Unfolding the Map
We sidle up to stool in a bar in Opelousas with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and watch as he becomes the uncomfortable butt of a joke. What he really wants to find is a place with Cajun music. That's our next stop. To see Opelousas on the map, click the thumbnail at right.
"'By the way, junior,' he asked casually, 'ever had yourself a Cajun woman?'
"His question silenced the bar. 'Don't think I have.'
"'Got some advice for you then - if you find you ever need it.'
"It was the quietest bar I'd ever been in. I answered so softly no sound came out, and I had to repeat. 'What advice?'
"'Take off your belt before you climb on so you can strap your Yankee ass down because you'llget taken for a ride. Up the walls and around.'
"Now the whole bar was staring. I guess to surmise whether my Yankee ass was worth strapping down. One rusty geezer said, 'Junior ain't got no belt.'
"Walt looked at my suspenders and pulled one, letting it snap back. 'My man,' he said, 'tie on with these and you'll get zanged out the window like in a slingshot.'"
Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 9
I'm not sure what to say about this one, since I've never been to Opelousas, nor a bar in the environs, nor have I ever been in any kind or relationship with a Cajun woman. It's really the only thing that happens to LHM in Opelousas - except that the guy, Walt, who asks him whether he's ever had a Cajun woman, tells him a paragraph later that he should never take offense at what a "Coonass" says. Coonass, of course, is a nickname and sometimes pejorative for a Cajun.
The etymology for the word "Coonass" appears to show that there are disputed origins, and its acceptance among Cajuns often depends on how high on the socio-economic ladder a Cajun stands, with people at the bottom of that ladder wearing it as a badge of pride and people toward the top viewing it as an ethnic slur. It is like the infamous "N" word among African-Americans: a case where it started out as a pejorative term, but then the affected culture appropriated the word. Just as younger blacks, especially among the hip-hop crowd, refer to themselves and each other with a variant of the "N" word but often take offense if an outsider uses the term, so might Cajuns refer to themselves as Coonasses but view it as a terrible slight should a non-Cajun call them by that term. Given the word's unclear beginnings, I'm not sure that I'd want to use it anyway since I don't know exactly what it means - one can often infer meanings of things from inside a particular culture that are invisible or not understandable from the outside.
As for LHM's experience in the bar, I'm inclined toward the "boys will be boys" school. The fact is that when you get a bunch of men together there will be questionable humor. I learned this working in a lumber mill. Humor that was sexual and scatological was rampant throughout the mostly male workforce in the mill, as were actual sexual paraphernalia such as magazines. I remember walking into a "tally shack" where the tallymen added up their figures after a truck was loaded or when they were getting an order ready, and the walls were covered with so many Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler and other magazine centerfolds that there was no sign of the wood underneath. Of course, being a high school boy at the time, I was thrilled at seeing naked women in various erotic poses. I think it provided an outlet for those guys that they didn't get at home because they had to temper these activities and proclivities in the presence of wives and family. It's often made me wonder whether men are just hard-wired for visual sexual imagery in a way that women are not.
Perhaps men are also hard-wired for explicit and frank talk, since I am stepping into the quicksand of generalities. Sexual and scatological jokes among groups of men seem to be de rigeur. In the lumber mill where I worked, if you related a good joke that people liked and felt it worth repeating, you gained a little bit of respect. Being in high school, I didn't have that many good jokes, but I learned a few. Too bad that, now that I'm in my late 40s, I've forgotten a lot of them. Those that I do remember turn out to have been not that funny anyway, and some were downright disgusting, but perhaps I've just gained a more sophisticated sense of humor. Somehow, I doubt it - give me a good fart joke and I'm laughing like a fiend. If I've shocked some of you, I'm sorry.
In that context, LHM's experience of getting ribbed in a bar in Opelousas with reference to a sexual situation is not abnormal, but there are always those people who take it too far, who seem to believe the myths that are propagated by such humor and talk, and of whom such behavior reveals a real fear and/or hatred of the opposite gender. So in that regard, boys may be boys, but there can be a fine line between boys being boys and boys being beasts.
If you want to know more about Opelousas
I had hoped that I could find that the Plantation Lounge, where LHM said he stopped, was still operating, but alas, I couldn't. Here's some other information about Opelousas, though:
Next up: Lafayette, Louisiana