Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I’d be living in the rural south. When I say never, I really mean never. I’m a city girl whose horizon has always been shaped by buildings, never trees; secondly, I’m a Jewish girl, which means that large urban centers are the places where the majority of my people in the United States reside. Those are the top two reasons, but I can think of others like wanting to have access to museums, art galleries and a selection of restaurants and bookstores. Did I forget to mention public transportation? City people are needy. We’re not a self-sufficient lot. We have to ask people to do stuff for us. I can’t think about any one whom I grew up knowing about trimming a tree limb or repairing a tractor lawn mower for the obvious reason that we had neither.
I grew up in the Bronx, New York, lived for a spell in Chicago, Illinois, and then made my home for years in Oakland, California because it felt gritty and industrial and had a reputation for harboring renegades and revolutionaries and was close to beaches. So moving north, south, east, or west, anywhere that required a minimum drive of 20 minutes to buy a carton of milk was never within my purview. Nevertheless, here I am in Sterlington, Louisiana, located in the buckle of the Bible belt and living with a man with whom I’ve had a relationship these past five years and his daughter. The south, my friends ask. Really?
I’m trying to find my way. Everyone has been welcoming. I’ve approached the local synagogue, B’nai Israel (also known as “Jews on Bayou”), which dates back to the origins of this cotton port city. I found a library close to the house and took out a book on Cajun cooking. The sweet potato dish with apples wasn’t bad, but I failed miserably at making a roux. I whisked and whisked but the base never turned into the requisite “peanut butter” color. Maybe I need to get a cast iron pan.
There are lots of libraries. (Call me a snob, but I was fearful.) The Oauchita Parish Library branch has scheduled me to read in December from my book (“Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island”) with an emphasis on my more Jewish-based themes. It’s getting close to the holidays, and I’m representing. I thank Barbara Dunn for saying “yes” right away. Jack Heflin, Associate Poetry Professor at the University of Louisiana in Monroe, has invited me to read to his students, offering to meet at Starbucks so I don’t get lost on the way to the classroom, and Laura Weeks of Lorelei Books in Vicksburg, Mississippi who seems to know everything literary that’s going on within a 100-mile radius, has invited me back in February. Laura introduced me to the Attic Gallery that has been in operation for more than forty years. Its owner, Lesley Silver, also happens to be a Hungarian Jew like myself. She says there is an old Jewish cemetery in town and will help me find it next time around. What can I say? I discovered a long time ago that cemeteries offer a quiet place to commune with ancestors, and it’s hard to break an old habit.
I’m still learning about recreational activities. My partner took me a few weeks ago to watch dirt track racing, just five minutes from where we live along Bayou Bartholomew. I was glad to have a reason to wear my snazzy snakeskin cowboy boots that I had scored on a trip to my favorite Oakland resale shop. We bought our tickets and climbed to our seats, reminiscent of high school soccer stands, wooden and rickety. Many people had brought along their own chairs and positioned them up right up against the track railings. Kids sat around, ears covered with mufflers. I couldn’t figure out why. I found out why. Once the pack got the “green” go flag, there was lots of noise, noise of nine motors vying for first spot, shooting out along the edge and then allowing centrifugal force to shove a car back to the inside track where cars hugged the curve to block other competitors. It was thrilling. The following week I had a chance to catch motor cross races, dirt bikes leaping from ramps up to thirty feet in the air, so high I was sure the drivers were going to smash their helmets on the fluorescent light fixtures of Monroe Civic Center, flipping their bikes and bodies in the air as people sat in the stands and filmed all the moves on cell phone cameras.
Food has been more problematical. Sterlington and Monroe, which is the largest city nearby (population 49,000), isn’t New Orleans. Good thing I like to cook. Lots of fast food outlets to choose from with crunchy fried nublets of things; gas stations are stocked with corn dogs and fried chicken wings. In my wanderings, I have discovered “Restaurant Cotton” along the waterfront in the oldest section of town where Chef Cory Bahr presides over a changing menu and has won numerous awards for his cooking, including on The Food Network’s program, “Chopped.” I can say that Restaurant Cotton makes the best banana pudding I have ever tasted, custardy with a hint of rum or brandy. They serve Guinness beer on tap and I’ll be going back to sample the seafood on a frequent basis.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that I really miss baguettes and sour dough bread. But I’m trying to cut down on my carbohydrates. There’s the silver lining.