Of course I remember the local Louisiana TV commercials. My favorite was for an army surplus store called Rambeaux. That’s right: R-A-M-B-E-A-U-X, upstanding the pop-Cajun love of ending o-words in eaux. Just a matter of time before we’re heading down to the bingeaux hall and eating peauxtateaux chips. Rambeaux had a song, of course, because every commercial had to have a song. But instead of using the prissy little “I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” let’s-all-hold-hands thing the national commercials used, Rambeaux used a military jingle. It’s a song about the store, but to the tune of “Sound Off” - the Marines’ one big hit if you don't count "Ballad of the Green Berets". Anyway, the camera’s panning over row after row of battle fatigues and nailed-together bullet boxes and there are POW/MIA flags kinda draping around, and over a snapping snare drum, two guys holler about how their goods are "genuine government issue!" And just as the commercial ends, and I swear I’m not making this up, the Rambeaux singers count off their motto: “Hup-two, and more!” It’s beautiful. I can just see the two lower-level employees charged with singing the thing, who you know had to be tough-as-shit Cajun vets from out by Port Barre or Krotz Springs or wherever, sitting at a fake-oak desk with their arms strapped tight across their chest, staring down the little jingle-writer as he gives them a demonstration in a capella, drumming with his fingers on the desk top.
I haven’t seen that commercial in fifteen years, probably longer.
Those ads came on during afternoon cartoons, right there at the breaks during Power Rangers. Which is, you know, ethically dodgy and all, but still brilliant marketing. I have no trouble remembering it, nor have I forgotten begging my mom to take me there. And the joy I got from seeing the gasmasks and dead grenades and all that camouflaged netting! The store smelled like aging rubber and rust. My mom must have been the only woman in there, trailing behind and leafing through stretchy German activewear while I pressed my nose against the display case that held the medals of honor. I'm sure I sang the song to myself, probably humming it just barely under my breath, as I surveyed the sleeve-patches of beret-wearing skulls and muscle-pumped tigers.
Fifteen years is a long enough time. It’s the difference between being too young to drive and too old to trust. It’s the difference between active middle age and unrequested social security checks. It’s an adult time span, and I’m suddenly able to picture it. I’ll bet everyone in Lafayette who watched Power Rangers, which is to say every guy who’s between the ages of twenty and twenty-seven, remembers that commercial. We could form a battalion, a Krewe de Rambeaux, and we could march down Johnston Street next year at Mardi Gras in used fatigues and wide desert hats.
Although, now that I think about it, some of the guys in that demographic ended up in the armed forces. They didn’t wear their gear for fun or to nostalgically recall a part-time sponsor of the Power Rangers.
It's about those fifteen years, of course, remembering that jingle. Our little region: the Acadiana Fun Jump jingle, that two-step from the Randol’s Cajun Restaurant spot. I found the old Kart Ranch commercial online; you wouldn’t believe how many hits it’s got. I know you don’t know these songs, but you know songs like them. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. Even people who grew up in some no-place suburb, somewhere like Aurora or The Woodlands or Dearborn, even they got their own custom songs, just like the folks in the big city. It’s one of the strange dignities of capitalism. Who doesn’t want to have a song written with them in mind? All the better when other people, people not involved, are willing to listen.
But they wouldn’t care.
They might be interested, but they’d be interested in the same way that Americans are when they hear that Canadians eat ketchup-flavored chips. It’s like when people talk about their dreams; unless you’re in love with that person and that beloved is telling how they dreamed of spending eternity with you, you really don't want to hear it. The Rosenburg’s jingle so canonical for New Orleanians—1825 Tulane!—will sound just as bad and actually way less memorable than McDonald's current "I'm Lovin' It!" to anyone outside of New Orleans. The best anyone here can hope for is a curious raise of the eyebrow in the direction of some old Popeye’s ad. You can only ever have your own, and you can’t even have that anymore.
At least I can't.
For Mardi Gras this year, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, me and my housemates threw a party. We expected maybe forty or fifty people to show, maybe a little less, since I made it a point to emphasize that there would be no girls lifting up their shirts for beads. My mom sent up three king cakes from Meche’s and a case of Abita, which was all seized by FedEx. In the afternoon, I went to University Crafts and put together a mask with a handful of glitter and a package of iridescent feathers. The snowbank in the front lawn had shrunk to the size of an anthill, and everything outside was wet and shining in a patch of February sun. I ran purple, gold, and green crepe streamers between the chipped blue columns on our porch, I set up my blackpot and a burner to cook gumbo. And I’m out there, chopping onions, celery and bell pepper, watching the afternoon traffic on University, waving at people walking home from class.
Terry and John see me sitting out there alone and bring out a box of Two-Hearted Ale from the fridge. We sit out on the porch, I’m stirring the gumbo and drinking and they sit there and nod and crack up while I tell them again about how I ended up on-stage in some late-night jam session at the Blue Nile when I came down for Mardi Gras freshman year, blowing worthlessly into someone else’s sousaphone. And we look up, and it’s ten o’clock, and there’s no one else there. Nobody showed up.
I’m three or four beers in and I’m feeling the melt in my stomach. I stand up on the seat of my folding chair, all wobbly and everything, and before I know what I’m doing, I’m singing--shouting, chanting--the jingle for the Rice Palace. The Rice Palace is a truck stop and Cajun restaurant in Crowley and their jingle is set to the theme song for Ghostbusters. I’m singing out the melody—banna nanna nanna—bobbing up and down on my chair, and thrusting my Two-Hearted up and over my head as I shout “Rice Palace!”
The hockey game’s letting out at this point. Guys in puffy maize and blue jackets are stuffing the take-out falafel place at the end of the block. Small sorority sisters are walking by clutching themselves in the cold and trying their best not to look at our porch. I see a handful of guys in U of M sweaters coming up the street and shout at them, trying to get them to join in. I’m replacing the “Rice Palace” in the chorus with all sorts of exhortations: “Free gumbo!” “Come over!” As they pass, one of them shouts from under the bill of his cap, “Go to sleep!”
“Haha!” John yells at their backs. “That didn’t even fit the meter, Egon!”
That year at Easter, I went to Grand Rapids with John, to visit his family. He dug out a bunch of VHS cassettes of his favorite shows from when he was a kid--Animorphs, Batman Adventures, Doug. So after lunch, while all the cousins are out peeking behind the air-conditioning unit and opening the mailbox to look for eggs, we stretch out in the living room with these tapes, watching them without really paying any attention. Tiny Toons goes to a commercial break, and John’s suddenly up on his feet, hopping and pointing at the screen and telling me to wait for it, wait for it, wait for it. There’s a balding, sweaty guy in greased-out coveralls who polishes a wrench while giving the camera a tour of his garage. At one point the camera cuts away to show rows of tires and a friendly employee lowering a Stratus off of the lift. Right when they cut back to the sweaty guy, John stops jumping, thrusts both hands towards the TV, and goes: “This!” “Your one-stop shop when the tires pop.”
John rolled on the ground, his laughter falling back into his throat until it dissolved into sizzles. I sat there, studying the current moving between the TV and my friend, trying to trace his reaction back to its source. And I remembered Rambeaux.
I’d been in Michigan for a while, and had given myself over to the state. According to my driver’s license, my permanent address, my voter registration, I was about as Cajun as John Rambo himself. I even switched my football allegiances, taking pride in the fact that Michigan has the winningest program in the history of the sport and I reminded my friends in Baton Rouge of that fact every chance I got. The occasional gumbo and Mardi Gras reference were dropped only to distinguish me within the confines of what I was calling my new home.
Fifteen years from now I may faintly remember events of those Wolverines games, wearing a blue and yellow helmet at some party nobody came to. Maybe I’ll be comparing every burger I eat to the Blimpy’s just off campus, or casually asking friends whether JFK ever spoke at their school. Most likely, though, I’ll still be on about the Rice Palace and the Kart Ranch, lovesongs from the place I call heauxm.