The pockmarked sign proclaiming UNLAWFUL TO LITTER was barely legible. Someone had blasted it point blank with a shotgun, apparently not worried about blowback. “This right here is Dulac bayou. We say down here dem boys do like they please. It takes police forty-five minutes just to get out here, bro,” said Herman in his brackish drawl, a stir pot of Cajun accented southern ghetto slang with a few Creole words sprinkled on to taste. “When people started gettin’ payouts from BP after the spill there was alotta murders. You know, jealous family, jealous neighbors.”
He’d been calling me ‘bro’ since the moment we shook hands in his front yard earlier that day, which was when I first noticed he was missing half of his right index finger. It already felt like days ago.
I’d been driving east through Louisiana on backroads, stopping only for catfish po’boys and gas. My five month road trip across the US was sputtering to the finish line and I was starting to daydream about a semi-normal job featuring a semi-normal routine. I had grown weary of couch surfing, of sleeping in the fetal position in the backseat of my car, of brushing my teeth in Starbucks’ bathrooms, of watching my bank account shrink like Arctic ice-pack, of having no fixed address to give. This current stretch of vagabonding - like the seven months of international travel preceding it - had been motivated by photojournalistic pursuits, and I’d just come from New Mexico where a story about the life of drone pilots had blown up in my face like a defective Hellfire missile when federal agents handcuffed me on an Air Force base for taking a lousy photo in the food court. I was hungry for one last story to dull that defeat.
That’s when I met Herman. He lived in a trailer outside Houma in Terrebone Parish - home of reality TV show ‘Swamp People’ and child star Quvenzhané Wallis from ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. I’d pulled onto the shoulder of a sugarcane road because the scene stopped me cold: two black pit bulls chained to a doghouse spray painted with “BEWARE OF DOG. WILL BITE” were flanked by a murderous looking oak tree with limbs splayed in every direction like chaotic fractals. I knelt to click my camera shutter and the pit bulls choked themselves silly trying to charge. As I considered the durability of their collars the front door of the trailer swung open and a grizzled man in a tank top and baseball cap emerged. I cracked a friendly smirk and explained that I was a photographer from out of town hoping to see the real bayou. He sized me up and then yelled for his son Herman to come outside. The pit bulls relaxed their snarling.
Herman was shorter than me, with beady eyes on a sallow face. He walked with a certain strut and warmed to me without much effort on my part, giving me a tour of the trailer’s muddy grounds while keeping us out of reach from the hell hounds. In the thick woods behind the oak tree he described encounters with wild hogs. Once he’d even released the pit bulls and watched them tear apart the doomed kuchons. Herman was clearly lonely and required little prodding to talk.
The stories poured forth…this had once been plantation land…when slavery was abolished the plantation owner supposedly hung 13 slaves from the oak tree rather than see them go free…the tree was hollow and Herman once hid inside the trunk from police…his father was Blackfoot Indian, his mother Italian…he spoke a little French, a little Italian, a little Creole…he had been the victim of a hit and run years ago which made it impossible to pass a physical and secure decent construction work…an alligator had once snapped at him from the muck-filled moat around their yard as he walked to the mailbox…and so on. I mentioned that I was hoping to see alligators myself. “Bro, you in da upper woods, but I can show you da bayou. Oh yes, my bruthah.”
A few minutes later Herman jumped into my passenger seat. In his hand was a hammer with a bright orange handle that looked coated in flecks of dried blood and peeling rust. “What’s with the hammer?” I asked. “Bro, I probably killed hundreds of alligators with dis thing. See, what you do, you sneak up from behind when dey layin’ out in the sun and hit ‘em on the head in the kill spot. You’ll see.” Herman, it turned out, was a full blown animal poacher. I felt a familiar rush of opportunism as it became clear this guy might be able to key me into an interesting photo story.
We drove deeper into the bayou while he recounted his poaching tactics, which included blowing up levees with dynamite and casting nets across the gushing water to catch shrimp and crawfish. No creature in his kingdom was safe; other prey over the years had included turtle, white cranes, duck, snake, and even raccoons. “Oh man, raccoons is da worst. It take a cold muthah fucka. Dey cover dey eyes up with dem little paws and make a crazy messed up sound. But after you done a few hundred it ain’t so bad, you know?”
The alligator meat was cooked at home or sold on the black market to local restaurants, and the skins were sold to a heart surgeon who lived just down the road. The surgeon then allegedly made illegal exports of the leathery skins to buyers in Italy where they became purses and shoes. Herman described a general disregard for police and the law amongst many bayou folk, especially Native Americans who harbored particular distaste for further encroachments on traditions. Herman’s protests were more utilitarian: “like, if I want to get shrimp, I gotta buy a license, I gotta rent a boat, then I gotta pay for gas and equipment. But how’m I gonna do all that if I got no money? So we just do what we do instead.” His main accomplice since childhood had been his cousin, who was now doing 25 to life in state prison. They had been close friends, and Herman told the story of how he lost half of his index finger on a rusty chain during a heist. Without blinking, his cousin had grabbed his hand to suck the blood and rusty grime off the mangled finger and prevent infection. “I miss my cousin a lot man. If he was here I’d show you things you wouldn’t believe, bro.”
We parked the car and walked along the reedy bayou banks as Herman puffed a Black & Mild cigar. He pointed out tracks in the tall grass where alligators slithered to and fro, but that was the only sign of them the cold February day produced. “Damn man if it was summertime we’d a seen like 10 already.” I felt a funny mixture of relief and disappointment as we walked back, stepping over red and green shotgun shells and broken beer bottles that somebody had used for target practice. Herman picked up one of the bottles and examined the decapitated Modelo, “dis probably from dem Mexican boys,” he wagered. We gave up on alligators.
The sun had nearly set. My plans were to make for New Orleans that evening, and I was now anxious to get back on the road. On the way back to Herman’s trailer we stopped at a gas station so he could buy another Old English malt liquor 40oz. He insisted I hang out awhile and inside we found his father kicked back in a lazy-boy smoking a joint and watching WWF women’s wrestling on an old TV, the muscular bikinis delivering their choreographed clotheslines and dropkicks in hypnotic tempo. I milled about the kitchen, still curious about my surroundings but increasingly prepared to leave them. Herman lit a fresh Black & Mild from the toaster oven and drew my attention to a local Louisiana paper displaying weekly mugshots of sex offenders and thieves. “Man I don’t know why people in the bayou do dis to each other. Must be something in our blood.”
I began to gather myself and inched towards the door, searching for a polite moment to make an exit, but kept getting sucked back in. Herman wanted me to stay the night on his brother’s stained mattress which was covered with dirty laundry and garbage on the floor. Stories continued to flow…his father spoke about the time he had seen the Rugarou with his own eyes, the legendary Creole Sasquatch…a giant hairy thing which crossed the road in two steps…how he doesn’t even bother locking the doors on the trailer because what good is a lock against the Rugarou…their land was haunted by a ghost called ‘The Fella’…a woman accidentally killed by a shotgun during horseplay many years ago…Herman had once seen a girl thrown clean off their porch by this invisible poltergeist, for which he was blamed and arrested…his mother dabbled in voodoo like many locals…and so on.
Herman was getting drunker by the minute, and my hopes that he could make a reliable ‘fixer’ for a photo story I’d begun envisaging about illegal poaching in the bayou were draining with each swig. I kept waiting for a break in conversation to make an exit, but none were availed. His father brought out an armful of Mardi Gras beads as a gift, and insisted that I call one of his old friends who lived in upstate New York when I got back east.
I finally managed to get out the front door onto the porch, where Herman asked me to drive him back to the gas station again. He brown bagged another 40 oz, bought a pack of menthol cigarettes from the cashier and then introduced me to a guy who allegedly refereed an illegal dog fighting ring. I snapped a few photos of them toasting their malt liquors outside the mini-mart’s Ice machine and then drove us back to his house, where seemingly inescapable conversation persisted.
Herman then got the idea to show me an abandoned slave house a few miles down the road. My everyday aplomb was being heavily taxed and I took a quick mental inventory that consisted of saying to myself what the fuck are you doing you really need to bail on this fucking dude already as I heard this same self oblige his proposal yet again.
“Pull over here and put the headlights on the house.” He crossed himself with a prayer that sounded like Creole, then yelled for me to follow him through the window into the crumbling purple and green painted house. ”The spirits are strong in here bro, you know?” Dozens of mummified hornets’ nests adorned the ceiling, illuminated by the flashlight app from my phone. A lime green gas stove blocked the front doorway. “Man if my cousin was here we’d knock down that door and get this stove. Probably worth good scrap money.” I do not believe in ghosts, but the thought of cottonmouth snakes and poisonous spiders was adequately terrifying, and I told him I was done. See you back in the car man. I’m out.
Back outside the trailer he persisted in my passenger seat as I kept the engine running and finally allowed my impatience to join the conversation. His six gold teeth seemed to glow in the dark and he ignored my impatience. Herman had never been outside of Louisiana, but wanted to visit me in New York in “ten years when he got his life together”. New biographical details emerged with each pull from the forty…he was a two time convicted felon…used to be in crack game…alcoholic with ADHD and bi-polar…and so on. ”Man I thought you was my probation officer when you first showed up!” Paranoid undertones crept into the conversation, and he abruptly asked if I was an undercover cop. “bro hold up, you ain’t recording’ me are you? I showed you all my poachin’ spots. You ain’t lyin to me right?” Alarms buzzed in my head, and the rusty hammer on the passenger seat floor at his feet now appeared menacing.
I told him we were done, that it had been fun hanging out and we would keep in touch, but I had three hours of driving ahead of me. He wasn’t hearing it. Now unable to locate his pack of smokes, he insisted I drive him to the store, again. “C’mon man, you’ve driven thousands of miles, what’s another five?” He had me there. A new tension filled the Acura. My palms began to sweat and my right eyelid fluttered as I drove him to the gas station for a third liquor run. “Man you ain’t gonna leave me at the store is you? Because people done that to me before. And that ain’t OK.”
In the parking lot Herman said I would have to go inside and buy the smokes because he was too slanted. I made sure he at least got out of the car with me, then watched him stride with inebriated confidence into the men’s room. Without hesitation I ran back to the car, jammed the keys in the ignition and peeled out of the parking lot, tires squealing like slaughtered animals as slack-jawed bystanders wondered if maybe I’d just robbed the joint.
I fiddled frantically with my phone in the darkness, one hand on the wheel, searching for the highway. My guilt from ditching Herman was outweighed by relief, and I finally allowed myself to relax about twenty miles outside of Houma. The sickly sweet smell of his cigars lingered like a ghost and as I rolled the windows down to fumigate the car, I noticed two things on the passenger seat floor: Herman’s rusty hammer and pack of missing menthol cigarettes. I considered just tossing them but the next day found myself at a UPS Store in Biloxi, Mississippi where I shipped the stuff back to his family’s trailer and listened to the cashier joke that he’d seen far stranger things put in an envelope than a hammer and cigarettes. I’m not superstitious, but that doesn’t mean I want a Creole voodoo hex sent in my general direction anytime soon. To the alligators who meet the wrong end of Herman’s hammer: my apologies.