Engulfed: Down, but not completely out, in Louisiana

Thursday, July 15, 2010 | 10:48 p.m. CDT; updated 11:01 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 15, 2010
James "Putt" Braud, 53, of Belle Chase, La., said the spill had killed his business. "It's down to zero," he said. "Can't pay my bills."

BELLE CHASSE, La. — Just call him Putt.

He owns the One Stop Bait & Ice shop just off Highway 23, the main artery that connects the outermost reaches of Plaquemines Parish with the rest of civilization. Cars hustle up and down the thoroughfare Thursday outside the store, where the doors are all open and a fan sits on the porch pointed inside. It’s the dead of afternoon on one of the hottest days of the summer, and no one stops to come in.

“I made $30 yesterday,” said Putt, shaking his head.

Today doesn’t look any better. Putt can’t afford air conditioning anymore, so he sits in the dark with shirt rolled up over his belly to stay cool, legs kicked up on the counter, watching an old Western playing on a TV over the door.

Until people become brave enough to fish again, Putt, whose real name is James Braud, waits for life to restart at age 53, one of the unlucky many whose livelihoods have been extinguished by the disaster in the Gulf.

So while he’s waiting, he might as well have a smoke. And a Budweiser. And try not to think about the bills too much.

Holding up his meaty right hand, his bloated fingers droop lifelessly from his knuckles. He burns his hand when he tries to take the cigarette out of his mouth. Some kind of nerve damage, his doctor told him; no one knows where it came from. He’d like to have surgery, Putt said, but “it’d have to be a free surgery. I can’t pay for it.”

He looks away as he talks.

The envelope for his damage claim to BP — an application for a small chunk of the $20 billion fund BP set aside for those affected by the spill — sits on the counter in front of him, the writing from his gnarled hand barely legible.

He works every single day and can no longer afford to have children come in and help him in the summertime like he used to before Katrina, when business had been better.

“I should be freakin’ disabled, really,” said Putt, taking a drag. “But I like to work too much.” He thinks about filing for disability now just to get the money.

But all the adversity — the lost business, the pain, the mortgage debt — still hasn’t taken away Putt’s bait shop as a gathering place for his friends.

Julian Guidry, 51, walks in with his Budweiser already in hand. In a place where all the regulars get nicknames for reasons not always remembered, (the bait fish delivery guy is called “Mountain Man” because of the beard) Guidry goes by Bucky.

Bucky stops by the store every day after his job as a glass worker to shoot the breeze with Putt. Sometimes the two sleep in the store on the weekends — Putt on a cot, Bucky on the cement floor.

On Thursday, Bucky watches the store as Putt goes to mail his claim to BP. Bucky is a joker, pumping his eyebrows to exaggerate a point, whirling his hands through the air to liven up the talk. But when it comes to Putt, his eyes soften and his voice drops to a murmur.

“He looks out for those who look out for him,” Bucky said.

For now, that might be what counts as getting by in Louisiana.

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