My wife claims she's heard it, but only from my father, which I don't suppose means that she can be counted as someone knowledgeable about the origin, meaning and possible moral implications of the phrase. That, also, probably precludes my asking my sister, my other cousins and anybody who's ever lived east of Coos Bay. There's a lot of weird expressions in eastern Coos County so we'll just forget that avenue of inquiry, shall we?
Suffice it to say that somewhere along the line in this essay you'll get a feeling for the flavor of the expression. Onward!
I've mentioned many times that I love New Orleans and Louisiana and visit there at least yearly since I've retired. This last trip was wonderful, relaxing, with a magnificent cloudburst the first day and only one day thereafter with much rain. The rest of the time was either sunny or variable, I saw lots of people I know at least vaguely and had a wonderful time. Stretched myself with a few new foods (some were good, some weren't but they were all unknown to me) and was quite taken with the number of happy, smiling people I saw.1
Of course, part of the difference might be that I go there with no set purpose, no itinerary -- nothing truly planned. I improvise, renting a car most times and wandering around the area. Last May, I drove around Lake Pontchartrain, that huge, shallow, brackish lake to the north of New Orleans. I had an interesting trip that time, sliding through Sliddel without a quiver or challenge, wafting my way around secondary, tertiary and roads further down the -ary list, seeing lots of small towns and lingering damage from Katrina and whatever that other bastard hurricane was.
The most interesting thing was a house and out buildings for sale that were a tad on the spooky/bizarre side, the main house being a modified A-frame that didn't start A-framing until halfway up the first story. There was this highly ethnic building out front that would be either a ticket booth, a school bus shelter or possibly a mill for tiny dwarves or gnomes. The seven foot windmill arms were quite functional and did turn kind of creepily in the light and fitful breeze that deigned to blow through the property. I took a lot of pictures which is I why I have proof of two other odd structures. The first might have been housing for a hunchback chauffeur or Lon Chaney's second cousin, the lintel of it being no more than six feet tall. The second looked to be a utility structure with a derelict freezer, hanging meat hooks and what looked like butchering supplies.
There was also, up close to the first out building, this big and I do mean big, stone table: Three or four inches thick with legs carved out of the same stone all one piece. It had odd designs in the surface. There were a number of grooves in it and two places that looked like tie-downs for what would have to be really thick, heavily padded picnic tablecloths. The sort you'd probably find in Gog or Magog. The grooves ended in little drains that emptied underneath the slab.
I asked Susan if she thought we ought to put in a bid on the place, it being up for sale. Her no was a mite strenuous so I haven't pursued the matter.
This last trip, this month, had only a couple of oddities, including what I found to be a most thought provoking, interesting and somewhat disquieting sculpture garden. It was the Chauvin Sculpture Garden -- The Art of Kenny Hill.2 3 I will decline to discuss the sculptures because I'm still pondering them, reviewing the photos and thinking. I will only go so far as to say that they reminded me, intensely, of the Flemish painters like Bosch. If you know anything about Flemish art, you'll understand why I'm not going to get into a discussion, particularly after having read the anthology of Shadows over Baker Street, edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan and having encountered that slab up north of Lake Pontchartrain.
It was, however, a grand excursion that I had to try to do, twice, since the first attempt imploded on me. How you ask? Let me explain.
I rented a bright, red Fiat ultra-small car from a downtown car rental place rather than one at the airport. I've discovered, you see, that those rental places out near the airport have all hiked up their prices by thirty percent and you can get much better deals inside the city of New Orleans. Note, I'm not making this claim about other cities. I have no idea if you're paying extra to get a rental car at SeaTac rather than in Seattle or Tacoma. Don't know, don't care. But it is true in New Orleans. So, I rented my little Fiat, went to my hotel (which is almost always the Prince Conti in the French Quarter. They're used to me. They humor me. They often shield me from being a stupid with can be most useful since I am, a stupid. A lot, as you will see.)
The next morning I arose, had a great breakfast, figured I'd head out to see if I could find the art of Kenny Hill, gathered my belongings, waved bye-bye and booked. Got to Bourbon Street and then hit my left leg a sharp rap to check to see if I had my phone with me. But no, no phone.
This is not good, since my phone is my link to rescue, which I need occasionally, in the form of books to read while I eat something, notes to my wife, notes from my wife, notes from my hotel, text messages to people who might be looking for me (or not) and even my only source of photography these days since I left my last camera in a diner in Memphis and never recovered it. Rats. I actually said rats. Talk about Memphis Blues Again!
So, I turned onto Royal which runs from east to west and would get me to Canal Street where I could, if (and only if) I were sharp-eyed enough to catch which street I needed to get back to my hotel by the quickest way. Of course not. I missed it and ended on N. Ramparts looking for Conti which I missed the first time around and had to make a second pass at. Driving in New Orleans is not really all that bad IF you're prepared to be diverted by things as they happen. I was, and am, and managed to do a U-Turn back onto N. Rampart coming back westbound which is where I turned onto Conti to get to my hotel, by-passing the three odd looking trucks with flashing lights going that were parked at the head of Conti.
Gad, I was in luck! There was actually a parking place open, just one block before the hotel with a nifty, shiny parking meter sitting right there without anybody's ugly vehicle blocking it. I whipped my little Fiat in, patted my pants down, found two quarters and leapt from my vehicle. Two quarters into the parking meter and I headed for the hotel, almost getting run down by a pedicab and a beer truck turning onto Conti to get to Bourbon Street (which is the next street in the one-way grid). I quick marched myself to the hotel, to the elevator, to my room, grabbed my phone still sitting innocuously on the arm of the chair by my hotel room window, turned, and headed back to see if I'd lucked out and still had the elevator on my floor.
I didn't. Oh, well.
I waved to everyone as I got off the elevator and headed out.
Turned left onto Conti headed north and found that my little red Fiat had turned into a dark brown Dodge circa 1972 with two very twitchy, nervous looking people sitting in the front.
I did a classic look around, look back, look left, look right, look up and down and then back in the general direction of where I thought my rental car should be and still saw a dark brown Dodge that had seen better days.
At this point I should mention, I suppose, that there were now only two, count 'em two odd looking trucks with flashing lights still at the head of Conti Street and it appeared that one of them was slowly creeping up on the 72 Dodge that was sitting in front of me. Not being into ugly scenes I turned around and headed back to the hotel to figure out where I could possibly find my red, rental Fiat which apparently was seeing more of New Orleans than I was this morning.
It turns out that on Tuesday mornings, there is no parking allowed between 8 a.m. and noon in the French Quarter due to the street cleaning. They hardly keep it a secret. I even knew that was the case, but ahem, it kind of slipped my mind. Which happens to a lot of people, not just me. I had the distinction of being the first person towed that morning, and in point of fact, my little red Fiat was in slot one underneath Interstate-10 where they keep those cars that have owners (or surrogate owners, in my case) too clueless for words.
There were, of course, additional complications. I can come up with complications without even turning around or dropping a hat. In this case I managed to grab a cab and get there and find my vehicle and have a nice talk with the lady driving the van blocking off any escape by vehicles that had not been "sprung" via paying a fine. She wanted to see my rental agreement since she didn't really think it would be proper to just turn a nice 2013 Fiat over to someone who said he'd rented it.
Hmmm. Left the rental agreement in the hotel. She regarded me sadly. Then perked up and said I might want to go to the trailer over there and talk to them, and ask if they could call the rental company and have them fax the rental agreement to them so I could pay my fine and then possibly flee the city before getting fleeced of all my worldly possessions. I allowed that might be the best idea I'd heard all day. She grinned at me and went back to her coffee whilst I went to the trailer and made, ahem, arrangements. I had a good long talk with the people in the trailer and they all seemed to be on my side. Very friendly.
I suspect the fact that I was very cheerful and pleasant, actually quite resigned to paying the fine, and even seemed to cheer up two of the others who were waiting there as well, I think that might have had something to do with the general feeling of amity in the air. The sheriff's deputy had me write down my name and the titles of my books, allowing he'd like to hear more of my life's journey, as recorded in Caught Dead and Other Catastrophes. That title seemed to amused the hell out of him.
And the phrase, Johnny-at-the-Rat-Hole? Would you care to hear a definition? Well, it describes the quick, scurrying of a terrier to a small opening where the terrier anticipates a quick lunch. Now, think tow-trucks . . .
1At this point I should say that I mentioned this to my doctor who chuckled for several moments, disconcerting me highly. I said I saw far more happy smiling people in New Orleans (and by implication Louisiana) than I saw upon my return home. He said his physician's assistant said exactly the opposite, having just gotten back from New Orleans, herself. Hmmmmm. Highly significant but I'm not entire certain of what.
2Kenny Hill was a master mason who lived in the general Houma area in the late 1990 until some time in the 2000s. No one knows much about him or his personal beliefs, but he made a number of sculptures for a small bit of land he owns/ed near Chauvin, LA. They are highly religious. They are cryptic. They remind me of the Bruegel, both Elder and Younger, and Hieronymus Bosch. They were raw emotion and I don't know what to make of them, other than I think Kenny Hill was possessed of visions I would never, ever, wish on anyone. He worked for 10 years and then picked up and moved. No one knows where.
3You will fine several photographs of the garden on-line at www.revisedevilsdictionary.com which I faithfully promise to update the same day this goes out. Along with that, there will be at least, possibly two photos of the house I looked at northeast of Lake Pontchartrain, and two or three photos of this last New Orleans trip.