Cooper Lanning

A Lesson in Baton Rouge


Baton Rouge proved to be a sleepy reprieve from the bustle of New Orleans, despite being the state’s capital, a city that would have fit Binx’s nature quite perfectly and an appropriate location for the next leg of our journey.  Our route took us across a twenty-two-mile bridge that dissected Lake Pontchartrain – a sprawling body of water that could easily be mistaken for the Gulf.  The monotonous scenery provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on our New Orleans experience, to let my mind wander – because there really wasn’t any other option for twenty-two-miles. 


Baton Rouge’s skyline is pierced by the massive capital building – the tallest capital building in the United States which was constructed by Huey Long, in the impressive span of only two years.  Our novel for Baton Rouge was A Lesson Before Dying.  The story takes place near the quiet town of New Roads, a short drive away from the city on the False River Lake. A Lesson Before Dying tells the tale of Jefferson, a semi-literate African American at the wrong place at the wrong time; he’s convicted of a murder he did not commit, and sentenced to death by an all-white jury.  In the time leading up to his execution, Jefferson is visited by Grant Wiggins, an African American professor who begrudgingly agrees to teach Jefferson to walk to his death as a man, not as a hog as the rest of the world perceives him.  It is a powerful tale of racism and the perseverance of the African Americans trying to live in a world that didn’t want them at the time. It’s a sharp contrast to Baton Rouge (and New Orleans) today, as our group was welcomed and greeted with smiles and friendly faces by everybody, and it is a wonderful show of progress and happiness in the world.

To further drive home the full effect of the novel’s message we visited the author of A Lesson Before Dying, Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, at his home for an interview.  Dr. Gaines lives on a beautiful expanse of land with large green lands, a beautifully kept plantation-style house with a one-room church in the backyard, and endless farmland sprawling as far as the eye can see.  His house appears a beautiful piece of property, but dig deeper, and you’ll find it was a working plantation that Gaines grew up on, impoverished, with 12 siblings and a crippled aunt-caretaker, where the church in his backyard was the only schooling he received, and the gorgeous fields of crops were the place of his work as a child.  Dr. Gaines’ decision to purchase and live in this house that provided a nightmare of a childhood is the ultimate act of owning your past and future, a deep parallel in A Lesson Before Dying


Speaking with Dr. Gaines provided an incredibly profound insight into his characters and their lives and further examined the horrors they went through from the viewpoint of someone who experienced those situations, those prejudices.  It’s a sobering – reading about these horrors from a book in the safety of a hotel room, or a sidewalk patio, or a cozy café is one thing, but to hear about them from the author himself is on an entirely different level. To hear what Gaines has been through put a new perspective on the novel, adding a more intimate layer that would never been achieved if we never met. Gaines was outspoken, humorous, and passionate about talking to us and answering questions.

To add to the weight of the story and fully understand the horrors Jefferson went through, we visited the jail cell that provided the inspiration for the novel’s jail.  Situated above a courthouse, we took a tour of the tiny jail that up until 1989 was in use for prisoners; it has since been converted to storage, filled with crumbling stacks of files, financial records, and case-photos (we should not have explored that far).  There are no words to describe the abominable conditions or the brutal heat the prisoners endured; there is nothing to say in regards to the overhead pipes and break-away floor they used to hang prisoners; there are no words better to use than the graffiti left behind: ‘We Are Equal’.   

My reading environment in Baton Rouge was rather limited after the infinite options in New Orleans, and I often found myself sitting outside of the hotel on the sidewalk but that proved to be interesting in its own right.  On our last night I sat there around midnight with fifty pages to go.  As I entered the last ten, after a particularly emotional chapter written from Jefferson’s perspective, a man approached me and asked me if I was part of the group that was reading ‘that lesson book’ (he had seen other students reading it earlier in the week).  Thomas (that was his name) proceeded to tell me his own lessons before dying: love yourself, love your neighbor, be kind to one another.  I agreed with him completely, and the words ‘We Are Equal’ rang truer in my head.  Here were two people that had just met that agreed upon the most basic principles of life.  He never asked for money, only to talk.  Before he left I felt that it was only fair that I give him a different lesson before dying and handed over my book, hoping he could find solace in the words of Dr. Gaines.


How do people come up with a date and time to take life from another man? Who made them God?
— Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

An Interesting Title

Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss. Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

The second half of our New Orleans excursion was spent reading The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, an existential novel that seeks to find the answers to life’s great mysteries through movies and casual sex.  Our protagonist, Jack “Binx” Bolling is droll, unhinged in a cool-headed way.  He moves lethargically from secretary to secretary the same way he moves from one major life decision to the next.

Sitting here out front of Between The Bread, a small café overlooking Lafayette Square, it’s easy to understand Binx’s attitude towards life, how easy it is to remember something so inconsequential in the grand scheme of things: “Other people…treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieve w/ her a sweet and natural relationship…I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember.  What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach…” (7).  Binx’s outlook on life is depressing at face value but when experienced, makes absolute sense.  We’ve seen incredible sights here, walked through streets full of vibrant history, where legendary authors wrote famous novels and screenplays, and artists created masterpieces, and musicians ascended to kings of their domains.  Yet all of these spectacular sights and sounds compound with each other as they fight their way to the top to be most memorable, the most interesting.  That is a good thing – so many experiences are appropriate for that position but they tend to crush one another, suppress the effectiveness.

I say this because I witnessed an interaction that solidifies Binx’s attitude for myself.  For the past hour I’ve watched an inebriated couple argue around the park while I read The Moviegoer.  Every once in awhile I’d lift my head from the pages to see them yelling into each other’s faces, throwing hands into the air and sighing loudly to the sky above in obvious exasperation.  I’d see one of them walk off, phone in hand, while the other sat on a bench and buried their face into palms, so I’d turn my attention back to the book. 

Binx would be on another mental excursion watching the world pass him by, with me trying to keep up in his rearview mirror, but several minutes later, I’d see a commotion out of the corner of my eye, and sure enough one half of the couple would come storming back with a newfound fury in dire need of yelling their current thoughts.  This happened multiple times before I decided that Binx wouldn’t mind me putting the book down to observe what was happening in Lafayette Park, so I placed it on the table and sat back, living in their moment.  This cycle repeated itself over and over again: yelling, the separation, the grand re-entrance, and it wasn’t just myself who became interested.  Passersby in vehicles, the passengers in streetcars, random people in the park, we all became attached.  Often one of the combatants would barely make eye contact with me before I was able to whip the book back up over my face, where’d I’d let a second pass before slowly dropping it below my eyes.  I never caught a specific word, never felt I knew what was going on, but when they walked down the block together, hand-in-hand, I knew I had been part of the resolution. 

Binx moved through personal relationships without so much as a second thought and that didn’t resonate within me until I became a fly on the wall to this domestic battle royale.  Out of everything New Orleans has graciously offered me, this stands out the most.  How strange is that?  Maybe it’s because the situation is more ridiculous than anything I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a Saint’s themed Darth Vader dancing in the street at 2 A.M. with a cigarette in his hand. Maybe it was because I could witness this without having to leave my chair as I sipped my coffee. Maybe it’s because Binx found more interest in a movie than a human relationship and this event was unfolding in front of me like a scripted movie. Perhaps it was the complete discord that arose from the situation: me sitting comfortably in front of a coffee shop quietly reading a book, and just across the street, a yelling match that sucked the world in. It was the perfect demonstration of how the opposite lives of New Orleans can be separated by something as trivial as a street.

Audubon Park

Audubon Park

As the second half of our New Orleans portion dwindled to an end, our mandatory activities lessened as well, providing us ample time to do nothing but relax and read.  And fall into the lethargic mindset that Binx often found himself in.  Each day became a treasure hunt for the perfect café, the emptiest bar.  At one point, we even found ourselves sitting in the middle of the Audubon Golf Course, reading and climbing trees.  Suddenly we were given this free time to explore the secrets of New Orleans and we ended up sitting in a park and reading.  I think Binx would be proud of that choice.  As we made our way to Baton Rouge, the next destination, we traveled along Elysian Fields – the road Binx uses to get from his home in Gentilly to the business district – a long, almost endless road that proved the perfect opportunity to lose yourself in thought, to contemplate everything that took place in New Orleans as you lazily moved away from it towards another adventure. 


A Slice of N.O. Life

How does one blog about New Orleans or write anything that can possibly do the city justice?  It’s a daunting task, asking the impossible really and yet so many fantastic artists have been able to capture the very essence of this vivacious place so it is possible.  My recent days have taught me that much, and also that there is such a thing as too much powdered sugar on a beignet (take note if you’re reading this, Café Du Monde).  All jokes aside for this paragraph, I will attempt to relive and reiterate the myriad of emotions that New Orleans can illicit in the short span of eleven days.

Jackson Square

The first couple days are a blur.  Not because of alcohol but because the sheer wall of information I’ve absorbed on a daily basis has blended into a stronger mixture than any bartender here could concoct.  It’s overwhelming to look back at, to separate where one memory ends and another begins.  Walking tours have proved to be our bread and butter, providing an exhaustive – sorry – exhilarating look into a city that really needs more than eleven days to explore.  But we persevered.  Jackson Square was our first stop, a short and sweaty walk from the Lafayette Hotel through an urban swamp where at least four people said they could read my future for varying prices though none had the ability to foresee me saying ‘no’ every time.  Arriving upon Jackson Square is a conflicting experience.  It’s a beautiful plot of perfectly pruned land whose serenity is punctured by the relaxing flow of fountains and a statue of Andrew Jackson that can’t be described as anything short of majestic.  There he is, the absolute center of attention, his bronze battle outfit blowing in the wind while his war-horse rears up upon powerful hind legs.  The statue is incredible, it’s impossible to say otherwise.  The massive St. Louis Cathedral roars its agreement behind him.  We celebrate him with this monument and simultaneously forget his signing off on the Trail of Tears – if I need to explain that then I would direct you to the internet for the sake of time.  But that’s what New Orleans is, it’s the south.  They revere their heroes like any group of people would.  Drive around the city though, and you can see the future catching up – four monuments stand strangely empty as racial and political issues spark greater debate within our country, yet, the monuments’ message is still the same: no matter how far you progress, you cannot forget your history. New Orleans is the epitome of that idea.

The Garden District.  A beautiful glide through town on the streetcar (I was kindly corrected after calling it a trolley) took us to a part of town made up of plantation style mansions, each in their own unique style, where live-oak trees stand tall and numerous, Spanish moss hanging from their branches while their roots rise from the ground, deforming the sidewalks.  We strolled through the streets, past the house Anne Rice (Interview With a Vampire) lived in, onto Lafayette cemetery where marble tombs replaced the city skyscrapers, stacked high to accommodate the hurricanes so that as flood waters rose, the bodies underground wouldn’t rise with them.  Like all things, that took an ‘oh, shit’ moment to realize before adapting, resulting in the magnificent tombs we see today. 

Lafayette Cemetery

Lafayette Cemetery

Marquee at the Prytania Theater

Marquee at the Prytania Theater

It’s easy to envision a vampire stalking unsuspecting victims in the darkness like they did in Interview, but we couldn’t fraternize with the supernatural forever and next moved into the world of jazz with Buddy Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter, a splintering novel that depicts Bolden’s incredible career as a cornetist and his descent into madness.  The novel itself is told through a very fragmented prose, made up of quick sentences and even quicker thoughts.  Over the next several days, we explored the city’s jazz offerings, getting a taste of the quickness that accompanied Bolden.  While none of us lost our minds, it’s easy to understand how he did.  And in a rare twist of fate, the movie Bolden happened to be playing at the Prytania Theater – a quaint, independently owned theater that the main character of Confederacy of Dunces frequents, and often hurls popcorn at the screen.  The movie was a great representation of Bolden’s descent, effectively incorporating quick cuts and blending sceneries to demonstrate how Bolden’s mind deteriorated.  We passed by the Little Gem Saloon, where Bolden came to fame, whose rear wall is covered in an incredible mural depicting the Bolden Band; we listened to live music at Preservation Hall, packed into a tiny rustic room like sardines as a group of extremely talented musicians serenaded us with the blaring taste of jazz; we attended bars strictly with live music and danced into the early hours of the morning as if Bolden himself stood on the stage and fed us the energy we needed to keep our feet moving.  But all these wonderful experiences come with a price – exhaustion.  The memories blend together with repetition and you slowly being to grasp Bolden’s predicament: the lifestyle of a jazz sensation coupled with the vices New Orleans have to offer on a daily basis drove him to insanity, a true shame. While Bolden’s death certainly was a tragedy to the jazz community, the musicians of New Orleans have made sure, all these years later, that the music would never die.


I Met a Vampire in New Orleans

“The air here in New Orleans is different; it’s sticky, heavy with the perfume of culture that stings the nostrils and fills your lungs with electricity while the trills and whines of flavorful jazz penetrate your ears.  Before venturing to the city, just hearing its name plants a tiny, luminous seed in your imagination that doesn’t need water to grow, only anticipation.  Where Grand Isle can lull you into a comfortable sense of tranquility, New Orleans proves to be a passionate removal from that.


“Interview with a Vampire is set in New Orleans (along with the plantations of Louisiana, and an adventurous stint in Europe) and follows Louis, a young indigo plantation owner who thinks he wants one thing: to die.  His death, however, comes with a catch – immortality from the generous hands of the vampire, Lestat.  Louis takes us through years and years and years of New Orleans, retelling a story unlike any human could.


“As a human, Louis’ life on his plantation was meaningless – his brother’s death weighed too heavily on the boy’s shoulders which caused him to unsuccessfully search for life’s answers at the bottom of a bottle.  This behavior naturally invited violence, with the hopeful possibility of reprieve from Louis’ damnation: his death.


“Enter Lestat, the mysterious savior in need of a companion – an apprentice of sorts – who rescues Louis from a mugging and gives him the incredible gift that every mortal dreams of: everlasting life.


“Lestat wanted to reintroduce Louis to the world, to show him New Orleans through the eyes of a vampire, a nocturnal city rife with the ichor of life free for the taking, a city where a vampire could disappear without even trying.  To be honest, I feel sorry that Louis could not see the city as it is today.  Still, his recollection of the city is bittersweet – beautiful in his ability to transport you into a different era yet depressing in his newly discovered love for humanity.  A man suddenly appreciative of the beauty of mortality after becoming immortal.  But, I digress.


“For most mortals, a conversation with a vampire is fascinating for the simple fact that history is changing before their very eyes, it’s evolving with perfect clarity, allowing you an opportunity to live hundreds of years ago just as another human did.  Could you imagine walking down Bourbon Street with Louis, avoiding horses and carriages as gas-lamps flickered overhead like dancing motes of fire?  Or wading through streets filled with suits and corsets flowing in and out of cabarets like colorful debris after a heavy rain?  This was of course a result of the influx of inhabitants flooding the city, bringing with them an endless night that blanketed the city in an ethereal blanket of pleasure.  Unfortunately, Louis found this to dampen his love for mortals – their incessant raucous, the choking numbers, the ease and sheer anonymity of preying on unsuspecting victims where one would disappear and another would take their place immediately.  And luckily this growing dislike of humanity allowed Louis to expand his palette and finally eat something bipedal – the rat phase was quite revolting.  Still, for all his brooding, Louis did part with some worth-while advice: “…our eternal life was useless to us if we did not see the beauty around us.” And there was beauty — the apartment Louis and Lestat lived in was the epitome of beauty, adorned with crystal chandeliers and Oriental carpets, painted Chinese vases, delicate marble Grecian gods that danced under the songs of golden canaries. And the beauty of freedom for Louis, for it was in this apartment that he murdered Lestat — his friend, companion, and savior.

“Today, the beauty of the old world is hidden beneath a haze of iridescent lights, squished between towers of glass that scrape the sky.  Even the welcoming shudder of passing streetcars is drowned out by traffic and blaring car-radios.  The marble tombs of the deceased that slumber peacefully in Lafayette Cemetery are no longer interrupted by grave diggers burying plague victims, they’re interrupted by street peddlers selling cheap wares and tour guides attempting to out-do one another. 


“But still, the history is here – and that is truly a comforting feeling.  Everywhere you look betrays a nook where Capote wrote or a bar that Hemingway drank in.  Where you can step into Preservation Hall and be asked to just watch and listen without the urge to capture what you’re experiencing, to live in the moment of that extant jazz.  Gothic mansions rise behind the modern businesses of Magazine Street, reminding you the past is never far away.  No matter where you walk, if you look upwards you’ll find people drinking, smoking, reading at a table on their wrap around balcony, jazz playing all night through open parlor doors, and the sound of life forever on the wind.  It’s the reason why New Orleans is so fascinating, because its history refuses to leave. Because it still deserves its place in the city.”


“Wow, interesting story,” I said to the man, not wanting to be rude as we waited alone for the streetcar.  “Are you a writer?”


“I didn’t tell you?” he asked with a sharp smile. “My name is Lestat.”

Slumbering in Grand Isle


“Gimme the loot"

Jean Lafitte, the legendary Grand Isle pirate

Nestled fifty miles south of New Orleans is Grand Isle, an island where time has seemingly been forgotten, where the only constants are yesterday’s newspaper at your doorstep and the perpetual symphony of the waves floating upon the air.  The island itself is tiny – 8 square miles with a population of around 1,500 people (summer numbers swell high to 20,000) – yet its history is massive.  At one point, Grand Isle was a base of operations for the dreamy corsair, Jean Lafitte, and his band of pirates.  At another point it was an island of brutal slave camps for sugar production. 


In Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Awakening”, Grand Isle has once more changed its very nature into an island resort for the rich and stylish Creole families desiring to escape the busy life of New Orleans.  Our protagonist, Kentucky-native, Edna Pontellier, is trying to find herself in Creole culture, an exotic culture she can’t quite seem to grasp.  Her passions lie far beyond doting mother and dutiful wife, deep into the realms of sexual freedom and art, in self-exploration and independence.  And yet, she is a walking paradox.  Her talk of grand action is frequently met with periods of pampered torpor; she feels alone in the world yet is surrounded by family members who love her, friends who seek out her company, and men who prostrate themselves at her feet; and perhaps the most absurd, is her want to conquer her own destiny yet ultimately kills herself in the Gulf – a body of water she often speaks highly of.  But perhaps, in some morbid train of thought, that’s the ultimate act of mastering your destiny.



In the same vein, Grand Isle is as much an enigmatic character as Edna Pontellier.  It is an island that shamelessly adapted its slave quarters into vacation cottages, where the ratio of dilapidated buildings to functional buildings is almost 1:1, and the beautiful grasses are fertilized with bottles of Jack Daniels and crushed Marlboros.  When you close your eyes on the beach it’s easy to forget the massive oil rigs peppering the horizon like steel tombstones.  Waking up outside leaves you wondering what century you’re currently in and how much time has passed since you fell asleep.   



In fact, it’s easy to forget just where you are lying on that beach, and that’s the point of Grand Isle.  It’s an escape to a different world, where cultures collide in a rich union of old and new, hauntingly poor and uniquely elegant.  The pace of life lies somewhere between sipping a beer on the balcony and watching the world pass you by via massive cargo ships and fishing boats and it seems that taking a step off the island in any direction catapults you back into real-time, back into the advancing world.  Grand Isle is a haze, a gently placed veil over your eyes that sweeps you off your feet and into a languid embrace.  Considering New Orleans is next on the list, Grand Isle is truly a calm before the storm.          

“There was with her an overwhelming feeling of irresponsibility. There was the shock of the unexpected and the unaccustomed.”