Baton Rouge Bingo

Ah, Scotty–the series that will never die.

It never ceases to amaze me the way this series has been embraced by readers, or that twenty years after turning in the first one here I am writing the ninth (or it is the eighth?) volume. It just goes to show that trying to come up with a plan for your writing career (at least in my case) is a fool’s game. Revisiting my work the way I have been recently–in part because I am writing another book in this seemingly endless series–has also reminded me of plans that have gone awry over the years; things I was trying to do with my writing and the series and the stand-alones that somehow got lost in the shuffle of trying to make a living while trying to be a writer at the same time as well as balance volunteer work, editing, and my relationship and my responsibilities around the house; and sometimes wondering if maybe I shouldn’t revisit and/or revive those plans. I’d like to get a lot of projects I’ve been thinking about for years or have in some sort of progress finished at long last before I come up with anything new–the problem, of course, being that there’s always something new poking its way out from the deep dark corners and recesses of my creative mind.

I famously said on a panel at Saints and Sinners, when asked about the potentiality of another book in the Scotty series, that if I could “think of a way to include Mike the Tiger from LSU along with Huey Long and his deduct box, I would” and of course, a few days later it struck me across the face like a bitch slap from Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce, and so I started making notes as the story started forming in my head.

I’d been wanting to write about Huey Long ever since I’d read the T. Harry Williams oral biography, Huey Long, which won every award on the planet back in the early 1950’s when it was originally published. I’d been trying to sort out fact from fiction when it came to Long for quite some time by the time someone recommended the Williams volume to me; I was very interested to find out what the actual truth about Long was, separated out from all the noise. I knew about the Kingfish from my US History text book, which devoted an entire paragraph to the “most dangerous politician in American history, the demagogue from Louisiana” without getting into much depth about his rise, what he did, and why he was so reviled.

The GPS in our brand new Explorer announced that it was about ninety miles to Baton Rouge from New Orleans when Frank punched in the coordinates into it before pulling away from the curb at the airport.

I stifled a laugh. It might only be ninety miles, but to a New Orleanian it’s like being sucked into a wormhole and winding up in another dimension.

Of course, New Orleanians are horrible snobs about the city’s suburbs, always making snarky jokes about needing shots and a passport to head over to the West Bank or out to Metairie, so it should be no surprise that we also look down our noses at the rest of Louisiana. We act like there’s no intelligent life outside of Orleans Parish; nowhere decent to eat, no art or culture to speak of, and certainly no one we’d want to associate with could possibly live out there. It’s not true, of course—but we like to pretend it is.

As my Louisiana History teacher at Jesuit High School once sniffed contemptuously, “President Jefferson offered Napoleon $10 million dollars for New Orleans, and for an extra five million he threw in the rest of the continent west of the Mississippi.”

Needless to say, this snobbish disdain for the rest of Louisiana was hardly endearing—which quite frequently means New Orleans gets screwed over by the state legislature.

So, when Frank first mentioned this trip to Baton Rouge, I reacted the way any true New Orleanian would. I scrunched up my face like I’d smelled something really awful and said, “Ew. Do we have to?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, we do, and we need to buy a new car.”

This was even more horrifying to me than going to Baton Rouge, to be honest. I hate to drive—I always have. I don’t even like riding in cars. Given the way people drive in New Orleans, it’s understandable. Most drivers in New Orleans don’t use their signals, ignore street signs and traffic laws if inconvenient, and no one here knows how to make a left turn properly at an intersection. It always amazes me that there aren’t more traffic fatalities.

As I had mentioned in my entry on Who Dat Whodunnit, I had always liked LSU; how can you not love a team that actually has a LIVE TIGER mascot? But of course I was always Auburn first then Alabama; LSU was my third favorite SEC team, and after we moved here it kept creeping closer and closer until I only rooted against LSU when they were playing Auburn, which then became I’m happy whoever wins but after Katrina? I went all in on LSU. Paul and I went to our first game in 2010, the Mississippi game, and it was incredibly exciting and I became an even bigger fan; there literally is nothing like a Saturday night in Death Valley, and remember–I’d gone to plenty of college games in my life before that experience, and I thought the Auburn-Florida game in 1993 was the biggest and most exciting game day experience I’d ever had…

…and then I went to an LSU rivalry game at night in Tiger Stadium, and no, there’s absolutely nothing like that experience, anywhere, any time. And I love Mike the Tiger. (every time I go to a game I stop by the habitat to see if he’s out in the yard so I can say hello; he’s such a beautiful animal.) Constant Reader is undoubtedly very tired of listen to me about my LSU fandom and how much I love going to games in Tiger Stadium, but there probably wouldn’t be LSU football as we know it if not for Huey Long. Huey Long turned LSU from a small-enrollment C level state university into what is today, or at least got it started. He’s the reason the stadium is shaped the way it is (he wanted to expand the stadium but there was no money in the budget for it–but there was money to build a new dorm…so he built the dormitory into the stadium. The stadium only stopped being a functioning dorm in the 1980’s or 90’s I believe, and I think there’s a plan to refurbish and reopen the dorm…so yes, Tiger Stadium is the only football stadium in the world that can also serve as a dorm…and the football stadium was used as a staging center for the evacuation of New Orleans after the Katrina flood), and he encouraged the students to raise the money to get a live tiger mascot.

When I was puzzling over how to work all of these elements into a modern-day crime novel, there was a bomb threat on the LSU campus which resulted in an evacuation of the campus. The administration made sure Mike the Tiger was secured and evacuated safely before the general evacuation call, and of course, the students who think football is over-emphasized and prioritized over the university’s primary role as an institute of higher learning (they aren’t wrong, for the record) were furious and outraged that the tiger was giving a priority over the students. I don’t blame them in the least for those horrible optics, but I also understood where Admin was coming from; it was all a part of their safety strategy, and I am sorry, when you have a live tiger habitat on your campus, you kind of have to take that into consideration. Would you want to try to evacuate a tiger during the chaos of a general campus evacuation? How many things could go wrong in that situation? (And the question of whether there should be a live tiger habitat on a college campus is certainly one that should be discussed–traditions aren’t always a good thing–but not in the midst of a chaotic situation and a threat to campus safety. And as I understand it, his team of vets and veterinary students moved very quickly and it resulted in perhaps a fifteen minute delay in the general evacuation call? And leaving him on an abandoned campus was just not an option. So I decided to start my book with Scotty and Frank heading to Baton Rouge, getting caught in the evacuation panic traffic, while Mom is currently being arrested for slapping the state Attorney General. Mike gets kidnapped during the evacuation by a rabid animal rights’ movement, and the leader of the group turns out to not only be from New Orleans but also connected to Huey Long–her grandfather worked for him, and was killed in a car accident shortly after Huey was assassinated.

And at the root of everything is the deduct box. the big strongbox of cash Huey always kept on hand to pay for “unexpected expenses” no one wanted a record of–and I even brought back a villain from the past. I also introduced a new character to the family dynamic: Taylor Rutledge, Frank’s nephew from Corinth County, Alabama (see? all of my books are connected), disowned by his religious rural Southern parents after he came out to them and comes to New Orleans to live with them (I had an eye to spinning Taylor off into his own y/a crime series, but it hasn’t happened yet).

And this book has, perhaps, one of my favorite scenes ever in a Scotty book–when he realizes the bad guys have set he and Taylor adrift at sea…and Mike the Tiger is also on the boat with them (hat tip to Life of Pi).

And having now introduced a new character to the family dynamic, I could hardly call it quits on the series after that–so I knew there was going to be yet another.

Because Scotty will never. ever go away.

Who Dat Whodunnit

Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?

I am a very proud member of Who Dat Nation, and have been since we moved here in 1996. I never really paid a lot of attention to the NFL before moving to New Orleans; I vaguely was aware of who was good and who wasn’t–and I knew very certainly that the Saints had routinely been one of the worst football teams, consistently, in the league since they were formed in 1966. You couldn’t not be aware of how hopelessly bad the Saints were, year in and year out. I always root for underdogs–a particularly American trait, I might add, which is another good essay topic (how we always root for underdogs, especially in our entertainment–film, television, books–but in the real world we either look the other way or actually pile-on. We all feel bad for poor bullied Carrie White in Stephen King’s Carrie and hate the cruel kids…but how many of us ever stood up for some kid being bullied in school? My experience as the bullied is NONE.)–and so I always wanted to see the Saints somehow turn their program around. Paul and I always watched the games–or had them on–when they aired; there were many times the games were blacked out locally because they didn’t sell out the Superdome.

Three things were inevitable in New Orleans: hot summers, termites in the spring, and the Saints would suck in the fall. When we first moved to Louisiana LSU was also in a downturn slump; some seasons they’d win, some they’d lose, but they were rarely, if ever, in contention for the conference title. I had a Saints ball cap and a Saints T-shirt, of course, but I was an idle fan of theirs for a very long time.

As with so many other things, my attitude towards the Saints was completely changed by Hurricane Katrina.

It was the best of times.

It was the craziest of times.

Well, what it really had to be was the end times, which was the only logical explanation for what was going on in the city of New Orleans.

Pigs grew wings and nested in the branches of the beautiful love oaks everywhere in the city. Some thought the pilot light in hell had gone out, so that icicles hung from the noses of shivering demons in the realm of the dark lord. Others started watching the horizon for the arrival of the Four Horsemen, for surely the Apocalypse must be coming. Surely the earth was tilting on its axis. Maybe aliens would land in Audubon Park, or the Mississippi River would start flowing backward.

Anything and everything was possible, because the Saints were winning.

GEAUX SAINTS!

People who don’t live in the South don’t really understand how important football is down here. Football is more than a religion in the Deep South. I’m not sure what it is–my mom claims it’s because the South lost the Civil War–but it’s true. On Saturdays, when the colleges play their games, the entire region comes to a complete halt. People live and die by their teams–whether it’s LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia or Tennessee–and how they face on Saturday. I myself grew up cheering for the LSU Tigers–even though attending Vanderbilt was a family tradition on my mother’s side. Whenever Papa Fontenot gives me crap for dropping (well, flunking is probably a more accurate word) out after my sophomore year, I give him a withering look and reply, “Maybe I’d have done better at LSU.

That always shuts him up.

I don’t think even the Saints organization knew how much the team actually meant to New Orleans until they tried to move the team after Katrina.

Everyone knows the Superdome was damaged by Katrina and the aftermath. I’ll never forget driving back into the city in either late September or early October and seeing it as I came around that curve in I-10 just past Metairie Road and the cemeteries; I wrote in Murder in the Rue Chartres that it resembled a half-peeled hard-boiled egg. One of the saddest things for me about seeing the wreckage of the Lost Apartment was finding my beloved Saints ball-cap lying on the rug in the living room and consumed by black mold. It seemed so symbolic of everything that had happened to us and our city.

Obviously, the Saints had nowhere to play home games and arrangements had to be made. Some games were played at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, others in San Antonio–and San Antonio made it very clear they would be more than happy to give them a permanent home.

It felt like the Saints organization was not only stabbing New Orleans in the back, but the entire state. I know I took it very personally; the city had supported and loved that team through decades of mediocrity if not outright suckage, and now when the city is at its lowest point, they’re going to move to San Antonio? But the NFL wasn’t having it–Tom Benson always made it seem like it was his decision, but the NFL was committed to New Orleans and wouldn’t let the Saints leave. The Dome was renovated and fixed in record time; the season tickets for 2006 sold out for the first time in years, and the new Saints–with our new coach and quarterback–debuted on Monday night football against the hated Atlanta Falcons. I wasn’t even aware of it, I was paying so little attention to everything going on around the country and world, to be honest. I ran my errands that day and noticed Saints flags were everywhere and people were wearing Saints jerseys and there was this strange sense of excitement in the air. Paul and I were living in the carriage house and we only had this tiny little black-and-white television, but we watched that night. And when Steve Gleason blocked that punt and the Saints recovered in the end zone–we both cried as we jumped up and down and screamed. (Everyone remembers the punt, but the entire game was amazing from beginning to end.) People call the blocked punt “the moment Louisiana healed,” and maybe they were right about that…but all I knew was for the first time in over a year we had something to be excited about, cheer about, and be proud of–and the Saints made it all the way to the NFC title game, so close to making it to the promised land of the Super Bowl.

I’ve been a rabid Who Dat ever since (2005 I also switched my first college allegiance from Auburn to LSU, but that’s a story for another time.).

And that magical season when the Saints not only went to, but won the Super Bowl? I had to write about it. I had never lived in a city that won a championship before, and let me tell you–it was insane in New Orleans that season, insane–as were the play-offs and the Super Bowl. I cried when Tracy Porter picked off Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter and ran it back for a touchdown to ice the game, and I cried again when the clock ticked to zero and the impossible had finally happened: the Saints had won the Super Bowl. It was so noisy that night; cars were honking their horns all night long, the streetcars rang their bells non-stop, and people were just chanting and cheering all over the city. We could hear the crowd at the bar on the corner, we could hear our neighbors, it was just insane and celebratory. Paul and I to this day have regretted not getting dressed and heading down to the Quarter to see it all; when will that ever happen again? The Saint may win a Super Bowl again, but it will never be the first time ever again.

I remember later that spring a friend asked if I thought the Saints would be good again the next year, and I just smiled. “I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is we finally won the Super Bowl and I can die happy, and I think a lot of us feel that way.”

The Saints are New Orleans, and New Orleans is the Saints. (I also am a little disappointed in myself for forgetting that A Streetcar Named Murder is actually set during football season; I didn’t mention it once and that’s a significant flaw in the book, honestly.)

So I decided to write another Scotty book, set it in that period between the Saints winning the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl so I could document that time, and I also decided to bring the other side of his family–the Bradleys–into the mix and give him a cousin who actually was on the Saints team and kind of a dick.

It was around this time, when I was planning or writing the book, that same-sex marriage was in the news a lot. Several suits were winding their way through the courts, and public opinion–thoroughly anti-queer in 2004 when it was on the ballot on a lot of states–was starting to swing back the other way. There was an incident at a beauty pageant when Miss California (her name escapes me now) was asked by Perez Hilton (who shouldn’t be judging anything, frankly) about same-sex marriage. She had to say she was against it, and even apologized, saying “I’m sorry, it’s how I was raised!” as the crowd began booing and jeering. She didn’t win, and I actually felt like it was kind of a shitty question to ask, but on the other hand, California had passed Prop 8 in 2008 (which was kind of the catalyst for the public opinion change, I believe). I also have always believed the old “it’s how I was raised” is a copout for bad or unpopular opinions–most white people are raised racist, after all–and questioning and reevaluating values and beliefs you were raised with is part of the maturation process of becoming your own person. But I was willing to cut her a break–she was young, it was a “gotcha’ kind of question, and kind of unfair–until she doubled down and decided to became the Patron Saint of Homophobia, following in the pumps of another runner-up pageant queen who became the face of hate and bigotry, wrapping it all up in religion and “concern for children”: yep, the hateful old bitch Anita Bryant herself, may she burn in hell for all eternity. She didn’t last long–its hard to paint yourself as a martyr for family values when you’ve been caught sexting (and recording yourself masturbating to send your man–and that was the end of that. I decided to make the reigning Miss Louisiana a homophobe who got that question at Nationals and is now dating Scotty’s cousin the Saints player–and he brings her to Christmas, with the end result that she gets slugged by Scotty’s mother and their family storms out.

And the night the Saints win the NFC championship, she’s murdered.

It was fun because I got to involve a megachurch in Jefferson Parish (there actually is one), and a sordid history of her own that the beauty queen was keeping secret for her own reasons–(coughs LESBIAN coughs) and even got to bring some more past characters back into the mix, like Emily who worked at the Devil’s Weed, and I had a lot of fun with this look into the other side of Scotty’s family (the one I am working on now also deals with another branch of relatives).

And I got to write about the Saints winning the Super Bowl, which was even more awesome. This was the book where I really thought I was done with Scotty. The year after it came out, at the next Saints and Sinners, was when I was asked if I would do another Scotty book; this was when I made my famous reply, “if I can figure out a way to include Mike the LSU Tiger, Huey Long, and his deduct box into a book, I will write another Scotty book.”

Of course, later that night it hit me like a 2 by 4 across the forehead, and I made some notes that eventually became Baton Rouge Bingo.