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POTOMAC PLACE

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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A Sad Labor Day Memory – Grandpa Jim

When I awoke, Grandpa Jim had left – left this world and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I had fallen asleep in a chair beside his bed with my great aunt, Lilly, standing beside me. It must’ve been around 3 a.m. when I nodded off. Prior to that, when Lilly was out in the kitchen, he’d asked for a drink of water and then told me to open his drawer. “Look in the plaid shirt. There should be four envelopes.” I pulled open the drawer and near the bottom was a new plaid shirt, a gift from last Christmas, unopened and covered with cellophane. I pulled back the scotch tape binding the cellophane and reached inside the tissue paper and pulled out four white envelopes of various thicknesses. They were marked Rose, Anne, Gracie, and Lilly. The thickest of the four were for his daughters Rose and Anne. I brought them over to his bed. He beckoned me towards him and in a faltering voice said, “Give them separately to each of them after the funeral. Don’t tell Rose and Anne about the envelopes for Gracie (niece) and Lilly, it’ll only cause hard feelings. They were good to me, too – they need something for their troubles. And you, young man – I think you’re going to do all right without any cash to burn holes in your pockets.”

Aunt Lily came into the room after I put the envelopes inside my shirt. “Can I get you anything Jim?” He looked up at his sister-in-law, shook his head and smiled. He was always in love with her. They both lost their spouses at an early age in the influenza epidemic of 1918. “I knew him too well to marry him. He was full of mischief,” she said.

She had called me that afternoon as I was relishing the enjoyment of that 1962 Labor Day weekend at the house a group of us had rented in the Hamptons. At the time, my mother Rose was on a cruise to South American, and their being separated, Dad was living at the Elks Club in Elmhurst. I rushed back on the first train from West Hampton. When I arrived home she explained, “I’ve buried two husbands. You can tell by their eyes. When they begin to roll up – you know the time is near.” She rested her hand on my shoulder as we watched him struggle with the heat and humidity in our apartment that was not air conditioned.

The next thing I knew, she was griping my shoulder when I awakened. “He died a few minutes ago,” she said. “You better call Quinn’s (funeral home). Oh, my God. He’s gone. He’s gone. I looked at the clock through my tears. It was 6 a.m. I had missed the chance to say goodbye – say goodbye to the person who, up until then, mattered the most in my life.  Read More 
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