for. Found out later they were duck blinds. Then a house appeared, and then a few more. Then a slew more, before finally the sign “Hackberry Corporate Limits.”
I saw a store. I stopped. I bought something to drink and a snack. The town, if you could call it that, is just a few streets wide and maybe 5 blocks long. I walked around. I listened to the wind. I felt this crisp freshness to the air that I hadn’t really felt before. It was warm, it was humid, and there were little scruffy trees here and there, and a handful of grand live oaks. I didn’t know the name then, but I came to know them – they are scattered across Louisiana by the tens of thousands. Big dark brooding things, with dark forest green leaves and near black trunks.
I continued on my way and then I saw a road sign in French. I wasn’t sure what it said, but it sure surprised me. A little further along there was a sign that showed a picture of an alligator. Well, I didn’t quite expect that. Then there was a bigger sign “If you break down, wait, do not walk out.” Then I thought, yeah well, alligators come to eat you. It was sort of nerve wracking. Then there appeared houses on stilts. Not high, but clearly raised up 5, 6, 10 feet. It reminded me of a decade or more previously when I was in the Reynold’s Channel marshes between Long Island proper and the Atlantic beaches, but so much vaster. I had never seen such vast empty watery land. I recalled west Texas but that was dirt. This was not ‘land’ as we might think of it. It was water-land. I wasn’t sure one could even walk through it.
To my utter amazement from within the few cars heading north the driver would wave at me. The first time it happened I truly wondered if something wasn’t wrong with my car. Nothing was wrong. Then the next guy waved. So, I waved back. And that started my habit of waving at people in cars on rural roads as they waved at me. It really puzzled me. Eventually I came to grasp that well, we’re both out here, perhaps we know someone, we’re friends somehow, maybe if something went wrong they would help. For like that sign had said – don’t try to walk out of there, but stay in your car until help came.
About then, 10 miles or so south of Hackberry, I came upon one of the most stunning sights of my life. Looking in the distance was a tanker, a freighter, some huge ship, of a size I had never seen. As I got closer to it, as it headed north, I could see this was not some ‘boat’ – it was ship! It towered above the road, the landscape – it was a roving skyscraper, maybe 10, 15 stories tall. I don’t know, 500, 600, 800 feet long – I had no clue. But it was huge, so huge I couldn’t believe it. So out of place here I wondered how it could even get through. I didn’t really understand the Calcasieu River yet, nor the port, none of it. I was a novice, yet, I felt more than a tourist. I mean, I had a house to go back to and friends who would have dinner waiting. There though was that ship. Behind it, a mile further down, was another one heading north. Then another, and another, and just like that there was a parade of them. It was just out of this world. I marveled, indeed.
Then houses began to be sporadic. I noticed several were built on artificial hills. The hills were maybe 8 or 10 feet high. Plunked on top would be this incongruous suburban house with a pretty little front door and some flowers in the yard. Perhaps a vestige of a picket fence across the front, or a gazebo, a bench, some ornamental trees. The whole thing was fake and was clearly put there. To live out here one had to like solitude. Then more houses, a gas station, a video store or laundromat. I was in Cameron!
Palm trees dotted the land. I came to find out later they were called cabbage palms. There were trees and houses and streets and well, I was in the town of Cameron. The road came to a dead end of sorts. The Gulf of Mexico was straight ahead; I hadn’t seen it since Galveston during the birthday trip. It seemed different here, mostly because this was clearly not a tourist town. There were no restaurants that I could see, no people strolling. But there were more cars, well, mostly pickups. Still, signs of life. I took a right. In just a short way there to the left of the road was this huge industrial shed, and a reek I had never smelled in my life. What was this ungodly smell? There was a huge sign: “Cameron Menhaden.” I had no idea what this was, but I guessed it was fish. Indeed they are, some fish used for things like cat food and fish oil. Humans didn’t really eat the things.
I went to the western edge of town and it became a sort of beach resort. I found out later this was the famed “Cajun Riviera.” There were boats, and bars, and restaurants and houses on stilts and everything raised up fairly high off the ground. There were people walking around! First time in 50 miles I had really seen anyone walking anywhere. I was used to 10s of thousands of people walking on busy streets, now I was out there somewhere I didn’t quite know where. I parked, went to a store and bought a shrimp ‘po-boy’ – which is a sub, a hoagie, a hero – what do you call it where you live? In Louisiana it’s a ‘po-boy’ which is a clipped form of “poor boy.” Man, that was just so good, with this remoulade sauce (a name I didn’t know at the time, but learned later.) I sat a picnic table on the beach and ate it, watching the world go by. Then I headed east.
I got to a ferry! I didn’t expect that. So I took the ferry across the mouth of the Calcasieu River. It was my very first ferry ride in Louisiana. It was a little scary driving on to board and maybe I went a little too slow for others, but no one rushed me. I had Texas plates on the rent a car, they knew I wasn’t from there. I got to the other side and just as gingerly drove off with the ferry fellow waving goodbye like were buddies for years. I continued on through a residential area that only 2 decades later did I find out was pretty much mostly people of Slovak heritage. Drove right by them then without an inkling that they could be there. I got the intersection of 27 and 82. 82 went east into the distance, but I wanted to go back to Lake Charles and took the left and headed north.
I passed the same scenery pretty much, though, a few more trees, especially to the east. Here and there a house was plopped. But the duck blinds were there, so were the vast expanses of watery marsh and water-land as I came to call it. There were the same sorts of birds and ditches and berms, it was all the same, but going north instead of south. Then there were the sterns of these humongous ships with ports listed on the back of them: Karachi, Manila, Panama, Nigeria, Jakarta. I had no earthly clue, or should I say “watery clue,” why they were there or where they were going – they were heading to Lake Charles I guessed. Which I still did not quite realize was this major port. In fact, the nation’s largest rice port. Who knew? I was a newcomer, I did not know. Slowly but surely civilization returned. More and more houses, then a convenience store, then a gas station. Then, just like that, I was back in Lake Charles and headed back to the house.
I got home and they guys were there cooking dinner and they asked about my day and I was so excited and told them of this adventure and they just looked at me like I was out of my mind. I loved every minute of it. It was after all my first venture out into the wilds of Louisiana. I had never experienced anything like it. Over the next decade I was to go to Cameron often enough to really learn what was there. I also watched it get blown off the map 2 or 3 times as hurricanes came ripping through it. I’m sure the recent Hurricane Harvey did its damage.
This is the first draft of a section in my book “Catalyst! — my 25 years of Hlife in Hlouisiana – there’s some more to be done as I try to recall events of 20 and 30 years ago – but well it’s a start.
The Shock of Racism
One of the most shocking things that I noticed was the racism. It wasn’t overt, no. But it lurked there unspoken. It was clear in some vague way, if that’s possible. Clear in the way black people would step out of the way of white people on the sidewalk and in the supermarket aisles. In the way blacks would call whites “sir” or “ma’am” and the whites would not return the gesture. I didn’t hear “boy” or the “N-word” as it’s styled today, not anything like that. It was more just ignoring the black person, like one wouldn’t talk to say, an ATM. It was dismissive, but not nasty. Though, to just dismiss someone being decent with you is, well it’s nasty to some degree, to be sure.
I first noticed it when in DeRidder one day in 1986. I was merely walking into a convenience store for snacks and pay for gas. A black fellow and I got to the door at the same time. I held it open for him, and said “After you sir … “ and his eyes almost bugged out and he was hesitant and I waved my arm officiously granting entry, like I was a doorman at a fine hotel. It was odd, the almost fear, and certainly surprise, that any white man would 1) call him sir and 2) hold the door for him.
I didn’t think anything of it right then, for it was so different. But it was palpable, noticeable, way too obvious to be ignored. I did though, think about the incident the rest of the day. Back at the house I told the guys about it and they said “That’s because it probably never happened to the man.”
“You surprised him, yes.”
I was well – appalled.
My friends and I talked about this for a good long while. They told me stories of their youth, or of uncles or even fathers, that I had never encountered. They told me of the infamous headline in some Louisiana paper decades previously: “Waterproof nigger drowns in Dry Prong.” It so happens those are two towns in the central part of the state. Waterproof is on the Mississippi and has not much to offer but farm fields and one old plantation house that had withstood the ravages of time but needed a lot of work. It was eventually restored. Dry Prong is about 60 miles away, 70, whatever it is, in the piney woods. So some poor guy from one town drowned in the other, and the newspaper clearly made merry with the headline. I eventually saw a copy of it – it’s so stark as to defy the mind.
The next time the ‘two men at the door at once’ happened, it happened pretty much the same way. I held the door for some black man and he was surprised and hesitant, as if this was such a new situation that he didn’t know how to react.
The same thing happened with woman. I was leaving a supermarket in some small town. An elderly lady was leaving at the same time, laden with bags of groceries, and I held the door for her, “After you, ma’am.” I offered to carry some of her bags to her car. She looked at me like I was a space alien. She was short, looking up at me in wild eyed wonder, sort of pleading with her eyes “is this real.”
It happened dozens of times. I began to almost set it up, just to watch it. But also to maybe give a good surprise to someone who was not used to such things.
I had never seen such behavior. In NYC all my life it was common for this or that race or nationality to hold the door for any other without any surprise – at most the duet of ‘no, you first,’ ‘no, you’ until the matter was decided. Sort of playing chicken with cars, perhaps. More so, my mom’s best friend was a black woman and in the late 1970s when my mom had major health problems Mrs. Zelaya stepped in as guardian, and my siblings and I would go to this all black church in Roosevelt, Long Island. One funny story from my toddler years that I don’t recall but my other always told was when my brother and I first saw a black man, a garbage man no less, in front of our house we screamed. I guess she said it was OK. When I was a kid on Long Island, there were trucks laden with watermelons that would have Mississippi license plates and black guys selling them off the back of the truck at the side of the road. My father would point out the license plate and then have us talk to the fellows, and we were told to call them “sir,” and “yes, sir,” “no, sir.” As a teenager we had a cleaning woman come in 2 or 3 times a week, Mrs. Gregory. We were told to call her just that – at all times. She lived in an apartment in a big house my grandmother owned. She invited us to dinner once. My mother was stern – “you will eat whatever it is she serves without complaint.” It was probably my first time I ever had “real southern cooking.” I was maybe 14 years old.
But in Louisiana it was obvious, and I was shocked. However subtle, or ‘benign’ it was – it was obvious to me.
My friends sort of shrugged their shoulders, “That’s the way it is.” Though, in their circle of friends were black guys, and I never heard uttered a negative word from my friends – not the gay circle or the Buck Boys, or the Crowley guys. In fact, through Danny, Herman and Rob I met Charles Coley. He worked at an office supply place and was the oboe player with the symphony in town. After the three guys moved out of their place together, I wound up staying with Charles every time I was in Lake Charles. I moved my drivers license address to his place at 615 Kirkman Street. He’d work at this job all day and I would go around the state. I’d come ‘home’ to his place. It was my Lake Charles address for 3 years at least.
One day Charles and I were going out to dinner. I was driving my car, he was the passenger. Just as we got to the restaurant we wanted to go to, a cop followed me into the lot with her lights put on. I was going there anyway, and I was sure I had signaled to make the turn across Prien Lake Road. We were going to a Chinese place, where no Chinese seemed to work at all, which was another surprising thing. I was used to Chinese restaurants with only Chinese people working there. I pulled into a spot. The cop got out – a woman cop – and she walked over to my side and said “Is everything OK?”
“Yeah, what did I do wrong?” It was the first time I had ever been pulled over in Louisiana and I had already driven 1000s of miles across it.
She beckoned me to get out of the car, and she ushered me back 10 feet away and asked again if “everything was alright.”
“Yeah, fine, we’re going to dinner.”
“He’s a black man,” she said, with a look of surprise in her eyes.
I looked at her with a “what, are kidding!” look – I was stunned. This woman pulled me over because I, a white man, had a black man in car? I couldn’t believe it.
She asked “he’s not robbing you, is he?”
I was politely furious. “He’s the oboe player with the Lake Charles Symphony, and a very good friend of mine, and we are going to dinner, and you pulled me over for this?”
“Well, I was concerned,” or some such nonsense she mumbled.
She didn’t ask me for my license or insurance papers, nothing.
“You have got to be kidding?” I asked her with as much disdain I dare utter. She was taken aback. I was after all, chastising a policewoman.
She quickly left us alone, it was all of 5 minutes with her. I told Charles what happened. He just sighed, “That’s the way it is sometimes.” Well, it blew my mind that’s for sure. But he also talked with some disdain about “high yellows.” I had never heard the term. He said “It’s black folks that can pass for white.” The Creoles to a degree, I guess. And the stories he told me of his youth in Mooringsport, up near Shreveport were just, “wow” – that’s all I could say. I took him up there once, to see his parents for Father’s Day. Just stupendous food, I assure you, and a rather surprised look on everyone’s face that I was the only white man in this huge family gathering. Must have been 50 people. I was welcomed with all the decency one would expect from anyone.
About a year or more later, it happened again! Charles and I were going to dinner and some cop pulled me over to just make sure things were OK. The conversation was almost the same too. That cop too was surprised at my rather forthright unhappiness at this intrusion into my life.
To be sure, some people I met started to go down that road of negatives and I would say “No, don’t do that, not with me.”
A good 98% of them immediately ceased with their own wild eyed look. I don’t think they ever heard a white person say “No, you can’t do that, that’s bad.”
2% thought they should continue. I got sterner. And one or two were simply so rabid that I walked away from them, cursing them out.
I came to find out some towns were far worse than others. The worst by far was Vidor, Texas. It is on I-10 between Beaumont and Orange. Well within my orbit of work with BIC magazine in 1990 and 1991. I first read about this town I had never heard of in the New York Times. Seems their ‘city housing authority’ was up on federal charges for blatant discrimination. This town was so bad there were still cross burnings! I was stunned. I did not witness any, but they were talked about in the press. They were on the nightly news! I sat there watching this with a deep sense of horror. It was 1986, 1987, 1990! These were modern times – and this town was stuck in the 1950s.
I refused to ever do business there. It is the one town I never went through. Every small town in Southeast Texas I was picking off for business. But not in Vidor, nope. I would not go. Apparently the town even today is monitored by many different authorities.
In 1989 or so I discovered the Colfax Massacre. I was going up Highway 1 on the way to Shreveport and I passed through the town, so I stopped to take a look around. That’s what I usually would do anywhere else. I’d park my car, and walk up and down the main street (which is usually what there only was in such small towns,) which was maybe 3 or 4 blocks long. There wasn’t much there, and I didn’t really get involved in conversations with anyone. But I did see a historic marker. I stopped to read it – and there was the story of this horrible massacre of black folks in the not so distant past. This poor burg far from anywhere had but one claim to fame – a horror story. How does one promote something like that? Yet, well, sad to say, but true, it’s their one tourist draw. I did talk to the Department of Tourism about it. I told them, “you have to give them a bigger memorial than a mere plaque with a paragraph or two.” Eventually they put up an impressive obelisk, 20 feet tall or something, and a much more detailed explanation of what happened and well, it’s more fitting than a mere roadside historical marker no one stopped to see. Now when you go through town there’s something you say “Wow, I wonder what that is?” and perhaps stop to take a look.
Another thing I noticed was that the homes of whites were modern and fresh and landscaped, and the homes of blacks were much worse off, even down to being shacks. There’s no other word for what I saw. They were shacks, not even painted. Raw wood and a cracked window or two. They were tiny, while the white homes were bigger. It’s not a clear dividing line, and surely there were blacks in nice homes, and some poor white trash in trailers, which are just modern shacks. Still, it was clear which part of town was white and which was black. It was very clear; often a railway ran through the two.
Then there’s the issue of plantations and slavery. It can’t be avoided. From the moment I met Will Mangham of Rosedown I brought the issue up. As he introduced me to more plantation homes, and I found the rest that I went to visit, I brought it up with everyone. I told them “You have to treat this with dignity and respect, and you have to deal with it. You cannot ignore it like it never happened.” Many of these homes were trying to go for similitude of what it was like back then, so yeah, many of the guides and docents wore hooped skirts, and the men in knee britches of the times, but that was at the ‘great house’ as they’re called. But what of the slave quarters? What of the kitchens, the herb gardens, the laundries, the work areas? Well, I brought it up to everyone.
Most of the owners and directors were sympathetic, because by this time all these homes were in the restoration stages. Many of them had been neglected or abandoned for decades. That they even survived in a miracle. Most of them need a virtual gutting, first just to install modern electric and bathrooms and safety features and such. But also because they were open to the elements for decades, their windows broken, doors removed, their insides often stripped of moldings and mantels. There was a lot of work to be done on all these homes. It took rich folks to do it too. These were million dollar projects, and the goal was to make them tourist destinations, and so, that meant making them something worth seeing, which meant historical accuracy. Alex Haley’s “Roots” was fresh in the minds of many, so what to do about slavery was on everyone’s mind at least.
Some homes where just too far gone; there’s books on the lost mansions of the state. They estimate some 150 just crashed or burned to the ground. In fact, all across Louisiana you will see in some copse of trees, or at the end of an obvious drive to somewhere – a line of trees and a dirt lane – at the end of which were one or two chimneys just lurching up into the sky. Whatever structure that held them burned to the ground at one point and well, that was the end of that. Still, there are about 200 plantation homes left, more than any other state. The reason for this is, as I joked to the dismay of many: “Louisiana was the last state to join the Confederacy and the first to leave it.” Really, by 1863 the whole of the southern part of the state was out of the Confederacy. They surrendered to preserve what they could. The fact that South Louisiana is French and Catholic, while the rest of the Confederacy was Anglo-Scots-Irish and Protestant had something to do with it. There’s plenty of history written all about it.
But these grand homes, some much further along in restoration than others, were just then when I showed up grappling with the issue which can’t be avoided: Slavery. Some of them still had the slave shacks, or a few, and certainly the outbuildings, the workshops, barns, unknown machines and sugarcane boiling vats. There were often 3 dozen structures on a property. The owners put their resources first into the big house, because that’s where the tourist money would come from. I could see their point in that. But as I walked around with the owner or director (some were museums already) I asked “But what about this part?”
“That part” was usually overgrown with weeds and saplings and the buildings rickety, and well, it was decrepit still. Then, perhaps a year or two later I’d be back at that home, and I’d see that the slave quarters were cleaned up. The lawns were mowed, flowers planted, new woodwork to hold up the original parts were in place, leaning structures were now set right. The insides of the quarters perhaps had household items that would have been common, like bedsteads, cooking utensils at their fireplaces, and they were clean and neat and orderly, while just a year or two earlier it was dilapidation.
One or two homes even had black docents, dressed in the garb of the era, giving interpretive tours as part of the tour of the plantation. In fact, when I first got there in 1985 these properties were talked about as “the big house.” By 1990 they were “the plantation” and perhaps by 2000 some where leaning to calling themselves “The community.” By 2010 plantations such as Melrose, Whitney and Laura were more about the slaves than the masters. It was rather a stunning change over 25 years. Still the reality is that I pushed for the inclusion of people long excluded, or dismissed as worse, and most of the plantation homes eventually did something good with my ideas, and I feel good about that.
Of course, there’s David Duke, he too can’t be avoided, as much as one wishes. I met him once, when he was running for governor. I met him at the “Catholic Boys’ High School Men’s Stag Barbecue.” That was the name of event. It’s in Baton Rouge, I was given a ticket, so I went. Met Edwin Edwards there too. But Duke? What a jerk. I confronted him, and a little crowd formed. He was all smarmy with a sickening grin as he started with his claptrap and I said something like “Mr. Duke, 45% of this state is Africa-American, you are not going to go back to hounding them and cutting them off from government services and segregating the schools or whatever else you think you’re going to do.”
He tried to contest me with his boilerplate nonsense about welfare and crime and I said “Have you not been to a trailer park? Do you know know what is out there in this state with poor whites?”
He had no answers. Me and he the conversation while the small knot of people just stood there and I guess marveled. I spoke to him for about 15 minutes. I’m not sure too many people ever questioned him like this. It was he who all of a sudden had to be off as he slunk away from our little discussion about his craven idiocy. Everyone else just looked at me and said something like “well, wasn’t that something.” Well, I was promoting a state, not a race.
Over the 25 years I was there, the ‘two at the door at once’ incidents also declined. What was still obvious in the late 1980s was all but gone by 2010. Over the 25 years I was there, the ‘two at the door at once’ incidents also declined. What was still obvious in the late 1980s was all but gone by 2010. There’s more to this of course and I’m sure there’s still racists here and there, but the state had an awakening. Not perfect, perhaps still groggy as anyone is after waking up from the fog of a few hundred years. There’s also what I did with Africa-American museums, but I’ll deal with that elsewhere since it’s a different part of the big story, which is what I did with museums in the state.
The Earl be heard
I first met Earl B. Heard at some business expo at the Belmont Convention Center in 1987 or 1988 or so. He was pugnacious, and looked the part, with this bulldog scrunch to his face, right up to flabby jowls. The Belmont was this hotel at the corner of Airline Highway and Greenwell Springs Road in Baton Rouge. Their exhibit space was maybe 10 thousand square feet. Some big ballroom; all sorts of events were held there. I think the place is long gone now. So there was this business expo, local businesses and I went there. I have no recollection of where I heard about it, maybe just an ad in the paper. Still, there was opportunities awaiting. Who knew who one could meet at a trade show? And I met Earl.
I also met the Brackmann’s that day. They were the band. During the reception hours after the show they were playing and I met them during a break. Kathleen was the mother, Bruce and Charlie were the sons. It was to be a 15 year friendship with this fine family from Denham Springs that slowly fell apart and went their ways and out of my life. They’ll get their own section, we were too involved with each other.
But Earl, he had put on this trade show, and he had a small magazine called “BIC” > Business and Industry Coordinator. He and it were headquartered there in Baton Rouge in a small 3 room office on Tiger Bend Road, upstairs on the second floor. Earl and I got to talking at his show that day and night, it was an all day affair, and we hit it off somehow. We were both driven entrepreneurs. Though he was trying to create something for himself, I was working on a 100 projects for other people. I think he offered me a job that very day. I declined, I had no intention of working for him. But working with him I could see some possibilities.
Thereafter, every time I would be in Baton Rouge I would go talk to Earl. A few months later he held another trade show, which I guess he was putting on 2 or 3 a year. The Brackmann’s played again. I met several of the same people and lots of new people. Most of these expos were the sort of local business I wasn’t doing anything with, like dating services, and nail and hair salons, or business machine companies. They were local chamber of commerce sorts of shows. At the time I met Earl his enterprise was pretty much limited to Baton Rouge and perhaps out 40 miles to Hammond to the east and Lafayette to the west. We talked about a Gulf South wide magazine and the trade show business.
Certainly I wanted to talk to him about my Louisiana Expo. So we met when I was there and we had fine conversations and well, we had some tussles, because we are both headstrong ‘I am right you are wrong’ sorts of fellows. Still, we got along and the years progressed.
In 1990 when I had moved to Louisiana permanently, to Lake Charles, and was working at Andrus Printing I met up with him for I was still hunting for opportunities, and he offered me a job. That was perhaps May of 1990. I took it. I took it because my assigned mission was to open up the Lake Charles to Houston region for the expansion of BIC. It was a grand opportunity. Why, I would hardly have to see the man at all, and that’s the best sort of boss to have. But when I did go to the office on Tiger Bend Road and he started to wonder just who and what I knew he was amazed. He rarely left Baton Rouge and had barely a clue about Alexandria, Shreveport, or Morgan City, or Lake Charles – he knew of them of course. But he had no clear knowledge of them.
Andrew Johnson worked for him, but more doing the books than pounding the pavement or expanding the venture. Andrew liked to sit quietly in his office. He was from Franklinton, and a fine fellow who seemed to live with his mother. Jimmie Smith – I think that was her last name, or Rogers? Something plain – she was a mini Dolly Parton – same perky attitude, same proportions – but just smaller – like a 30% reduction (and maybe 50% in the breast.) She was the sales gal for the Baton Rouge area. She was also Earl’s girlfriend, much to the forbearance of the Mrs. Heard. Then there was Rightor Cobb, another salesman, who was from small town Mississippi and was really too shy to be a salesman at all. (Rightor had “children” – “kids are goats” he once told me, based on his religious beliefs.)
These four were based in Baton Rouge, and rarely left the region, and I was in Lake Charles about to expand this magazine. There was also some woman named Mandy I so rarely met, who put the magazine together for printing. It came out every month. It had ads and articles and Earl’s opinion and was about 28 or 32 pages, with a run of maybe 10,000. 75 to 80% of the distribution was in the Baton Rouge area – and then the rest in Hammond, Lafayette and New Orleans. Rightor or Andrew would drive to the hinterlands and put them in the various places they had cultivated. It was all very cozy. And Earl loved to introduce himself to everyone as “I’m Earl B. Heard,” in a loud voice, as if it was a sentence. I met some people who just hated him, and they were vocal about it.
I came to Baton Rouge that first month to get copies of the magazine to hand out, and the sales materials – what in publishing is called “The Media Kit.” Which is some pretty verbiage about the magazine and its reach and the efficacy of taking an ad in it – and a page with the ad sizes and rates. Earl’s was pitiful. I drew up what I wanted and had Mandy make it all nice and pretty and Earl marveled. It was like I had launched him into something he never imagined. Then I started loading magazines into my car, like 1000 of them. Earl freaked! He said “That’s so many.”
I told him “I’m not coming back here every few days for more magazines – I’m going to hand out a thousand, and then I’ll be back for more.”
“1000s, time to consider upping the number you print.”
I also ran off a 1000 copies of the then 2 page, 2 side media kit I created. He was kind of leery, and I said, eh, I know what I’m doing. And I did. His goal was to get environmental companies, fire suppression companies, pipe companies, equipment companies – that industrial capacity of Louisiana that the tourists really don’t see. I had seen it – for when I drove around to all the Cajun and tourism places it’s hard to miss the industrial places. Often they are right next to each other. So off I went into the wild blue yonder back to Lake Charles and started handing out the magazine – and also made sure it was placed in a few prime restaurants and hotels and newsstands. I went up and down through the industrial and commercial zones of Calcasieu parish, and through a few of the neighboring places. I sold maybe a dozens ads, mostly small ones, and went back to Baton Rouge with the checks and the good news and Earl was “You did that in two weeks?”
“Yeah, that’s my job.”
Then I had two weeks off basically, because there were no more magazines to hand out. I followed up with some of the stragglers who were interested in ads, but still, I sort of had two weeks off.
The next month I took a 1000 magazines and did it again in Lake Charles. Then I went back to Baton Rouge for another 1000 and did it in Orange and Port Arthur, Texas and the eastern fringe of Beaumont. Good thing Earl had like 2,000 more copies printed. I went up and down every street and highway in the vast industrial melange that exists between Orange and Beaumont over the next 3 months. It’s far bigger than what is in Louisiana. Louisiana had the big plants, Texas had the suppliers. It was the suppliers we were trying to reach. Dow Chemical had no reason to take an ad in a regional magazine no matter how much Earl wanted them to, and he wanted them to. Eventually they took out ads for local job fairs they were holding, but that’s the extent of it.
Then I considered taking on Houston. Earl and I discussed an office in Houston. We couldn’t afford one, but I said it’s possible if we do trades. He was all for that. Meanwhile, he was worried about how to distribute the magazine to all these new delivery points. You know, you walk into a restaurant and there’s a slew of stands with free publications on them? That’s what Earl wanted, and what I thought was a good idea. All you had to do was ask, they usually said “Sure,” and there was usually and empty rack to place BIC in. So I’d leave 25 or 30 copies and go to the next place.
Meanwhile, I was bringing in more paid ads. Then I insisted on writing some articles. He was “You’re a salesman,” and I answered “I can also write and I have stories you want.”
Audaciously he said “I don’t pay you to think.”
Sarcastically I said “You get that for free.”
He sort of recognized I was not the pushover he was so used to encountering.
So I wrote articles on “Imperial Calcasieu” and the Port of Houston. Interviewed all sorts of officials, like the mayor and port director in Lake Charles, and the Director of the Port of Houston, who gave me a charming little picture book on the history of the port. They were published. I did smaller ones on tourism and Cajun food and recipes and things like that. I insisted on an article a month, he relented. Mandy told Earl they were as fine as anything else submitted.
So the magazine grew from 28 pages to 48 pages and the print run grew to 20,000 and Earl hired more people, and moved his offices across the street to bigger premises. Tripled his office space it was going so well, with such good prospects.
Earl started taking a booth in LOBO trade shows, and printing their directories, and getting involved with them. Taking them over was something brought up, though not pursued. The Louisiana Ordinance Buying Organization was set up in World War II to get supplies to ship builders for the war effort. It was still floating along in 1990. Now they were holding these 50 to 100 booth trade shows in places like Lafayette, Shreveport and Alexandria, Lake Charles and Morgan City, among almost any other place there was a 10,000 to 20,000 square foot exhibition hall. So I would go to these shows, like up to Shreveport. I got the Convention and Visitors Bureau there to buy an ad in BIC. Earl was surprised. I said “I know Preston Friedley.” Earl was “who?”
“The director of the convention business in Shreveport, that’s who.”
Earl was always surprised to know who I knew and why. He also had this problem with the New York stories. We’d be meeting someone and I’d say “hello how are you?” with my New York accent and everyone had their New York story. Earl was not pleased “Must you always bring that up?”
“I don’t, they do, they hear my accent and they have their New York story – because everyone has a New York story and I’m a New Yorker. I’ll try to be from Cleveland next time. Egad, Earl, it makes them happy to tell their story, loosens them up, and gets them to buy ads! Go with it.”
Earl didn’t like chit chat. He was to the gusto for the sale right away. He also had the bizarre idea that every advertiser should buy a full page ad. I had to tell him repeatedly, “Earl, these people have no money nor purpose for a full page ad, just fill pages with quarters and eighths and all with be well.”
It was a constant tussle. Still, I expanded it to Shreveport and then I took on Lafayette to Morgan City – which to my amazement, Jimmie nor Rightor had ever seen reason to go there. “It’s all fish and shrimp and sugar cane!” they all but tried to tell me. “The hell it is,” I said. So I opened up that corridor for distribution and sales. Same with the West Bank of New Orleans. Even Earl seemed to think it was all suburban houses. Well, then I brought in the ad from the Bayou Bend Country Club. “Businessmen play golf, shush,” for Earl actually considered rejecting the ad as not germane.
Then I went through southern Mississippi, the Gulf Coast, Biloxi to Pascacoula, before reaching Mobile. Now Alabama was something Earl never thought about. To him it was a foreign land. Then we got involved in a trade show there and then we could say in our Media Kit: “Distributed from Mobile, AL to Beaumont, TX.” Earl looked at that and just said “wow.”
Then I got him to join some official circulation counting service. They were with the advertising federation, which I got Earl to join several of those. He was pugnacious, but not imaginative. Willing to expand his business, but seemingly no clue as to the extant it could be. Now his tentacles reached out in every direction. He had the official imprimatur that his circulation figures were accurate, that boosted sales and allowed a price increase. I said “you have to get a salesman for the Gulf Coast corridor, I’m going to tackle Houston.”
Oh, I tackled it alright. I traded for an office on the 12th floor, the top floor, of this fancy skyscraper at the corner of Shepherd boulevard and Interstate 59. It was one of those executive office suite places. Small operators could rent it by the hour for meetings, or the week for projects, or just an office, but use the business center provided for copies, faxing and even a receptionist. There’s various levels of services at the places, and they are all over America. This one was just starting up, and I struck a deal. Then I traded for phone service, a phone, a copier, fax machine, and food, and car service and an apartment too! I traded for so much Earl had to print an extra 12 pages or so. I also sold a lot, and there were ongoing contracts too.
So I had worked for him for oh, 8 months, and had pushed to vastly increase the size and reach and distribution of his magazine. Then he came to Houston, to see my marvelous new office overlooking a vast gorgeous panorama of Houston – it was truly stunning. He came with Jimmie, they were having a lover’s weekend, and thought they’d drop in. Instead of going “Wow, this is great,” he told me with a sour face that my desk faced the wrong way. I was ‘huh?’ He said it should face the wall and not the window. I told him he was out of his mind, and since it was my office, not his place, I’ll keep the desk where I wanted. He also complained that my phone was on the wrong side. That stunned me. What was that about? Seems he was left handed, so used his right hand for the phone to write with his left hand. Well, I’m left eared, and I’m right handed, so I told him to just forget it. “You’re going back to Baton Rouge and I’m staying here, it’s not your concern.”
Then he demanded “You take your 100 top prospects, and give the rest to Jimmie.”
I laughed. I told him there is no way I am going to hand over my sales potential in all of Houston with 1000s of prospects to Jimmie – let her go get a phone book, a map and house here, and tell her to get to work. There’s plenty for everyone.
Then he demanded I hand over the nice new copier, fax and phone to him. Told me to bring them to Baton Rouge, and he’d let me have his old ones he had already complained about as inadequate for Houston. I said “go trade for new ones over there.”
This was fast decaying. Finally he left, they had dinner reservations, somewhere romantic I’m sure. So that storm ended I got back to work and they went back to Baton Rouge. My next two or three trips to Baton Rouge decayed fast into harsh discussions about what I had done, and that now perhaps he thought I was stealing his business. I really did have a nicer office then he did. I also had done far more in far less time than apparently he dreamed possible. But I didn’t want to steal his business. Now he was mercenary. Then he refused to pay my commissions. Then I was mad as hell. When he bounced a check I was flabbergasted. Exactly what the facts of the matter were several 100 miles from where I was I do not know or care to know. Somehow there was skulduggery by someone and the accounts cleared out. Only, I wanted to get paid.
I negotiated one of the weirdest deals of my life. I told Earl and Andrew Johnson – I get my cash money, or I sell the copier and other machinery to get it. They actually came to Houston to try to pry them out of the office. Only, I had already locked them in the trunk of my car. I had prescience that this was not going well, and they were 5 hours away, so I had time to work on it. Earl was incensed, but we had a reasonable discussion, if very stern. “Money or machines, your choice.” They left unrequited. Andrew did most of the negotiation over the next few days and finally agreed to meet me in the parking lot of some hotel in Lafayette and he would give me the cash and I would give him the machines. I met him at the appointed time, at night, in the dark under a street light – and he gave me the cash money – no check, please – and I helped load the machines into his car.
We both bid each other fond farewell and he headed east and me west and that ended my fine sojourn building BIC.
Six years later I went and visited Earl. He had expanded even larger, and I was glad for him. I was looking to place an ad to sell video services to industrial plants. We had a very pleasant half hour conversation about the present, and did not mention the past, and wished each other well and he gave me a quarter page for free. That was 1997. I have no idea if BIC is still around, if if Earl B. Heard is even alive. But, that was our adventure together.
1.3 million Poinsettias
In the Baton Rouge Advocate I saw an ad for a sale job at Perrin’s Nursery in Pontchatoula. It was a half hour commute from Denham Springs where I was living. It was down a country road. There on a few hundred acres was this wholesale plant nursery. There were vast greenhouses set around a little house that was the office. It was run by Joe and Elizabeth Perrin, brother and sister, who had a love-hate relationship. They argued incessantly and loudly, but got their jobs done. My job was to sell flowers by the truck load. I stayed away from the office as much as possible. They thought I should come in every morning. I told them “I am going west today, I will not be needing to go to Pontchatoula.” They were puzzled and concerned, their control over me negated and yet – they were stunned at the orders I turned in. “You need to ship a truckload of pansies to New Roads,” I’d tell them. Then almost have to show them on a map where it was.
I created a four-color brochure – a booklet actually – that displayed the various flowers they were growing. It was informative and clear and concise. Joe and Elizabeth had never seen anything like it. They had no marketing sense at all. In fact, they were virtually clueless as to how far and wide their plants could be sold. They were obsessed with “The trucks have to be loaded right!” Yes, I grasped that. For if a place only bought a pallet of plants, and the next place, and the next, then the deliveries had to be loaded in a staggered order to make it easy to unload one after the other. I grasped the concept and I followed it. I would go one direction – say up Highway 61. So from Baton Rouge to Vicksburg I would sell pallets of plants, then go to Perrin’s and say “you need a truck to go to A, B and C etc, up Highway 61 to Vicksburg. Mississippi! They were in shock. For I had sold product to every Fred’s, Walmart, Ace Hardware and Home Depot or some church or retail nursery up and down Highway 61. Then the next day I would go up from Hammond to Meridien, Mississippi on Highway 59, or 11, or something else – and sell to everyone along that route.
Elizabeth did the books, Joe did the growing. I did the sales. The three of us worked well enough together, but man, where they stubborn and limited in their thinking. To them Mississippi and Alabama were these foreign places and too far. I had to point out on maps that Meridien Mississippi is just as far from Ponchatoula as Lafayette, Louisiana was. This was a foreign concept to them. “But another state!” like it was New York to Borneo. Egad, 3 hours at the most.
They were official suppliers to Walmarts, so every single one of them was ready to buy. I merely had to show up and ask to speak to the manager who would come down and talk to me and I said “We’re Perrin’s, it’s time for your plant order.” He would look at my fancy brochure and order more than he ever had, for now he had pictures to guide him to what he had no idea about. Some Walmart manager rarely new what vinculas, portulacas, pansies and other flowers were. He usually had no idea what any tropical plants were. He was managing a store – not in the plant business. So I went to every Walmart within 300 miles of Perrin’s.
The summer season come to a close, they got into growing poinsettias. 1.2 or 1.3 million of them. They crowded the greenhouses and Joe thought it a good crop. Elizabeth was freaked about how many they were growing and if they could all be sold. She was watching every penny spent on growing them – and seeing no money come in to pay for them. Joe was concentrated on making sure they grew – they are finicky in their youth. And so I got to work selling them. The reality of poinsettias is that they all must be sold before Christmas. They are a seasonal plant that no one would want the day after Christmas.
Joe stressed Walmarts, for that was his biggest customer. I came back with orders from Ace Hardware, and the Church of Jesus in Hattiesburg. He said “A church?”
“Yeah, they want 5,000 of them.” I’d smile.
I went to those mega-churches – found the preacher and virtually told him to buy enough to sell or give to this congregation. Perrin’s had never sold to a mega-church before. “How do we deliver there!” he was concerned.
“Like anywhere – a truck shows up – and drops their load.”
He would fret “What about Walmart in Columbia?”
“A truckload they want, and also you’ll need to send a truck to …” and lay out a route for him to deliver.
He had never seen such sales. He was happy, she was puzzled. “Could these be real sales?” she wondered. I don’t think she believed a word of what I said as I brought in order after order.
I’m not sure they knew anything about Louisiana to the west of the Mississippi River. I don’t think they knew a thing about lower Mississippi or Alabama. They said “Mobile! That’s in Alabama!” and I said “It’s barely 2 hours from here.”
Apparently previous salesmen had gone willy nilly around and spent more time driving than selling. I went up a highway in one direction, going to every place on the east side – then on the way home, to every place on the left. I went in a spoke pattern from the nursery. Then I brought in orders for a run from say Ponchatoula to Meridien. The next day from Ponchatoula to Columbus. Then the next day reaching out to Tuscaloosa. For I understood – a truck loaded with product is best sent in one direction – to maximize delivery times. I showed Joe why my method was working – while Elizabeth fretted about it all. Then they’d argue and I would sit there and listen and think “these two crazy fools, how did they wind up in this business?”
Well, dad had started it. They inherited it – now they were flummoxed by it all. Joe loved growing the plants, he did, without a doubt. Elizabeth seemed to love keeping books and eking out the details. But together they could not grasp how I expanded their business.
I sold truck loads to places in Pensacola and Crestview, Florida, and Dothan, Alabama and I had to point out on a map how the deliveries could be made and they said “That’s so far!” And I said “it’s as close as Lake Charles, which you have no problem delivering to.”
Indeed, within Louisiana they could grasp – my sales in Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle were puzzling to them. But Joe loaded up the trucks and sent them on their way and they came back reporting “all went well.”
I would be gone for days and Joe was trying to reach me – I got the messages at Bill Brackmann’s, where I was sort of living – and I would hardly communicate with him at all. There was no instant communications in those days – it was landline phone and snail mail still. I’d come back with a list of places to deliver poinsettias from Alexandria to Shreveport. He said “Shreveport!” in shock. I said “Yeah, you’ll probably need two trucks for that run.”
They both wanted me to be in the office more – and I told them “I cannot sell while sitting here in Pontchatoula! I need to go out there and sell!” They were concerned, I think, with not having control over me. They were both control freaks for sure. She more than he, but still. And I was an independent operator. It also turned out I knew far more about the state, well, the region, the sales area, than they did.
I don’t think they had ever gone to 3/4s of their customers. I’m not sure they had ever been to Alabama. From my time at BIC and just driving to NYC from Louisiana – I knew Mississippi and Alabama. With BIC I had done dozens of trade shows there. And the reality of geography is – if you wish to drive from New Orleans to New York – Mississippi and Alabama are in the way. You must cross them. I had crossed them so many times I was familiar with them. So I went and got costumers for poinsettias like the Perrin’s had never known existed. And yet, all within the 3 or 4 hour driving time they allotted for their deliveries.
In the summer Joe went to South Florida for a truck load of tropical plants. He had gone before, so he knew something. I told him “Go to so and so …” I forgot now, but a friend of my father’s, off of Hwy 441 in Delray Beach. “He’ll give you a discount, a good deal, tell him I sent you.” Joe looked at me like I was crazy. “I’m serious – go talk to …” whoever it was – David? Someone – I knew him. My father knew him. He was family.
Joe went with hesitancy and came back with glee. “How did you know that?”
“My father plays pinochle with his father.”
Elizabeth marveled. For in previous years a truckload had cost $20,000 – now it was just $10,000. She looked at me with questioning eyes. “You know people in South Florida?”
“Yeah, I know people everywhere.”
And I did and do. After the Christmas rush, as January quieted down to the winter months, which is when nurseries tally up their reality – their fighting increased. I had sold 1.3 million or so poinsettias. Their greenhouses were empty. And they argued over it. I didn’t even understand it. Finally I said “I quit, you people are insane.”
He tried to fire me!
I said “I already quit, you idiot, you can’t fire me!”
With that I walked out the door and left them to their devices. 2 years later I heard they had closed up shop.
The First Louisiana Music Directory
In New Orleans one day I picked up a copy of OffBeat magazine. I never read it, but I always picked it up and looked through it, when I was in the city over the past decade. I’m not sure when it started, but it was maybe 4 or 5 years old when I stumbled upon it. It is the monthly music magazine, with articles, ads and a listing of all the bands playing around the city. It wasn’t a very thick publication, maybe 24 pages. Tucked inside was this thing called “The Louisiana Music Directory.” The cover was dark and thick, almost Gothic. It was a ”pony tab” as it’s called in printing. Just 5 inches by 8.5 inches, it was maybe 12 pages long. There was an ad in the magazine looking for someone to sell ads for both the magazine and the next year’s directory. Apparently this was the “first” such directory. I called up Jan Ramsey, the publisher, and we got together, and she hired me.
She’s a fiery red headed bulldozer with a don’t put up with nonsense directness. A shrewd business woman who parlayed her love New Orleans music into a business; she was a major player in the city. Certainly she knew many of the owners of clubs and many musicians. She knew people and was known, and still is to this day. The magazine continues, and so does the annual Louisiana Music Directory. It continues just as I created them. Nothing much as changed in 20 years.
She told me of her plan to do their dinky thing again and I said “Oh no, I’m not putting my name on that, we’ve got to make it truly statewide, and not just New Orleans.” The office was in the Maison Blanche Building, a famous structure on Canal Street, on the 9th floor, overlooking the rooftops of the French Quarter and the Mississippi River. I got my own office and I arranged the desk so I could look out the window while I worked. Jan questioned that, and I said “it’s inspiring, and sort of not important to the bigger picture.” She took that as a ‘let’s leave him alone.’ As I worked I would watch ships go up and down the river. I got to see the storms roll in off the Gulf. I saw planes and birds and clouds and well, it was inspiring.
So, I got to work. The first thing I did was upgrade the sales materials, by putting together a picture chart of ad sizes on one page, and bumped the prices up a little bit. Then I took this and started walking up and down the streets of the French Quarter, and through the Marigny, Bywater and through downtown too, as well as going uptown to Oak Street, which is this strip of restaurants and music clubs about 5 or 6 blocks long off of Carrollton Avenue. I brought the sales brochure to pretty much every business in the city. For while Jan had been selling ads to venues, there weren’t too many other types of businesses represented. Since this was a monthly magazine for tourists and locals, and it really had no competition except maybe “Gambit” magazine, I didn’t see why restaurants and gift shops and really, any business wouldn’t want to be seen in it. I found there were many places that were “yeah this is a good idea.”
Because of the nature of the magazine, there were a few people who were involved more for the perks of getting free tickets and meeting musicians than adding value to the company. A woman named Kathleen was interviewing musicians and writing articles about them. She was frumpy, pleasant and from Cleveland I think. She was hesitant to bring the sale materials to her interviews, saying “I don’t know how to sell advertising!” She was nervous. I said to her “I don’t want you to sell a thing – but I do want you to give the sales materials to everyone you speak to. You can have them call me.”All of a sudden we started getting ads for new record releases, for club dates – the musicians saw the value of an ad coupled with an article. It was a trick I learned with BIC in previous year. Jan was surprised. Sort of in shock she said “We have to add four more pages with the ads your selling.”
I smiled, “now that’s not such a big problem.”
It wasn’t, but she was kind of surprised. All of sudden I had ads for restaurants, and with Jan’s permission, I made trade deals, or barter deals. With say “Mona Lisa” a fancy, and funky, pizza place on Royal Street, I would ‘sell’ them a $400 ad, and take payment in the form of food, whenever I wanted it. Jan liked this perk, which she had never really done. “I get to eat for free?” she asked.
“Yeah, the concept is restaurants don’t really have money for ads, but they have food – and if we get to eat for free, that cuts our costs. Meanwhile, it makes the magazine bigger and more impressive and it encourages the others.” This seemed to be a new concept to Jan. I think she started the magazine for a love of the music, and while sure, earning a living, it was almost more a hobby than a venture. I made it a venture, and didn’t care about the hobby part at all.
Alan King was a young, scruffy haired guy. Maybe 20, 21 or so, good looking, with a deep baritone voice way out of proportion to his tiny frame. If he was more than 5’6” that would surprise me. He had some time as the host of a radio show. He also hung around the offices, looking to meet musicians, get some free tickets, and was sort of a gopher for Jan. I got him to carry the sales materials with him too. I told him “hand them out with wild abandon.” He did. He brought in a few ads himself, and he sort of became my sales staff. He would sit in my office as my acolyte, and me his mentor, and I’d teach him all sorts of tricks about selling ads. He learned well.
Soon, through Kathleen and Alan handing out materials to people I would never have been able to reach, musicians began coming to the office to buy ads, push to get their albums reviewed, get listings. Jan was surprised at this increase in traffic to the office. That they were people with money in hand ready to buy ad space kind of surprised her. That they were mostly the smallest ads – the business card sized ones, was irrelevant. Some band would buy an ad for $100 and be happy they finally were getting exposure.
I had hauled two boxes of information up to the office. Jan wondered what they were. I said “They are my contacts across the state to make the directory a major thing.”
“Who do you know?” she wondered.
I started to tell her and she was shocked. I told her that for the music directory the state would buy the back page for $16,000 and we would use that imprimatur to boost sales all across the board.
“The state isn’t going to buy the back page,” she said.
I smiled benignly. “Yes they will, you’ll see.”
Jan was a woman into details – I was an ideas man. Together we worked on creating the directory, but she needed guidance. She needed that spark of courage to make it truly statewide. I told her, this is going to be big, I will not do a dinky thing. She wondered if it was possible, and so I had to constantly reassure her that my plan was going to work.
I went around to the music halls, the clubs, bars, restaurants – and musicians, and more. For both OffBeat and the directory I was selling ads like hotcakes. The magazine was monthly so that required more attention, while the directory we slated publication in about 6 months. It was a self imposed deadline, if it took a little longer, it would be OK. We didn’t announce a release date till halfway though creating it, when the time was ripe. All of a sudden we were telling potential advertisers “you have until …” or else they were not going to get in at all. It drove people to make decisions.
I told her to find some cover art that was very Louisiana driven, with an instrument, and the years and something that would make it stand out. She was intrigued, and got some submissions from people she knew. We picked one and she asked “Is this really going to happen?”
“Yes, it will,” I assured her.
I showed her how it would be laid out, with her letter welcoming the world of music, and a letter from the governor – and she stopped me. “The governor?”
“Well, of course, as the first statewide music directory the governor should have a letter welcoming the creation of this valuable resource.”
“The governor is not going to do that!” She was shocked. “We’re nobody!” she exclaimed.
“Ah, but I am someone!” I called the person I knew in Governor Edward’s office and told her my purpose, and she told me to write the letter for the governor to sign. I drafted it, had Jan edit it, and as she sat back in wonder I worked with the governor’s office and it was tightened up a bit and they added their own twist to it, for it was “their” words after all. I asked for and was given permission by the governor’s office to use his name in our sales efforts. Bruce Morgan at the Department of Tourism sent out our sales materials to their mailing list. Jan was “how do you know all these people?”
Preston Friedly in Shreveport and Kelly Johnson in Lake Charles, the directors of their respective convention and visitors bureaus, forwarded my materials to their membership. Jan was stunned. As I expanded my outreach across the state she was from but had never been to she joked “For a New Yorker, you sure do know a lot of people.”
“You have no idea, Jan,” I told her, as I worked my contacts.
I tried to explain. I don’t think she ever grasped it. She was New Orleans, she rarely left the city. She had no idea what was out there in the hinterlands and I was ingratiated with it all. I presented sales pitches for both the magazine and the directory to everyone I knew in Lafayette, Lake Charles, Baton Rogue, Shreveport, Alexandria and beyond. Places she had never been to. All of sudden places like Mulatte’s and Mouton’s and Ralph & Kacoo’s, restaurants in Acadiana, were buying ads in OffBeat.
“But why?” Jan wondered.
I told her – people don’t just come to New Orleans, they also go out to the rest of the state. Yet, the rest of the state really has no way to reach tourists in New Orleans, except our magazine. Tourists use this magazine to find their way to the glories of this state. I also got her to expand the distribution to as far east as Pensacola and as far west as Houston. I showed her how to hook up with a magazine distributor, some folks in Metairie, I think it was, that I knew existed. All of a sudden she had to print an extra 1000 copies, so they could be mailed out. “I can’t do that …” or some problem. She had been mailing copies to several out of town places but she would put the copies in the envelope and address it and bring it to the post office. Now she got a distribution company to handle it.
I said “we don’t have to do a thing – the printing company will drop ship 1000 copies to the distributor and they will handle it all.”
She was a nervous wreck – and then it worked – and she was stunned.
All of a sudden her 24 page black and white magazine had a color cover! All of a sudden it jumped to 32 pages, then 36! Magazines are in blocks of 4 pages, so they have to grow in multiples of 4. You can’t have a 30 page magazine – it has to be divisible by 4. It’s just the reality of magazines. I was selling ads – or trading for them – with so many new clients that she was wondering even if they were the right sort of advertisers. “A tarot card reading gypsy?” she wondered.
“Her check is good, take the money, it’s not our business.”
There was a limit of course. I wouldn’t sell ads to the gentleman’s clubs and skanky dumps that littered the upper end of Bourbon Street. Propriety was important, but a tarot card reader? Eh, tourists like their fortunes told in exotic places.
Once the state bought the back cover, and sent their artwork and check, and the governor’s letter was approved and ready – sales really picked up. For now I could say “The official statewide music directory.” After all, when the governor says “you’re official” you are, indeed, official.
Jan looked at that $16,000 check for an hour as I encouraged her “Go deposit it!”
She said with little girl wonderment, “Not just yet, I’ve never seen a check this big!”
She went to the bank eventually.
I got the Louisiana symphony to buy an ad. I gave them a steep discount, but got blocks of tickets to use or give away. Jan was “but that’s classical!” and I said “It’s music! And their money is good too!” I controlled the symphony tickets, and went to a slew of concerts.
We got tickets from a lot of venues. Jan said to me “you can go to any show you want to.” I suppose I could have. I told her I don’t like the music. I don’t like jazz, or blues, or rock – I didn’t like New Orleans music at all, odd as that seems for the guy creating the state music directory and promoting the local music publication. Jan was surprised. She was so used to people more interested in getting the tickets instead of working at building the magazine, that someone selling ads to people she never dreamed possible did not give a damn about the perks. It puzzled her, but she went along with it – for what else could she do? Make me go to some loud nightclub that I wanted nothing to do with? She could not. Meanwhile, she wondered about the symphony – I love classical music, it’s about all I listen to.
In June and July I sold $24,000 for the August issue. I brought the checks, the contracts, the artwork and ideas – the whole package and said “OK, here’s August’s issue.”
She looked at me in shock. I asked “What?”
“We don’t do an August issue.”
“What? Why not? What do you mean you don’t do an August issue?”
“There’s nothing going on here in August, every thing is closed.”
“That’s absurd,” I said.
“No, we don’t do an August issue.” She was firm, she thought.
I smiled my “you have got to be kidding” smile and said “Well, then you go back to these people and give them back their $24,000.”
I plopped it all on her desk, and got up and said “I have things to do.”
She was stunned. Though, for the first time ever in its history, OffBeat Magazine had an August issue.
Though, I did bring her a stack of facts to back up my contention that New Orleans did not close in August whatsoever. I showed her in a nice chart that this or that venue or restaurant did indeed close for a week or two in August. But the conventions continued – there was not one less convention in August than in January. 98% of restaurants stayed open. 98% of music venues were open. The few that closed didn’t all close at the same time. Life went on in the metropolitan area of 1.5 million people. But there was this lingering idea from decades ago, reaching into Jan’s childhood there in the city, that New Orleans did indeed close down for August. Yes, well, it was too hot and humid back then. Now we had air conditioning! Life was year round now. Jan, like so many I had met, all 10 years or more older than me, who had not caught up with the times. Much as 24 hour gas stations were still a new thing.
Meanwhile, ads were rolling in from across the state, people were submitting listings they wanted included. The 3 column layout of tight text for the listings were growing. The layout of the ads around the lists was being set. This or that page was deemed done and then more came in. All of a sudden there was a Cajun music section, and one for Creole, another for Zydeco. Then came sections for old jazz, classic jazz, modern jazz, and blues and arts and festivals. The sections kept growing. Jan was simply stunned at the extent of it all. So used to the limited R & B, blues, jazz world she had been in, with I guess some local rock bands, all of a sudden it was every musical anything across the state. Places she had never heard of wanted a listing. We needed a musical instrument section – both retailers and builders of odd instruments. Many paid the little extra $10 or $20 that we charged for making their words bold or italic or both.
The flood of mail was intense. A 100 envelopes a day might show up. We put Alan King to work on that, and Jan even began to pay him a small salary.
Jan kept all this flow of detailed info in order. She laid it out as she wished, though asking me all the time “what of this, or that?” It was she and I who worked together in pulling this vast amount of information together into a coherent whole.
I kept up the ideas, the proposals, the ‘what if?’ and the encouragement to make it as grand and big as we could right from the very first moment.
When I got record labels in New York and Los Angeles to buy ads for the directory that blew her mind. “Why would they do that?” she wondered. I told her ‘they want to sign up Louisiana musicians – they want to press their records.” She marveled.
When I wasn’t out on the streets selling ads and spreading the good word of the First Louisiana Statewide Music Directory – people were coming to my office to buy ads. They sat with their backs to the window – and I looked past their shoulders at another freighter off to see the world. They would buy ads, bring their listings, we’d hash out the details, I’d get their checks, sign their contracts, and I would sketch up some ideas for what their ad would look like. Most of them did not have a clue of what they wanted – nor what could fit in the size ad they were buying. But they all knew what they didn’t like. I found out that first – what don’t you like? Then removed that from consideration. From these sketches, both at the selling point or in my office, Jan would create a real ad and go through the detailed approval process with the clients. I stayed away from that. Once I got the ad or listing, I stayed away – to go get the next one. It was up to Jan to get the details right.
This went on for months, I don’t know – 6 months? Something like that. I couldn’t even tell you the actual dates or months of when I worked with Jan Ramsey. She’s the detail gal, ask her. But we collaborated, and had a blast doing it. She brought me to her home. She told me about the horrible car wreck that left her constantly in pain. And she marveled at my knowledge of the state and who I knew and what I got done. It was all wonderful.
The deadline approaching, a release date was set. The grand release party was held at Tipitina’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, at Napoleon Avenue. A famous venue, all the big acts played there, and the little ones dreamed of it. To play at Tip’s was to have arrived on the music scene in New Orleans. Invitations went out; the governor himself declined, but his office sent a representatives. Jan was “you’re inviting the governor!”
“Well, yeah, I mean, he wrote the opening letter, and I know the guy.”
The press was alerted, the event set. The night came and a vast throng came in. We had a thousand copies to give away – well, sell for some “donation.”
The price on the cover was $10.
The music blared. The crowd danced. The spotlight was trained on Jan – as she made the announcement: “The first ever comprehensive statewide Louisiana Music Directory.”
The crowed shouted their enthusiasm. Flashbulbs snapped their strobes.
I was in the wings off the stage, and Jan said, looking at me – pointing to me – and said to the people “And this is Jim Hlavac, the man who made this possible, come here Jim” – and I walked out onto the stage where I did not want to be – and she hugged me – and looked right into the cameras – “without this man this would not have been possible.”
I blushed, bowed a bit. I didn’t utter a word. The crowd pummeled their appreciation.
My bit done, I retreated back to the shadows.
A few days later she had security usher me off the premises – accusing me of trying to steal her business. Oh, I took my files – they were mine.
In 2002 I brought my piano music CD to their offices, now on Frenchman Street, and tried to get a little bit of coverage. I met an earnest young fellow and I said “Hi,” and introduced myself.
He got a puzzled look. “Are you … ?”
I was “who?”
“That Jim Hlavac?”
“The one who knows Jan and created the first statewide music directory?”
“Yeah …” and he was sore amazed.
“Yep, I am.”
“Wow,” he was genuinely surprised.
So was I. “I am still a topic of discussion 10 years later?”
“Yeah, you are.” He said it so sheepishly, impishly. He was so cute about it. For he marveled that he got to meet the man who 10 years after he was ushered off the premises was still being talked about.
I gave the kid my CD – and left. I have no idea if they ever uttered a word about it. Nor do I know the reaction of Jan Ramsey when it was presented to her, for her editorial discretion. But if I was remembered by some kid I never met10 years after my last step into their office – I’m sure a rush of memories came back to the woman. But, no, I did not want to steal her business. I had no desire to run a magazine in New Orleans for the rest of my life, as she does. Good luck my dear lady – we had some fun times together.
My Big Cajun Dinner Party on the Hudson River
On a clear, sunny warm day in Spring, with gentle puffs of clouds heading east across the Hudson River, which was visible from the gently sloping vast lawn in Westchester County, New York, just north of New York City, I threw a Cajun food party for some 30 or 40 people. I did not count. Through an ad in the New York Times I found a group of investors who said they were interested in learning more about this cuisine and culture they had barely ever heard of. I had sent them a brief outline of what I was seeking to do and for what I needed some major cash infusion to really get going – A Louisiana Expo in Manhattan and a Cajun food importing business.
This was apparently a group of friends, rich lawyers and doctors, in upper Westchester, that Gold Coast of the Hudson where FDR and the Vanderbilts had lived. They pooled their funds for worthwhile ventures and said they were interested in mine. I met one of them in midtown Manhattan for a drink, gave him my enthusiastic sales pitch and he more or less told me they had never had this food. What was it? He asked. I told him I could show him. He said come up to my place, meet the group, and give us your pitch and show us what Cajun food is all about. He told me the number of people to expect and told me to be prepared to feed that many. He gave me directions to his place and set a weekend date and I said excellent. I gave him what I thought was a well developed business plan of what I wanted to do, we parted and I got to work.
I had never thrown such a dinner party in my life. I had never even cooked Cajun food at all. I had never made a roux or etouffee or jambalaya, a gumbo, nor bananas Foster either, none of it. By now I had seen how it was done, but I had never done it. Especially not for 30 or 40 people under the pressure of the best presentation one could muster. But now I was committed to this presentation to try to get some investors.
Fortunately he said he had plenty of pots, utensils, cookware, baking things and dishes, all that I could need, so I didn’t have to worry about that. I even had asked “even a 20 gallon pot?” “Yeah, on a grill outside, yep?” That was great for boiling crawfish, which he had no idea about. He just happened to have the very thing I needed, for whatever reason he had it. It was perfect, really.
My menu was ‘simple’ in that it was going to be only Cajun food, but ‘complex’ in that I planned on a variety of some twenty dishes. Since I was promoting all these companies making all these different items, I figured I would present it all. Of course, I had to go to Louisiana to arrange this all. Like figuring out how to get sausage, meat pies, andouille, frozen alligator meat, shrimp and other perishables, and a sack of live crawfish to Westchester county. No easy thing to do, requiring air freight and coolers and ice and tightly coordinated times involving a multiple of people who could louse it up at any point in the chain of events. I hoped for the best.
In Louisiana I loaded my car up with the necessary dry goods, well, by the case, I would use just a little bit at this dinner party to come. But I always hauled back dry goods, stocked the trunk and back seat full of the stuff. I got back to New York and made further preparations. I did get a few more lessons in Louisiana about how to make this all. I asked friends – “how do you make a roux?” And they showed me the flour and oil mix that is the base for a lot of Cajun cooking. They showed me all sorts of things and I took a hand at it, and they asked me why this all of a sudden. I told them my plan and they said “You are one crazy dude.”
“It’s got to be done.”
Back in New York I awaited the coming weekend and made the final preparations and thinking it through. In perfect condition and exact timing my perishables and well, the living crawfish, arrived safely at LaGuardia where I was waiting for them. The slightly squirming sack intrigued the guys there, though, when chilled crawfish go to sleep, they just move a little. Warmed up they move a lot. You don’t want a sack breaking – they crawl all over the place in mad dashes. Having the goods, the next day I headed to Westerchester following the directions. I had no idea what sort of house this was going to be nor really anything about that part of the world. Up the Taconic Parkway I went and got to where I needed to go – and was met by a big gateway at the front of a grand tree lined drive going slightly downhill to a big white block of a house.
It was astonishing. It was huge. It was a mansion, modern, square, gleaming white panels and silvery white glass, and seemed to stretch on forever. There was multi-car garage as well as a slew of very nice automobiles in this parking area. I had never been to such a house. I rang the bell, was met by my contact – whose name I simply do not remember. Gotlieb for some reason comes to mind as I write this, but I do not know. He and a few of his friends helped me carry all this stuff in to his kitchen. It was enormous. Probably 20 feet by 30. It was as big as some of the processing plants I had been to in Louisiana. We took care of the perishables, and laid out the ingredients and dry goods, and the ladies looked them over and started talking and the gentleman took me for a tour of manse. The several acres of lawn out the kitchen windows leading down to the edge of the cliff that embanks the Hudson River were impressive. The river was clearly visible. From this patio about as big as the kitchen, where tables were set up for the picnic, one could see up and down the river for miles and miles. From out on the lawn looking up at the house one saw this place out of Architectural Digest.
I was introduced to the investors club, then the wives, and friends, and whomever, and a few kids scampering around. There was much enthusiasm as I explained to the crowd what I was going to cook. The squiggling sack of crawfish just fascinated them, the kids squealed, and one or two of the moms did too. Then I got to work. I went into the kitchen and several of the women stood by ready to get me whatever I asked for and show me around. They also wanted to watch me make this all. I got the big pot outside filled with water and set to boiling, It really was a perfect crawfish boiling pot, which was just odd, still, we got it going. Then I got a big pot of rice going. Then came the roux, and then the jambalaya. All the slicing and dicing of onions, peppers, sausage, andoillee, the peeling of shrimp – all the women helped as I explained it all. Some of the men came in to see how things were going, some stood around and watched. It was a very jovial charming party.
Though I had never done this before I felt no pressure or nervousness. I just plodded along, and everything worked smoothly and things were going great. Somehow I started each dish at the right time, somehow instinctively, for everything came out right at the end at the same time. The boiling of the crawfish was a special treat for them all – they sort of watched in stunned amazement. There were the requisite small white potatoes and corn on the cob pieces – as well as the crawfish boil seasoning. They came out perfect. Every dish was perfect. Frankly, I was surprised, but I wasn’t going to say that.
Everyone dug in with gusto and savored this or that for the very first time. Everyone seemed to like everything. I didn’t hear anyone go “ew.” I had to teach them how to peel crawfish, which they learned well enough. One sack for 30 people is enough for a 8 or 10 crawfish apiece, which was enough. In Louisiana you’d need 10 sacks for a crowd that size. The whole event went off fantastic, in this stunning setting in the pocket of the rich.
The investors were enthused, said this could be something, but of course, number crunching was required, and here’s not the place to do too much business. But I did explain all the details I could muster about distribution of this food and production and how it was going. They did plan follow up meetings with me, and we set dates. The evening approaching, the mess all cleaned up, the thank yous given, I headed back to Astoria where I was living at the time. I thought it went excellent.
Two weeks later I met with the guy again, I guess the ring leader or point man, and we discussed it but he showed me where he thought my numbers wouldn’t work – or more to the point, how Louisiana just probably wasn’t ready to move ahead. And that was true. They also said they wanted something more local, for there was a lot about interstate commerce that they didn’t understand. He also gave me all sort of pointers and ideas. It was about an hour long coversation. They were all valid reasons really. In the end, they declined to invest any real money, but he did buy a few shares of Cajun Commodities for himself, which at least covered the costs of the event. He also warmly thanked me for the time and effort.
They weren’t the only potential investors I spoke with, but they certainly had the most spectacular setting, and got the most lustrous meal of any of them. That I discovered I can indeed cook a multi-course Cajun food feast for lots of people was worth all the time and effort.