How’s Bayou? Tryin' to make it in Treme
The writers, director and producer of the hit television show “Treme” are extremely clever folk. But they overlooked a gold mine in Henry Mansion -- longtime resident of Treme, who was glorified by family and friends last Friday, the 13th , in the iconic St. Augustine Catholic Church on Governor Nicholls Street, smack dab in the heart of that now-famous historic district.
Henry started working for my mother at Dixie Art – my other managerial hat – in 1944, two years before I was born. He attended Booker T. Washington school, then enlisted in the United States Navy and ended his maritime career in the Merchant Marine.
When Henry applied for the job, it had been filled; but he overheard Charlie, the shipping manager, say that the new man was coming in at noon. Henry went for a smoke, grabbed a sandwich, and stood outside the store. When no one had passed him by 1 o’clock, he went in and claimed the job for himself.
Henry never let an opportunity slip by. My father, whom Henry always called Kay, told him on day one, “Henry, you’ve just come from a sailor’s life; on land, you need to put something away for the future.”
“So I went straight to the Whitney bank with my first paycheck and opened a savings account. Now Henry’s got a nice little sum sitting there,” he confided to me when I opened my first account at the Whitney in 1964.
Henry was very protective of me and my brother, Don. One day at the store, he took me aside and confronted me with a cellophane-wrapped mailer.
“Here,” he whispered under his breath, “I pulled this sex magazine out of the mail before your mamma saw it.”
I glanced down at the promotional mailer for Men’s Journal -- or some such guy magazine -- with the featured cover story, “You and Your Prostate: Getting Aquainted.”
“Thanks, Henry,” I replied. “ ’Preciate that.”
Henry was notorious around town as he drove the Dixie Art delivery van, which artist Steve Singer had disguised as a large Checker Cab with Toulouse Lautrec and one of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon sitting in the back seat. When Henry backed into a parking spot, pedestrians scattered, thinking there was about to be a collision between a van and a cab. Henry would just chuckle, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.”
Henry almost ruined my chances of becoming President of the United States. He often helped out at Madewood in the early days. One weekend, while we were hanging a piece of Sheetrock in an outbuilding, the utility knife in Henry’s hand slipped and glided right over my wrist as I held the panel.
Blood everywhere. Improvised tourniquet. Emergency room. In the block marked Reason for Admission, the nurse had written: “Slashed wrist.”
What if I ever ran for high public office? I quickly drew Henry into the conversation, describing how the slash was his fault. The revised form read “Cut received while doing construction.” If Henry hadn’t passed last week, he and I could have joined the dwindling list of 2012 wannabes.
Henry would have thought, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.”
Henry was a real craftsman and completely renovated his house on Treme Street -- in the Treme, of course. The beating heart of Henry’s complex was “The Shed.” Henry had at least one of every screw ever produced in a jar or can in that shed. Odd piece of wood? Check. Outsize wing nut? “Lemme see. I think I got one of those in back,” Henry would say.
But Henry’s true treasure was “The Pipe.” An ordinary 60-inch piece of galvanized pipe, it was his all-purpose problem solver.
“Wait a minute,” he’d say, “you gonna hurt yourself. Put that down and let me go get The Pipe.” Sure enough, with the pipe placed under the front edge of the flatfile, display case or huge-easel-bought-by-Billy-Joel-for-Christie-Brinkley (WAY back then), the hefty item could be rolled along at a brisk clip to its final destination.
When Dixie Art was in the building on Julia Street that now houses the Louisiana Children's Museum, Henry never minded walking deliveries through the business district and the French Quarter on his way home. He was tolerant of everyone around him, and loved our customers.
“I dropped off some boards last night at the Gay and Lisbon Center on Rampart,” he told me one morning. “Nice place, all fixed up. Good people.”
Ladies from Portugal, anyone? “Ain’t nothin' wrong with that.”
As one of his granddaughters recalled at the service last Friday, Henry was always “Tryin’ to make it.” At least a dozen times a day you’d hear that phrase as customers asked how he was doing.
As I took a final look at Henry, lying beneath the Sevres-pink adornments in the church, my eyes quickly scanned the open casket to see if, like a favorite teddy bear, The Pipe was in there, ready for this earthly Mansion to help the Lord with those many rooms in His Mansion in the Sky.
I’ve never heard anything about a Shed in Heaven. But there “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.” ‘Cause if St. Peter’s podium needs a shim or has to be moved across the Kingdom, Henry’s there.
How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.