In the past, in the human narrative, we honored Kings and Queens, people we revered as better than ourselves and in some cases as ordained by God. They chopped off heads and married their brothers and sisters to attain decision-making control of the masses, manipulating laws and raising taxes as needed to build castles and wage war and, maybe, in one fortunate era or two, to care for the poor (basically, everybody else).
I thought about this last week while watching, for the first time since I was twelve, Fiddler on the Roof. My memory romanticized the musical, as I recall singing around the piano with my mother and sister, “If I Were a Rich Man,” or more often,
“For Papa, make him a scholar
For Mama, make him rich as a King
For me, well, I wouldn’t holler if he were as handsome as anything!”
I remembered the romance and forgot the poverty, about the tailor Motel saving his money for more than two years for a sewing machine, about his wife Tzietl, who preferred the impoverished Motel’s love to her parents’ choice, the wealthy butcher. I also forgot, to my horror, that in the end both rich and poor alike succumb to the antisemitic discrimination and banishment by the leaders and politicians of Czarist Russia.
“It’s the Saga of the Acadians,” I told my husband, referring to the Grand Dérangement of 1755. “Why didn’t I see it?”
“Politics are everywhere,” he reminded me Saturday night at the Endymion Extravaganza. “I just talked to three different people vying for Lieutenant Governor.”
Thirty years later, for me, not much has changed. I’ve faced up to the movie, yet I eschew the news.
But it’s hard to avoid politics and opinions in Louisiana. Our history is colorful, whether Huey Long’s assassination or Earl Long’s Blaze Starr.
In the early 1990s on a flight from Los Angeles to Monterey, California, I blushed with embarrassment as I read the L.A. Times and the headline,
“The Crook, the Nazi or the Guru: Who Will be Louisiana’s Next Governor?”
There is no escape.
A few years ago, my husband and I, visiting Connecticut, argued over whether or not to accept a dinner invitation from a prominent U.S. Senator and his family. They had Louisiana ties and admired George’s Cajun paintings.
We met them at a five-star restaurant, where the eight of us dined on a $200/head prix fixe meal, accompanied by Dom Pérignon champagne.
The Senator’s father-n-law told us a story of a famous American landscape painting, recently at auction, in need of restoration and much desired by his wife. The Senator, he explained, allotted money for the purchase and repair of the painting, destined for a museum, as an earmark at the bottom of a complicated and lengthy transportation bill. As he expected, the voters did not notice this last minute change, and the painting ‘was saved.’
That evening, the Senator presented his mother-n-law with the only key to a new building on his property, a private museum, inaccessible to the public, and now housing the canvas.
Choking on the champagne toast, I excused myself from the table and headed to the kitchen. There I found our nervous waiter and placed $100 in his hand, as I apologized for the rude behavior of our host, a man who barked orders and complained throughout the dinner. Yet this gesture did not salvage the evening or my conscience, as the waiter returned the money and begged me to remain quiet.
“One word from [our host],” he explained, “and I’m fired.”
Later at the hotel, my husband apologized and uttered those rare words,
“I should have listened to you.”
And indeed, he politely declines such invitations ever since.
As for me, I now spend an hour or more in the voting booth, reading every word, and weighing anything appearing extra against the importance of a change. I read New York’s Mira Schor for my left and feminist politics and count on Louisiana’s young and dare-I-say progressive Jason Doré for the right. I remain disappointed in Obama, conciliatory towards Hillary, terrified of Palin, and yet curious about the next Republican candidate.
I study the faces of smiling politicians, looking in their eyes for ulterior motives, and wondering if any of them understands the people of this country. Or do they remain, always, out-of-touch, peering at us from the castle, from behind the ego’s fortress?
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
A look at art critics and museums from the early 1970s in this week’s Musings of an Artist’s Wife-