Arriving in Lafayette, I am immediately enveloped in a warm humidity and the chirring of cicadas. It brings me back to the Maryland woods where I grew up, sweaty summer nights buzzing with activity, alive with creatures great and small.
From the airport, I phone a cab, and ten minutes later it arrives. It’s a low-tech setup: no meters running on the dashboard, but the rates determined by the dispatch operator, and Thomas, the driver, is more than happy to double up on passengers. Thomas takes us through downtown, somewhat slow and quiet at 9pm on a Wednesday, and he points out the best burger joint in town. He lets me in on the fact that while the country looks to New Orleans as the beacon of this region, in fact it’s Lafayette that holds the culture. Especially in the last few years, the population has increased by over 100,000 people, due in large part to the emigration of New Orleanians after Katrina’s destruction. The city has gained (and curated, I suspect) a reputation for incredible food and music, offering itself up as the true cultural center of Louisiana.
I ask Thomas whether it would be safe for me to take a walk tonight. He points out that I’ll be nearby the college, that lots of folks walk to and from the bars, and that as long as I’m careful and don’t stay out too late, I should be fine. He claims that the crime rate in Lafayette is surprisingly low, almost zero. That’s surprising to me, given the awful reputation of New Orleans, just a two-hour drive east.
We arrive at my home for the month: a modest studio apartment build atop a garage, in a quiet area near downtown and the college. The room is comfortable, with a hint of rustic-country-cabin feel. I unpack my bags slowly, savoring the feel of moving into a new residence, if even for a month. I find a place for everything, and then take a walk.
Jefferson Street makes a gentle curve around downtown Lafayette, and I’m only a block off it, so I stroll north towards the strip where Thomas earlier pointed out the various restaurants and bars. It’s now 10pm, a strange new city, and I’m walking. The old street sense, honed as a teenager exploring sketchy neighborhoods of DC, kicks in: I walk purposely, taking quick glances down alleys and alcoves. There’s no one around, save a few college students walking to a pub, and a police car idling in an abandoned parking lot. I keep my eyes ahead.
I head to a tavern I found listed online, but a different place strikes my eye: a rambling compound of walls & roofs that calls itself the Artmosphere. Inside, it’s PBR and mustaches and ironic eyeglasses. Maybe it’s not surprising that within an hour of my being in this southern city, I find myself in a bar that could easily be anywhere in Portland. I order a local beer (one of several) and a plate of pasta, and settle in to watch the singer-songwriter croon earnestly from the stage.
Besides me, the only other people over thirty in this place are two fellows sitting at a nearby table. They’re clearly not hipsters, and indeed, when I introduce myself, it turns out they are here in Lafayette working for a few days. JT is from Texas, and Jim’s from Tennessee, with an accent to match. He’s got amazing soft eyes and a constant smile through bad teeth, but is wobbling a bit, drunk I assume. Later I realize he’s probably mildly retarded. JT is kind to Jim, like a brother, letting Jim vent and ramble, but taking it in stride. He puts his hand on Jim’s shoulder, calming him.
We watch the singer play another set, and talk. With that weird intimacy that only happens with strangers, we’re rolling through philosophy and theories of living, dabbling in sports and music, thoughts on the relative strengths of cannabis, tall tales of travel, and the finer points of the continuing American racism. Mostly it’s JT and I talking; Jim stays silent, occasionally acting the surrealist court jester by throwing in an absurd non sequitor.
Walking home, I find the police that were previously idling are now having a much more active night. One lane of Jefferson Street is blocked off by a a barricade and a cruiser’s flashing lights. I avoid the situation, and take a side street, which turns out to be crowded with several more police cars. Yet, inexplicably, folks are just hanging out, apparently ignoring the police. I think of what Thomas said — that there’s almost no crime here — and wonder whether this is just a normal Wednesday night: the police called out, over-reacting by blocking roads, and the young partiers generally ignoring the cops, if anything treating the flashing lights as landmarks, marking the most interesting places to be.
‘Hey, mister!’ calls a girl from across the street. She rambles over to me, a short, young pixie with heavy makeup and bleached hair in a sort of 1960s bouffant. My first thought is, of course, that I have blundered into the child prostitution business of Lafayette. But in fact she is just drunk and looking for her friends, who are apparently driving around looking for her and the next bar they’re going to. I’m sure she knows more than I do about this city, me here a scant five hours, but we puzzle through street signs and phone maps, and realize that of course the place she wants to go is half a block back, flashing blue with the lights of cop cars.
She calls her friends, then passes the phone to me, and I have a short conversation with a guy who’s probably wondering who the hell his girl is hanging out with. We agree on a nearby corner, and moments later, the oh-so-cool dude whom I presumably spoke with whisks in, driving a shiny new sedan, scoops up the pixie girl, grunts his thanks, and charges off into the sultry night.