MY GULF COAST LEMONADE STAND
As I drove I-10 West back to New Orleans, I gave a second wave at the Carnival Triumph before going under the Mobile Bay Tunnel. My convalescence had apparently been much shorter.
I had spent the morning packing and preparing, not leaving Jacksonville until noon. My temporary roomie worked nights so I wouldn’t arrive in time to get a key. I could get a cheap room for the night in East New Orleans, but I had a futon strapped in the bed of my truck and figured there was at least a 43.625% chance I’d wake up in the morning with it gone. Being one who always looks for lemonade recipes when plans sour, I viewed this as an opportunity to see the Mississippi Coast. I’d driven by a hundred times but had only stopped by Biloxi once a decade ago to see its lighthouse, which I read somewhere was knocked down by Katrina.
THE PASCAGULA RUN
Billy pulled in in a Jaguar, red convertible sixty-five
Headed home to Mississippi, he’d been around the world
That black sheep uncle of mine
His ship had come in, he was looking to sin
Singing his own song
When he yelled from the drive, my heart came alive
“Jimmy boy come along”
It’s time to see the world
It’s time to kiss a girl
It’s time to cross the wild meridian
Grab your bag and take a chance
Time to learn a Cajun dance
Kid you’re gonna see the morning sun
On the Pascagoula run
If you haven’t gathered, I’m a huge Parrothead. Buffett’s song “The Pascagoula Run” paints a vivid picture of an eye-opening night he spent with his wild uncle as an innocent youth. He credits this experience with beginning his transition from shy altar boy to hard partying Calypso poet. Thus, Pascagoula, MS has always held a mystic lure for me. As dusk approached, I exited the interstate at this first town on the Mississippi coast searching for oceanfront debauchery in bars habitated by rugged watermen:
Friday night at the Stateline bar
Where the waterfront people dwell
I better watch my step, if the floor caves in
I’ll go right straight to hell
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t expect the reality to live up to the legend. I’m used to disappointment with rock-n-roll mythology. I’ve driven 70 miles out of my way just to stand on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (no girl, my Lord in a flatbed Ford) and altered course to see dilapidated Allentown where they’re shutting all the factories down (it had bounced back admirably with a quaint red brick café & boutique district, but I’d come looking for squalor!) Thus I can’t say I was devastated when I passed through a blasé strip mall district on my way to a coast where stately southern mansions lined the water without a single bar or restaurant in sight. Though I doubted I’d find raucous watermen in a historically preserved dive, I figured there’d at least be a Hooters. Yet the Pascagoula beach was genteel and devoid of commercial intrusion. Night had just fallen yet nothing stirred besides a few waterfront joggers. I did pass one redneck sports bar on the way out of town but no dance floors straddling the brimstone void.
DOWN AROUND BILOXI, IF YOU CAN SEE IT
Down around Biloxi
Pretty girls are dancing in the sea
They all look like sisters in the ocean
Boy will fill his pale with salty water
And the storms will blow from off towards New Orleans
I drove past several nondescript beach towns before I reached Biloxi, apparently also a place of childhood whimsy for Buffett. This time, though, I was fully prepared for the glut of casinos choking the view. They don’t call this the Redneck Riviera for nothing. If pretty girls were dancing in the sea, you’d never know thanks to the tall, tacky buildings. After passing through a glut of neon, I was pleased to find the Bilxoi Lighthouse had been resurrected. Not that that had been much of a feat. The structure is only about 3 stories high and, unlike most short lighthouses which tend to be broad based, it is skinny and built to scale, looking more like a large birthday candle than a small lighthouse. After the storm, three dudes in Ram pickups probably wandered by, jumped out, and tipped the thing back up.
I was now searching for a room and, spotting a Shaggy’s restaurant across the road, I checked into a cheap hotel that smelled of sour towels and mildew. No worries. I immediately jogged across the road.
Shaggy’s is a Gulf Coast chain of five or six beach-style eateries I’d discovered last September in Pensacola at the Deluna music festival. The atmosphere evokes a fun and festive Caribbean vibe and the food is high quality for a beach dive. Settling at the bar with a contented sigh, I ordered a beer and chatted with locals. The kid who took my order was new and overwhelmed, but he was trying and the chaos and delay fit the island vibe. The raw oysters that finally did arrive were plump and flavorful and the horseradish pure enough to singe my nostrils. The fish sandwich that followed was so fresh it jumped off my plate and scurried back towards the sea as I chased it down. And there wasn’t a gaudy casino in sight. Life was good.
THE DANGERS OF SALT PORK IN THE SALT AIR
The next morning I continued west along the coast. I’m sure Buffett isn’t the first to romanticize these shores, but having come from Florida, I found the view uninspiring. It was nice that most development was restricted to the side of the road opposite the beach allowing you to drive along the shore, but ocean walls were evident and industrial scars frequent. Otherwise, it was just flat and featureless stretches of sand. Florida manages to create an illusion of reality with their re-nourished beaches, but this coast looked man-made.
As I drove, I searched for a café or diner with a gulf view but either locals were equally uninspired by the view or they feared that combining salt air and salty ham or bacon would create a.m. sodium overload. I traversed the entire coast and crossed Bay St. Louis, the western boundary of the Mississippi shore, with nary a breakfast spot in sight.
The town of Bay St. Louis was equally barren on the waterfront but two blocks in I found a surprisingly quaint and quirky art and café district where I had a lovely breakfast of eggs scrambled with spinach, tomato, mushrooms and goat cheese. I pounded out my article on my Florida respite in about an hour and a half while sipping a rich café au lait and then crossed into Louisiana.
STUPID RICH PEOPLE AND THEIR DAMN STOVES
I arrived to find I would be living the next two months in a shotgun style house–long, narrow New Orleans structures where all the rooms are in single-file succession, but it was in a good location. Tucked in a quaint Uptown neighborhood filled with big front porches and small, heavily vegetated front yards, I would be close to several restaurants and coffee shops and a five-minute walk from the streetcar.
Inside was a little run down, as expected, but I had plenty of space and enough furniture to survive, as I’d arrived with just my suitcase, a futon, computer, and an acoustic guitar. I would have to walk through my roommate’s bedroom to get to the kitchen, but she assured me she was rarely home anyhow. On the upside, there was a washer and dryer in a shed out back, a plus in this town. There was one quirk I had missed, however. As Nancy and I chatted about her insiders tips about the city and neighborhood, she mentioned that there were always compromises when renting in this city. That’s when she asked if she’d told me there was no stove or refrigerator in the kitchen. Nope. To get by, she had stacked two small college dorm-style refrigerators and invested in a toaster oven and two-burner hot plate. I guess kitchens with actual appliances are for the uppity N’Awlins bourgeois. It seems I’ll have to dine out frequently in the food capital of the nation. Rats!