Back in the days of convivial banter in smoke-filled rooms at swank cocktail gatherings in glittering Garden District mansions, occasional interlopers might be unaware of a host or hostess’s pedigree. At a small 1970s Bastille Day celebration, an out-of-towner, making the rounds of introductions, exclaimed to her host, “My, you certainly have an impressive array of friends, from such interesting families. And yours, what business were they in?”
The portly host knocked down the last of his Manhattan, leaned over, and in a barely audible whisper, informed her, “Sugah ‘n shippin’, my deah, SUGAH ‘n shippin’.”
Drop back a century or so, to the days when sugar was king in Louisiana. Wealthy sugar barons along the Mississippi River imported gilded furnishings from Paris or new species of plants from London, all to enhance their standing, their mansions and gardens.
Writing on NolaVie during the city’s 2012 Entrepreneur Week, I categorized myself as a lowercase “e” entrepreneur — landscaping according to what was on clearance at Lowe’s or Home Depot. The owners of Houma’s House and Bocage plantations were definitely uppercase “E,” hiring renowned landscape architects to develop new gardens or planting thousands of pansies, in contrast to the four flats of drooping annuals — crying out for me to nourish and revive them at Madewood — that I’d purchased in a 75 percent-off section at a big-box retailer.
Recently, when I relayed this wrenching tale of plant intervention to a fellow historic-home owner, I received an unexpected reply.
“I’ve got you beat by a mile,” he stated with the resolve of a gold-medal winner, as we sat under a 300-year-old oak, new leaves flickering in the soft light of scented torches that illuminated a nearby pathway.
“I stopped at Home Depot in Kenner on my way back from New Orleans last week and spotted a clearance on young oak trees. They’d been marked down from $35 to $2.50 to get rid of them, and I figured there were about 40,” he recalled.
He, like everyone along the river, had spent the past month clearing out cherished foliage that hadn’t survived this winter’s unusually low temperatures. Bare vistas required desperate measures, all on limited budgets.
He and the store assistant figured he might fit 30 in the back of his pickup truck and duly loaded that number in. To the surprise of both, there was room for the remaining 10 left on the cart he’d dragged to the checkout counter.
“Let’s get the rest!” he instructed the helpful young lady as they returned to the counter — where a woman was busy transferring the leftovers to her trolley.
“Excuse me,” he shouted with agitation in his voice. “But those are MY trees,” he continued as he shifted them back to his cart, leaving briefly after paying for them to pull his truck closer to the exit.
By the time he returned, the woman was leaving the register — with the aforementioned baby oaks.
My friend blocked the exit and confronted the starkly-determined woman, who defiantly waved her receipt at him, shouting, “These are mine! See, I paid for them.”
“No, they’re mine,” he countered, flashing his own receipt as he beckoned the assistant to his assistance. “You stole them from me.”
“You do this because you’re a man, taking advantage of a woman,” she shot back.
That was it. Call a supervisor, he demanded. When the supervisor was unable to untangle this Gordian knot, the irate tree magnate asked to see the store manager.
The manager walked up, threw up his hands and, in despair, asked the baron, now blocking his final 10 trees from the woman’s reach, what he should do to resolve the impasse.
“If you can’t figure out what’s right, then call the police,” my hoarding friend commanded.
The constabulary arrived in short order and decided in his favor. The woman strode angrily away, vowing unspecified vengeance at a later date.
“Then I felt really badly,” my friend confessed as he leaned forward and sighed.
But you never know what fate might befall those centuries-old oaks on his grounds. The first 30 new arrivals might not survive.
Those final 10 might well be the oaks underneath which folks will sit around on a splendid spring evening 300 years from now, taking about the great buy they just made. By then, sugah may not even be a vassal, and, with inflation, everyone will be shopping at their friendly 100-Dollar Tree emporium.