I’ve never seen the Lobby Lounge as crowded as it was last Friday afternoon. The night before, a streak (which is what a group of tigers is called) of Louisiana State University fans descended upon The Pfister and other local hotels, eating and drinking their way to Saturday morning’s mass bus ride to Lambeau Field. They filled every chair, many of which were pulled together so what looked whole extended families could gather. Once they’d staked their territories, purple and gold tigers roamed from one oasis to another. No one seemed stuck in one place, and no one seemed to be without a drink. The piano could barely be heard over the laughter, clinking glasses, high fives, and shouts across the lounge to new arrivals. I was able to squeeze in at the bar–the bartenders and the servers were working double-time to accommodate everyone–but before I was able to order a drink for myself, I heard a woman with an LSU logo on her shirt tell Thomas that she was going to escape the din for a smoke. I introduced myself, decided to wait on my drink, grabbed my notebook, and followed her as she sauntered across the lobby, refreshed vodka tonic in hand.
The Badgers, of course, beat the Tigers 16-14, but my guess is that this defeat did not break the spirits of the die-hard LSU fans. Because what I learned from Karen (names have been changed), and later her husband Teddy, is that deeper than tailgating is blood. From the way they described it, tailgating actually might be in their blood (“It’s part of our culture, which is a connection we have with you here in Wisconsin,” Teddy would tell me), but so, too, is a culture of self-sufficiency, generosity, and magnanimity.
“I came to Milwaukee to escape the total shit at home.”
Karen wasn’t one to mince words. We sat together on a bench in the courtyard outside the Hotel. “This is perfect weather,” she sighed pleasantly. It was indeed a comfortable 75. “Back home in Baton Rouge, it’s 95 degrees and 95% humidity.” Her oversized shirt, with an open and popped collar, sporting a bold LSU logo, gleamed white in the sunlight. She removed a cigarette from her purse, but didn’t light it. Instead, she placed a hand on my arm, leaned in, and said, “We were just recovering from the police shootings and racial tension, you know. Then the flooding happened.”
She was referring, of course, to the officer-involved shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge on July 5. The next day, Philando Castille was killed by an officer in Minnesota and protests erupted around the country, followed by the shooting of five police officers in Dallas on July 7. Then, on July 17, a gunman shot six police officers in Baton Rouge, killing three of them. The rains that hit southern Louisiana about a month later could have been poetically cleansing, but instead they dumped over two feet of rain over two days, in what has been described as “the worst disaster in the U.S. since Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012,” damaging more than 55,000 houses, 80% of which lacked flood insurance, more than 6,000 businesses, and about 30 state roads.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” Karen said. “This is three times worse than Katrina. Noah wasn’t even prepared for it. The rain filled up all the streams, rivers, and bayous–and then had nowhere to go.” She realizes that what happened in New Orleans was different, of course–80% of the city and nearby parishes were flooded–but remarked that the August rain was so “unexpected” and that it “hit everyone, not one specific race or class. It hit the upper class, the lower class, and everyone in between.”
Karen was sad that the summer had seen so much destruction. She lit her cigarette finally and sipped her vodka. “We’re all equal,” she repeated multiple times when reflecting on the destroyed lives and flooded homes. “Whether we’re black, white, orange, purple.” Inside, her husband and other relatives would reiterate this belief.
As we talked, a man who had been drinking a beer across the courtyard stumbled over and asked for some money for the bus, then changed his mind and settled for a cigarette. Karen offered him hers, barely touched, but he indicated that he had hoped for a fresh one. Unfazed instead of offended, she brought out two from her purse, plus her lighter. Yes, she was encouraging a bad habit, but she did it graciously, I thought. After he left, she sighed and said, “You just have to believe it’s all going to work out. It’s gonna fix itself–by the grace of God–or we’re going to kill ourselves.” I wondered out loud how much believing things will change would actually change anything–and whether the problems that both her city and Milwaukee were sharing (she, of course, knew the name of Sherman Park from the nightly news) could actually fix themselves. I wondered whether even God could. “The right people have to stand up,” she clarified.
“But who are those people?” I wondered again.
“Maybe that’s you and me. But they’re going to be a lot of ‘wrongs’ that’re going to try.” I agreed, and we agreed to try to be those “right people” who stand up.
She added, looking up to the sun, “There’s always going to be sunshine after the bad storm.” She finished her cigarette and picked up her vodka.
Inside, it took only a few seconds after she let everyone know where she’d been for the past half hour for me to join one of those circles of chairs. Her husband and daughter, the daughter’s husband, his parents (who were staying with Karen and Teddy because their house had been flooded), other family members and friends–about a dozen in all–had commandeered the couches in front of the fireplace. “So you’re a writer?” They all found this awfully interesting and jockeyed for my attention immediately. The winners? Teddy sat to my right sipping a Glenfiddich (I don’t think it was his first), to my left his son-in-law Ryan looked over my shoulder at what I was writing (“You wrote all that already?”), Karen stood in front of me, and Ryan’s wife Mary settled for popping in every once in awhile with a funny remark or helpful clarification. Teddy was clearly the star of this show, however, and kept talking even when Karen, Ryan, and Mary were talking into my other three ears.
I say this in jest, of course, because I really was having a good time (helped, I’ll admit, by the whiskey Karen had fetched for me). Teddy wanted me to know what had happened with the floods–and ultimately what it meant to be a Louisianan.
The first thing he wanted to make clear is that “Baton Rouge is mainly blue collar, with all the chemical plants especially. But it’s mixed, too. We’re all regular people, though, with house payments, car payments.” I started writing in my notebook again, Ryan craning his neck. “So imagine this: for the first six to eight days, we were going into people’s houses, cutting through drywall and sheetrock, piling everything, all their belongings, in the yards and streets. I saw hundreds of people coming out of subdivisions like my brother’s–all these people. No one’s living in their own houses. It’s going to take one to two years to fix this. So many people are going to let their houses go back to the bank.”
Just as his wife had done, he recalled Hurricane Katrina and it’s destruction: “With Katrina, so many of the people affected–and I don’t want to get political–were poor. They were the people the federal government told to sit tight. ‘We’ll help you.’ And then the levees broke.” But he was quick to remind me how people helped each other: “Back then and this time, I went down with my boat, pulling people out. That’s what we call the ‘Cajun Navy’–thousands of people with boats and back tows helping people out. In southern Louisiana, people care about each other. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white.”
Teddy assured me, “But they’ll come back. I’m not worried about southern Louisiana. It’s a part of our Cajun culture.” In between sips of scotch, he would reference “Cajun culture” many times. When I asked him what he meant by “culture,” he started singing (then Ryan and his father started singing, heck, I started singing): “Hey, you get down the fiddle and you get down the bow, / kick off your shoes and throw ’em on the floor, / dance in the kitchen till the morning light: / Louisiana Saturday night.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” bellowed Teddy. He added: “You can tell we like to drink, huh?”
I suspected, however, that by “culture” he meant something a little more than a “one-eyed dog” and “yonder kinfolk,” “bellies full of beer” and “possums in sacks” (the next two stanzas of Mel McDaniel’s often re-released 1981 hit “Louisiana Saturday Night“). Teddy smiled and added, “When people came from Newfoundland–that’s where the Cajuns came from–and got down to the south, they were starving. So the first person who decided to catch and cook a bunch of crawfish for his family–that’s when Cajun culture was born. We depend on ourselves and each other. That’s our heart and soul. So it doesn’t matter if the federal government sends us assistance. We’re going to get out of this.”
Bryan chimed in–“The enemy of excellence is complacency”–as he held up his Hyundai wristband (he owns a dealership) that said “No negativity allowed.” Mary photobombed. More drinking ensued, even as everyone started packing up to go to dinner.
Before I left, amid handshakes (and many high fives and hugs from non-complacent Bryan), Karen and Mary pulled me in and told me a secret: “The ‘U’ in Louisiana stands for ‘I will help you first,’ and the ‘I’ stands for ‘I‘ll take care of myself later.’ Make sure you write that down.”
What about the ‘O’? Mary had a quick response: “The ‘O’? How about ‘You always owe someone something to give.'”
I told them I thought they were making that up. “Of course we’re making that up! But it’s true, too.”
I think that if I ever visit Baton Rouge, I just may believe that lie, too.
NOTE: 10 percent of September 2-3 food and beverage sales in the Lobby Lounge and in Blu was donated to the Red Cross Louisiana Flood Relief Fund.