After four and a half hours of driving East from Houston, I finally arrive in Cottonport, La. I hesitated about coming, but the daily reminders from my family about missing me always weighs on my guilt. Heck, I miss them too, but a long boring road trip by myself is not my idea of a good time. I left Cottonport over four years ago for better living, work, and educational opportunities. The Avoyelles Correctional Center, grocery stores and a smoked-filled casino in nearby towns are some of the biggest employers in the area. I worked at the casino for over eight years as a Blackjack Dealer. After I quit, I promised myself I would never return. I hated dealing with drunks every night. I hated how they blew cigarette smoke in my face. I hated how they slammed their fists down on the table because I made a higher hand, after they refused to hit a 16 while I had a Queen showing. As I swiped my badge on the time clock to start my 3:00 a.m. graveyard shift, sadness would start to creep in. I would tell myself, “Snap out of it and take a deep breath.” I walked through the associate doors onto the gaming floor. My forged smile lit up the room as my heart sank deeper into despair. I did not want to work or live here for the rest of my life. The world is too big for me not to experience life outside of this parish.
As I drive, I make sure that my odometer reads under 30 mph before I cross paths with the police cruiser that hides between the corner store and the only car wash in town. My eyes keep wondering over to the bayou that runs along Main Street. I made it just in time to see the sun set off the motionless water. The array of trees are in full bloom with different shades of green and lovely pink crape myrtle flowers. The appearance of Cottonport has not changed since I was a little girl. It is like a painting, nice to look at, but everything stays the same. On the north side of the bayou, there are beautiful brick homes with professional manicured lawns. This is where the upper middle class townspeople live. I grew up on the south side of the bayou where steady traffic flows and the middle class and poverty stricken reside. I asked Former Police Chief Charles Jenkins if it was different protecting and serving the south versus the north side of the bayou. He stated, “I have lived in Cottonport all of my life, so I know almost everyone in town. The rowdy teenagers that usually caused trouble on the south side called me Mr. Jenkins because most of these kids grew up with my kids and I grew up with their parents. The few calls I received from the north side were no different, many of the people who live on the north side already know me from my time as a detective with the Marksville Police Department. I treat everyone the same and I was respected because of that.” In a town of less than two-thousand people, the bayou divides the town into what seems like two different worlds. The folks who reside in Cottonport all seem to make it work and coincide together as a community.
North and south bayou residents always come together for the annual Christmas on the Bayou Parade. The streets are filled with families from Cottonport and nearby towns as the homemade floats drift down the two lane road. In town, there is a festival after the parade. There are barbeque pits smoking, Zydeco music blaring and booths with crafts, and some of Louisiana’s favorite cuisines set up.
I was always intrigued with the kids that lived on the north side of the bayou. Did they get anything they wanted like the rich kids in the movies? Did they have to do chores? The majority of the children that lived on the north attended Saint Mary’s Catholic School. I did not know anyone who attended there, but I saw them going into the school building as my bus passed every morning in front of Saint Mary’s. Their perfect uniforms consists of navy blue pants and plaid skirts with the matching polo shirts and blouses. Halloween was one of the many times we had a reason to go to the north side. My sister, cousins and I smeared our faces with colorful face paint and walked across the bridge that lead to the other side of the bayou. The houses on the north are well known for giving out the best brand-name candy. As they opened their doors to place a piece of chocolate candy into my trick or treat bag, I glanced into the foyer of their well-lit homes. It was like staring at a magazine. The high ceilings soared over the foyer as the polished wood staircases coiled up to the unimaginable second floor. The beautiful homes had luxury cars parked in the drive way and the houses seemed to get bigger and fancier as we walked from home to home. I fantasized what it would be like to live in one of these beautiful homes and drive around in a new car that had air conditioning one day.
I snapped back into reality as we walked back to our neighborhood from a successful night of trick or treating. Growing up on the south side of the bayou was an adventure. The place I called home was a single-story wood house with a soft peach colored paint and off-white painted shutters. I hate the color of our house. It stands out to me. I want to paint it white with black shutters like my grandparents’ home next door. That is the color of most of the homes in the area. The yard is complete with a collection of pecan, maple, plum and oak trees. On summer days my cousins and I have tree climbing competitions, but it always ends with one of us crying from either hurting ourselves or just being sore losers. While the women of the family are in the kitchen cooking, the men of the family sit under the tree as we play, gossiping about work and sipping on Budweiser beer. When my grandfather doesn’t want us to know what they are discussing, he quickly switches his language to Cajun French. Only the elderly and adults know Cajun French in Cottonport. Instead of spelling words out or whispering, they have their own language so they can continue the conversation in front of the children. We do not care what they are saying anyway, so we run and play from the trees into the cotton fields. This is our playground. Depending on the season and what crops are growing, a good game of hide and go seek in the fields is very popular in our neighborhood. Playing in corn, cotton, and sugar cane fields is our favorite pastime.
The majority of the kids on the south side of the bayou attends Cottonport Elementary, the only other school in town besides Saint Mary’s Catholic School. Kids who are in grades sixth and beyond attend middle and high school in neighboring towns. We wear street clothes at Cottonport Elementary. Mama is a single mother of four, so homemade school clothes help her financially. I am forced to model my grandmother’s latest creation today. The locals gloat about her work as a seamstress, but that doesn’t reassure me, as I pray my classmates don’t notice that my blue teddy bear shirt is homemade.
I met a few childhood friends at Cottonport Elementary that I now consider family. One of them was Mandy. Mandy like myself comes from a single parent home on the south side of the bayou, but our homes are the complete opposite. Mandy is the baby out of eight children. Her mother has never held a job so food stamps and welfare are the household income. She lives in a small two-bedroom shack. The floors are rotting, the gray paint is chipping and running water is a luxury because it is off a majority of the time due to non-payment of the water bill. Mandy and her five sisters share a set of bunk beds and her older brothers sleep on the living room floor. The boys have to fight off rats and roaches throughout the night as they crawl on their skin. Mandy and her siblings are often bullied by kids because of their scent, until they started fighting back and her older brothers became the bullies of their enemies and the protectors of the little sisters. They are known as the “stinky kids.” The strong smell of musk and old people perfume and cologne are often overwhelming, but she is my best friend, so I deal with it. In middle school, she confided in me about how they couldn’t take baths most of the time because they didn’t have water. Their backyard was the restroom because the toilet was filled to capacity.
I am the first friend she ever let visit her home. When I walked in the front door, the stench took my breath away. Everything she ever told me about home was true. My heart hurt for her, but I did not let her see it in my face. I struggled to keep my expression with an unbothered look, but my strength was growing weaker as we walked deeper into the house. The roaches ran for cover as she turned on the lamp in the kitchen. There are no lighting fixtures on the rotten water-stained ceiling. She slept at my house that weekend after I begged my mother to let me have a slumber party. From that day on, she was like an adoptee into the family. My mom treated her no different than her biological children. Mandy now has three children of her own. I asked Mandy how she felt about growing up in Cottonport and the impact it has had on her life. She replied, “We didn’t have a lot growing up and the bullies at school always reminded us that we didn’t. I felt angry at Mama because of the life she choose to give us but our relationship is closer than ever now. I may not be rich, but I work hard at the casino to make sure my babies do not have the childhood I had and I am grateful to you and your family for taking me in because I would probably be in and out of jail like my brothers are.” Mandy and the rest of my family still lives in Cottonport on the south side of the bayou.
As I park in my mom’s driveway, I get out of my car and smell the country air. The crisp smell of fresh cut grass greets me along with the loud chirping of frogs and crickets. The smell and sound instantly bring me back to my childhood when we played outside until the street lights came on. I am exhausted from the car ride. I need to hurry and get my bags out of the trunk before the mosquitoes begin to attack. My visits to Cottonport is a time for me to unwind from the fast-paced city life in Houston. Cottonport will always have a special place in my heart, it will always be home to me. My family and roots are here, but I have outgrown the town. I love living in the city. I guess I can say I am like the bayou now, there are two sides to me. The north side of me lives in the big city with huge dreams and nice things. The south side of me will always be that 90 girl that climbs trees, play in corn fields and loves everybody from all walks of life.