Unfair actions taken by two beloved towns

Published 2:37 pm Monday, June 4, 2007

Two towns I know well have been messing with friends I love, and I don’t like that a bit.

A prosecutor in beautiful little St. Martinville, La., recently made Willie Nelson appear in criminal court. Willie was handed his first-ever conviction for marijuana possession in the same parish where I spend most of my winters and pay property taxes. I am hurt.

“I think the way this was handled, St. Martin Parish ought to be proud,” prosecutor Chester Cedars told the local newspaper. “We did not give him a free pass. A free pass would have been just to let him pay a fine without having to come to court. I made him come in just like everybody else.”

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Excuse me? Willie Nelson is not just like everybody else. Willie Nelson is Willie Nelson, for heaven’s sake, great and rare American, a hero to millions, the only addition we need ever make to Mount Rushmore.

It’s true I’ve never met him. I did once talk to Willie on the telephone; I put that at the top of my resume. I never met him, but he’s my old friend just the same. Ask the farmers around that pious prosecutor’s courthouse if they think Willie should have been treated like everyone else. Ask the musicians who sing his songs. Ask anyone with ears.

I don’t smoke dope, never have, but then I’m no genius. You make certain allowances for geniuses. You treat them with deference and awe and great respect. You overlook a few things. (Willie was not driving, by the way.) Maybe you make them pay a fine, but you don’t treat them like everyone else.

Maybe, Chester, Willie should be treated like everyone else who has written “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” Or like everyone else who started an organization to save the American farmer. Or everyone who helped drag country music into this century. I’m not proud, but appalled.

To add insult to injury, Willie was arrested on his way home to Texas after playing at a Hank Williams tribute in Montgomery. I rest my case.

Another town that’s disappointed me lately is Auburn, Ala., home of my alma mater and many of my best friends. One of those friends rents decent and affordable housing to students, not an illogical occupation in a college town.

John Bedford, who, by the way, recently was selected to receive an Auburn Beautification Award, told me a story that made me wince. John rents out a second house next to his own house that’s about three blocks from the Auburn campus.

One morning the female students in the rental house were awakened before daylight by police. They were terrified, of course, and unaware they were in violation of a city ordinance that prohibits — only in certain, high-toned zones — more than two unrelated people from living in a single house. Students, of course, often share rent and other expenses.

John, as landlord, was told to fix the problem or pay a big fine. Never mind that he’s surrounded by student housing, including a big condo complex across the street.

Evidently Auburn’s fancier neighborhoods and city fathers have forgotten that it takes students to make a college town tick. Those pesky students are the ones who buy the groceries and gas and clothes that make the town prosperous and Auburn a thriving and swell place to live. Acting on tips from fink neighbors, police now stake out “suspicious” houses in the swank zones and stage rousing, early-morning raids.

When I lived in Auburn, slum lords routinely were given a free pass to rip off their student tenants with unreasonable rents for shoddy apartments. Many never returned damage deposits or made basic repairs.

If students cause problems by littering or making too much noise, arrest them for those offenses. Don’t hassle them for simply being who they are — unrelated kids paying out the nose for an education. I don’t think that’s constitutional, and I know it’s not right.

Maybe — if he’s not tied up in St. Martinville — Willie should stage a concert to benefit the persecuted students of a town that wouldn’t exist but for them. That’s the kind of cause my outlaw friends would embrace.