Freetown’s freelancers cope with pandemic porch life

Jolie Meaux and her daughter Frankie Photo by Travis Gauthier

It’s late afternoon in Freetown. What time exactly isn’t of much concern. The heat has broken and a welcome breeze picks up, carrying a bouquet of pollen and budding flora: magnolias, wisteria and confederate jasmine. A freight train sounds off from the nearby tracks. The neighborhood walkers are just getting out. Still, it’s oddly quiet. No school busses on route. No music drifting over from neighboring Downtown. Swaying on her wooden front porch swing, Jolie Meaux senses the early evening visitation hours. “It’s almost like a schedule of visitation now,” Meaux says, sipping tea from a mason jar. She turns to look down the street expecting a couple of regular evening strollers to be by any minute, including one friend, Emily Istre, who walks her rescued pet squirrel. “They call me the neighborhood watch,” Meaux quips.

In this neighborhood, populated with so many of Lafayette’s musicians, artists, cooks, bartenders and gig workers inexorably tied to the local cultural economy, routine life is upended. The calendar, which would normally be counting down to an April 22 kickoff to Festival International, and start to a busy festival season, is on hold. Known for great drinks, countrified soul food, and as a repository of rich stories and conversation, Meaux’s house has always been great for visitation. Social distancing has changed things. These days, Meaux isn’t allowing anyone inside. Visitation consists of folks passing by and checking in, while adhering to six feet of separation. But however distanced or truncated it may be, visitation is as important as ever.

Meaux is a natural host. Her warm personality is both calming and frenetic— an emulsion of motherly southern comfort and acerbic wit. Her active porch and busy front yard — where a homemade tire swing hangs from a sprawling oak and an old washtub and folding plastic container have been repurposed into small garden beds — is a window into a hive of activity inside the lavender-colored house she lives in with her three daughters. 

She’s been through apocalyptic times before. At age 16, Meaux got a closeup view of the L.A. riots while living in Long Beach with her mother. “I remember standing in the yard with our neighbors and you could see smoke plumes coming up all over the place,” she recalls. For Hurricane Katrina, Meaux was living on New Orleans’ West Bank, in Algiers Point. Pregnant, and with a 1-year old baby in tow, she evacuated to Grand Coteau for the storm, but returned shortly afterward. She had her wedding to re-plan (Meaux was scheduled to be married the weekend of Katrina; she is now divorced). 

“Anybody who went through Katrina, lived in New Orleans or surrounding areas, you’ll never forget what that felt like,” she says. “You’ll never forget that fear and losing everything and not knowing. This is where I compare [coronavirus] to Katrina. Then it was not knowing when you could go home. Now it’s not knowing when you can leave home.”

Meaux had been gearing up for a busy spring with her two businesses, both of which rely on independent contracting. Her cooking business — called Porch, Wine and Gravy in honor of her three passions of home life — caters at festivals, private events and public pop-ups. Porch, Wine & Gravy was booked for many events this spring and summer, including Lafayette’s Downtown Alive!, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and a recurring Saturday night stint at Pal’s Lounge in New Orleans (Meaux recently invested $700 on new equipment for the business). Meaux also works on commission as a real estate agent locally through District South Real Estate Co.

On March 13, the Spring Season kickoff to Downtown Alive! was canceled, the first in a wave of events to pull the plug in the wake of mounting coronavirus concerns. Meaux remembers feeding many neighborhood friends with the meatball stew, chicken and sausage gumbo and potato salad she had prepared for DTA!. Everyone took solace in wine on the porch. 

The next day, panic set in everywhere. 

“Working freelance you’re always worrying about having a gig cancel,” says photographer Lucius Fontenot. “But to have them all cancel at once and be unable to book anymore…”. He shakes his head, nonplussed. “Now, it’s no opportunity. Everyone has to stay away from each other.”

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Fontenot, who watched his parents develop an independent studio photography business while growing up outside Mamou, has an entrepreneurial spirit that’s helped him cultivate a variety of mixed media work for clients over the years, from portrait photography to promotional web content and film (he also helped found a local music recording company). All of that is now in limbo. Fontenot is selling photo prints off his web site, navigating government assistance options and trying to develop new projects to make ends meet until normal business can resume.

Photographer Lucius Fontenot outside his home (Photo by Travis Gauthier)

“The scary part is that Covid seems to want to set us back further than I think anybody thinks,” says Joe Vidrine.

Known as The Freelance Cajun, Vidrine has lived in Freetown 10 years, and forged a career as a freelance photographer, cook and musician: a cultural broker of sorts as he calls it. “I’ve figured out that I want to make a living doing things that I’m passionate about,” he says.

While Vidrine has observed some musicians and festivals migrating online, he sees the full economy of live entertainment, with all its supporting cast – from supporting bands and cooks to dancers and documentarians – as being near impossible to replicate in any other format. 

Like many area musicians, Vidrine is on the road much of the time between April and October, working a string of private gigs, folk festivals and music camps up and down both American coasts. Vidrine is a backing musician in some touring Cajun bands and is regularly hauled out on the road as a photographer and cook, helping bring the full Cajun experience to audiences old and new. 

He recalls sitting out in his yard recently on a nice February afternoon, taking the time to write out all his upcoming gigs for spring and summer on the refrigerator calendar. “This is when all my gigs were making calls,” he says, “and I wanted to see what it looked like through summer, and it looked really good.” The calendar still hangs on the fridge, a painful reminder of all the events no longer taking place. “It’s two different ways to think about the calendar I guess,” he says. “What is happening and what should have been.” 

Instead, Vidrine has picked up work helping boil crawfish locally with Hawk’s Boil Up, operating weekly out of the parking lot at Rusted Rooster. He’s also looking into financial loan assistance options and trying to be as resourceful as possible with the income he can get. “Going forward I’ve adopted the adapt or die approach toward my freelancing,” he says. “As a freelancer you have to make it up for yourself basically. I didn’t know I was going to be boiling crawfish this time last week. It’s totally day by day.”

Fontenot and Meaux are in a similar situation. Also cultural documentarians, the two share a keen eye for the vibrance and frailty of Acadian and South Louisiana culture — and its connection to a nomadic history. It’s made the two of them natural collaborators, with Porch, Wine & Gravy and with a new storytelling project, Ma Chère Maw-maw, featuring colorful slice-of-life stories from Cajun and Creole grandmothers. 

Joe Vidrine, the Freelance Cajun, lost a summer’s worth of gigs to the pandemic (Photo by Travis Gauthier)

Creative projects, endless chores and the mounting paperwork associated with any financial assistance have kept overriding anxiety at bay, for now. “I’m down,” Meaux confesses. “I was having multiple breakdowns. And then down to two. And then I went down to one a day. And now I kind of just have a slight panic attack every once in a while, you know, and I go bake something.” 

Meaux’s still cooking meals for other neighborhood residents, marketing her recipe development skills as a business, and hoping real estate may somehow pick up. Mainly, she’s coping with a three-page to-do list she made to keep focused. One day is examining a 16-page form for mortgage deferral payments. The next day is investigating government unemployment, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and newly available small business loans. Then testing out making her own laundry detergent. 

She strives to embody a frugal and efficient way of living: waste not, want not. Meaux is washing out Ziplock bags and hanging them to dry for re-use. Foil is also washed and reused. Green onion roots re-planted in the garden. “I think I’m slowly turning into my grandmother,” she says proudly. 

For her, being at home has been the easy part. She’s used to working out of the office, and she and her daughters enjoy cooking and arts and crafts projects. Meaux takes refuge on her porch for any task she can: reading, knitting, peeling shrimp. Here, she’s in her element, still hosting in a way. Twisting back on her swing, she greets her neighbor, Grant, who wants to thank her for some meals she provided. “That was such good food,” he calls out walking up from the side of his yard. “I still have some gumbo left over for tonight.” 

Daylight is fading, visitation well underway. A couple on bicycles — passing through from another neighborhood — stops to ask how things are going. Good, everyone says, though their faces betray a nervous anxiety. 

Meaux wonders if Emily will be walking by soon with Willa, her rescued pet squirrel. “At least this is a great neighborhood to be stuck in,” she says.