Of bread and stars

14 February 2012, from Acadiana

Highway 182 draws a gentle half-circle through Acadiana, a hundred and fifty miles of two-lane blacktop, playfully jostling with the nearby freeways (mostly I-49 and Highway 90), shifting identities (becoming University Avenue in Lafayette), acting interchangeably as business route, scenic highway, and gateway to places that modernity long passed by.

In New Iberia, I stop to get lunch and wander the town. The downtown feels like it doesn’t know if it’s living or dying. There are plenty of closed-up or empty shops, yet a few places seem well-kept and well-traveled. Potentiality floats in the air, a sense of things coming, but maybe it just a hope. There is an absurd number of formal clothing shops selling tuxedos and gowns, and in some sort of strange symbiosis, an almost equivalent number of portrait-photography businesses.

Across from the bright neon of the oyster & sushi bar, I pass a restaurant with less brash signage but a good feeling. I walk back, and indeed, it is the right place to eat: Victor’s Cafeteria, clearly the local favorite. It’s cafeteria style, which around here means you pick up a tray, then order an entree and side dishes and dessert from the array of steaming pots behind the counter. I ask for the pork and turnip stew over rice — the cheery gal informs me the turnips are ‘home-grown’ — and a side of cornbread and coleslaw, and a slice of pecan pie for later. Another woman tallies up my tray and hands me a receipt, which I am to take to the cashier when I’m finished eating. It’s the old Soviet-Southern style, rare these days of hyper-efficient computerized inventory management. Everything’s simply served on sturdy white china, and while a bit heavy, is very good.

Around me is a small crowd of other eaters, obviously all New Iberians. Most of them are older and retired, but at a nearby table sits several businessmen, being businesslike on their newfangled cellphones. On the walls, like so many traditional Louisiana establishments, hang an assortment of posters advertising football and hot sauces, as well as yellowed newspaper articles. A framed sign says, simply, ‘Dave Robicheaux eats here.’ (Later I learn that Robicheaux is the fictional detective of James Lee Burke’s mystery novels, many set in New Iberia.)

A large display sits against one wall, mosaiced with a hundred faded and fuzzy photographs of mostly smiling, and mostly elderly, men and women, all seated at these very tables. Above the images is written ‘World Problem Solvers’ and ‘Nobody Listens to Us’; another set is poignantly labeled ‘From about 1985 — many are no longer with us.’

Coming into Jeanerette, a small red light mounted above the sign for LeJeuene’s Bakery catches my eye. I flash back to my little bible for this region — a now-obsolete mid-1990s edition of the Cajun Country guidebook — and remember a mention of this place. I assumed it would be long gone, swallowed up in the swamps of time. But no, the red light still shines, which means their French bread has just come out of the oven. I pull around the side, the front part of the shop being no longer in use, and park on the gravel driveway along this old brick building. A man meets me inside, asks how he can help, and I ask for some bread. ‘How many loaves?’ I don’t know, I tell him; how large are they? He waves to another fellow farther back — ‘Show him a loaf!’ and the man picks up a beautiful golden loaf, irregular and huge. I smile, and say, ‘Just one, then,’ and they ring it up at the old cash register.

I ask if they mind if I take some photos, which they don’t, so I return to the car, drop off the gigantic loaf, and get my camera. Back inside, the guys are easy-going, tired now but cheerful and satisfied after a long day of work; they’d arrived at one-thirty in the morning, and now it was just after two in the afternoon. An older man, Millard, adopts me and shows me the various equipment. It all looks ancient. Millard shows me the ‘new oven,’ a monster of a machine with large internal rotating racks like a waterwheel, maybe 15 feet in diameter, on which lie the loaves of baking bread; the whole thing circulates over a gas flame to cook the bread to their perfection. Then he points to the ‘old oven,’ which could easily date back to 1884, when the bakery was started. But besides the gargantuan mixers and the great rotating wheel of the oven, there’s nothing automated here: no conveyor belts, no premixed ingredients, no frozen dough, no preservatives. In the middle of the room, there’s a single huge table where all the bread is kneaded by hand.

I’d assumed Millard was the owner, but he corrects me and points to Matt LeJeune, the fifth generation of LeJeune to run the bakery. Matt’s in his forties, a big but kind fellow, with a wide smile but a lot fewer words to say than Millard. Not much has changed since Matt’s great-great-grandfather started the place: the building is original, the recipes are the same (the French bread lists as its ingredients only flour, water, lard, yeast, salt, sugar, and malt), and even the range of products is not much different. They used to make more cakes, but now they concentrate mostly on bread, which is shipped to hungry mouths all over Acadiana.

Millard grew up here in Jeanerette, and apart from a few years in Baton Rouge, has always lived here. He says he’s been coming to the bakery since he was eighteen, and he’s 71 now. He worked full-time in the bakery for some years, but now comes in just for fun: ‘Once a month, I come in and put in a hard day’s work.’

It’s time to head home for the men — Matt’s already left — and I say my goodbye’s all around. Back in the car, the warm loaf I bought has filled the air with its scent. It is the sweet smell of time itself, 125 years of dough rising.

On the south end of Jeanerette, I spot a tiny, neat sign labeled ‘Justin’s Observatory,’ pointing back from the street towards an old house, and a garage topped with a strange dome. This sight is one I had an inkling about, a hint from my long-obsolete Cajun Country guidebook, but one I was not expecting to find: a home-built observatory, and an amateur astronomer named Justin LaRive.

I park in the driveway, get out and ring the doorbell, and three dogs immediately race out behind a fence to greet me, chaotically jumping and barking at me and each other. After a long while, the door opens.

I introduce myself to Justin. He waves me into his kitchen, motions me to a chair at the table. It’s a tidy place, but packed full of stuff. Along one wall is a computer desk with two LCD monitors displaying photographs on its dissolving screensaver. Scattered about is a variety of weather monitoring equipment — dials, gauges, and displays. Astronomy books are packed into a small bookcase. Family photographs dot the walls. The dogs continue to bark outside.

‘I don’t run the observatory anymore,’ he says, almost immediately. ‘I’m too old, and too sick.’ He’s 67, he tells me, and recently had bypass surgery. A few years back he had melanoma, and points to his forehead, where he says the doctors removed the cancer — they hope. When he was 35, he had some mysterious sickness, maybe an undiagnosed heart attack, and has never since felt truly well. Both his wife and his recent partner passed away from cancer. He lights up a cigarette. ‘The doctors say I shouldn’t, but it gives me something to do.’

I ask about the observatory. He goes to the bookshelf and pulls out a well-worn scrapbook filled with newspaper articles and a few photos of him at work, up in the dome, posing while looking at books or through the eyepiece of a telescope. He’s gotten a lot of press over the years since he built the observatory in 1984. There was even some sort of documentary film, though the traces of that seem to be lost.

Jeanerette used to be a thriving town, Justin explains, with many ballrooms along the main street, and even a streetcar line that ran up to its then-smaller neighbor New Iberia; now, Jeanerette has dwindled to 6,000 souls, a fifth the size of the modern sprawl of New Iberia. All the ballrooms are gone now, the streetcar disappeared, and what remains, to Justin, is a town dissatisfied with itself, conflicted, unable to move forward, stuck in the resentments of the past.

Justin feels that resentment personally. The town didn’t appreciate him, nor did the schools to whom he offered this amazing gift of an actual astronomical observatory in this small community. He sighs, and in that sigh I detect some sort of expectation never satisfied, a secret hope never fulfilled.

Unexpectedly, we talk about 2012, the supposed end of the world, as predicted by the the Mayan calendars. Justin says this same cycle has happened thousands of times in the past, and it will continue to do so. Perhaps we will notice it, and if we do, there’s nothing to be done about it, but to observe, and try to learn. Justin is no hippy; hell, he’s not really eccentric, minus the fact that he’s an amateur astronomer without a college education, who built his own observatory in a tiny uninterested town in southwest Louisiana.

He gives me a tour of his house. It’s one of the oldest houses in town, with 14-foot ceilings, but a bit gloomy. As he guides me through each darkened room, flicking on a dim light or two, he reveals marvels: large and complex models he’s built of ships and cities, and vibrant paintings done by his talented son, who lives nearby. I am lost in the maze of rooms, all turned around, unsure how deep we’ve gone. But eventually we return to the kitchen, and the light of the afternoon, and the barking dogs.

He shifts his chair to the computer desk, and nudges the mouse to wake up the screensaver. ‘Let me show you something.’ He clicks an icon, and the desktop dissolves into a field of stars. It’s Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope, and we’re peering into the universe, through the graces of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Justin nimbly pans using the mouse, and the sky shifts, stars tracking across the field of black space. He’s pointing out constellations that appear, augmented with the software’s geometric visualizations. He looks for Orion’s Belt, finds it, flicks the mouse wheel to zoom, and we shoot far out past out solar system. Clusters of stars and colorful gases slide into focus: it’s the Orion Nebula in front of us, the screen exploding now with the brilliant purples and blues and yellows and greens of the nebula’s gaseous storms. We zoom back, and Justin finds Saturn, then creeps our position slowly up and down so we can truly see the magnificent planet and its rings. We’re seeing all this not by climbing the steep stairs to the old observatory and peering through the optics of the telescope’s lens, but through the evanescent pixels on this liquid crystal screen in his kitchen.

I see in Justin’s eyes the pale yellow reflection of Saturn, the twinkle of stars, and maybe something more. He is silent, calm. He peers into that darkness peppered with bright specks, gazing across half a billion miles of space.