I grew up in Chalmette Louisiana, in my opinion the best place and at the best time in American history. The community was marvelous, the country ascendant and the opportunities endless. I only realized this in retrospect of course; when I was young, I wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else.
Chalmette doesn’t get much respect from the rest of the New Orleans area, but we had everything a boy could ask for. It’s a suburb of New Orleans these days, but when I was young it was still mostly country. Farms littered the landscape, and there was a large cultivated tract right across the street from the house where I grew up. We called it the cabbage patch since that is what it was for at least part of the year. One uncle ran a ranch in New Orleans East, and another owned an orange grove in Plaquemines Parish. I was allowed to run wild on both.
All the while, we lived only seven miles downriver from the French Quarter. It was close enough to catch a bus, go shopping on Canal Street with my Grandmother on the weekend when I was in elementary school or sneak into the strip joints on Bourbon when I was a teenager. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra performed at least once a year in the auditorium when I was in middle and high schools. There were dense woods and marshland a short bike ride from home where we could go hunting and fishing when school let out after listening to a live performance of Bach or Beethoven.
I was brought up in a Cajun/Creole Catholic family with all that entails; funny accents, spectacular food and a culture unique in the world. We had to fast on Fridays and Catholic high holy days, which in French south Louisiana means subsisting on nothing more than jambalaya or seafood gumbo or shrimp creole. I’m not sure how I survived such hardship.
It was a time when “boys will be boys” was less a cliché than a way of life. We fought with each other, were raucous and rowdy in ways that are unacceptable now, if not considered dangerous, but deemed perfectly healthy then. With no cell phones or electronic devices to distract or track us, we experienced a freedom that I’m afraid children born in the 21st century will never know. My friends and I were practically feral in comparison. We built tree houses in the live oaks, played in the river batture, went crawfishing and hunting all without supervision. It wasn’t Utopia; racism was rampant and many of my friends struggled with poverty. I was oblivious to those things until much later, however, sheltered and protected by two loving parents.
It’s funny now to remember how deprived I felt and just how badly I wanted to leave, how much I wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else. In spite of how I felt when I was younger and all the reasons that could have made me leave since, I’m still here. Now I consider Chalmette one of the best places to live in the New Orleans area and, in the immortal words of Joan Jett, “I don’t give a damn about our bad reputation.”