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Upfront: A way of life on Barataria Boulevard (Part 1)

Self-portrait of Shelbey Leco with her mother, Marie Palermo Leco, and father, Vincent Joseph Leco Jr., includes fava beans in honor of her Sicilian heritage and fish for her Filipino and Cajun heritage.

Editor's Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.

A Townie

My name is Shelbey Leco. I’ve lived in southern Louisiana all of my life. I’m what you call a ‘townie.” I’ve never heard this term before until my ex-boyfriend, Dallas, used it one day. I was house-sitting out in the Irish Channel. Dallas came over and we walked down to Magazine Street to Basin to have dinner. Dallas said we should go because of the great food and the nice view. It was a beautiful sunny evening; we sat outside on the front patio facing the busy street across from the Breaux Mart. The metal mesh patio tables were so close to the sidewalk. I could smell the light perfume of all the beautifully dressed people passing us by, and began to feel self-conscious about my outfit.

I was dressed in a loose worn out black t-shirt and a faded yellow jean skirt with little tears in it that reached down to my knees. I also had my dark black combat boots on, scuffed from the soul to the tops of my shoes. I did most of my shopping down at the Thrift City USA off Lapalco Boulevard. Dallas and I always had great conversations, never dull. Our topic of conversation for that afternoon was about how we were so different from each other. We asked one another what category of people each of us were: I quickly came to the solution, “You’re a hippie.” He had told me so many stories and each one seemed to occur in different places: Maine, New Mexico, Colorado, Louisiana, Austria, and Spain. Trying to piece together the time line of Dallas’ life and align the places they were in was always a struggle for me. He was also always dressed so causally: a worn out white t-shirt with remnants of saw dust, navy blue mesh shorts, and his notorious light brown sandals. The ones he got more shit about than compliments.

The category I chose for myself was “hood” because people could always tell that I was from the Westbank. On the other side of the Mississippi River from the city, it is a part of the New Orleans’ mostly resisdential, suburban neighborhoods. At the time, if I had to choose one word to describe the Westbank it would be ghetto.

The Westbank is driving down Barataira Boulevard It is going to the neighborhood Walmart and smelling freshly soiled baby diapers all over the parking lot ground and shattered fragments of beer bottles. You’ll see plastic grocery bags stuck in the flowering bushes with purple lipstick cigarette buds caught in the soil. You’ll see young mothers loading groceries in the trunks of beat up silver Hondas holding their new born in one arm while loading their groceries with the other, yelling at their baby daddy with their phone pushed up between their shoulders and face. You’ll see white suburban moms hastily running out of the store with their shopping carts to their SUVs trying to complete a list of errands that takes all day. You’ll see families coming out the store with two shopping carts pouring over with groceries in one hand, liquor and smokes in the other, with seven or eight of their kids running ahead to the car. The groceries they pay with their food stamp cards and the liquor with huge wads of cash.

You’ll see tricked out pick-up trucks playing Future’s “Low Life” coming through newly installed speakers with the bass so high that the entire ground vibrates and the LED lights shines around illuminating the dimly lit area. You’ll see girls sitting in their cars trying to apply heavy eyeliner across their heavily shaded eye make-up in the rearview before they start their server jobs. You’ll see young kids smoking weed outside, and instead of people looking at them in a deviant way whoever passes by wanna know where they get their shit. You’ll see little old white ladies in the garden trying to keep to themselves, and you find the little old black ladies at the deli counter arguing with employees about why the Chisesi ham isn’t on roll back.

The Westbank is passing up the Jefferson Parish Credit Union. You can never drive up to the ATM to deposit your cash because nine times out 10 you’ll see a man sitting on a worn-out, white scuffed bucket with a shadow across his face from his baseball cap. His van will most likely be blocking the ATM drive through. You’ll only see his face when his head turns up towards the sun to tell you, along with the other dozens of people, that the ATM is out of order.

As soon as the word “hood” came out of my mouth, Dallas abruptly interrupted me. “You’re not hood. You’re a townie. You’re a fighter, a babe. You like R&B. You’re sweet and you’re salty.” I gave him a puzzled look and proceeded with my question, “What’s a townie?” He laughed at me. He always laughs at me, even when I’m serious, which makes me self-conscious. With an age gap of 16 years, I a felt naïve whenever I wanted to know something I didn’t fully understand.

In order to explain this foreign terminology, Dallas had to give me some background knowledge. “Okay, townie. A townie is a local kid who shows up at a college party. The college is in his/her town, but all the college kids are from another state, privileged (and stuck up). When I was at Colorado College, we were intimidated by the townies. We didn’t want them at our parties because we were scared of them. We probably didn’t want the competition for the girls and townies had different codes than us. They were a different community.”

After his explanation, I came to the conclusion that this new term was used in a derogatory way against me. Despite Dallas view, “I think the difference between a townie (you) and someone like me, whatever I am, is that I live my life based on the assumption that I’ll move, that there’s more out there, that happiness is something I can find through exploring the world and that affects how I use my energy and the promises I make. Whereas a townie had his/her whole world in front of her and puts all of her heart and energy into the place she’s in. Neither is right or wrong, both have beautiful aspects and big downsides. But that, in my view, is the heart of the difference.”

Maybe he wasn’t trying to disrespect me, but then again maybe he was. I came from a small town lower, middle-class family. I grew up in Marrero right off the Barataria Boulevard Exit on Avenue B, close to the Fourth Street side. My church, my school, my first job, my family, my friends, and the homes I’ve lived in were all in my community, the Westbank. Everything I’ve ever known to know is in my community. As much as I didn’t want to be a townie…I was.

Dallas tried to reassure me, “I called you a townie because you were born and raised in New Orleans and had never really been anywhere else. I called you a townie as a compliment. I see you as authentic, real. Not trying to fit some stuck up idea of who you should be and how you should fit in.” But I was indignant.

Part 2: Sal’s Seafood

Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at kelley@nolavie.com.