He’s just brought the boat about to rub against the dock, and his deckhands are tying ropes to the cleats with a practiced efficiency. I catch a deckhand’s busy eye and hold up the lone, but substantial, redfish I’d caught earlier that morning. I didn’t want to go to the mess and trouble of cleaning a single fish when I already had a freezer full at home, but I wasn’t going to waste it. I walk over from where our boat is tied and ask if he wants the fish. He looks at it with obvious admiration, but ends up thinking like me: too much trouble, he had plenty at home. But then we hear a ruckus in the cabin and The Shrimper comes roaring out: “Mais, yeah we’ll take a redfish!”
Turns out I’d get to know The Shrimper well, though he wore many faces and piloted many boats. I learned that he works out of an appreciation for tradition, and not out of duty but because of a genuine belief in it. Remember: people have lived here, right here, these families have lived along this bayou, for a considerably long time. 250 years. This happened because of war. They were French Catholics, refugees whose compatriot lost his war to Protestant Britain. They were suspected sympathizers, so they were banished. Some returned to France, some died, and some settled in Louisiana. This is too dramatic a history to ignore.
History, since then, went its own way. Others joined him, learned his language and his ways. The Shrimper first baited burlap sacks with cornmeal, then took to circling, or later dragging, nets. With every idea, his bounty grew. He’s a clever man, but unlike most clever people, The Shrimper also thinks little in terms of saving work. Instead of building contraptions that lightened the work, they poured more work into ever better methods. Nowadays the boat may pull the net with ease, but somebody still has to empty the net. And pilot the boat. And pack the hold. And maintain the engine and the rigging. The Shrimper knows there is no end to the work, no matter what the method. This is how he can catch the most shrimp.
I’ve talked to The Shrimper a hundred times in wood paneled rooms and bright white kitchens. I’ve assured him he didn’t need to roast me a chicken (and then regretted the decision for days). He tells dramatic stories; his own just as dramatic as his people’s. His life is lived on the water. All his adventures end with him hauling himself out of the marsh, or some bayou, or the Gulf. He’s been in it since boyhood, out of school for the season, free to speak French without reprisal, with the other Shrimpers while they ate, all the boats tied together, then playing among the rigging. He learned to cook on the back of a boat. He learned to tell bawdy jokes and shed a dignified tear in front of other men. He learned to work for a living there too.
It’s a kind of a habit, it seems, working for a living, and The Shrimper is a man of habits. He works. He follows the seasons and the tides and observes proper boat and net maintenance. He does this because it seems somehow wrong not to. Sometimes he inherits a massive trawl boat from an in-law and finds his calling. Sure, there’s a living in it, but not much of one. It depends so much on the season, on the economy, on the price of diesel, on the stock markets, on the Asian commodities exchanges. It’s hard living, and The Shrimper doesn’t do it to get rich. He does it because he feels his history, and to know your history is to know who you are, and that’s worth more than money.
Though he’d be glad to sell you a boatload of shrimp any time.