The Creole Son

In 1987, Andre Dupree was elected as a member of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. According to a Louisiana newspaper he was the youngest person ever elected to a major Louisiana political office. As a 23 year old college student he won the election by defeating a college president and the president of a powerful teacher's union. Luck was on Andre's side when a jealous husband attempted to assassinate the college president. Andre had been told to accept his station in life with dignity. Creole kids never had much luck anyway; poor New Orleans neighborhoods were quicksand, no way out. But Andre had determination and tenacity, traits learned on New Orleans streets. Andre's father worked as a maintenance electrician at Tulane University. When Andre graduated from Tulane he delivered the commencement address, his father was in the audience.

Andre achieved more than he ever dreamed possible. He helped create programs guaranteeing college availability to qualified Louisiana students. He rewrote the state's Minimum Foundation funding plan for elementary and secondary education, met the Commandant of the Marine Corps in his Pentagon office and ran for congress. Andre also brings about the resignation of the US Speaker of the House. But when it was all said and done, he longed for the many things he thought he wanted to leave behind. Success became an airport layover, not at his destination and not home either, just lost. At the end of the day, Andre fell short in some ways, his political career failed, but it was a wild trip worth remembering.

Chapter 1

WHILE WATCHING A MARDI GRAS parade on Saint Charles Avenue, I became separated from my carefree friends. Too young to drive home I walked to the end of the parade route to catch the Canal-Cemeteries bus home. On that crowded bus, was the most beautiful Creole girl I had ever seen. She was sitting alone about three seats behind me. Lacking in confidence, I said nothing. Our eyes met, she smiled and eventually exited the bus. For the past thirty-five years not a week goes by that I do not think about that brief encounter. Memories and remorse can be like that. They have a way of becoming prisons of regret, punishment without crime. I have come to terms with these lingering ghosts of missed opportunity and moved beyond bitterness with knowledge that I am lucky and although at the end of the day, I may not have gotten very far, it is certainly a wild trip worth remembering.

Creole kids never had much luck anyway. “Dreams were reserved for rich kids living on the Lakefront. Here in the 9th Ward the best you could expect was a job and a hard hat.” I was told to accept my station in life with dignity. “Dreams are a waste of time, why fish in flood water? You never catch anything and if you do it’s too fucking polluted to eat anyway.” These shit poor New Orleans neighborhoods were quicksand, no way out. Never the smartest, best looking or strongest, my single advantage was a back against the wall ability to work, fight harder, and take punishment better than any opponent, traits learned growing up and surviving on New Orleans streets. I acquired self confidence, kindness and generosity from loving grandparents, suspicion and distrust from a disinterested and dysfunctional family, and an understanding of human nature from a rich variety of unique experiences gained growing up here.

I eventually learned to hide my Creole heritage behind blue eyes that I inherited from my Dutch mother, and to disguise a rough upbringing behind a thin veneer of culture and education. With success came breakfast in the Governor’s Mansion, private jets, financial security the honor of being the youngest person ever elected to a major office in Louisiana, and the unfortunate distinction of having the shortest political career ever, a real Greek tragedy, some would say, but victory was sweet since success was so unexpected. When it was all said and done, I longed to reclaim many things I thought I wanted to leave behind. Life became an airport layover, not at my destination and not home either, just somewhere in between.

Back then, New Orleans was a great place for kids, like me, seeking adventure and excitement. At the Orleans Avenue pumping station, giant arms would sweep across the iron grates protecting the pump intakes. Urban refuse would be swept clean and deposited along side, usually useless trash like old tires and rusting shopping carts. Sometimes we found real treasure like the WWII GI helmet that I still have. Sitting along the levee, we used bicycle ball bearings as sling shot ammunition to shoot mullet swimming in the drainage canals. What mullet we hit, we then used as bait for the crab traps that we set along the Lake Pontchartrain Seawall.

We collected returnable soft drink bottles that were easy to find discarded around City Park and worth a nickel each. At the Bayou Road grocery, we could get two donuts for a dime. The screen doors performed valiantly keeping flies out but many still found the donuts that were displayed in open air racks. Live chickens were stacked in small metal cages along the sidewalk. Maw Maw Dupree would carefully look them over and make her selection. They called the butcher Khrushchev because he resembled the then current Russian leader. Khrushchev would open the cage and remove an unfortunate chicken. A few minutes later, he reemerged with a cleaned bird wrapped neatly in brown freezer paper, weighed the chicken on a porcelain scale, and then handed the package to Maw-Maw Dupree.

Maw Maw and Paw Paw Dupree lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s and learned a distrust of bankers. Paw Paw Dupree would cash his L&N Railroad paycheck at the Union Passenger Terminal and bring home cash. Each month Maw Maw Dupree and I would ride the Esplanade public service bus downtown to pay the bills and ‘trade.’ She never learned to drive nor owned a car, but was always dressed in her Sunday best. We walked to the Light Company, Water Company and Gas Company paying monthly expenses with the cash that she carried in a small coin purse. We ate lunch at the Woolworth Soda Fountain on Canal Street that carried original Italian Cream Sodas and good burgers and we window shopped at Gus Meyer’s, Krauss, D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche department stores. If we actually purchased anything it would have been from the Maison Blanche Annex on a side street behind the main store. They carried out of date clothing, damaged goods, and other discounted items.

Before heading home, we walked from Canal Street to Decatur Street over to the French Market passing the Morning Call where we shared a twenty five cent order of beignets and then inspected the farmer’s produce and seafood market. Today, the Market is a tourist trap along the river near Jackson Square with tee shirt shops, restaurants and souvenirs made in China. The old market was a two or three block long open air structure with a roof supported by elaborate wrought iron pillars built during French colonial days and paved with grey flagstones deeply grooved by the passage of time and footsteps that were once used as ballasts in French and Spanish sailing ships. The French Market was similar to bazaars that I imagined in a place like Morocco or described in tales of Ali Baba and One Thousand and One Nights, one of my favorite books. Creole fishermen and trappers, truck farmers, a Voodoo Priestess, and a Creole lady who sold homemade pralines rented designated spaces to display and sell their goods. Most people kept the same spot for years.

Tables were full of fresh tomatoes, alligator pears, turnip greens, and mirlitons. Each farmer sang out in a unique way, attempting to attract customers as they walked by. “Produce, Produce”, “Fresh Fruit, get your fresh fruit”, “Fruit Man”. In the fall, we bought pumpkins and in the summer we sampled the best sliced watermelons from the back of large trucks, beds lined with straw. Maw Maw Dupree stopped at the same venders each time, purchased what was necessary and sometimes I got a free apple to enjoy on the bus ride home. When we passed near the Voodoo table we always made the Sign Of The Cross and walked quickly. Afterwards, Maw Maw Dupree blessed my forehead with holy water that she carried in a small glass bottle and we recited the “Our Father” for good measure.

The seafood market was only a few steps away but presented the senses with a completely different experience. Live crabs were kept in bushel baskets and crawfish were kept in fifty pound burlap sacks and packed so tightly that even minimal movement was nearly impossible. If you poked the sack with a stick, maybe you could see a claw move. Close inspection revealed the tiny bubbles that emitted from their mouths when out of water for any length of time. “Never eat the straight tails,” Maw Maw Dupree said. A straight tail meant that the crawfish was already dead before boiling.

Each booth contained tiled tables loaded with ice that melted quickly in New Orleans summers, water drained into tiny trenches carved into the flagstones, and then flowed out to the street. The fishermen wore overalls, rubber boots, thick gloves, and carried sharp knives on their belts. Cats loved the fish market and were adopted by grateful fisherman as rodent hunters. The adopted cats watched lazily over activities from safe perches above the action. Fish were cleaned on the spot in a matter of minutes, cleaning was an art form. The rich abundance of swamps and wetlands around New Orleans was on display, from nutria skins to redfish, trout and eel. Eventually Gentilly Woods and the Carrolton Shopping Center opened promising to modernize the way New Orleans shopped. The old market had no chance competing against air conditioning, florescent lighting, parking lots and frozen foods. Everything changes!

As an affordable gift for my sixth birthday, Dad and I rode the streetcar from Carrollton down St. Charles to Canal Street and back. We stopped at Tulane University and walked the campus. He pointed out the significant buildings, their names and ages, the subjects taught in each. To a six year old, the library was overwhelming in it size. He pointed to the auditorium, “That building is where Tulane gives degrees, it is the most important of all,” I remember him saying. He was runner-up in a Holy Cross High School scholarship contest, only a few points behind the award winner. Consequently, Dad would end up at a public high school, then Delgado Community College. He had planned to marry his high school sweetheart, but she crushed his spirit, “I want to marry a doctor,” she told him unexpectedly one evening. He never saw her again.

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Creole Son