Seems like every Creole left standing in L.A. was at the funeral this past Monday for Harold Legaux, the co-owner of Harold and Belle's restaurant in the Crenshaw district. The crowd that gathered at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Baldwin Hills was the biggest I'd seen at a funeral in a long while, and a fair approximation (no pun intended) of the size and genetic makeup of the crowd that once typically turned out for regular Sunday mass in the 7th ward in New Orleans.
This according to my father, who decamped to L.A. from New Orleans in 1942, when he was eight years old. But he still remembers a hell of a lot about the place he's from. That's partly because even though he lived here--he's practically a SoCal native--he made frequent visits home, and partly because every black Creole who grew up in New Orleans in the middle of last century or earlier pretty much experienced the same thing.
That is, they went to the same schools, frequented the same barbers, joined the same churches and social organizations, all of which were located in the heavily Creole 7th ward. They all also knew the same people: Aubry, Desvignes, Loomis, Metoyer, Honore, Broyard, Cambre and Legaux, to name a few. Even if you weren't related to somebody, you knew them well enough to feel like you were. (Besides, all Creoles look alike--"It's a small gene pool," a relative of mine noted, with equal pride and apprehension, as we stood surveying the post-service throng in front of the church). Those tight connections blew apart when people moved west, geographically speaking, but they could reassemble at a moment's notice. Like they did on Monday.
Speaking of connections--Harold was technically family, the husband of my cousin Denise. So I didn't show up out of mere cultural fealty, but family responsibility. And I ate at Harold & Belle's fairly regularly, like virtually everyone else who came to pay their respects.
The ambience and cuisine at H & B have been legendary for the nearly forty years it's been around, though it was Harold who turned what was originally a pool-hall, down-home hangout into the white-tablecloth establishment it got famous for. Harold and Belle's is the Dooky Chase's of the west coast, the must-stop for out-of-towners and for all serious fans of Creole cooking. It was remarkable also for surviving and even thriving in its locale on Jefferson Boulevard and 10th Avenue, which used to be the heart of the Creole corridor, but over the years has receded into the general hollowed-out drabness of South Central. But black folks remain fiercely loyal to it for that reason. On a landscape that doesn't offer much to the middle class that must come if the landscape is to change, Harold & Belle's is a beacon. It makes the argument for quality, consistency and even black solidarity that very few places in the neighborhood can make anymore.
One of the people who spoke in the church on Monday was one of the wait staff at Harold & Belle's who's worked there twenty years now. Harold, she said in a quavery voice, was a tough boss who nonetheless treated his employees like family. Typical Creole, or as my father says, gabay. He will be missed.