What ever happened to Ronnie Virgets?
A former New Orleans journalist, and poet, ponders life after False River.
Photographed by Brian Gauvin
It is full of strange turns, this journey of life and maybe they get stranger as the road gets shorter.
The author Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek, saw this leg of the journey thusly: “What a joy I feel that life is eager to leave me behind; no longer cares for me; is leaping toward other, younger people; is attracted by other, dark heads! But I am not defeated or left behind, because I am not angry.”
For this leg, I have moved my living headquarters to New Roads, an old town North and West of Baton Rouge. I am often asked “Why?” and the answer is often not easy. But here are some impressions …
Here where Oak Street meets Railroad Road, bikes with a couple of riders each meander without hurry and teen feet in flip-flops saunter through grey railroad rocks the way sauntering alongside railroad tracks have been done for centuries.
Black-eyed Susans stand watch while blackbird wings churn overhead and, higher still, fine-carved clouds move slowly across the sky. Even the clouds seem to move slower here …
The track runs along the back of New Roads, cutting through Shantytown, and if you know when to look, you can see straight down the line. Here comes a furious iron cricket and here too comes its song. The law says trains have to sound their whistles on every corner through town and after dark they sound as forlorn as when the train pulled into Hadleyville in High Noon.
You hear the same sounds you would in a bigger town, but the resonation is different here. The noise and the hurry are here, but then they’re gone and there’s an echo that’s felt longer than heard.
Noise and hurry. They are not around here long
They are not what New Roads is all about …
“Somehow it’s never eight o’clock up there – it’s always now.”
Spencer Tracy, speaking of heaven, in A Guy Named Joe.
My daughter was saying that nowadays you have to go out of your way to be a member of a community, join a club or something like that. Once upon a time, you just opened your front door …
Open my front door, step out onto the wall-to-wall porch and look up and down. My street is one of the old roads of New Roads, and many of the houses have front porches, which is to say the beginnings of a community.
Porches are neither inside or outside but both, the perfect food for those who fast. They go well here and are old favorites.
Of course, porches crave porch-sitters, those who haven’t yet surrendered to air-conditioners and televisions and swimming pools, who swear loyalty to their community by sitting out in it. New Orleans still loves its front porches, and so does New Roads.
From your rocker, you can wave to those who go by, slowly in their cars, even slower on foot. Sometimes you or they want more than that and one of you will think of something to call or call back. Many of them have no names but something else to share: this place in this time.
Once in a while, the snarl of a collie or a leaf blower intrudes but soon the sweetness of contemplation comes back. Oaks and oleanders and magnolias and sweet olives and Japanese plums and things whose names are unknown but their blessings are not.
But mostly there are the birds, birds at all heights, from ground to cloud, their songs heard at last. And here against the summer-colored sky, you can see the serialization of their lives. The slow-motion hunt of the red-tailed hawk and the ominous presence of inky-headed buzzards. Ducks and cranes from the nearby river mix with ravens and robins and finches. Some, like jays and cardinals, have become rare sights around New Orleans but not yet here. Birds as courtiers and laborers and bandits and swains, tangled in trysts and jousts of every color and generation …
Lives of flight and song and on a porch you can see the one and hear the other and in a time of condos and multiplexes; who can say for how much longer?
Better be part of a community while you can …
The day gives way to a night bristling with rain.
The block seems to sing in the rain.
There is no better place to hear songs than on the porch …
It is fertile land around New Roads, enough that any early agricultural settlers would have had no trouble coming up with their very own fertility cult …
French-Canadian settlers were here early and so was prosperity. Soon there were plantations, flush with oaks and oranges and soon brimming with sugar cane and cotton. It was all here, the glory aide and the gloomy side of the agricultural empires of the South, castles and hovels alike.
Over the eras, there has been a connection between New Roads and New Orleans. Chep Morrison, the multi-term mayor of New Orleans was from here, and so is Lindy Boggs.
And there’s Julien Poydras, the one with all the things named for him in New Orleans. He was born in Brittany in 1746, joined the French navy and was captured and jailed in England for three years, where he learned the language before escaping to Santo Domingo.
In 1768, he found his way to New Orleans and soon became a multi-lingual traveling salesman going up and down the Mississippi selling hardware to the plantations there. Soon he had one of his own in Pointe Coupee, then two, then six. He opened a retail store on False River and became a well-known gentleman, hosting guests like Louis Philippe, future king of France. Although a Republican, he always dressed in the fashion of a member of the court of Louis XV: queue, knee breeches, silk stockings and shoes with silver buckles.
In 1795, there was an aborted slave uprising at one of Poydras’ plantations, Alma, while he was in Philadelphia. Twenty-five slaves were killed and later the courts ordered 23 more hung at exemplary spots along the river.
When Louisiana joined the Union, Poydras became a politician and later president of the state Senate, where he spearheaded early public education moves. He donated three buildings on Tchoupitoulas Street to an asylum for orphaned girls and opened the state’s first college in New Roads. His will was generous, leaving money to Pointe Coupee and West Baton Rouge parishes to be allotted as dowries for poor girls and providing for the emancipation of his slaves.
In 1824, his health started to fail and having trouble standing, he hired someone to come by and hold him up for long periods because he believed a man would not die standing.
He was wrong about that. One day he died, on his feet, leaving his name on streets in New Orleans and New Roads ...
“Clipper” White uses his comb to point to the ultra-light rods in the corner of the room.
“They’ll make a bream feel like a trout,” he promises and everyone in the barbershop knows what he’s talking about.
Clipper White is short and coiffed and neatly tucked into a maroon tunic. If New Roads is a Coonass Mayberry, Clipper is Floyd. Before men went to hair salons, they went to barbershops and the barbershops mostly looked like this: tiled floors, wooden shelves, a jacked-up chair in the middle, Louisiana State University stuff all around the room, golf balls and some inexplicable things like car license plates from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands.
The other thing the room is full of is boy-talk and everyone in the room contributes because everyone knows everyone else. The guy in the jacked-up chair is getting a “No.2 haircut,” which refers to the size of the clipper involved, and is telling of driving on the Acadian Highway, where he spies in front of him a pair of side-by-side cars; one had the prefix “NOT” on his license plate and the other had “NOW” on his.
Someone else tells a joke about President Obama seeking power of attorney over our lives and someone else tells of fish biting at Mondu Lake. The guy who delivers the lettuce and mustard greens to the shop chats about somebody with a lousy pancreas.
It all fits here, the kind of place where men can come to be as crude and wise as men can be, the kind of place becoming hard for men to find …
And then the mailman – who happens to be a lady – comes into the room. The room falls as quiet as if a priest had walked into a gathering right in the middle of a very dirty joke.
She could be somebody’s sister, right? In New Roads, folks still remember things like that …
The Mississippi River is to places like New Roads like the voice of God, without noise but always felt.
So here’s the ferry that runs across the river at New Roads and a short string of cars is draped over the levee waiting their turn. The water is high now, slurping through the green banks bearing the tree-trunks it first claimed from Minnesota and Illinois.
There are mid-life denizens of New Roads who had no theme park of their own as kids so they borrowed this one, hitching rides atop the ferry and trading banter with the skipper.
And on the other side, hung like an antebellum parlor portrait among the glades for the edification of the history-hunters, St. Francisville. The natives there reportedly refer to New Roads as “the French side” of the river. And a shade north of there, Angola, Louisiana’s own Devil’s Island.
So here it goes, pancaking away from the bank, its motor-hum joining the wind- and water-noise, all tilt-a-whirl, only minutes in time, centuries in audacity …
Soon now the ferry will be gone and in its place the John James Audubon, a giant suspension bridge overlooking the river but not part of it, well above the fray.
Which sometimes is no place to see a good fray …
Many people – most – pay high tribute to the truth and all its champions and all its symbols, But like many people – most – I am also fixated on the falsity(s) that course through my life and most of the lives around me.
Which brings me to the False River …
The falseness is rooted in the fact that it isn’t a river at all, but an ox-bow lake about 14 miles long and varying between a quarter and a half-mile wide. Once it was truly linked to the mighty Mississippi but now the connection is psychic only.
One side of the river is bordered by the Main Street of New Roads and the other by the Island Road of “The Island,” a thick peninsula between the ox-bow and its father.
Between these two roads is the silver-blinking water, lying out under the warm sun and high hawks. Boats crisscross one another: a Bentley party barge and a plastic Avenger powered by a 48 Johnson, an ear-splitting jet-ski and little sailboat moving with unhurried assurance.
If you’re lucky enough to be on one of these boats, you’ll see plenty to make you feel lucky. Between the river and the two straddling boats, there are strips of land and on these strips it’s hard to go too far without murmuring “Wow! Look it that tree!” Pecans, magnolias, Golden Rains, willows, water oaks.
Once it was almost all there was to see from the river, unless you could see over the road and catch a glimpse of one of those wonderful center-hall plantations with all their grimness and glory, places with names like Parlange or Riverlake or Austeritz. Then those slivers of shore were sold or leased or rented and here came the camps, on the fashion of Hayne Boulevard, shacks or trailers with piers and maybe boathouses.
And then there’s now …
Of course False River and New Roads lose something to gentrification every year. But they fight delaying actions as clever as those Fabius Cunctator, the “Great Temporizer,” before Hannibal’s army. They have slowly surrendered land to ranch-styles, townhomes, West Indian McMansions, all of whom focus their lordliness toward the water or “riverviews.” So now, on both sides, there’s an eclectic mix of the humble and the not-so-humble, all of whom have turned their backs to the road and their faces to the river.
And if all this variety isn’t eye-seizing enough, there’s more: over-the-water restaurants like the graceful Morel’s or honky-tonks like the low-ceilinged Parrott’s, a mini-paddlewheeled steamboat, a tugboat. In some of the False River armada, fishermen with pricey rods in one hand and summer-colored drinks in the other. And onshore, other anglers, big-bottomed couples who face nature with humbler gear and extract a small tribute.
At its southern end, False River downshifts into small streams that flow in front of places with names like Pecan Island and Gentile’s Lane, where old people boil crabs on their docks and young people dive off them …
Go a little further and the lilypads start and turtles of all sizes tumble off fallen limbs when you get close and egrets rise up in quiet retreat. You are on Bayou Chenault and where better to be in The Bayou State? You can forget plenty of stuff in a place like this …