An Evening In a Cajun Dance Hall A Letter from Baton Rouge

BATON ROUGE, LOUISIANA — Baton Rouge, La.-- He sits where he always sits at Mulate's, beneath the portrait of a Chittamacha Indian and his igloo-shaped hut. It's rare when Mister Charles isn't at his corner table at "the world's most famous Cajun restaurant," (the superlative is self-imposed) waiting for the band to strike up, "Don't Mess with My Toot Toot!"

A thin man with a serious demeanor, dark-framed glasses, a salt and pepper beard and a sprinkle of strawberry age spots across a receding hair line, Mister Charles can be found here most evenings of the week, except when he's in Brunfield, Texas for the Wurstfest.


"A great big German festival. Terrific. It runs for 10 days. It's nothing but beer, beer, beer, sausage, sausage, sausage and polka, polka, polka," says the gentleman in the black jacket, slacks and cobalt blue shirt buttoned at the neck.

Why, this Cajun dance hall is so close to his home, Mister Charles says, "If I was a buzzard I could fly home. I come here when I'm too lazy to cook supper, which is eight nights a week."


But Mister Charles comes not so much for the food -- although Mulate's menu (in French and English) boasts a catfish to be featured at the EuroDisney's American cuisine restaurant. It's to dance. Eating seems to be an afterthought or an entre to the dance floor, on which couples, from ages 6 to 60, do a two-step and a turn in a well-worn path in front of the band.

Women are in flounced skirts and bows or straight-legged jeans and sweaters; the men sport ten-gallon hats and cowboy boots, polyester pants and suspenders. There's a table full of dancers, followers, as their T-shirts announce, of tonight's featured band, Rice N' Gravy. "It's a pretty good Cajun band, not the best, but good," says Mister Charles, born Charles J. Perilleaux more than three quarters of a century ago on Sunnyside Plantation at Reserve, La. along the Mississippi River. "They play mostly Cajun. Every now and then they throw in Zydeco, which isn't Cajun. It's from West Indies, Santo Domingo.

Zydeco, the word used to refer to a peppery Creole music, derives from a French word for snap beans, haricot, and an old Creole saying, Les haricots ne sont pas sale, "The snap beans aren't salty." It refers to how a person is feeling: not too hot.

Mister Charles has his own explanation for the music. "They adapted a jungle beat to the Cajun music," he says, above the wheeze of the band's accordion and the tang of the "tee far," a little iron triangle. "The Reverend Jesse Jackson might not appreciate that, but that's the way it is."

Here on a Saturday night, alone, an out-of-towner, what better way to get a feel for the Big Easy and its people than at Mister Charles' table. There he offers up opinions on everything from the demise of chinaberry trees and the state of race relations, to the swing of Cajun dancing and the proposed gambling casinos in New Orleans. "I get a big kick out of living and the world," says Mister Charles, a retired educator who visited Baltimore in 1988 for "my old Seabees' reunion, the 129th Seabees."

On the proposal to build a casino near the French Quarter in New Orleans, Mister Charles says, "I don't walk around with a Bible under my arm -- I'm Catholic -- I just oppose it on principle."

On Cajun dancers: "They start young here." Mulate's, for example, twice weekly holds dance classes for children as young as 3 years old.

"Anyone who can do the polka," says Mister Charles, "they can adapt right quick." One evening, he noticed a couple do "that little hop." Polka dancers, he thought. And he was right, a couple of Polish descent, originally from New Jersey, "but they are very good Cajun dancers today."


Mister Charles knows his music, and when he wants to hear a tune, he gestures to the band. An OK sign, "La Belle de la Louisiane." A wave motion, "Over the Waves;" a stirring motion, "Pascal's Reel;" a tug on his ear, "Hathaway Two Step."

According to Mister Charles, there's a problem with American people. "Their skin is too damn thin." Let's talk about the song, "The Pine Grove Blues," Mister Charles says. The song's refrain goes something like, "Hey, Negress, where did you pass last night?" Now most people would take offense to that, he says. But "the French Negro, down in Louisiana, they don't take offense. They know it is a term of endearment," Mister Charles says.

Now mind you, Charles J. Perilleaux is not Cajun. "My people came straight from France in 1749. But I married a Cajun woman. So I know the culture very well," he insists.

Mister Charles grew up in Montz, where his maternal grandfather, "you might say, was the overseer" at the Sunnyside Plantation. As a child, he would row across the Mississippi in a flatboat on a lazy summer day and dip his hand in the river for a cool drink.

"If I tried that today, it would burn a hole in my stomach," Mister Charles says, of the quality of the great waterway as its flows from Baton Rouge to New Orleans.

Over the years, chemical plants, oil refineries and grain elevators rose up on the river banks and the corridor, famous for its historic plantations, became known as "Cancer Alley." The chinaberry trees and their intoxicating lavender flowers, plentiful Mister Charle's youth, have all but disappeared on the River Road.


"You can't find a one, and we used to have hundreds in every yard in the country," says Mister Charles. "Sometimes we pay too high a price for progress."

For much of his 78 good years, Mister Charles worked as an educator, "eight colleges, 27 trade schools, two schools for the blind, two for the deaf and one for spastic children." But he actually entered the work force as a laborer "with a wheelbarrow and a shovel at 15 cents an hour." He spent 32 years in education and "hung it up June 3, 1984."

"I figured 51 years of working was enough for any man, 51 years of working and paying taxes for the government to spend on Somalia and la-de-da-da."

Most of his life he was a Southern Democrat until, he says, his governor, Edward W. Edwards, was indicted several years ago. "Next morning, I marched down and changed to a Republican," he says.

A waitress interrupts Mister Charle's political musings. There's a woman itching to dance, would he so oblige her?

"She weigh less than 350 pounds?" he asks, cocking an eyebrow.


"Oh yes," he's assured.

"I'm going to have to start charging a fee," he says, while making his way to the dance floor. "I'll be a gigolo."

It's half past nine, and the remains of his hamburger dinner have long gone cold, but Mister Charles seems to be just settling in. "When there's good company and a good band, I'll stay to 'til the bitter end," he says. " 'Til the last dog is dead."

Ann LoLordo is a national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.