Opinion – 6/10/2003

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The Panolian – "Big Easy" by John Howell Sr.

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pick up the 6/10/03  issue of The Panolian

Ticket is Ticket to Overdue Trip

That it took a ticket from a New Orleans cop for "expired brake tag" to get me to make a long overdue visit to Alice Moseley in Bay St. Louis is embarrassing. The last time I saw her, I told her I’d make another visit in December, 2001. If they gave tickets for "expired promise," I’d have been even worse guilty of that than expired brake tag.

Brake tag is what they call auto inspection stickers in Louisiana. The whole auto inspection system in New Orleans came under fire last year when it was revealed that inspectors were taking bribes to pass unsafe cars, even delivering the stickers to motorists at their homes in some cases. The new mayor shut the inspection stations (city-owned and operated facilities) down for a month while they tried to sort through the muck. Then the inspection stations were reopened with some fanfare. Still, in early spring my neighbor was able to call someone she knew who worked there and got a sticker brought to her home for $25. There was no chance her old car could pass, especially since its brake lights didn’t work.

For at least some of the rest of us, the inspections are fairly rigid; wheel alignment, brakes and hand brakes, lights and turn signals, registration and insurance, and so on. But it was daddy’s Mississippi-tagged car that attracted the ticket. The sticker had expired in March and when we looked at the fine schedule and found "Expired brake tag?$160," I decided to head to Mississippi for the first inspection station I could find.

Driving east on the Chef Menteur Highway, I took the old, pre-interstate route to the Mississippi coast. I’ve read conflicting accounts of how that highway got its name and what it means, but they all agree that it’s not good. It’s a fascinating drive through the Vietnamese section of New Orleans East, through the flood protection levee and into the even lower-lying areas between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Catherine and dozens of other estuaries. Fish camps and coastal cottages line the highway, each with a name and in a variety of construction and architectural offerings ranging from do-it-yourself junky to luxurious, sometimes side-by-side. "Camp CAMP," for instance. Many of the people who live in these places spend more time on the water in their variety of small boats than they do on land, even if they have to compromise with a land-based job to make ends meet.

Further east, there are narrow bridges that cross the Chef Menteur Pass and the Rigolets ("REE-go-lees"). The Rigolets is Lake Pontchartrain’s outlet into the Gulf. Though two lanes are designated for these drawbridges, when a wide vehicle, like the motor home I was following, lumbers up, one-way traffic is understood.

Still further, the highway crosses the Pearl River’s numerous Gulf outlets, one of which marks the boundary with Mississippi amidst tidal waters, endless estuaries and sawgrass. I kept driving, looking along the roadside for a Mississippi inspection station. I found it at Bay St. Louis and so close to Alice Moseley’s "too-blue" house on that city’s Bookter Street that I knew I’d regret not extending my trip of necessity into a visit.

A capsule look at Miss Alice’s career: She discovered art as therapy back in the 1970’s, after she had retired from her first career as a highly-regarded teacher of English in Memphis schools. She moved with her husband to Plum Point at Enid Lake. Her talent incubated there; she painted, experimented, traveled to art shows and listened to the reactions of people who saw her work. Within a few years, she had developed a style described as "idyllic folk art" and was attracting critical recognition. Following her husband’s death, Miss Alice moved to Bay St. Louis in late 1988, finding in "Olde Towne" there a flourishing artists’ colony which immediately embraced her. Her recognition and critical acclaim grew as did the coast community’s appreciation for the unique, elderly artist whose wit and one-liners once led a nephew to describe her as "a cross between Grandma Moses and Phyllis Diller."

Success bred success for Alice Moseley as national publications picked up on her art and featured her, further fueling demand for her work. The demand has outpaced her ability to supply original art at this stage of her life. At 93, she’s active and witty. She opens her home every day to visitors who arrive by cars or tour buses to buy prints of her work.

The day I drove up to her house, I noticed a car parked in front with an Adams County personalized tag that said "Haltom." I knew that it was "Uncle Bob," uncle to Batesville’s Bob Haltom and brother to the late Dick Haltom. Bob and his wife Glenn were purchasing a print of Mrs. Moseley’s work depicting the old-time Batesville Square. He pointed out the "Carothers" store of his mother’s family near the "Dickins" store of my relations. We laughed at the irony of all of us Batesville-connected folks ending up there on the same day at the Gulf Coast studying the details of a scene from the Panola city’s past, but such coincidences are not unusual when you get around Alice Moseley. Happens all the time.

After the Haltoms left, I had a long, comforting visit with my friend of long standing ("old friend" seems too trivial here). Though we’d not seen each other for nearly three years, our conversation picked up just like we’d left it off yesterday. Surrounded by the bright colors of her paintings and prints and in the company of her dog Herman, I heard her marvel still at the good fortune that took her later life into such an unexpected and serendipitous turn. I heard her tell her funny stories, all on herself. My favorite was about the lost wedding ring.

Her husband had given her the ring at their marriage and had added to it over the years, but while moving into the "too-blue" house in Bay St. Louis, she lost it, she is sure, somewhere in the house. So every time she gets someone to move furniture she stops them in mid-lift to allow her to pore over newly-exposed floor looking for the now-long-lost ring. Mrs. Moseley’s son, Tim Moseley, is a clinical psychologist in nearby Pass Christian, and though she didn’t say it, I expect Tim has been on hand when much of her furniture rearranging gets done. Tim’s solution was to take his mother to the jewelry store and let her select a replacement as a gift. When the appointed day arrived recently, Tim came and drove his mother to the store, leaving her home unattended except for a brief note, which Tim penned, explaining her absence.

After they got back and Tim had left, Miss Alice removed the note from her door. "Gone to the store to buy my wedding ring," the unsigned note stated.

"I could have killed him," she laughed. The rumors of Miss Alice’s imminent nuptials have reverberated around Bay St. Louis ever since, she added. Such is life in small towns of all sizes.