Thursday, September 27, 2012

Social Media and Social Contracts

The ringing in my ears almost drowns out the growling in my stomach. I can still hear the author's voice machine gunning from my car speakers earlier in the day: ‘Using social media will make your customers feel appreciated!’

The book's title suggested an attitude of gratitude that the author was eager to share. It was only a suggestion. Instead, the author insisted I use a multi-pronged attack to smother the public with My Brand. I was to launch aural and visual assaults in order to ‘increase customer loyalty and my profits!’

While my ears ring, I'm holding my tent bag and searching for the driest mud at Lake End Park Campground in Morgan City, Louisiana. A tree and picnic table preserve the deepest mud beneath them; I unfurl my tent in the least unappealing spot.

As I pound tent stakes, a pimped out golf cart cruises over from the RV sites. It circles the tent sites. The cart pumps music as the occupants’ heads swivel to watch me. A second cart, with pinkish-orange tube lights, slows to gawk at tenters in their native habitat.

I’m disgusted with myself for wasting a day on the unrelentingly unhelpful audio book and I don't want to spend the evening as a performance artist. I cancel my Basmati Rice and Alu Mattar Show for the evening. I flee the zoo for dinner out.

The Morgan City Library has free wifi for Googling restaurants. The low brick building crouches in the shadow of the City Hall water tower on a street that makes a full stop at the Atchafalaya River.

The library groans with shelves that force me to turn sideways to pass between them. Plastic grocery bags and boxes of paperback books sag in a corner; stacks of newspapers ooze from shelves along the back wall.

I find Rita Mae’s Kitchen on a straight forward page at morgancitymain- The restaurant apologizes for not serving alcohol and offers a "nice, cozy, and respectable environment for you, the customer." A review on Urbanspoon says, “Home Cook'N At It's BEST !!!” I head to a home without mud or an audience.

The restaurant is on the far side of Lawrence Park, the sound stage for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival each September. U.S. Highway 90 thunders overhead at the end of Rita Mae’s block. Travelers on their way to Lafayette or New Orleans can’t stop for slow food. They’ll get off their cell phones long enough to stop at golden arches or a big red B for meals with no surprises or love.

Rita Mae welcomes hungry diners in a yellow house on Federal Street. The enclosed porch is lined with a counter and stools overlooking angle parking and a snippet of thick tropical lawn. Inside, in what had been the living room, a note near the cash register reminds, "Don't forget the customer on the porch."

Window air conditioners rattle cool, dry air into each of three rooms. Round and rectangular tables, attended by maroon dinette chairs, invite me to sit and stay a while. A TV newscaster talks quietly on screen. The ringing in my ears fades to the cadence of the local news.

I select a round table. A young woman appears at the kitchen door and is surprised to see me. I ask for the smothered okra and shrimp over rice special on the chalkboard and she disappears without writing a ticket.

People are eating at two or three of the other tables. Families talk about school and work; friends catch up. A procession of men and women pick up food to go. A man I learn later is Rita Mae’s son, Harry, lugs bags of crab burgers, po’ boys, breaded pork chops, catfish, and seafood gumbo out of the kitchen. He’s a good-sized walking advertisement for the food. Harry greets everyone and catches up with them before they take dinner home.

Rita Mae's okra and shrimp reminds me of supakanja in my Senegalese Peace Corps village. The concoction stopped me cold the first time I faced it in the communal bowl: slimy okra, lumpy-orange industrial-tasting unrefined palm oil, fermented tree seeds, and dried, smoked fish mashed together and served on top of an otherwise perfectly good bowl of rice. But supakanja and the tropical heat wore me down and I grew to love the strong flavors and distinctive textures of the dish.

A woman in honestly worn jeans and a sleeveless shirt that proves women sweat has a few minutes before Harry brings her food out. She identifies me as a new arrival and appoints herself my guide. First, she tidies up my pronunciation of Ata-, Achl-, Afla-, At-cha-fa-la-ya. Her husband catches crawfish on the At-cha-fa-la-ya and she mows lawns in Morgan City.

Her husband and his helper took a swim when their crawfish boat flipped this morning. No one was lost, including the $900 of catch. Last year, 2010, was her husband’s best crawfish year ever. This year, he's making a fraction as much. "The water went down too fast and the crawfish hardened up too soon," she explains. She leaves with her food before I can ask about hardening crawfish.

I have room for bread pudding, but no one asks if I want anything more. No one brings a check. I watch TV as the tide of customers turns from incoming to outgoing.

Sometime after dark, I realize that satisfied diners get up and walk to the register, which makes Harry appear. The floor bows in his honor each time he passes my table. I try it and Harry appears for me, too. He remembers what I ate and I pay for it.

Smothered okra isn’t on the chalkboard when I return to Rita Mae’s two nights later. But Harry finds some in the kitchen and customizes it with an extra side of peas. It’s my second meal at Rita Mae's and I’m family.

After my okra and peas, I consume a bowl of bread pudding that would have fed my Senegalese host family of 13 and top off the evening with a long conversation with Harry at the register. He says he heard me tell the woman who mows lawns that I can’t seem to get enough vegetables when I travel.

Harry tried driving truck Up North a time or two, but it wasn’t for him. The North, or the driving, I can’t tell, but it wasn't the work God gave him to do. He is a cook. Harry cooked on a barge that plied the Intercoastal Waterway, which provides safe passage between Texas and New Jersey. Harry cooked on oilrigs, where his meals must have been the high point of a duty station with nothing to look at but water. Now, he’s back home in Morgan City, cooking at his family’s restaurant.

I doubt Rita Mae has spent a day listening to an audio book on social media. I don’t think she Tweets, blogs, or uses Groupon. She doesn’t need social media; she lives her social contract. Rita Mae and her family don’t look for ways to increase their profits; they provide good food in a pleasant place. Rita Mae doesn’t make her customers “feel appreciated”; she shows her guests they’re loved.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Tenter’s Lament

Every law enforcement officer who has checked my record has found it clean1.
I’m a well-behaved AARP member (if you overlook the fake address I listed to dodge their blizzard of junk mail). When I camp I'm in my sleeping bag by 9 pm, never have a barking dog in my tent, and only throw rocks at raccoons that are chewing through the strap on my ice chest.

But I’m often the riffraff that campgrounds want to keep out. Especially in Louisiana, where I visited last summer.

I should have been suspicious of the bear story. The high school student in the entrance booth at Kemper Williams Park seemed a bit too happy to tell me that they had closed the tent sites because of a lurking bear. "How about I stay, but I don’t sleep on the bacon"? I asked. She suggested I try Lincoln Park in Morgan City, LA, just down the road.

While I was looking for Lincoln Park on the north side of town, I saw Lake End Park and pulled in (by the third day I realized there was no "Lincoln Park"). It was Kemper Williams’ week to use the bear story, so they let me stay. In a tent site--no tents in the RV sites.

The tent sites are in the corner of the park where the highway makes a right angle turn and the jake brakes roar

Tenters have prime waterfront real estate at Lake End. Right on the green water of the ditch.

Large trees shade the tent sites, protecting us from the icy 80o breezes off the lake and preserving the mud puddles under the picnic tables and the mold growing in the food spilled on top.

The one women’s shower needs a PSA test right away. You can collect enough water to lather up by rubbing your washcloth along the wall directly below the dribbling shower head. After a good lather, just rub yourself back and forth on the wall to rinse off.

Your clean clothes, dirty clothes, towel, and toiletries hanging on the single hook or slung over the stall door are in no danger of being splashed.

The only fan in the women’s bathroom/shower was small, disassembled, and stationary when I visited. Getting ready in the morning took longer than usual because I had to make periodic trips outside into the lower (80%) humidity to let enough sweat evaporate off my face that the next layer of makeup would stick to it.

I brought performance art to Lake End Park. A cloud of golf carts had hitched rides into the park with the RVs. A parade of low-rider carts, lights blazing and music pumping, circled around and around at dusk and beyond. The drivers toured the parking lots and recircled through the parking area in front of the tent sites. Cart after noisy cart slowed and heads swiveled to watch me feeding and grooming myself in my native habitat.

In the mornings a foot parade of retired Morganites perambulated the park. They strode the path behind the tent sites and only watched out of the corner of their eye. I said good morning to one septuagenarian and heard his complete medical history in reply.

On a day trip to Cocodrie, LA I looked for a campground with fewer

spectators. I searched for tent sites in Amelia and Gibson, then turned on to Bayou Black Drive. I pulled into every campground along the necklace of lots clinging to the ribbon of raised road bed between Gibson and the outskirts of Houma.

I assured each campground owner that the parish sheriff hadn’t been summoned to Palmetto Island or Lake Fausse Pointe State Parks, where I'd stayed the previous week. I reminded them of my clean record ("never convicted"), gave them my Dun’s number, and cited my stratospheric credit score. I offered college transcripts and a letter from my mother. No dice; no tenters.

On my last morning at Lake End I took a walk over to the RVers side of the park and fell down a marsh rabbit hole. As I tumbled, I saw breezy RV sites next to the lake

and partially shaded ones nearby.

I bumped my head as I careened down the rabbit hole and saw a large building with restrooms. I went in and turned on one of the many showers. I jumped back as a torrent of water gushed past me.

I caught a glimpse of dual vents in the ceiling

and heard the roar of ventilation fans as I stepped back outside.

I woke up and hit the road to Slidell, LA, which doesn't seem to have crosswalks or pedestrian crossing signals. I stayed in the Motel 6 and no one watched me.

I never found a private campground in Louisiana that would let me spend the night. Lake End is a city park and the other places I stayed were state parks.

State and federal campgrounds allow tenters and RVers access to all sites and facilities. But there's a whole lot of real estate without these public services, especially in the eastern U.S. Lake End Park has the greatest contrast between RV and tent sites and facilities that I’ve seen, but the pattern is familiar. Private campgrounds that allow tenters usually sequester them in the noisiest, muddiest, dankest corner, as far away from the quiet, peaceful, dry RV sites as possible. When tenters’ facilities are separate, they are not equal; they are separate and unequal.


My visit to Louisiana made me think that tenters are being discriminated against. Now I wonder if there's something about me that campgrounds don't like: Am I not supposed to be still camping at my age? When I'm pleasant to the attendant at check-in, do I seem like a push-over who won't complain? (Well, OK, that last part's true. But I have a blog now.)

Last month I hit Tillamook, Oregon the same week as the County Fair. I finally found a tent site at the Tillamook/Bay City RV Park. The attendant was sorry to tell me that the only tent site she had was "a narrow one." "Narrow" being less than 10 feet wide. She didn’t mention that the "narrow" site was in the farthest corner of the park by the highway intersection or that it was less than 10 feet from the sewage outfall, where every night-time toilet flush would echo up the casing.

The next morning there were still several unoccupied spacious tent sites away from the highway and sewage outfall. There must have been a terrible highway accident to prevent that many people from making it to their reserved sites. I'm surprised I didn't hear the sirens--I was right next to the highway.

But please don't think that my narrow site was completely lacking in amenities. It did have artwork.


1When three county sheriff’s deputies converged on me last April I was pulling weeds on my mother’s farm. My family has been pulling weeds there for 147 years. We’re not done yet.