We know the day was the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker. It was during the time when Morten Andersen was the Hall of Fame kicker for the New Orleans Saints. On this morning, one of New Orleans’ finest couples, Vic Broussard and his wife Natalie (always pronounced “Nat’ly”) were having a spirited discussion about the sanctified day. “You know Nat’ly after Morten Andersen, St. Joseph is my favorite saint,” Vic told Nat’ly. To which the loving spouse replied, “Oh yeah, I guess opposites attract—St. Joseph’s da wonder worker, an’ it’s a wonder if you ever work.”
We would never have known about this theological conversation were it not for Bunny Matthews, whose cartoons crystallized a city of characters who some say, “still exist”; others say, “once were,” but just as sure as “Gawd” created soft-shell crab poor boys “should be.” Matthews, who suffered a lengthy illness, died May 31. As Vic might have noted, right before the hurricane season.
Vic was a burly man with a stubbled unshaven face that was fashionable before his time. Nat’ly was “of size” too and modestly hid her beauty behind horn-rimmed glasses with pointed edges, dangling earrings and a hair-do that came to a point in the front of her head.
During their career, Vic and Nat’ly appeared on the four most important information outlets – newspapers, magazines, television and the sides of bread trucks. The latter was for Leidenheimer, the makers of poor boy bread loaves which were the staff of life for the heralded couple.
Were social scientists to do a study about them, Vic and Nat’ly might be classified in that sub-section of New Orleanians known as “Y’ats”, shorthand for their legendary greeting of “Where y’at.” They are generally a joyful people who, stereotypes aside, liked fried “ersters” on their poor boys and got gas at the “erl station.”
There was a neighborhood that was more Yat-heavy than other places. That would be the Lower Ninth Ward near the Industrial Canal. A linguist once told me that the Y’at dialect evolved from the Germans who once lived in the area. She noted that many native phrases, such as the beloved “where y’at” had German construction patterns. (I will have to take her word.) This was the language of an ethnically evolving working class neighborhood somewhat isolated from the rest of the city. There were similar patterns, she noted, in New York’s Brooklyn accent.
Apparently with the dialect came wisdom, because Vic and Nat’ly had plenty of it. Consider the conversation when Vic was complaining to Nat’ly that business at his bar was bad and that maybe they should try mud wrestling, “to bring in some new faces.” Nat’ly, who did not want to lower her social standing, scoffed at the the idea, then noticed Vic’s collection of King Cake babies filling a sink. “Rinse off these king cake babies,” she demanded, “Gulotta’s bakery is buyin’ dem back for a nickle each.”
You may have missed it, but Vic did annually organize a truck for Mardi Gras under the royal title of Krewe of Vic. One year, Nat’ly agreed to make Vic’s costume, though he wasn’t pleased. There was a big round brown crown with lots of strings dangling from the side. When told that he was supposed to represent a plate of meatballs and spaghetti Vic protested that was beneath his dignity. “What do you want to be,” Nat’ly scolded, “an anchovy?” Vic had no answer.
Bunny Matthews gave the world a glimpse into the inherent humor of New Orleans. At a time of social tension, it is especially valuable to appreciate both the character and the quirks that make up a city. I would like to think of Bunny, Vic and Nat’ly at Parkway Poboy splitting a sandwich. Vic wants oysters; Nat’ly wants shrimp, Matthews wants catfish. Which one prevails doesn’t matter, as long as there is a big bottle for splashing on the hot sauce.