Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Lost in Lafayette

Flag of Acadiana. Source: Google Images.
LAFAYETTE – I was bored out of my wits last Saturday and wanted to get outside. So I got in my car and made a visit to the heart of Cajun Country – Lafayette, Louisiana.

For those unfamiliar with Southern Louisiana, Lafayette is located along Interstate 10 near the midpoint between Lake Charles and Baton Rouge. It’s the largest city in Louisiana’s Acadiana region, consisting of about 125,000 people, and is known for its Cajun cuisine and music.  

I had been to Lafayette several times before, mostly on business. This time, however, I didn’t make any special plans before my trip: no online research, no Trivago, no phone calls. I decided to wing it; I’d let my GPS be my guide.

I drove along I-10 East for about 90 minutes until I reached Exit 100, Ambassador Caffery Parkway.  I didn’t know who Ambassador Caffery was or why he had a parkway named in his honor. (My knowledge of Lafayette’s history might fill a shot glass.) Maybe he traveled to London in 1938 to knock some sense into Neville Chamberlain: “Good Lord, Mr. Prime Minister! Don’t go to Munich! You’ll only make an ass out of yourself, you stupid sum-bitch!”

As I merged onto the Caffery Parkway (its northern stretch is known as Alex Martin Road), I was greeted by a pantheon of American fast food: Taco Bell, Burger King, Wendy’s, Whataburger, and that syrupy Southern staple, Waffle House. I wondered if Alex Martin was Caffery’s aide. Maybe he went to London with him and they both got drunk with Winston Churchill later that night.

I passed billboards for Hooter’s and LouisianaSingles.com. I also passed several gas stations selling unleaded fuel for $1.49 a gallon.

I followed Caffery until it merged right onto the stretch known as Johnston Street.  I pictured Johnston as Caffery’s young office lackey, an upstart who would eventually rise to become president of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I then imaged an elder Johnston at Caffery’s funeral, standing at a lectern, tall and thin with a full head of silver hair and steely blue eyes, eulogizing his former boss as America’s crystal ball Ambassador.

“If Chamberlain had only listened to our dear Ambassador Caffery,” I heard Johnston say. “Think of how different our world would be today. Well, my fellow Acadians, I believe we can all be assured that today they are both seated at that big bar in the sky, a place with an unending supply of single-malt scotch, running up a tab that will never need payment, getting completely plastered with their dear friend, Winston Churchill.”

I saw a lot of strip malls along Johnston Street; so many, in fact, that I wondered if Lafayette had a monorail system to shuttle shoppers between stores. I imaged heavily dolled-up Southern women in high heels, making their way between Dillard’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond. I saw them carrying enormous bags stuffed to the brim with the latest this and that, all paid for with their first husband’s oil money. “Heavens, these bags are heavier than my mother-in-law’s mascara! When will they EVER get that monorail up and running?”

It wasn’t long before Johnston’s business district ended. Civilization seemed to end, too. Lafayette had suddenly turned rural on me, and I needed a men’s room. I pulled over and got out my GPS; I knew there was a Barnes & Noble in Lafayette, and I wanted to poke around in there anyway. (In Lake Charles there’s Books-A-Million, where you can buy any book you want so long as it’s the Bible, a Stephen King novel, or a trashy romance featuring Fabio’s stunt double on the cover.)

I spent about 20 minutes in Barnes & Noble, skimming slick travel magazines to see where the other half had been lately: Switzerland, Lisbon, Costa Rica, Botswana, Las Vegas, to name a few. Lafayette isn’t in that league of destinations, but it was the one I chose to visit on a early Saturday afternoon. Lafayette would have to do.

When I returned to my car I was ready for lunch. I was in the heart of Cajun Country and I wanted authentic Cajun food. My GPS searched for a moment and called up the perfect match: Tony’s Cajun Delight on Foreman Street. Visions of crawfish étouffée danced in my head.

My GPS directed me to stay on Johnston and turn right onto Dulles Drive.  When I entered Dulles, I found myself on a thickly-settled street flanked by single-story brick homes with carports. I also found myself negotiating huge speed bumps every 30 feet or so. As I cleared the last one, I could’ve sworn I heard the ghost of John Foster Dulles laughing at me. I ignored him. Maybe he’s just half in the bag with Caffery, Chamberlain and Churchill, I thought.

I turned left onto Foreman Street and arrived at Tony’s Cajun Delight, or what once stood as Tony’s Cajun Delight. Apparently, Tony had skipped town long before my arrival. All he had to offer me were two abandoned buildings with blacked-out windows and an empty parking lot. Next door stood a small eatery called The Crawfish Pot, but it was closed. I was dismayed. I settled for the number two meal at Whataburger.

After lunch, I decided to search for a true Lafayette experience. I returned to my GPS and discovered the Acadiana Farmer’s Market. Perfect, I thought – real people shopping for real food. I had brought my camera, too. Maybe I’d snap a few photos of Lafayette’s locals, keeping it real at the Farmer’s Market. I then noticed that it too was on Foreman Street. I imagined John Foster Dulles beckoning me to the bar.

When I got to the intersection of Dulles and Foreman, I noticed the checkered flag on my GPS screen seemed very close to Tony’s Cajun Delight. Maybe it’s just up the road a bit, I thought. Again, I turned left onto Foreman and immediately my GPS announced: “Arriving at Acadiana Farmer’s Market on left.”

She lied to me. I didn’t arrive at the Acadiana Farmer's Market. I was back in the parking lot in front of Tony’s Cajun Delight. I sat in my car wondering if Tony and I had met in a previous life, a paranormal paisano, reaching out to me from the great beyond with his latest college prank.

That was enough for me. My trip to Lafayette was a failure. My 90-minute voyage had spawned nothing but a visit to a Barnes & Noble and its men’s room, lunch at a Whataburger, and an empty building that looked as if it had changed business owners more times than Edwin Edwards’ appearances in divorce court.

Although my patience had reached empty, I still had a half tank of gas. I got onto I-10 West and headed back to Lake Charles. I left Lafayette disappointed, but I wasn’t alone. In my mind’s eye I saw John Foster Dulles, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, and a Louisiana Ambassador named Jefferson Caffery, all seated at that big bar in the sky, grinning at my folly, raising a scotch to me in my honor.

(For the record, Jefferson Caffery was U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Columbia, Cuba, Brazil, France, and Egypt, a distinguished career the spanned from 1926 to 1955. I don’t know if he ever got drunk with Winston Churchill or called Neville Chamberlain a stupid, sum-bitch, but it was fun thinking that he had.)




2 comments:

  1. Too bad, Frank. Lafayette is a great city, but you have to hunt for the greatness sometimes! If you ever get down to Franklin, there's a statue of Donelson Caffery in front of the courthouse--Uncivil War soldier, plantation owner and U.S. senator.

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  2. Lafayette is a great city. Breaux Bridge, too. Next time I'm going to have a game plan before I go.

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