Along with his parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, George Rodrigue visited Biloxi, Mississippi often as a child, usually for a week at the Alamo Plaza Courts, located on the beach. Plagued by Gulf storms and famous for Hurricane Camille long before Katrina, Biloxi, a Louisiana tourist destination since the eighteenth century, also boasts grand and historic southern homes, a charming old town, and (these days) plenty of high rise casinos and fine restaurants.
In the 1950s George and his family caravanned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast from New Iberia, Louisiana along the Old Hwy 90, a two lane road sprinkled with cafés and gas stations. George tells of one lunch stop outside of Gulfport, where they pulled into the parking lot just as a stretch black limousine, the first he’d ever seen, pulled out. Inside the café, their giddy waitress greeted them with her signed napkin in hand, the ink still drying on the scrawled signature: “Elvis Presley.” (pictured, You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Blue Dog, 1996, 24×36, acrylic on canvas)
George ran into people from his hometown on every Biloxi trip, in the same way we run into friends from New Orleans there today. He tells a story of one summer when, as he swam at the beach with his mama, she recognized the parish priest on the shore,
“Oh no!” she exclaimed. “It’s Father Richard!” (pronounced ‘Ree-shard’)
Marie Rodrigue remained up to her neck in the Gulf waters for four hours rather than face the clergyman in a bathing suit.
Twenty years later I vacationed several times each year with my family on the Tchoutacabouffa River (pronounced ‘Choo-tu-ku-buff-a,’ with the u’s and a’s all short), an inland area of Biloxi, a beautiful city full of bayous and oaks and people epitomizing southern hospitality. Great Aunt Lois cared for the family home, first destroyed by Camille in 1969, then rebuilt in the early 1970s, only to be replaced again around 1980 with a trailer, which was all we really needed, because we lived outside.
We drove from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, meeting our New Orleans relatives for weekends of mischief. From the dock we caught catfish during the day and snakes after dark. One year I even reeled in my baby stroller, which had washed along with the rest of the house into the river during Hurricane Camille. (pictured, The Bayou Side of Me, 2009, 20×30, oil on canvas)
This was the same water where we swam and inner tubed, as though the bayou magically rid itself of garfish and alligators during the hot afternoons. With catfish or moccasins writhing at the ends of our cane poles, we screamed for Aunt Lois, who at age seventy-five ran from the house with a cleaver and either cleaned the fish on the spot or decapitated the snakes, stocking our bait for round two.
We caught dinner in the crab traps, snapped beans and shelled pecans during thunderstorms, collected eggs from the hen house, raced four wheelers and mopeds through the surrounding swamps, and held bourré tournaments in the evenings on the back porch.
We stayed in the woods and on the river, already spoiled with the beach back home. But the beaches in Biloxi are beautiful, just as pretty as the Emerald Coast, with white sands and long clean stretches of paradise. (pictured The Emerald Coast, 2010, an original silkscreen, 16×38, edition of 90)
I loved Biloxi so much that I saved my babysitting money for the Greyhound Bus, a six-hour ride in those days (half that time today) from Fort Walton Beach, just to spend two nights with Great Aunt Lois in between family vacations. I slept next to her in that trailer, the glowing light of Durer’s praying hands, copied in plastic and holding a nightlight, on one side and of Aunt Lois’s cigarette on the other, which dangled from her mouth until it died in a heap within the ashtray balanced on her chest, all the while my faith placed in those hands, protecting us from a fire.
The closest I got to the beach on those trips was Mr. Glenn’s downtown diner, where I bussed tables most mornings. Aunt Lois’s old friend flipped omelets and burgers as he spit his chewing tobacco into the empty baked beans’ can tied around his neck. At twelve years old, I understood the resplendence of local characters; I played a mean game of cards; and I had change in my pocket. Life was good. (pictured, Playing Bourré, 1986, 30×40, oil on canvas)
Today George and I visit Biloxi at least once every few months. We drive along the coast and marvel at the pristine and empty beaches (no oil as of this past weekend); we try to remember which historic home stood on which slab before Katrina washed them away in 2005, even though many had survived some one hundred fifty years previous, including through the hurricane benchmark, Camille. We hang out at the bar at Mary Mahoney’s and visit with her son Bobby about watermarks, politics, and the good ol’ days before heading to the dining room for a fine creole dinner on a par with Antoine’s, followed by slot machines and a show at Beau Rivage.
Like everything in life, our experience has changed. But Biloxi is still a wonderful place, a town that inspires memories and makes new ones on every visit. The people remain some of the nicest anywhere, and even today I have no trouble imagining Elvis just leaving the Waffle House, Mr. Glenn wiping his hands on his apron, or Great Aunt Lois ringing the dinner bell for fried okra and cornbread.