I’m sitting, staring out the window at a light but steady rain falling from a low overcast sky in Lafayette, Louisiana. This is my first time in Lafayette and I am sorry to report that I am disappointed. It’s not the dreary overcast, nor the rain exactly, although those certainly contribute to the mood. It is just the sameness of every place we visit that contributes to my ennui today.
My minds-eye is still 20/20, even if my real eyes are not anymore. Since I was a little boy I have loved to read about places. I read about Louisiana and New Orleans and the Bayou. I know what they are supposed to look like. I know what they are supposed to be. I have a vivid picture in my mind of weathered cypress-wood shacks close by the mocha-brown water with alligators sunning along the shore and a jon boat tied to a tree. I visualize a little old place which doesn’t look like much, but which has the best crawfish étouffée around and big glasses of sweet ice tea. I expect to hear voices like Justin Wilson speaking that slow syrupy cajun dialect. And I expect the soundtrack to the whole world here to be some Beausoleil song with momentum like a locomotive rolling down a track and lots of manic fiddle playing and squeezebox. Instead, when I walk down to the hotel lobby they’ve got Fox News blaring from three TVs.
Maybe there are crawdads and cajun fiddle and sweet iced tea still to be had in Lafayette. Maybe that stuff exists. I hope it does. But the dapper young man at the front desk of the Doubletree speaks clear and perfect english as if he were ready for an anchor job at WGN. Everyone I have met here so far talks like that. From my room on the 10th floor I look out over a “bayou.” And it is a real bayou, I guess, but in Illinois we would just call it a creek. It looks like the Edwards River back home except here it is less wild. It has been tamed by retaining walls to prevent shoreline erosion near the office buildings and condos along its verge. If there is an alligator hereabout he is not sunning today and really there is no place along this stretch of bayou to sun. The water flows slowly between the revetments with not a floating log or rock in sight. I think I see what might be cypress trees adjacent to the office building but they are almost certainly ornamentals planted to make the landscaping “authentic.”
Here is what I see of the “cajun capital” from my vantage point. From left to right I see two office towers that look like corporate headquarters in Naperville, a neighborhood of average looking frame houses which could have been transplanted here from Moline (nothing at all unique or southern about the architecture). I see a Wyndham Garden hotel, two cell phone towers, a billboard for Smoothie King and another for the Louisiana State Lottery (just change the word Louisiana to Illinois and you get the idea.) A busy stretch of road runs by the hotel with the exact same types of cars one sees everywhere, a preponderance of SUV’s, a helluva lot of white pickup trucks, and all vehicles late model- you just don’t see people driving rusted out clunkers anymore like you used to. Along the street opposite our hotel, in lieu of the great little étouffée place, is a Chili’s, an Outback Steakhouse, and a sushi bar (really?) bracketed by a Comfort Suites and a Fairfield Inn.
I could honestly look out the window in Cleveland or Newark or St. Louis or Minneapolis and see this same general picture on any given day of the year. We are homogenizing our country slowly but relentlessly. If there is uniqueness to be found in our melting pot nation you have to look hard for it. I have to wonder why are we so divided politically when we are all so very much alike in what we want and value and dream about. To judge by my travels around the United States, I would say that what we Americans want and value and dream about are a plate of Riblets from Appleby’s, cheap Chinese consumer products from Target, a Slushy from Kum n’Go, and, of course, good cell phone reception.
But maybe I have unreasonable expectations. What is it that I am pining for? I would like to say “authenticity,” but it’s not authenticity, exactly. Because if Americans are authentically anything in 2016 we are authentically obsessed by convenience. We genuinely want things to be easy and cheap and fast. Lafayette is as authentically American as Cleveland or Des Moines or Syracuse. What I’m looking for, admittedly, is a nostalgic or “tourist” version of America. I want a Dodge City saloon full of lawless gunslingers, bowler-hatted pi-ana players, and bartenders with big curled handlebar mustaches. When I go to Maine I want to see yellow-mackintosh-wearing lobstermen in brightly-painted little boats bobbing in the harbor, raising their traps. When I go to South Dakota I want to see an Indian wearing a war bonnet, sitting on a buffalo skin rug outside a teepee, dispensing wisdom.
But in 2016 the saloon is just a barn-board facade backed up by a metal frame building which has to meet code just like all the others. The gunslingers head off to the microbrewery after their shift is done to grab a “Long Branch Pale Ale.” The piano player “didn’t go to Juilliard for this crap.” And the bartender is bitter every time he trims and waxes his ridiculous facial hair, thinking about the the upper management job he lost when the injection molding plant closed down.
The lobsterman is sick and tired of chapped hands and this god-damned cold weather and fantasizes about moving to Boca Raton. The Indian doesn’t really have any wisdom he wants to pass on to a bunch of sun-burned nitwits from Chicago on their way to Mount Rushmore. The nitwits probably don’t want the wisdom, either, which might consist of something like “you don’t carve a !@#$%ing 60 foot sculpture of a white man’s head on our sacred mountain and we won’t build a casino in Arlington Cemetery.”
There is a reason we don’t do authentic “regional” things anymore. There is a reason we don’t tan our own leather, or make our own candles, or sew our own dresses, or slaughter our own pigs, or run a trap line, or go out in the frigid ocean in little boats to catch sea bugs anymore. It’s because we don’t have to! The truth is, most people never wanted to do those things. It may seem romantic to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and imagine Pa coming in the door after a long day of plowing behind a team of oxen and sitting down with the girls to eat dinner by candlelight before gathering around the fire to play the fiddle. In fact, writing that sentence makes me want to go back and live there. But what we have to remember is that plowing behind oxen was brutal, exhausting work. Losing your entire crop to locusts or drought was not a setback to be brushed aside by a little of Pa’s philosophy but a real, true, life-threatening catastrophe. The dinner was probably salt pork and potatoes for the 1100th time, and the reason they had to listen to Pa’s lousy fiddle-paying was because “Game of Thrones” is on HBO and the Ingalls’ only had basic cable.
I confess that I love quaint local traditions. I love antiques. I love to learn about the good-old-days. Every year we go to the Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I love to watch the antique tractors and ride the electric trolleys, and visit the log village. For a week we all steep ourselves in the old-timey ways. We watch volunteers cooking dinner over an open campfire, splitting logs with a wedge, hand cranking a Model T Ford, and cleaning clothes in a tub with a washboard. And then, you know what, we all go home and turn on the air-conditioner because, truly, washing your own clothes in a tub sucked. Hand cranking your Model T is a novelty once or twice. But there is a reason some genius invented the “self-starter’ and there is a reason that EVERY SINGLE CAR has one now.
Lafayette, Louisiana, Dodge City, Kansas, Portland, Maine, and Walnut Grove, Minnesota are not like they used to be. The people who live there have kept some of the flavor of the “old days.” Indeed, some people in these places still dress up like cowboys, play cajun music, catch lobsters, and farm the great plains. But the sad (or maybe happy) truth is that we Americans don’t want to work that hard. We don’t want to struggle and freeze and go hungry and spend our days doing endless, repetitive, subsistence work. Thanks to science and innovation and creativity we don’t have to anymore. We can enjoy our “nostalgia” because we want to, not because we have to.
We are all very alike, really, around the USA and around the world. We like many of the same things and we obsess about many of the same things, too. It is not surprising, when you think about it, that we are becoming more and more alike in terms of our culture as we share technology and communication and entertainment. This phenomenon has advanced to the point where we have to make up things to have political debate over. We are so affluent that we are running out of things to be outraged about. Well, I am outraged that I can’t find a good cajun restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I will be furious if I have to call Uber.
by: Dustin Joy