Cullen’s style helped define newspaper

Veteran newspaper columnist Ed Cullen, whose “Attic Salt” essays became a signature feature in The Baton Rouge Advocate shortly after their first appearance in 1974, drew on a mix of influences in shaping a style of writing that stood out in The Advocate’s pages.

He was an early admirer of John McPhee, The New Yorker writer known for his precise observation and attention to detail, as well as The New Yorker’s “About Town” commentaries about city life. Cullen, who is retiring from The Advocate on Friday after 41 years with the newspaper, is also a fan of the novelist Elmore Leonard, as well as newspaper columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen.

Cullen helped create a tradition of first-person columns at The Advocate that now includes several practitioners — but none who can match Cullen’s sublime method of storytelling.

Here are some excerpts from Cullen’s best essays over the years:

Prom night

I see a high school couple in a restaurant on prom night and fall into a time tunnel that drops me into the spring of 1964.

It’s early evening inside a brick veneer house where my date’s father circles with a 35 mm camera, like a hunter looking for an open shot at caribou.

“Come on, you two! Smile!”

Already grinning like a death’s head, I stretch my lips into thin lines that meet at the back of my head. Finally, my date cries, “Da-DEE!” and our torture by camera is over.

New Orleans, the poem

Visiting our friend Joellen on South Tonti Street, I see the New Orleans that the tourists miss.

Below her kitchen window, green parrots, wings edged in blue, compete with pigeons, cardinals and house wrens for seed in a bird feeder. The wild parrots of New Orleans, descendants of escaped pets, thrive in the semi-tropical climate.

A thunderstorm is gathering over St. Rita’s Catholic Church on Upperline a few blocks away. The congregation of elderly parishioners is saying goodbye to the cantor, a young man who sings the “Ave Maria” as if he wrote it . . .

Around two o’clock, a thunderstorm rolls up the sky, smelling of slate roofs and the Mississippi River. Rain falls as though poured from a bucket onto people and parrots. Pedestrians make careful haste over sidewalks raised by the roots of hundred-year-old live oak trees.

Around midnight

The moon is obscured by clouds. There is the smell of rain in the air, which probably means rain before morning. A weekday night, it’s late. I’ll head for the bed when the mantel clock in the living room bongs faintly twelve times.

For the moment, however, one of the cats — we have several head on the place — shares space with me on the hood of the car. There is a glass of chilled wine within easy reach. The wine is mine. The cat, as far as I know, is a teetotaler.

The minutes before midnight often find me in the yard surveying my holdings. It’s peaceful out here. Thunder and rain are hours away. The cat rubs his head on the bottoms of my bare feet. When he springs to the hood of the car, I move the wine to the other hand to rub the back of the cat’s head, now butting my leg.

October best

Late October is the best time in South Louisiana. It’s the payoff for surviving a summer that doesn’t let up until Halloween candy hits the store shelves.

October tells Louisiana school children that the calendar art in their classrooms was painted by someone who doesn’t live here. My bank puts out a realistic calendar with photographs of swamp fishermen, Gulf Coast lighthouses, and plantation homes. I prefer the kind of calendar art I learned to love as a child — paintings of snowy Maine, Wisconsin in fall, Ohio at harvest time.

I love wearing tropical shirts and shorts to outdoor concerts in December, but let me mark the concert’s date on a calendar where postmen’s breath is visible and motorcycle cops look down red noses at small dogs.

Romancing the nose

Before my wife, my mother was the woman I associated with a certain smell. I can’t remember the name of her perfume, but it came in a glass bottle with a tiger skin cap. When I was 6, I thought the tiny patch of tiger skin might be real.

One Mother’s Day, I bought my mother the smallest bottle of tiger skin perfume made. It cost a fortune. On the way home from the drugstore on my bicycle, I hit a bump. The bottle of perfume rose from the bicycle’s basket like an autumn moon. The bottle sailed up over my head to shatter on the sidewalk. The scent of tiger skin perfume took on a new meaning. It became the smell of disaster.