Saints and Sinners Newsletter Interview

I recently did a short interview with the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival for their e-newsletter, as one of their featured speakers for 2018. Below is a transcript of the interview. Thank you SAS, and can’t wait to participate next year!

2018 SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT
by Drew Jordan

Meet Cassie Pruyn

SAS Fest program assistant Drew Jordan caught up with Cassie Pruyn, who attended her first Saints and Sinners in 2017, and she’ll be back for our 15th anniversary March 23-25, 2018.

DJ.: This past year was your first year at SAS. What was your experience at the Festival like?

Cassie: I loved every minute I got to spend at the Festival this past year, even though a major looming deadline (see below!) meant that I couldn’t stay and soak up the entire experience as I otherwise would have. My favorite part of the weekend was the Closing Reception and Hall of Fame Ceremony: the room was filled, almost palpably so, with positivity and a sense of togetherness, as well as with incredible talent and dedication to literature. It made me feel truly proud to consider myself a part of the New Orleans LGBTQ+ literary community. I can’t wait until next year!

DJ: Your first poetry collection, Lena, which came out this past May, deals with the love and subsequent loss of your first love. Would you talk a little bit about the process of how this collection came to be?

Cassie: In short, Lena is a book that simply demanded to be written. When I was at the Bennington Writing Seminars getting my MFA, I was trying really&nbnbsp;hard to write about anything else. I was writing persona poems and just generally writing away from my personal experience–in part because the main drama of my personal life was, I thought, too painful to delve into (or else too private). Despite my best efforts, however, most of those poems just weren’t working. One of my professors said they were like beautiful landscape paintings in which nothing was happening in the foreground. Alas, this thing, this major loss, had to be written about. Once I started, I couldn’t stop writing about the memories I had with this person—my first love—and the grief I felt over her having died, tragically, at 26.

DJ:  How do you think distance, both physically and temporally, factor into this collection?

Cassie: Distance–or proximity–is almost like a third character in this collection, I think. When we were together (when we were 19 and 20 years old), our relationship was hidden from her family. The stakes felt really high for her, and it was nothing short of terrifying. Therefore, right away, our physical intimacy was something dangerous; it had to be carefully orchestrated, and was often cut short in a way that felt violent (at least psychically violent). Or else we were pressed together in tiny rooms, or inside cars, or other strange and claustrophobic spaces. After we broke up, the dance of distance continued: we could never quite figure out how to be harmonious; someone always wanted more closeness, or more distance. The dance continued, with even more intensity, after she was diagnosed with cancer, and, obviously, continues to this day–with death being the ultimate distance, the ultimate void.

The poems in the collection seek to perform these distances, or to speak into them. There are also geographic distances–New Orleans vs. the Northeast–and the proximity to her own memories the speaker is constantly trying to navigate.

DJ: You are also working on a history of New Orleans’s Bayou St. John. Would you talk a little about this project, too?

Cassie: Yes! A bit lighter, this book. I just finished a narrative history of Bayou St. John, to be published at the end of 2017. It spans the bayou’s history from prehistory to the present day, and seeks to ask deeper questions about the city’s relationship to this important waterbody: its role in the founding of New Orleans, and its shifting identity as commercial corridor, houseboat colony, recreational hotspot, etc., as well as its essential status as a navigable waterway. It was a doozy of a project, especially because I was new to research and to the genre, but I loved every minute of it. Aside from the narrative itself, I’ve also been blogging about the bayou’s history over the past couple years–giving voice to the odd little anecdotes the manuscript couldn’t accommodate. You know you must be in New Orleans when you come across drunken bears, lady duels, stolen airplanes, and embezzling mistresses, not to mention the hundreds of mysterious drownings attributed to the bayou over the year.

DJ: We have included your poem “Aubade” here in the newsletter. Would you care to introduce it?

Cassie: An aubade, traditionally, is a morning love song (think: the morning version of a serenade), or a poem or a song that signals the separation of two lovers at dawn. This aubade certainly speaks to the various distances explored in Lena.

Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans-based poet born and raised in Portland, Maine. Her poems have appeared in AGNI Online, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review, The Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, Salt Hill Journal, and others. She is the author of a forthcoming narrative history of New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and of Lena (Texas Tech University Press), winner of the 2017 Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry.

WORDS ON LOAN

Dear Readers,

In exactly one week, I will be turning over my manuscript on the history of Bayou St. John to the publisher. You might be able to imagine the brain-fry that’s happening over here in order to make this deadline. The marathon stints of revising and citing and formatting have left me a little….blank. As in, I’m dreaming about the bayou—about writing about the bayou, in particular—but when it comes to crafting a short, interesting piece on some bayou anecdote: I’m coming up a little dry (no pun intended!).

Then I remembered a post I’d started and abandoned a few months ago. It quoted a Times-Picayune  article featuring some of the most flowery language I’d ever heard in my life (appropriate to the 1890s). But I had forgotten to cite which article this was, and instead of digging through my copious notes, I decided to run a search by homing in on particular words in the article and searching for it in the database. It wasn’t hard to find unique words: hmmm…how about “bayou st john” and “sluggish,” or “bayou st john” and “flat-chested.” I finally found it, after coming across ads to fix a “sluggish” liver, and ads (beginning in the 1920s) for various breast augmentation solutions.

Without further ado, here is a bit of poetry to brighten your day. It will brighten your day because it’s absolutely ridiculous, typifying the romantic language (not to mention values) that defined the period. At the moment this article was written, City Park was experiencing a renaissance after decades of ad hoc development punctuated by years of neglect. Within thirty years, it would largely resemble the City Park we know and love.

“Lying between Canal street and Esplanade avenue, with the city cemeteries pressing close on one hand, with the sweet, sunlit spaces and gabled roofs of the old soldiers’ home on the other, with the cypress swamps of the lakeshore trooping up to the line fence like a horde of curious aborigines, with the bayou St. John [sic] and its sleepy sloops protecting it like a moat of old, with here and there a quaint Creole home close to its limits, the city park lies like a fallow field that will readily become a place of great beauty.

It is situated on a ridge as if here the flat-chested earth was swelled into a gentle mound. Across its width creeps the sluggish brown bayou Solage [sic], all choked with sedges and set like an illuminated missal with purple flag flowers and the delicate Holy Ghost lilies that flutter on their pale stalks like the ghosts of dead white butterflies chained to earth for their sins.

The greening grass wears here and there a delicate broidery of daisies, and the rough, seamed roots of thorn and oak are festooned with the pale grace of the southern wild violet, more lovely than any other in color. In the far corners heaps of blackberry vines shine like free skies set with white stars.” [1]

Did you catch the horde of curious aborigines part? Or the dead butterflies chained to earth for their sins? This thing reads like a bad creative writing exercise. But thank you, Catharine Cole, for loaning us some words—perhaps more than we needed—since I’m fresh out!

 

 

1. “New Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden.” Times-Picayune, 13 Mar. 1892, p. 20. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-1228BBD6E62774C0@2412171-122671E8E84CFC70@19-1241C360DC863233@New Orleans City Park. A Bit of History as to What it Was in Olden?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 30 May 2017.

ENERGY AND HISTORY

This week, in light of the intense controversy the slated removal of the city’s Confederate monuments has invoked, I thought I would excerpt a previous post that seems relevant to the discussion, as well as include a few compelling images from past and present.

As anyone who has been paying attention is well aware, the statue of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, perched between the bayou and the entrance to City Park, is one of the monuments that will be removed in the near future. Given the high emotions surrounding this decision, I couldn’t help but think of the history of this particular intersection—both its political and geological history.

From my previous post about the roiling energy of this particular intersection, with some current commentary woven through:

“Around where the Bayou St. John meets Esplanade Avenue, near the entrance to City Park: this place is its own ‘energetic system’….The phenomena, geological and historical, that have unfolded at this location over the last few thousand years have charged it up so much that next time you’re there—crossing over the bridge to go to the NOMA, for example—you might be able to feel it. [Oh boy, that’s truer today than ever!] Let me give you the briefest of brief histories about this particular spot.

Before the Mississippi River swung toward its current path 700 years ago, a main arm of the river flowed west to east from present-day Kenner, through the heart of New Orleans, out to present-day New Orleans East.

They call this, among other similar names, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary. This former limb of the Mississippi River is crucial to our tale. For one thing, it built up the relatively high, well-drained Metairie-Gentilly ridge system…. It also spawned (gasp!) the bayou itself! Near where modern-day Esplanade Avenue nears City Park, this former distributary meandered…sharply. No one quite knows why it did, but we do know that in the process of meandering it sent yet another distributary southward (a body of water simply called the Unknown Bayou, that would eventually form Esplanade Ridge) and another, smaller distributary northward, toward the lake (the Bayou St. John!). For some inexplicable reason, the Metairie-Sauvage distributary split into three, irregular fingers at this location—and thank goodness it did!  [1]

Here’s another theory about the bayou’s birth, since what I’ve explained above is not 100% certain: it’s possible that after the Mississippi chose its current path 700 years ago and the Metairie-Sauvage course was abandoned—becoming a sluggish bayou in the process—the Bayou St. John formed as a drainage conduit for this larger bayou. At a weak point in the natural levee (around where present-day Esplanade nears City Park!) the Metairie-Sauvage flood waters crevassed and flowed toward the lake, a process that would repeat itself until the bayou was gouged permanently into the landscape. It’s possible, indeed probable, that the formation of the bayou is a combination of these theories—a drainage conduit throughout the millennia, if you will.

Either way you slice it, this spot—near where City Park Avenue meets Carrollton at Moss, near the roundabout with P.G.T. Beauregard at its center, near where the bridge spans the bayou and oak-lined Esplanade begins—has seen a lot of prehistoric action. Water trickling, gushing, overflowing, bifurcating—to the north, to the southeast, to the east. Water heaping up and creeping through. It’s seen a lot of historic action as well.…”

Yes, yes it has. And it’s watching history unfold as we speak!

postcard courtesy of Bayou St. John resident Bill Abbott

 

photo by Simi Kang.

 

photo by Simi Kang.

 

 

1. Richard Campanella, Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, 2008) 77-78.

LENA LAUNCH READING!

On May 11th, at 7pm, join me in celebrating the release of my first poetry collection, Lena. The launch reading, during which local poet and friend Ben Aleshire will also be sharing his words, will be hosted by Antenna’s Room 220 at Saturn Bar. I would love to see you there!

RECLINING MERMAIDS AND STOLEN PLANES

While combing through 150 years of Times-Picayune articles that mention Bayou St. John, I have learned of countless strange objects discovered in its murky “depths.” This week, I thought it would be fun to compile just a few. What do a locked safe, an unearthed coffin, a “nude stripper,” a stolen airplane, and a mermaid have in common?

In 1960, two fishermen discovered a locked safe in the bayou, and, after unsuccessfully attempting to haul it out, called the police. Last we heard of this safe, it was traveling in a “tow wagon” to the police station, at which point the police were going to attempt to find out who it belonged to. [1]

In an article from 1974, we find a comical photo of a naked man (buttocks to the camera) near the Magnolia Bridge. In front of him, thigh-deep in the water, a patient-faced, bespectacled man appears to be attempting to convince the naked man of something. Meanwhile, two police officers appear to be trying to pull the naked man from the water from behind with pieces of…string. On the bridge, onlookers crane their necks to get a better look. The caption reads: “While social worker Edward Buuens distracts a nude man who had waded into Bayou St. John, Ptn. B. B. Booth, of the New Orleans Police Dept. emergency unit prepares to pull the unidentified stripper from the cold water. The only explanation given by the man was that he was going to ‘stay in the water until I stop smoking.’” I wonder how that string tactic worked out for them…. [2]

Ok, I cheated a little bit with the unearthed coffin. It wasn’t found in the bayou so much as in someone’s front lawn who lived close to the bayou. It just had to make it into this story! In 1968, a woman called the police after spotting “a rusting metal coffin that was ornate and quite expensive” sitting on her front lawn. The police arrived and opened it, only to discover a few bits of trash and a “large funeral flower arrangement, faded and yellowed with age.” [3]

In 1975, a man claims to have spotted a mermaid in the bayou. Twice. “While many folks are preoccupied seeking something hideous like the Loch Ness Monster,” R.C. Ryan decided to put “his phantom-seeking time to better use” by searching for beautiful mermaids. If you aren’t already skeptical, consider the description of Ryan’s mermaid: “‘She was reclining languorously on the bank….She was ravishingly beautiful with her raven tresses billowing in tangled disarray and framing her peach-blossom cheeks.’” She sounds like the type of mermaid one might find in a paperback romance novel, as opposed to in the bayou, but what do I know? [4]

Lastly, in 1983, a pilot “crashed-landed a stolen, single-engine plane in Bayou St. John…leaped from the sinking craft, swam to shore, and fled in soggy clothes….” Witnesses spotted the plane “sputtering” over City Park before it veered toward the bayou where it meets the lake, clipped the crown of an oak tree, and barely missed the footbridge that once spanned the bayou near Spanish Fort before it finally crashed into the water. The plane was discovered to have been stolen from Guadalupe County Airport in Sequin, Texas, over a year earlier. [5]

 

 

  1. Times-Picayune, 30 Jun. 1960, p. 2. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  2. Times-Picayune, 14 Dec. 1974, p. 2. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  3. Times-Picayune, 15 Jan. 1968, p. 4. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  4. Times-Picayune, 12 Sep. 1975, p. 20. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.
  5. The Times-Picayune The States-Item, 16 Jun. 1983, p. 1. NewsBank. Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.

REBELS IN THE WATER

In my travels, I have heard tell of an inordinate number of cars ending up in the waters of Bayou St. John over the years. New Orleans residents may remember all the cars that searchers found submerged near Harrison Avenue when they were searching for Terrilyn Monette, who went missing back in 2013. Well it turns out cars in the bayou has been a thing since the advent of automobiles.

Consider this “wild ride” from the historic Times-Picayune database:

On February 23, 1958, Bobby Gray, age 18, was driving along the newly-paved Wisner Avenue near Mirabeau when supposedly his brakes failed and his car went “zigzagging crazily” for about 900 feet before plunging into Bayou St. John. As it sank to the bayou’s murky floor, to a depth of around 15 feet, Bobby rolled down his window. When he tried to swim out (he could not swim), his “trouser cuff…snagged on the handle of the sunken car’s window lift.” (EEK!)

Luckily, his 15-year-old cousin, Richard Holt, was following close behind in another car. When he saw his cousin’s car swerve into the water, he leapt out, dived in, and rescued Bobby.

Later on, the boys were taken to Charity Hospital. At this point, the article is a bit unclear: “Apparently neither of the youths was hurt in the incident about 2:30am.” Was it late at night when the accident happened? Or just late at night when they finally reported to the hospital? Did anyone check Bobby’s breaks when they pulled the car out of the water? Look, I’m glad the boys were alright, but I’m just wondering if a bit of teenage tomfoolery might have been at play here….

Also, can you imagine that murky bayou water in the dark? Or rather, illuminated by the warbled glow of submerged headlights? OMG CREEPY. NO THANK YOU. Although of course I would dive in there to save a loved one if it came to it!

Also, this: “Police said confusion arose at the scene when all three youths [the third being the driver of the second car] left the accident locale to change from their wet clothing.” A taxi driver had witnessed the accident and called the cops, and when they arrived on the scene they thought the driver was still stuck in the car. They were prepping a diver to go down and search for him when the three boys showed up.

Really? You just drove your car into the bayou and almost drowned, but you’re gonna head home and change your clothes before you go report the accident?

Maybe they were hiding their alcohol!

Did anyone think of that?!

I’m sure these “youths” learned their lesson, but still. In the pixelated photo of the boys included with the article, the two of them look like regular James Deans, leaning up against a brick wall in their denim jackets. And is that a cigarette one of them is rolling?!

I think my brain has taken over by the 1950s! I guess I’ve been “submerged” in the 1950s bayou for too long!

 

  1. Times-Picayune, 23 Feb. 1958, p. 12. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-12C117247468B7DF@2436258-12BE1FE9DC6DD045@11-12C1421E02A381B0@?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 21 Mar. 2017.

SWAGGERING SABERS AND LIGHTHOUSE KEEPERS

You all, I found my poetic-historian soulmate!

Over the past two years, I have skimmed the headlines of upwards of 10,000 Times-Picayune articles from 1837 to 1988. I have come across articles on subjects ranging from the mundane to the fantastical, and nearly every one of them was interesting in some way.

However, I have never found (nor would I have ever expected to find) a journalist whose writing voice I could relate to. After all, I’m not a journalist; a stylistic comparison has never felt relevant. What’s more, until I hit the 1970s and 1980s, most articles were noticeably (and understandably) dated.

And yet, I discovered a piece tonight called “New Orleans’ Canals Go Underground,” from February 1950, and was amazed to discover a voice with both drama and intelligence, poeticism and fact. I was riveted from beginning to end, and was even shocked to learn a new fact about the Old Basin (Carondelet) Canal I’d never come across before—something that happens less and less the more research I do, although of course one always has more to uncover. You can imagine my further delight in learning the writer was a woman (!) which was very rare up until more recent decades.

Here are a few excerpts from Diane Ferrell’s 1950 article for your reading pleasure, with a few of my comments woven in:

“Drownings, freak automobile accidents—many of these will end when the canals in New Orleans are subsurfaced. [Love that word “subsurface”! Word doesn’t even recognize it!]

“But with them an era will also close—an era which has been marked by the birth of commerce and the death of men. [Yus. What a dramatic metaphor!]

“The long period from the building of the first canal in the mid-1700s belongs to cotton-laden steamboats, Zulu kings, battles for the city’s existence, to the kids who learned to swim in the canals, to those who died in them. It belongs to the 10,000 Irishmen who were gobbled up in the disease-ridden muck of the New Basin canal.…

“Ten thousand foreigners are buried in the banks of the New Basin canal. Working in the cholera-laden swamp they dug the canal and their graves with the same hands, with the same shovels. [So dramatic! Not to mention, I’ve always wondered why slaves weren’t made to build the New Basin Canal (dug in the 1830s) like they were forced to dig the Old Basin, and Ferrell explains later in the article that they were too valuable to be sacrificed, unlike the thousands of immigrants, the “dispensable” labor, who were trying to call New Orleans home.]

“The first police force New Orleans ever had owed its saber-swaggering existence to a canal. [Wuuuut? First of all, I love this “saber-swaggering” image. Second of all, Ferrell explains later a tidbit of history I hadn’t yet come across in my research about the Old Basin: that Gov. Carondelet charged landowners for the right to use the canal to drain their plantations, and used the funds to create the city’s first police force at the end of the 1700s.]

“Twelve years ago, the dug-up gunnels [Yes! Such poetic sounds!] of an old flatboat brought to light a mystery waterway that few knew ever existed. [Wuuuut? A mystery waterway? Ferrell explains elsewhere in the article that a partial barge was unearthed beneath the intersection of St. Charles and St. Andrew back in the 1930s, the vestige of an old canal that used to trickle through the area.]

“A New Orleans canal had one of the first two women in the United States who were employed by the government as lighthouse keepers.…” [WORD! I’m fairly certain she is referring to Bayou St. John here—I remember coming across a mention of a female lighthouse keeper in another article from somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, but I hadn’t realize she was such a pioneer. More on this soon!]

Farrell closes out the riveting piece with the following: “…it is…the open canals that have mirrored our history and washed away our dead. Every time the city fills in or subsurfaces one of them—we are healing a scar, closing a chapter, covering a grave.” [Mic drop.]

 

Times-Picayune, 12 Feb. 1950, p. 148. NewsBank, infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-12B0D8D602B78CC5@2433325-12B096409BA28E03@147-12B17A511651CE34?p=AMNEWS. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

MYSTERY BOAT LADY

I stumbled across this fantastic boat lady a few months ago in my bayou travels, and I haven’t been able to get her out of my mind! She lives in Wikimedia Commons, and there is absolutely nothing known about her other than this photo, which was probably taken sometime in the 1910s.

Bayou_St_John_1910s_01-2

“Woman on boat, Bayou St. John, New Orleans, LA, circa 1910’s”; Source Flickr: bayou st.john 1910s 01; Author Greg Livaudais.

This would make sense, given the bayou’s nearly two-decades-long litigation limbo beginning in 1908. While the powers-that-be were trying to figure out who had control over the waterway—the Carondelet Canal & Navigation Company, the State, or the federal government—the bayou was basically partying non-stop. Boathouses and houseboats and pleasure craft of all shapes and sizes, including, apparently, our feline-loving mystery lady’s boat!

I wish I knew her story. I wish I knew her cat’s story.

Recently, in my travels as an educator, I was introduced to an exercise that I absolutely love. It’s a way of looking, really looking, at an image, and perhaps noticing details about it you otherwise might not have.

It goes like this: you make a list of observations about the image, and you phrase them like this:

“Look at [blank about the image].”

And then you make a list of everything not visible in the image, and you phrase it like so:

“Where is [the invisible thing]?”

As in:

—Look at the scalloped ruffle on the boat’s awning….

—Look at her smile….

—Look at the shadow of her hand across her face….

—Look at her cat’s tail draped over the arm of the chair….

—Look at the wicker furniture….

—Look at the word “restaurant” behind her….

—Look at the rope attached to the boat….

—Look at her cap….

—Look at her long coat….

—Look at the wharves on the opposite bank….

—Look at the white poles holding up the awning….

—Look at the tiny man sitting on the porch of the restaurant, also wearing a hat….

And then:

—Where are the other boats?

—Where are the objects the rope is attached to?

—Where is the bayou’s other bank?

—Where is the name of the boat?

—Where is the lady’s husband/daughter/son/mother/father/lover/friend?

—Where is the boat’s motor?

—Where is the cat food?

You get the idea! If you need me, I’ll just be over here staring at this poor-quality photo, trying to guess at this lady’s story, and making whimsical lists. I love her smile, her relaxed manner, and her chubby cat, even if don’t know the first thing about her. Please add to these lists below if you feel so inclined!

BAYOU ST. JOHN: ACTING UP AGAIN

“Water hyacinths blocking a steam boat on a bayou in Louisiana in 1920.” October 25, 1920, photo from Louisiana Works Progress Administration collection.

 

In writing a recent post on fish in the bayou, I learned a bit about the decision to intermittently reopen, back in 2014, the lock separating the waters of Bayou St. John from those of Lake Pontchartrain. But apparently this most recent debate on a stagnant and unhealthy bayou was not the first of its kind—not at all!

I still have some research to do on the construction of the lock at Robert E. Lee, decisions surrounding bayou health over the course of the 20th century, etc. But until I have all the answers, here are some interesting tidbits on our troublesome friend:

In 1952, a Times-Picayune headline claimed: “Bayou St John Acting Up Again: Surface Scum Permeating Area with Bad Odor.” A caption beneath a photo of the weed-choked bayou read: “Malodorous Stuff Blankets Water Near City Park Entrance.” I’ve decided we don’t use the word “malodorous” enough anymore…. let’s resurrect it (just in time for Mardi Gras)!

The article goes on to explain: “Members of the Bayou St. John Improvement Association reported Friday that scum forming on the surface of the bayou has permeated the area with a gagging smell….” Public Buildings and Parks Commissioner Victor H. Schiro noted that this phenomenon was certainly not isolated (“‘We have [this] trouble every year…’”) nor was it a small problem: “‘All week we’ve had a crew of six to eight men collecting the scum off the water. They’ve moved six truckloads of the stuff all ready. We’ll probably be doing this for another month.’” Wow. That’s a lot of scum.

Schiro said he didn’t quite understand the phenomenon, but attributed it to vegetation growing on the bed of the bayou that, during certain times of year, rose to the surface. “‘It’s like a flower that comes to bloom,’” he said. I’m wondering if this stuff might simply have been algae, but I’m certainly no expert. More research required.

The article wraps up with a final thought from Schiro: “‘There’s not much we can do about this except to try to keep the bayou clean….Whenever we say anything about closing the bayou the people raise the devil, so we do the best we can under the circumstances.’” All around the city, open canals were being buried and covered over, including the bayou’s younger sister, the New Basin Canal. Therefore, filling in the bayou to avoid this kind of nuisance wasn’t a fanciful idea. Nonetheless, the bayou was clearly as beloved then as it is now, despite its smelly antics. [1]

One more fun fact: in 1953, they were back at it, trying to get rid of the problematic vegetation. A Times-Picayune headline read: “Bayou Clearing Work is Started, But Undergrowth’s Weight Brings Halt for Repair.” I will quickly summarize the gist of the article: a war surplus amphibious “duck,” a 2.5-ton, six-wheel “truck and barge combined, equipped with a propeller and capable of locomotion on land and water,” outfitted with a special metal basket at the end of a boom, was being used to clear the bayou of its organic mess. However, this amphibious behemoth was no match for the bayou’s impressive undergrowth. The weight of it broke the boom, and the “duck” had to be sent back to the Sewerage & Water Board for repairs. The bayou was said to have tweeted: #sorrynotsorry Don’t mess with my undergrowth, y’all! [2]

 

1. Times-Picayune 21 Jun. 1952: 6. NewsBank. Web. 7 Feb. 2017
2. Times-Picayune 23 Jul. 1953: 1. NewsBank. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

WPA PHOTO COLLECTION DETOUR

For the past few weeks, I’ve been searching for images to use in the bayou book—combing the digital holdings of the Library of Congress, the Louisiana Digital Library, the New Orleans Public Library and about a billion other institutions, not to mention desperately attempting to track down details about unattached (but often wonderful!) historic images on Wikimedia Commons and personal blogs.

In my travels, I came across a heap of digitized WPA photographs at the NOPL. The photos cover a huge variety of WPA projects unfolding all over the city in the 1930s and 40s, and many of them are fairly mundane—but a seemingly equal number are totally fascinating.

I hope everyone will forgive me if I stray a bit from the bayou in this week’s post….

The photos took me on an adventure, and I couldn’t resist!

I clicked around, and decided to present some gems I found—of women and children in particular.

 

Photo #1: June 1941, from the series entitled, simply, “Mattresses.”

The finding aid explains a bit further: “WPA workers manufactured 17,682 mattresses and quilts to be distributed to the needy during 1939.”

I love how tangible this photo feels—those slats, the piles of fabric, the aprons!

 

Photo #2 & #3: September, 1937, from a series called “Archaeoconchology.”

I know, right?! Who is this amazing woman! To whom is she calling?! So it turns out “archaeoconchology,” when entered into the Google search bar, turns up a grand total of 9 (obscure) entries. One hesitates to say it’s not a real word…. The only quasi definition I was able to turn up said it was a branch of archaeozoology.

Basically, someone was collecting some sea shells, perhaps studying them, and otherwise having this woman in her amazing dress pose with them.

Photo #4: From September 1940, from series called “Household Aide”

The finding aid explains that these photos feature a “training center for household aid workers. Photographs show Mrs. Eva Blackwell, assistant supervisor, with workers in the ‘carpentry’ shop and Mrs. Leila Schneidau teaching workers the proper care of patients.”

In this particular shot, we see what I assume is a “worker” leading a little boo into another room. This child has completely won over my heart! But what makes this photo *extra* special is what I believe is a mannikin lying in bed in the background. There were other photos of mannikin patients, so I think it’s a safe bet. Also, just look at her.…

 

Photo #5: From January, 1940, from a series called “Music.”

The following description confirms what you think you’re seeing: “Harmonica class at Robert C. Davey School, 1307 Dryades Street. Jimmy Dillon, 14, 1621 Dryades; Rita Van Court, 13, 1824 Terpsichore; Gladys Luc, 13, 908 Howard; Anna Paladino, 15, 1400 Baronne.”

Why aren’t harmonica lessons a part of music class in public schools nowadays?! What I wouldn’t give to practice my scales with my classmates at the front of the room, with that wand waving about in front of me!

What’s also wonderful is we have names and addresses for some of the students. If any readers recognize grandparents or addresses, please comment!

Next post, it’s back to the bayou—I promise! But I seriously recommend clicking around this collection at the NOPL in the meantime.

 

 

All photos from WPA Photograph Collection, Louisiana Division, New Orleans Public Library.

1. Mattresses, 27.03 “Matress Making Project,” 6/12/1941, #10.

2 & 3. Archaeoconchology, 04.02 , “Shell Project Story at the Louisiana State Museum,” 9/29/1937, #7 & #8.

4. Household Aide, 22.01, 9/18/1940, #10.

5.  Music, 30.07, “Federal Music Project,” 1/10/1940, #1.