Three hundred miles up the Mississippi River from its mouth—many parishes above New Orleans and well north of Baton Rouge—a navigation lock in the Mississippi’s right bank allows ships to drop out of the river. In evident defiance of nature, they descend as much as thirty-three feet, then go off to the west or south. This, to say the least, bespeaks a rare relationship between a river and adjacent terrain—any river, anywhere, let alone the third-ranking river on earth. The adjacent terrain is Cajun country, in a geographical sense the apex of the French Acadian world, which forms a triangle in southern Louisiana, with its base the Gulf Coast from the mouth of the Mississippi almost to Texas, its two sides converging up here near the lock—and including neither New Orleans nor Baton Rouge. The people of the local parishes (Pointe Coupee Parish, Avoyelles Parish) would call this the apex of Cajun country in every possible sense—no one more emphatically than the lockmaster, on whose face one day I noticed a spreading astonishment as he watched me remove from my pocket a red bandanna.
“You are a coonass with that red handkerchief,” he said.
A coonass being a Cajun, I threw him an appreciative smile. I told him that I always have a bandanna in my pocket, wherever I happen to be—in New York as in Maine or Louisiana, not to mention New Jersey (my home)—and sometimes the color is blue. He said, “Blue is the sign of a Yankee. But that red handkerchief—with that, you are pure coonass.” The lockmaster wore a white hard hat above his creased and deeply tanned face, his full but not overloaded frame. The nameplate on his desk said rabalais.
The navigation lock is not a formal place. When I first met Rabalais, six months before, he was sitting with his staff at 10 a.m. eating homemade bread, macaroni and cheese, and a mound of rice that was concealed beneath what he called “smoked old-chicken gravy.” He said, “Get yourself a plate of that.” As I went somewhat heavily for the old chicken, Rabalais said to the others, “He’s pure coonass. I knew it.”