Wednesday, November 23, 2011
The house on Geronimo Street
In my mind's eye, I still see the tidy little house on Geronimo Street in north Baton Rouge -- the front yard planted thick with flower beds, and the flower beds planted thick with "elephant ears," and a birdbath sitting in the middle of it all.
I can see the little living room, decorated in early Catholic. The little dining room, used more as a pantry and usually dark, with the refrigerator straight ahead as you walk in the door. Inside the fridge, Chek colas from Winn-Dixie (correctly pronounced WinnandDixie). Inside the freezer, 3 Musketeers bars for the young'uns to have with their Chek colas.
Back in the living room of 3439 Geronimo, there are a couple of 1950's couches, a big cabinet-style gas space heater, a Silvertone color TV with a rounded screen, and a white upholstered rocking chair where my elderly grandma watches her "stories."
It's about 1971, give or take.
North Baton Rouge was solidly working class, intractably on the "wrong side of the tracks," and the home of "those people," as my kinfolk and their confreres were known by the middle-class swells on the right side of the tracks. Four decades ago, it always seemed to me that the "wrong side of the tracks" was a pretty comfortable place to be -- tidy, homey, down to earth and comfortable like an old shoe.
ON SCENIC HIGHWAY -- which wasn't, really -- you had the Esso refinery (which everybody still called Humble Oil or Standard Oil), any number of chemical plants, and the Ethyl refinery, too. These gave north Baton Rouge its daily bread . . . and a lungful of complex-hydrocarbon je ne sais quoi.
When I was really little, I used to say "it smells like Grandma." Not that Grandma smelled like complex-hydrocarbons with subtle tetraethyl-lead overtones, of course -- it's just that every time over the tracks and down Winbourne to Grandmother's house we went, that was the snoutful I got.
Grandmother's house actually was Aunt Sybil's and Uncle Jimmy's. Aunt Sybil worked at WinnandDixie, and Uncle Jimmy worked in sheet metal, but their real vocation was as family caretakers and our unofficial keepers of the Catholic faith. This chapped my fallen-away mother's ass . . . but that was her problem, not theirs.
Aunt Sybil reminded all us kids that "you got to humble yourself" before, during and after you offer it up. Uncle Jimmy, meantime, sang in the St. Anthony choir as he kept calm and carried on amid the daily blitz of the incendiary Gallic horde he married into.
They put their godchildren through Catholic school when parents could not, then they sowed the seeds of faith in my life when parents would not. The center of all this was the little house at 3439 Geronimo St., where Grandma said her prayers and watched her stories while Jesus and the apostles oversaw it all from the Last Supper painting hanging on the wall.
WHEN I was a kid, we were over there at least once a week. Daddy would bring Grandma a six-pack of Jax beer, much coffee would be drunk, everybody would watch some TV, and I'd end up falling asleep on the sofa.
A whole slew of cousins pretty much grew up in that little house, into which you could fit an amazing number of laughing, drinking, smoking and chattering relatives every Christmas Eve for the making of the gumbo. In my family, the night before Christmas was never as quiet as a mouse and always was fairly well soaked in chicken gumbo.
To this day -- at least for me and mine -- Christmas just isn't Christmas unless, first, you make a roux. All you need is flour, oil, a hot stove and the memory of a time, a place, and loved ones long gone.
Grandma died in 1973, when I was 12. That was about the same time that north Baton Rouge started to die, too. It was for the usual reasons.
Aunt Sybil and Uncle Jimmy hung on there as long as they could amid the flight of the white working class -- which was fueled by the siren song of suburbia and fear of The Other -- and the subsequent arrival of the black underclass. Long before the decade was out, they moved east to the new working-class enclave, and the little house on Geronimo was relegated to blessed memory. I think the last straw was when someone crapped on their sidewalk.
The racial Unwelcome Wagon, ironically, is an equal-opportunity despoiler.
SOON ENOUGH, Geronimo Street -- the whole "wrong side of the tracks" expanse of north Baton Rouge -- hardly could be described as tidy, homey, down to earth or comfortable like an old shoe. To be brutally honest, it now was the 'hood, with all that entailed. It seemed as if folks like me and mine were about as welcome in our old stomping grounds as they and theirs were in white-flight land.
Baton Rouge is nothing if not a tale of two cities -- segregated suburban sprawl and "Oh, sweet Jesus!"
And the powers that be in my hometown are more than happy to let Oh, Sweet Jesusland go to the devil. Which it has. Because no one cares.
Above you see what's left of the little house at 3439 Geronimo -- it has become a metaphor for the dysfunction of a city and its sins of omission.
A nasty metaphor has replaced the flower beds, the house and a way of life. Fortunately, metaphor is no match for blessed memory and the love that once lived at 3439 Geronimo St.
For that, I give thanks.