If you leave downtown New Orleans paralleling the east bank of the
Mississippi River downstream, you will pass through the Ninth Ward
into the city of Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish. Past the closed
aluminum plant and the working oil refinery, you'll eventually reach
the fishing camps and odd shrimp plant that always seem to be within
sight of the end of the road -- after it's turned to gravel.
The people of Chalmette are sometimes called "yats," from their habit
of using the greeting "Where y'at?" in place of "Hello." Some people
hate the term Yat, considering it derogatory. But others proudly
claim it as their legacy. Yat culture is earthy, practical, and
entirely based on a Chalmette-centric map of the observable universe.
In Yat-speak St. Bernard Parish is simply "da parish," as in "Oh I'm
headin down to da Parish to make some growtrees." Orleans parish is
"into town," and everything else is either "across da river" or
"across da lake." Chicago, for example, being generally north
of here, would be across da lake.
In the 1930's two bridges were built to the east of New Orleans,
one completing US highway 90 across the Rigolets, and one joining
US highway 11 to 90 across the open water from Slidell. The
highway 11 bridge was at the time the world's longest continuous
span over water, a title it kept until 1956, and it was instantly
dubbed the "five mile bridge" after its length.
In the 1960's Interstate 10 came through, and a second five mile
span was built almost parallel to the highway 11 span; the two
bridges meet at the New Orleans side of the lake, but they diverge
so that the newer bridge can catch the interstate coming in from
the Mississippi Gulf coast. People immediately adopted the habit
of calling this new bridge the Five Mile Bridge too. This caused
confusion, though, so eventually a new nick was developed. Highway
11 was just two lanes, one in each direction, but the I-10 bridge
had a separate multi-lane span in each direction. The Twin Span it
The I-10 also required an elevated bridge west of the city, linking
Kenner to LaPlace over the Bonnet Carre Spillway. This bridge also
has two spans but it's never called the Twin Span or referred
to by its length of around 11 miles. It's just "the I-10 bridge."
It doesn't need a more specific name even though there are two I-10
bridges because, well, if you were talking about the one in the east
you'd call it the Twin Span.
In order to get to the Five Mile Bridges from Chalmette you either have
to backtrack into town or take Paris Road (part of which is now I-510)
north through the swamp to New Orleans East. Where
Paris Road crosses the Intracoastal Waterway there is a pretty tall
bridge which was painted dark green until about 25 years ago.
Needless to say, the fact that they painted it brown around 1980 hasn't
stopped people from calling it the Green Bridge.
In 1956 a toll bridge was built linking the western suburb of Metairie
to the north shore town of Mandeville, 24 miles right across the
widest section of Lake Pontchartrain. That in itself is a typically
Louisiana thing; if it's not worth doing the hardest way possible,
why bother? The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway
wasn't actually part of any highway system so it became simply
"the Causeway." Now both of the I-10 bridges and the highway 11 bridge
are also causeways by the dictionary definition of the term, but the
only Causeway bridge in Yat-speak is the one between Metairie and
Mandeville, just as the only Twin Span is I-10 to Slidell.
Oh, and while we're at it Lake Pontchartrain isn't even really a lake.
Since its waters communicate with the Gulf of Mexico through the
Rigolets, it's actually the world's largest salt water estuary.
But here it's just "the lake." If anyone speaks of The Lake it's
never those other non-lakes Maurepas or Borgnes or any of the many
other real lakes in the area. After all, none of them have four of
the longest bridges in the world spanning them.
Perhaps in the spirit of keeping the name afloat you do sometimes hear
it the other way around, as "the Pontchartrain." Kind of the way
Californians refer to Interstate 5 as "the five," although a yat
would never say "the ten" for I-10.
So you see, what we have here is a culture which speaks a dialect of
English where many words don't mean what outsiders would normally think
they mean even when they are printed on millions of maps.
In New Orleans, the grassy strip of land in the middle
of a divided highway is the "neutral ground." If you call it the
"median" you might as well put a sticker on your forehead that says
OUTSIDER. (FYI the reason the ground in the middle of a road is
considered neutral is that duelers often used such grounds to settle
their differences, such public land favoring neither contestant.)
Starting at the New Orleans airport which isn't actually in New Orleans
but far to the west in the alien wasteland of Kenner, you can cut over
from Airline Highway down Williams Boulevard to Kenner's slightly
laughable historic district and catch Jefferson Highway toward
town. Jefferson Highway passes out of Kenner into the city of Harahan,
and then into unincorporated Jefferson Parish, within blocks
of the place where I work, all the way to the Jefferson/Orleans line.
you reach the parish line you'll pass the intersection of Jefferson
(highway) and Claiborne (street).
In Orleans Parish the road you're
on becomes Claiborne Avenue, and if you drive just a little further you
will reach an intersection with Jefferson Boulevard. Confused yet?
I haven't even gotten to the systems of three streets all at right
angles with one another.
You can follow Claiborne all the way through town; it runs just north
of the French Quarter and for a couple of miles it parallels I-10,
actually running underneath the elevated expressway. (Long ago, there
was a beautiful library on Claiborne Avenue which was demolished
to make way for the I-10, and you can still find locals who are pissed
off about that.) Once it parts ways with the Interstate, which
nudges north to ultimately end up in Slidell, Claiborne follows the
river past rows of historic but somewhat questionable urban housing.
Past a large draw bridge over the Industrial Canal the road dips
into the Ninth Ward just a few blocks from my high school alma mater.
Further on it passes the Jackson Barracks and enters St. Bernard
Parish and the incorporated city of Chalmette, where it undergoes
another name change to become Judge Perez Drive.
In Chalmette Judge Perez Drive is THAT ROAD. On the other side of
town, in Metairie, it's Veterans Memorial Blvd. In Jackson MS, where
I first evacuated for Katrina, it's County Line Road. In Knoxville TN,
where I evacuated after 95% of Mississippi lost power and Jackson kicked
me out, it's Kingston Pike. It's the road with the Super Wal-Mart, the
Home Depot a block from Lowe's, the fast-food strip with everything
from KFC to Burger King to McD's to Rally's, and all the littler
businesses that always follow them. When you find THAT ROAD it doesn't
really matter what city you're in because you will be able to find
anything you need, as long as it's what every other city in the USA
People who are actually from Chalmette do visit Judge Perez Drive,
because they love Wal-Mart and Home Depot, but they don't eat there.
The true Chalmatian (another derogatory to some / prideful to others
term) might be tempted by the KFC buffet but only if the real
food were not so convenient. Those who know better go to Rocky
and Carlos, a local diner on St. Bernard Highway that has been
serving up voluminous hot plate dinners at dirt-cheap prices since a long
time before I was born. As you slide your plastic tray down the
short cafeteria-like ordering line, generous ladles dip into huge
steaming trays of lasagna, pasta, rice and potatoes, butter-drowned
corn, and whatever other specialties mark the day and pile your plate
up until you can barely convey it to your plastic tray without stuff
falling off. By the cashier you draw yourself a draft Barq's and pay
something like five bucks for way more food than any normal person
And while the sanitary measures are, well, let's not go there (they
did have a little salmonella problem a couple of years back but their
customers forgave them, like you're not gonna start going to fricken
McDonald's) this being Louisiana the startling thing is that this
food is good. It's not Antoine's but it is also a light year
beyond the slop shop in Pennsylvania that has never heard of salt.
These guys have actually heard of seasonings and when they
fry things they are crisp.
While dining at Rocky's if you indulge in the ancient art of eavesdropping
on other peoples' conversations you will quickly realize that you are not
in Kansas, or Pennsylvania, or even Mandeville, or any other place where
people speak a recognizable form of English:
"Anyways, once I got dis here bobo cleanin out da reacta in dis chawmuh
in personnel decided herself dat I should be doin something a bit less
challengin, so now I'm racin fawklifts down in shippin."
* Schwegmann's Giant Super Markets have been out of business for a
decade, but locals still call whatever large supermarket is most
convenient "da Schweggies." I have even heard Chalmatians use this
term to refer to a Super Wal-Mart.
"F'sure, I was goan ta pass by da Schweggies* ta make some growtrees but
ma liva ain't what it used ta be an I got stuck on da turlet til I had
ta run just ta catch ya mamma b'fo she gave up an catched da bus."
"Hawt, I just cannot be-LEEEEEVE how much ya grown since I last saw ya,
must be six whole weeks now if it ain't been a day."
Good cheap food at funky local places is a New Orleans legacy. Back
out of da Parish, in Gentilly, there is a little poboy shop* called
Nobody Waits on Louisa Street, just south of the I-10, right
across Louisa from what used to be the Desire Housing Project. Built
into a nondescript converted residential house, Nobody Waits
has no dining area so you have to eat in your car but OMFG is it
ever worth it. For a few dollars you get a sandwich so overstuffed
you can have a second course from the stuff that drops onto the waxed
paper while you're valiantly eating it, served up like most sandwich
shops here on real New Orleans french bread with that thick crust.
The hot sausages are freshly cooked to order, and the meatballs have
a bit of a kick so you know you're not in Pennsylvania.
* Po-boys is the local term for sandwiches made on French
bread. If you're not from Louisiana, the closest thing you're likely
to have seen are the sandwiches sold by Quizno's. Poboys are crisp
despite not being toasted because of the thick fresh French bread crust,
unless they are stuffed with sloppy stuffings like roast beef that soften
them. And of course any self-respecting poboy shop will offer
fried shrimp, crawfish, and fish sandwiches; in Louisiana, these
will be more popular than things like roast beef.
Seven weeks after Katrina* the New Orleans metro area is like the area
around some weird unreality vortex. Far from the center, like here
in Mandeville, things are almost normal. But the closer you get to
Orleans Parish, the further things depart from How They Are Supposed
To Be. In Kenner and Jefferson Parish many people have returned
and businesses are open, but the businesses have chronic personnel
shortages and most aren't open normal hours. Even fast-food joints
are serving only limited menus. And businesses like Walgreens and
Home Depot are doing banker's hours, closing at six PM.
Across the Seventeenth Street Canal in Orleans, things haven't even
started returning to normal. A few brave souls have made their way
back to the unflooded Uptown neighborhoods and the Quarter, but
there are few services for them. They buy gas, building
supplies, and groceries in Metairie, exacerbating the shortages
that still occur there. And in the vast desolation of the flooded
areas, few things even move. The recovery hasn't even begun and
can't, really, until little matters like the levee system and
insurance are dealt with.
*Yes, I know it's been more than seven weeks. This was the situation
at the time (though it hasn't changed much even now).
Seven weeks after Katrina my wife went on a junket to Atlantic City so
I decided to catch a movie. What I usually do is eat lunch at the Holiday
Square Applebee's, which is across the parking lot from the cinema.
Of course, the first time I went back to this ritual after the
hurricane I was confronted with an enormous blue tarp on the side
of Cinema 2; Katrina had extended Her finger even here. But the
other eleven cinemas were up and running, and I did see the fluffy
little movie they built around ID software's Doom video
Yeah, an Applebee's. I never claimed to be a Chalmatian myself. My
parents were transplants from Mississippi, and I've always been
more of an observer than a participant in the local culture.
But at Applebee's I heard a buzz that told me how things were changing.
Yeah Hawt we took a tree on da cawpawt an a tree on da back turlet
an a tree from da neutral ground done smacked ya daddy's blaza but
da insurance wuz up ta date so we should be good, so how's ya own
C, a northshore local who hangs out at the same Applebee's bar is
livid. "Buncha fucking Chalmette people done invaded our parish,"
he says as we down our Abita Ambers. "Try to buy a fuckin house
lately? The real estate market is completely screwed up, and it's
I neglect to remind C that I immigrated to Mandeville myself twelve
years ago. Instead
I tune in to the buzz of conversation in the Mandeville Applebee's,
a place no self-respecting Chalmatian would be caught dead if there
were real food to be had, and I hear an overlay. The locals are
still here, as C is, but superimposed on them is the slow-motion
Brooklyn twang of Yatspeak. And not just a few of them; the
air of the place is much more Rocky's than it is Generic American
"We gotta do something about this," C seethes over his Abita beer.
But I don't really think there's much anybody can do about it. The
people who want to come back but can't because their home, their
city, and their entire way of life have been destroyed will come back to
the closest thing they can find. And while it's not very close, St.
Tammany Parish is about as close as you can get to Chalmette without
a lot of post-hurricane bullshit getting in your way.
The Chalmatians have come to Mandeville, and I suspect a lot of them
are here to stay. I figure in a few years St. Tammany Parish will
just be da Parish, or may da Nawth Parish. Da one where we-all
live now, y'know.
Hurricane Katrina catastrophically flooded Rocky and Carlos, Nobody
Waits, the entire Judge Perez Blvd strip, the house where I grew up,
the elementary schools I attended, my high school alma mater,
the university I attended, the first place I ever held a job, every
church I ever attended, the first house I rented when I left my
parents, and about 200,000 homes and thousands of other businesses
I don't have room to mention here. It's not clear when or if many
of these places will ever reopen, or if they do reopen if it will
be in the flooded areas where they were before.
I am thinking Yatspeak is going to be heard in Mandeville for a