We've all heard the expression "Get the government off my back." In the marshes and estuaries and bayous of rural Louisiana, rural folks who fish and sell their seafood products not only preach but practice that principle.
They live in a shadow economy where cash is king and keeping exacting records for the Internal Revenue Service or more recently damage claims filed against BP is an afterthought to some and never a thought to others.
A local businessman who operates a wholesale seafood company and keeps meticulous records, said he knows a lady in Delacroix, La., who earns $800 cash a week during the fishing season and who claims she hasn't filed an income tax return since 2000.
Delacroix is a lush narrow island, home to alligators, gnarled oaks draped with Spanish moss and hundreds of permanent residents descendents of Spanish Canary Islanders who settled in the late 1700s.
These residents in southeastern Louisiana are just now recovering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 only to be hit with a double whammy with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill which already has closed their off-shore fishing grounds and daily encroaches their on-shore habitat.
Not only have they lost the only means they know to make a cash dollar, BP is demanding they show copies of a commercial fishing license, proof of residence and tax statements to cover their losses.
Many people involved in the seasonal harvesting of shrimp, crabs, oysters and fish — boat washers, fishermen, crab cookers, deckhands, dockworkers — said they felt caught by a pincer of environmental devastation and an assistance program that could expose them to the tax man.
It is not surprising that some natives refused to talk to an inquiring reporter from the Los Angeles Times, you know, from California of all the evil places in our country.
"I worked for an uncle last year who paid me in cash," said a crab fisherman who asked to remain anonymous. "The BP guy wanted my tax statements, but how can I pay taxes if everything I earned was in cash?"
"We have our own little world, and the whole world is invading it right now," said Erwin Menesses, 43, who specializes in sewing and repairing fishing nets and talks on the record to news folks upon request. "You are not going to find our legacy in the paperwork they are asking us to produce. It's not there."
BP officials said that more than 25,000 claims had been submitted and that more than 12,000 payments totaling about $36 million had been sent to people facing financial ruin. As part of an effort to resolve disputes, BP on Wednesday said it would appoint an independent mediator to help review and process claims.
Wayne Landry, council chairman for St. Bernard Parish, worried that an undetermined number of people from fishing outposts would be overlooked because BP and "the bean counters in the Internal Revenue Service do not deal with culture or heritage; they deal with numbers."
This concludes the three-act play. Versions of it, sequels and spin-offs will be replayed for years to come. Maybe I am overwhelmingly optimistic. Already we have forgotten Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti, and if it were not for a Mosque planned to be built two blocks away, the Ground Zero site of 9/11.