Betty Vine: The Boot At The Bottom (memoir)
Southern Legitimacy Statement: There’s nothing dirty in that dictum, “Pinch the tail and suck the head.” Like other South Louisiana creatures, I’ve got a hard exoskeleton and a spicy interior that—although it takes some elbow grease to access—will leave you licking your lips and slappin’ ya mama.
The Boot at the Bottom
The Lower Ninth Ward was a ghost town, a raunchy study in “ruins porn.” Malevolent vines crept over and through the derelict structures, blanketing the badges of suffering: spray-painted death tolls, cloudy high-water flood lines, half-buried domestic artifacts. But raucous anticipation overshadowed the debris; the cratered streets trembled with palpable excitement. For the first time in history, the Saints had made it to the Super Bowl. And tonight was the night: a broken community – scattered haphazardly around the country in a wet exodus – prayed desperately for victory.
This was the team once branded “The Aint’s” after countless pitiful seasons; these were the fans that once shrouded their heads in paper bags. Though I never cared much for football, I jumped on the “Who Dat” bandwagon when it became clear that this season was different. When that final scoreboard read, “31-17,” our people wept. A villainous harpy named Katrina was not yet five years dead, but for a night, we danced gleefully on her grave.
I was an undergraduate at LSU at the time, and hyper-focused on my schoolwork. So after the climactic moment of victory, I declined my friends’ invitation to accompany them to the French Quarter. I saw footage of the scene, though. Bourbon Street was asphyxiated by black and gold; fans were crushed together like empty aluminum cans. I could taste their boozy sweat through my television screen.
As my friends rounded a corner, laughing and spilling precious drops of sour Hand Grenades, it happened: a groan and a gurgle, neon lights reflected in a flash of metal, hot blood pooling at their feet. In the midst of the uproarious celebration, they witnessed a gruesome stabbing.
The details are fuzzy, memories compromised by liquor and the passage of time. And at this point, the details are irrelevant. This scene is like countless others. It is a snapshot that evokes the existential contradictions inherent in Louisiana’s culture. It is not at all unusual that merriment should be besmirched by violence. Treacherous and unexpected dualities are the modus opperande of my home state.
Louisiana is rich in so many meaningful ways, but it is also a fundamentally backwards place. Corruption plagues governmental systems everywhere, but Louisiana is virtually synonymous with political exploitation. Four-term governor Edwin Edwards is the most notable example in recent history: after serving eight years in federal prison on racketeering charges, he ran for Congress at the ripe old age of 87. Perhaps it indicates some small semblance of progress that he lost in the runoff. Now, he leads a quiet life alongside his big-haired wife – who is 50 years his junior – and his precious toddler (first introduced to the world during their short-lived reality show). You can’t make this shit up.
Former senator (and recently defeated gubernatorial candidate) David Vitter gives Edwards a run for his money, at least in terms of hypocrisy. Those oft-repeated but ill-defined “family values” – usually touted as justification for the denial of civil rights and the consumption of Chick-Fil-A – are Vitter’s calling card. He maintains this moralistic orientation even after being linked to sex workers.
I can’t even begin to comment on Bobby Jindal’s legacy of destruction. I will simply say that he shall henceforth be known as He Who Must Not Be Named.
These men – such beacons of virtue and grace – are, sadly, the least of Louisiana’s problems. Chief among them is our perverse penal system. You may have heard that my home state is the prison capital of the world. Indeed, more of our citizens are imprisoned (per capita) than in any region of the world – more than in even China and Iran. The reason for this egregious claim to fame? All together now: money money money money, MONEY! Our prisons are private, for-profit entities, “…which must be supplied with a constant influx of human beings or a $182 million industry will go bankrupt.” And a drumroll for the most iniquitous feature: “…Most prison entrepreneurs are rural sheriffs… A good portion of Louisiana law enforcement is financed with dollars legally skimmed off the top of prison operations. If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money.”
And yet, these record-setting incarceration rates have done little to abate delinquency. In fact, cities in Louisiana consistently rank near the top of murder and violent crime indices. It is not an exaggeration when I say that nearly all of my friends have been robbed at gunpoint. The fact that I have yet to piss myself while looking down the barrel of a gun makes me an exception, not the rule.
In spite of these truths, Louisiana’s charm and cultural vitality are undeniable. You need only attend one Carnival celebration to fall in love with the place – the plastic beads sprouting from tree limbs, the cloying daiquiris condensing in your hands, the oblong coffee cakes, bare breasts, bronze horns, and instant camaraderie. And the food, my god, the food… it bloats your belly, sticks to your guts, fills you up deep in your soul. And when you leave, your heart aches for one more taste of that muddy gumbo, swimming in slimy crustaceans, or that crunch of catfish between crusty bread, raining crumbs all over your lap and coating your fingers in grease. And your heartbeat pounds in tune with the LSU band as everyone screams for the team in a collective intonation, “Hot boudin, cold couche-couche, come on Tigers, push, push, push!” And everyone stands in their seats like an insubordinate kindergarten class and rushes the field and swings from the goal posts like so many monkey bars. Tomorrow you will have acute laryngitis, tinnitus, and a dislocated shoulder, but tonight you are a transcendent molecule moving and swaying with the kinetic energy of a hundred thousand purple and gold electrons, emitting exothermic heat and the brightest white noise. You are high as a kite on it all…
Until, inevitably, you crash back to Earth in a discordant clatter.
This is the oscillating rhythm that moves daily life in Louisiana: periods of insulated elation are punctuated by the sobering reality that our home is essentially broken. In this sense, Louisiana is a boot-shaped anomaly, and one is forced to continually ask: how can we reconcile our state’s deep-seated flaws with its uniquely endearing features? How can we be proud of a place that ranks in the worst ten on nearly every scale, from health to education to poverty to crime? These statistics make one want to walk around like those Saints fans of yesteryear, with a paper bag covering our faces. And yet, another statistic belies the dreary state of things: three Louisiana cities score in the top ten in a ranking of happiness across the U.S.
What a paradox. How can a place riddled with so much despair still, evidently, wear a smile? There are a few possibilities. To begin with, these findings were derived from self-reported surveys. Certainly, many participants may have lied – though if they are lying, it is more likely to themselves. This kind of optimistic delusion can serve as a protective mechanism. On the other hand, perhaps the respondents really and truly are happy. Far be it from me to tell someone that what they are feeling is not real.
But there is a deeper implication: is “happiness” really worthwhile as a singular end goal? Happiness, as a state of being, is entirely subjective and extremely ephemeral. It is an insufficient indicator of a person or a community’s emotional health. Though happiness is often conflated with wellbeing, they are fundamentally different. In fact, another study found that in terms of wellbeing, Louisiana ranked in the bottom ten. This was measured using a multidimensional approach that combined data on “…financial security, physical health, job satisfaction, environment, social connectivity and general outlook on life — among others.”
Wellbeing differs from happiness in that it is more enduring and less vulnerable to the influence of external factors. A break-up or an unexpected illness is unlikely to shake a person’s overall sense of wellbeing, though they may suffer from temporary unhappiness and discomfort.
The philosophy, “Laissez les bon temps roulez,” instructs the subscriber to seek flimsy and fleeting moments of happiness, usually at the expense of long-term wellbeing. The good times roll at full speed in a burst of epicurean indulgence, but the tire slowly leaks, and when it finally collapses in a pitiful, deflated sigh, there is no spare, no patch, and no pump.
I am not, by any means, discouraging people from living in the present moment. But as a community, we must reframe our goals to reflect the pursuit of real, sustainable wellbeing, not simply the pursuit of shallow, self-serving happiness. Then, we will have more to look forward to than the next football game or the next parade, and the temperamental roller coaster we’re strapped to will stabilize. Then, Louisiana’s charms won’t be used as recompense for its shortcomings.
Then, we could remove the paper bags from our heads, and proudly say we hail from the Boot.
roadkill go splat on the spillway
her mulatto skin so sticky
she set down for a res’
and impregnated her dinner roll with gooey gravy
“ay cher it really comin’ down in sheets out there”
grease settles in the smile lines
my god the decapods
are holy and we worship
fish with whiskers and trees with knees
bugs in love all over the windshield:
death by coitus, romeo and juliette
here we see God, tête-à-tête
in senescent oaks that stretched their legs
and sprouted beards
in the mud and clay and dirt and muck
and in the brass that black men blow
we smell something sacred in the air