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POTOMAC PLACE

The Changing Face of Queens

Demographics play an important role in our lives, determining the outcome of elections, media advertising, store locations, the type of food available in stores and restaurants, the disposition of federal, state, and local funding, private grant funding, the type of entertainment, including music, television shows and movies, literature, the composite of neighborhoods, and so much more.

On a trip to Cuba, this month, a prominent University of Havana sociology professor, Dr. Marta Nunez, had difficulty explaining the specific racial composition of the island nation originally settled by the Spanish and supplemented by West African slaves to work the sugar fields and Chinese to build its railroad network. Nunez explained that over the years, interracial marriage had resulted in a complex mixture of its people making it difficult to pinpoint people as white, mixed, or black compounded by many people of mixed heritage identifying as white. Simply put, the blurred demographic reflects a unified culture with everyone proudly identifying themselves as Cuban. While the sight of many mixed couples on the streets and in restaurants suggested a lack of prejudice, it plainly exists with the darker skinned people living in the run down areas along with few blacks attending the more prestigious universities.

Here in the U.S., census data paints a clearer picture, though here, too, people get to choose their ethnicity. A few years ago, preparing for a speech to the Queens Historical Society, I researched the available data on the changing face of Queens County, New York, where I grew up in another era. The demographic data has changed significantly with the new immigrants, as they did in the last two centuries, clustering together until their subsequent generations begin to discover and intermarry with other ethnic groups. Overall, it’s a fascinating picture of a nation poised to change dramatically, much to the chagrin and opposition of those who yearn for a day that will never return.  Read More 
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The Cajun

Picking up a menu recently one of the featured dishes, Cajun Style Catfish, brought a smile to my face. Cajun was the nickname of the late Gary J. Lemoine, a well-known character in the cotton industry, who died earlier this year. The Cajun had his ups and downs in life. The ups were great, while they lasted, but the downs, over time were ruinous.

Gary had an insecure childhood in Louisiana. He told me that he was an orphan, but was vague on how he was raised. He was smart, wily, outspoken, and quick to admit his mistakes. He was generous to a fault when he was flush, and when he was broke, somehow he usually managed to pay his debts. In many ways he was a paradox. He started out with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a cotton classer for the Agricultural Marketing Service. He was an excellent judge of cotton, its value, and knew the Mid-South market where he had worked as a government classer for five years before becoming a successful cotton buyer at various gins under the name Cajun Cotton.

I first met the Cajun in the 1970’s. He was a handsome man with a full head of salt and pepper hair, always with a bright smile, and dressed in flashy clothes. His shiny suits, bold silk shirts, and alligator shoes were a sharp contrast to the buttoned-down look favored by most people in the cotton industry.

The occasion of our initial meeting in Memphis was an effort to resolve a problem with bale weights that had cropped up at a few west Tennessee gin points. The ginners had cooked up a scheme to short the bale weights. Instead of running the industry-standard weight bales through the gin, the process was manipulated to deliver bales lighter by some 50 to 80 pounds. Through this scheme, the ginners, acting as agents of the farmers, were defrauding the buyers. With cotton selling at 75 cents a pound at the time, the weight losses incurred were running from $38 to $60 a bale or $3,800 to $6,000 on a 100 bale sale. In the case of the Cajun, he had purchased a thousand bales and was in the hole for about $50,000. Sales of cotton in the mid-South territory were also subject to weight penalties in addition to the actual monetary loss.

George Martin, the Executive Vice President of the Southern Cotton Association (SCA), requested my assistance in my role as General Counsel of the American Cotton Shippers Association (the SCA being an affiliated member) to accompany him and the Cajun to a meeting with a gin manager and the farmers to help resolve the matter in the Cajun’s favor. When George and the Cajun picked me up at Memphis’ iconic Peabody Hotel in the Cajun’s new Cadillac, I asked George where his old Chevy was parked. “I’m sorry, Cajun, but your chances of resolving this problem tonight are going to be a lot better if you would make a more modest appearance.”

The Cajun smiled. “I get it,” he said. “That’s a sign of a good lawyer.”

I shook my head. “No sense making the problem any worse than it is already,” I said, and looking at the thick gold chains hanging out of his shirt, the large gold rings on each hand, and a diamond studded gold Rolex watch hanging from his left wrist, I continued, “That also goes for the jewelry.” I took a handkerchief from my pocket, unfolded it on my lap, and said, “Let’s have it.” I tied up the jewelry, which was quite heavy, and put it into my briefcase.

“Good idea,” he said with a big smile, and turning to George Martin, he said, “So far, this guy’s full of good ideas. Let’s hope he gets my money back tonight.” We did. The farmers were contrite as was the ginner. A compromise was reached. We waived the bale penalties, a new contract was signed, and warehouse receipts for cotton valued at $50,000 were given to the Cajun. He was made whole and he was happy.

From that moment on, each year, I could always count on the Cajun to give the $5,000 maximum contribution to the association’s political action committee in addition to him making individual contributions to various candidates.

His business prospered and within a few years, he owned a radio station in Louisiana, a few farms, a luxury suite at the Super Dome, and a bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The Cajun had truly arrived. He also had re-married to a beautiful, physically attractive, sweet, and well-mannered woman, who was always exquisitely dressed, albeit in provocative clothes. When questioned why he encouraged his wife to dress that way he would smile and say, “Because it turns me on.”

Over the years, the Cajun would make huge amounts of money and feeling confident about his market prowess would often take contrarian market positions and end up losing his capital. Trouble seemed to plague the Cajun often in the form of fast women, liquor, and in choosing his business associates. Since he always managed to make good on his debts, a few large merchants were willing to provide him with financing. He usually ended up on his feet until his hubris, resulting in flawed judgment, involved him with the wrong guy that would lead to his undoing.

In that case, he hooked up with a partner who claimed to have purchased a large quantity of cotton, but for some unexplained reason needed the Cajun’s involvement to legitimize the transaction. The partner produced warehouse receipts to evidence the ownership of the cotton allegedly stored in a Missouri warehouse. Though he had doubts about the reputation of his partner, the Cajun decided that in this particular transaction he was worth the risk. The only problem being that the warehouse receipts turned out to be bogus. The product stored in the warehouse was actually baled gin motes (short immature fibers with limited use and of lesser value) and not the premium cotton represented by the fake receipts. To get around this problem, the Cajun’s partner retained a young man with limited mental acuity to torch the warehouse containing the gin motes. Following the destruction of the gin motes an insurance claim would be made for the loss of premium cotton, and the Cajun and his partner would cash in.

The torch job went off without a hitch, the fire destroying all of the cotton in the warehouse. There was a problem; however, the young man had torched the wrong warehouse. He had actually destroyed another party’s premium cotton. Following a serious geography lesson, the nascent arsonist upped his game and managed to torch the correct warehouse. Unfortunately for the Cajun, the young man shared his experience with others and soon all involved were arrested.

Even though a few cotton men on Memphis’ fabled Front Street referred to the Cajun’s partner as “Sparky,” the Cajun claimed in his discussions with me that he never knew what was up until after the fires. Knowing the Cajun’s guile, I had my doubts that he lacked knowledge of the plot going in.

The Cajun was convicted as a passive conspirator, non-the-less a conspirator, and served time at a minimum security federal “country club.” Having Rush Limbaugh’s brother, a former U.S. Attorney, as his lawyer helped limit the length of his sentence. Following his release from captivity, the Cajun returned to Louisiana and took up a new venture, selling used cars. Always the optimist and prone to put a positive spin on his circumstances, he considered his new occupation as akin to a public service, telling me in our last telephone conversation that he was dealing in previously owned vehicles for people with limited financial resources.  Read More 
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