Earlier today, while writing about James Lee Burke, a memory of my dog Troy Russell was triggered by mentioning Lake Ponchartrain. What James Lee Burke, my dog, and Lake Ponchartrain have in common is pretty much zero, except for some sort of connection made by the random firing of neurons in my brain. It would be good to understand how that works, except for the fact that it would be scientific, and I’m allergic to scientific.
Troy Russell was a Chow mix I adopted off the streets of New Orleans in 1993 when he was a year to a year and a half old. Unfortunately I have no electronic pictures of him. He was red, with a big fluffy flag of a tail, and weighed about 55 pounds. We lived just outside the French Quarter in Faubourg Marigny, and had no yard. We had a courtyard, postage-stamp size, but I couldn’t even let him out in that because he had this tendency to crawl under the house and never come out. Hiding was his specialty.
So on occasion, I would take him for excursions to West End on Lake Ponchartrain. There was a park there on the lakeshore, where there was a seawall consisting of steps from ground level down into the lake for some distance. TR was not a big fan of water. The ocean scared him senseless. But he loved, for some reason, to wade along the steps of the seawall, as long as only his feet got wet. The problem is that the steps were slick with algae and he would sometimes fall in. Eek! he would say. Or at least, the dog version of eek.
Once we were there and I let him off the leash (forbidden, but in his case, I knew he would stick close by). I was, of course, reading, and I lost track of him. I looked up to see that he had managed to worm himself through a hole in a fence surrounding what looked to be a power substation of some kind. And couldn’t figure out how to get himself out. TR was beautiful and sweet, but no one would ever accuse him of being the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Actually, no one would ever accuse any Chow of that.
Once while we were there, I saw a waterspout out on the lake for the first and only time in my life. It was one of those moments when you wish someone else was there to see it with you, especially since Troy Russell wasn’t interested.
One year, my friend Bernard and I took a break in between Mardi Gras parades and went to West End with a pound or so of boiled crawfish. Bernard taught me to eat the crawfish, then throw the shells up in the air. Seagulls would swoop down and catch the shells in mid-air. I thought that maybe was kind of cruel, since how disappointed must the seagulls be to find they were eating only empty shells?
Another memorable Lake Ponchartrain experience involves crossing the Causeway. This 24-mile long bridge looks about as stable as something your five-year old might build out of toothpicks. Every so often, there are variable message boards telling you the windspeed, since at times it has to be closed for high winds when your car can be blown off the roadway. Very comforting. What happens if you’re already on the bridge when they close it down? According to their website, 42,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day. http://www.thecauseway.com/ Trust me: this is Louisiana. One day the bridge will fail, and 12,000 vehicles or so will plunge into the lake. Bring your lifejacket if you plan to cross.
My other memory of Lake Ponchartrain is going to eat at Brunings, a legendary seafood restaurant restuarant that opened in 1859. I have two memorable moments from Brunings. Once while sitting at the bar, with friends, waiting for a table, I struck up a conversation with a fisherman sitting next to me as we were each eating a dozen raw oysters. (Sometimes, I don’t want to be bothered. Then sometimes, I’ll start a conversation about something with a total stranger.) I said, “Good oysters, huh?” His reply: “Not salty enough.” Fishermen are men of few words.
My first time at Brunings, I was looking out the huge windows and there were all these fish jumping in the lake. They were amazing. They jump really high. I asked the waitress what they were. She gave me this look like, what spaceship did you arrive on? They were mullet. Now I know where the lyrics come from (Fish are jumpin’, and the cotton is high).
I only learned today that the West End, including Brunings,was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. From Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_End,_New_Orleans Not nearly the worst that happened. That occurred in the Lower 9th Ward. I lived in the Upper Ninth when I was there. Between me and the Lower Ninth was the Bywater, but it still means that the majority of people who drowned were my neighbors. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninth_Ward_of_New_Orleans
But I’ll end this as I started, remembering Troy Russell, the New Orleans dog. I had to put Troy Russell to sleep in 2005 when he was at or near 13 years old, because he could no longer walk properly. He had outlived both of his best friends, my friend Lebron’s lab mixes Timmy and Douglas. No one ever expected that, since TR had had such a hard beginning and Timmy and Douglas had been pampered since puppyhood. I can only just now, after four years, start picturing Troy Russell in his prime when he was having fun and I was having fun with him, instead of picturing him in his decline. Old dogs never really die. They pop up in your memory at odd moments, like when you’re thinking about Lake Ponchartrain.