Since last fall, the rise of Drumpf and the discussion surrounding it have recalled to me the scene in Louisiana in 1991. I wrote the piece below circa 1993 and, at a friend’s request, revised it as a dramatic monologue in 1997. I don’t know if it was ever used in the staged reading for which it took this form. The only change I have made in 1997 version is naming the coffee shop in the basement of Swift Hall at the University of Chicago. I want to let that ’90s voice speak for itself, and undertake comment on our current situation in a follow-up post.
A woman in her early twenties is sitting on the porch of her grandmother’s shotgun double in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. She is dressed like a student, but is wearing clothes that are too warm for the deep south. The time is late December, after Christmas, in 1991.
I remember the first time I saw them. Last year, I happened to be home on St. Patrick’s Day. Dad was in that parade, the one that goes by Parasol’s. Grandma was catching vegetables, and I tried to count the little blue Duke stickers in that sea of green shirts, the stickers on the float guys, in the crowd, in the bar, at the Dixie truck. In the green beer line with me. When did this happen?
So I went digging in Grandma’s bag, behind her back. She’d caught lots of little red potatoes, and I picked out a few of those to throw at the blue stickers on the float guys. Target practice, disguised as part of the game. You can throw things back at floats, right? Then she turned around and saw me with both hands full of potatoes.
“Where you goin’ with those potatoes?”
“I’m going to throw them at the floats.”
“No you not. I’m going to cook those. Put them back, and you catch your own potatoes.”
All I caught was a green onion. I needed a better way of dealing with this.
I left New Orleans when I was 18, and I vowed then that I would never vote in a Louisiana election. “So you moved to Chicago?” people say. Yes. And voted there, once. Chicago politics is as hard to learn as our own. If you don’t know who was doing what to whom thirty years ago, you’ll be lost in the present. For an outsider, it does offer a certain innocence of the evil you inevitably choose. On the other hand, in Louisiana, the blue stickers multiplied like mosquitoes in August. I had just moved from one campus to another, and since Chicago erases you from the rolls if you move and don’t send notice, I wasn’t registered to vote anywhere. The race back home was everything I had hoped to avoid with that vow, kept six years now. I made up my mind before I got on the train.
On the day when I intended to break the vow, Mom asked me to pick up this new bed frame at the Maison Blanche on the West Bank.
“I don’t know where that place is,” I tell her.
“Go get Grandma. She’ll tell you where it is. But you drive.”
So I go by Grandma’s, tell her that I’m going to register to vote in Jefferson Parish, and then we’re going to pick up this bed frame at the Maison Blanche on the West Bank.
“You drive,” she says. Yes, I’ll drive.
It didn’t seem like much when I did it, breaking the vow. The hardest part was political affiliation, picking one out of four little boxes: Democrat, Republican, Other, and None. I couldn’t decide between Other and None, and now I don’t even remember which one I picked. I cast an absentee ballot for the primary, got back in the car, and headed for the Mississippi River bridge and the bed frame while Grandma told me about the latest car accident one of my cousins had had. “I’m a Louisiana voter, I’m a Louisiana voter,” I kept saying to myself, and waiting for my IQ to drop 60 points. Then I would slap myself and say, “You’ve been in the north too long.”
Soon I was back in Chicago, reading what the national newspapers had to say about Those People in Louisiana. Answering that question students inevitable ask each other, “Where are you from?” I would wake up in the morning with those lines playing in my head, “Oh, mothers tell your babies not to do what I have done . . . “ But what have I done? Then I’d get out of bed, drink that thin northern coffee, snap out of it, and study ancient history.
On the night of the primary, I went to the basement to find an open TV. Some guys were playing pool & drinking beer. I asked if they’d mind if I changed the channel to CNN. They didn’t, but one of them gave me this long strange look. He was thinking, the Gulf War’s over, what’s this chick doing watching CNN at 1 o’clock on Saturday night?
“I’m from Louisiana. There’s a gubernatorial primary . . .”
The guy squints at me and swirls his beer.
“It’s the one with the former Klan grand wizard running . . .”
“Oh, yeah.” Now he leans back to his shot, sights it, and looks back up at me.
“Isn’t Jimmy Swaggart also from Louisiana?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
The Monday after the runoff, I sat in Swift Kick, drinking thin coffee and reading a copy of the New York Times that someone had left on the table. Pages and pages about Us. Them. It. Him. They had two pages of statistical analyses and pie charts: Louisiana voters broken down by sex, age, race, income, education, religion, parish, and political party affiliation (they had Other but not None). Before I thought much about it, I was looking for my own socioeconomic profile. Why? I knew how I voted, didn’t I? Or was I looking for the People Like Me, to see if they did what I did?
I didn’t ship back out here until Christmas. That’s when I started looking at people I had known all my life, and wondering. Some talk about it. Most don’t.
There was the uncle, sitting at our bar with his belly hanging out, as he has for decades of Christmases. But this time he’s saying to his wife, “Did you vote for who I told you to?” And she’s being coy, “Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.” “You better have. Because They’re taking over.” I want to yell: “Which one? Which They? Who’s taking over what from whom? And are we We or Them?” Did he vote for Duke, and if he did, do I want to pour him another beer for the rest of my life? I said nothing.
Or there’s Grandma, who told me that she voted for Edwards, for the first time in her life, and she has hated him for twenty years. She tells me that she was worried that Duke would win, because all of her friends were voting for him. “Grandma,” I said (consulting the New York Times pie charts burned into my mind’s retina), “your friends are all old white people. That’s Duke’s demographic.” “But I told them not to!”
And then there was my brother, who didn’t vote for Duke, but still looked at me and said, “You’re not from here anymore because you won’t come back.”
Six out of ten white Louisiana voters, voted for Duke, according to the New York Times pie charts. But which ones, the oracle does not say.
That’s what it’s been about along, who We are, who gets to decide who counts as We. But in the national press, We, Louisiana, were a Them: Those People in Louisiana, I read over and over again, in the economic and social etiologies of our collective disease, with its symptom named David Duke. But Duke’s money was coming in from New York to California. No one mentioned that little symptom, or ventured to diagnose a national disease. Was it too small a clue, too easily hidden by an illusion that the disease was confined to the borders of one stray state? One day, the rest of you will see. You will have some symptom thrust upon you, something you can’t look away from, and can’t explain away by one state’s shady swamp of a history. Then you will look at your neighbors and wonder who’s their Us, and who’s their Them.
See, I thought I could leave Louisiana, but it’s everywhere. We’re all in this. And me, I know I’m one.