Memoir

Wonderlust

Braintree was just a bedroom community, home to the big movie theater and the southernmost stop on the Red Line, but when I was a kid, its name evoked a sense of wonder. I envisioned an enormous oak with a canopy of marbled grey matter.

When I started to take public transportation into the city for high school, and then covered Boston’s neighborhoods as a reporter a decade later, these names started to lose their mystery, because I heard them every day. I could recite the stops on the Red Line in one breath without thinking, like a catechism, and heard the conductor say, “This is a Brrrraintree train, Braintree” so often, it didn’t conjure anything in me anymore. Some days, that commute felt long and endless, like I would be riding Red Line trains until the end of days. I rode the subway so much, I felt like Charlie.

In 1949, the price of a subway ride in Boston increased by a nickel, inspiring the famous fare hike protest song, “Charlie on the MTA,” which continues to haunt Massachusetts school children. According to the lyrics, the transit authority raised the fare just after Charlie boarded the subway, and the conductor wouldn’t allow him to get off the train until he paid another nickel. Now, his wife comes down to the station to toss him a sandwich every day (but not the five cents he needs to get off the train, and one wonders how she keeps making all these sandwiches with the family’s sole breadwinner trapped in the city’s underground infrastructure). Having never spent more than two months anywhere outside of the Greater Boston area—aside from four years of college in Middletown, Connecticut, a town about as exciting as its name would suggest—I thought I could relate to Charlie. I would almost leave, but then I fell in love, or I was offered a good job, or my mom got sick. A web of responsibilities and experiences kept drawing me back into the city, and I would ride the T, humming Charlie’s ballad to myself under my breath—“He may ride forever ’neath the streets of Boston”—while the conductor announced on the intercom, “Brrrrraintree, this is a Brrrraintree bound train,” and it didn’t conjure any wonder in me at all.

I feared that I would never leave town, that I would become unable to imagine the great big world outside my pallid New England home. I heard someone call New Yorkers “hopelessly provincial,” and the phrase got stuck in my head, bouncing around in there. So when a newspaper in the swamps of southern Louisiana offered me a job, I was tempted.

My friends said I was crazy. I’d become a city kid who needed tall buildings and old bricks, Brahmin brownstones and the view of the garish flashing Citgo sign by Fenway Park. I thrived on both loud dive bars and joints with pretentious “mixologists,” on independent movie theaters, all-night diners, loud music, and roving clans of people my age.

But then I came to Terrebonne Parish for my job interview. Pelicans and helicopters swooped overhead as the city editor drove down a road dotted with enormous oil drums, where the houses were on fifteen-foot wooden poles to save them from the storm surge. The road dead-ended at the Gulf of Mexico.

“This is the edge of the world,” the city editor said. The small fishing town of Cocodrie was unlike anything I’d seen before. I would live in a house on stilts, I told myself. I’d get a scrappy dog and have at least one good alligator close call story. I took the job.

There, in Terrebonne Parish, I reclaimed wonder. I kept hearing references to a place called “Whiskey Bayou,” which I imagined was home to grinning residents who tottered around with pickled livers and a pleasant burning sensation at the backs of their throats, a place where Jack Daniels and Evan Williams and John Jameson went on fishing trips… until I learned it was spelled “Ouiski Bayou,” which I can only assume is French for Yes-sir-ee.

There were also foils of my former life. At Port Fourchon, the epicenter for offshore oil rig supply vessels in the Gulf, the director kept speaking of the “Seaport.” It evoked an up-and-coming South Boston neighborhood equipped with a deluxe hotel and a relatively new T stop, until I realized he was referring to the insipidly named “C Port,” neighbored by Slip A and Slip B.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, there is a club called Zuzu. Down the street from my house in Houma, Louisiana, there was a bar called Sue Sue’s on the Bayou, and when you said Sue Sue’s fast, it sounded warmly familiar. But Sue Sue’s was not Zuzu. Zuzu has a queer dance party on Tuesdays and plays infectious funk/soul music on Saturdays. Sue Sue’s had a wood paneled décor and a bartender with a beehive hairdo, who poured me the only drink I ever had there under the watch of an enormous Confederate flag.

I never got a dog, my house was only a foot off the ground, and the closest I got to alligators was watching the crowns of their heads float down the moldy smelling bayou near my house. I never went down that road to the end of the world for an assignment, but I did interview many consumers about their shopping habits in the Sears parking lot. Most of my days were spent in my cubicle, in a newsroom decorated in a rainbow of beige and grey. I did not get out of the office on assignment nearly as often as I did in Boston, and when I did, everyone asked me where I was from, oftentimes before I even opened my mouth. I wasn’t equipped for the veneer of gentility that Southerners often use to gloss over their distaste for something. No matter how many “howareya” niceties I tried on, I sensed disapproving looks, like I was giving off some fetid Yankee reporter stink. I began to have a recurring nightmare in which the city editor led a choir of middle-aged Southern ladies in an ornate Catholic church. He would sweep his arms in a conductor’s cue and all the Southern ladies would open their mouths and inhale, as if they were about to break into song, but instead of singing, they just shook their doughy heads in disapproval at me, jowls swinging. I began to feel those colorless cubicle walls closing in.

When I decided to move back to New England for school, I idealized the place that lay on the horizon yet again. I envisioned Boston as a friendly place—which it certainly is not—and in my lust for seasonal weather, I somehow convinced myself that from September to November, the whole city smells like pumpkin and cinnamon, and the foliage doesn’t simply turn red and orange, but glows like embers. I believed I would take that scruffy dog I still didn’t own on walks along the harbor, and through apple orchards and cider mills.

In the meantime, however, I began practicing the art of awe and tried to appreciate Louisiana while I still lived there. I liked to envision Montegut as a place where Romeo’s relatives live, flinging accusations of thumb-biting at their neighbors, who shake their heads smiling and say, “Some folks never do learn.” I’d listen to the train whistle and the barges’ reedy call and think about all the large metal contraptions clanging and gliding by. I tried not to get frustrated when it rained for an hour every single afternoon, and told myself it was like living in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. When someone mentioned “the river,” I saw it spelled out in my head and launched into an internal waltz—m-I-s-s-I-s-s-I-p-p-I.

And now, when the conductor on the southbound subway growls the train’s final destination into the speaker system, I vow to envision that canopy of wrinkled tissue turning bright orange in the crisp autumn, and bits of it sloughing off and falling all around me.

Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.