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Leonard Earl Johnson (photo credit Frank Parsley) covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for Consumer Affairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs Newswire and the books FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sunset Lmt also Rises + Dick Gregory / Oct 2017

LEJ's Louisiana / Yours Truly in a Swamp
Leonard Earl Johnson
October 2017
© 2017, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved
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~ Dedicated to Dick Gregory, a short memorial follows this month's story ~
The Sunset Limited also Rises
                            by Leonard Earl Johnson
Sunset Limited at Sunrise                                                 Courtesy of Amtrak
"Hi, ho. Hi, ho, i
t's off the cliff we go

No brains, no thoughts, just the guns we brought 
Hi, ho. Hi, ho. Hi, ho!"
~ L. A. Norma singing her New American Anthem, while waiting for the train to New Orleans at the 
Rosa Parks Transportation Center, Lafayette, Louisiana

New Orleans is a town with trains, ships, music, food, even a style of literature named after it. If ever you must be awake and weary at daybreak there is no dreamier place to suffer it.

Friday's Sunset Limited bound from Los Angeles to New Orleans did not pass through Lafayette -- 130 miles out -- until 1:30 Saturday morning.  It was well into the next day when it finally reached the City of Dreamy Dreams.

The passengers were grumpy. The exhausted crew was expected to sweep out the train for its Los Angeles turn-around at 9a.m.  (It actually left five hours late.) And the sun was rising when we stepped out of Union Passenger Terminal, and climbed in a United Cab headed for a French colonial breakfast of beignets and café au lait at  Café  du Monde, next to the Mississippi River flood wall in ole New Orleans.

* * *
L. A. Norma closed the cab door and said, "They could'a re-named her the 'Sun-rise Un-limited.' "  

Our cab driver nodded but said nothing.  We had seen him before. And he had seen us.  He was wearing his T-shirt that read: 'My Parents Went to New Orleans
 and All I Got Is This Lousy I.Q.'

There had been a derailment two days before, way out West.  For the next two days Amtrak could not tell us anything.  Except that the "Incident" was not an "Amtrak Incident."  

We did not know what that meant. The only part of the "what-ever incident" that concerned us was Amtrak's delay. 

"If that isn't an Amtrak-incident," Norma bellowed, "Ray Naginis not an honest man." The cabbie pulled up to the curb, turned around and stared at her.

* *
It was an off-day for the once 
daily Times-Picayune, and we purchased a Daily Advocate, the once Baton Rouge only paper that has absorbed the Big Swamp City market left behind by the venerated grey old lady of New Orleans letters, who has lifted her skirts and shown us she has only enough petticoats left for three days a week. The Times-Picayune has not exactly folded, but she ain't goin' dancing any more. 

Since Katrina, The T-P had been pushing her faithful scribes out the door. Now, she is pushing them out the windows, too, and breaking our hearts all over again with news of more demon change.

On the decadently optimistic side, however, she has given us yet another forget-me-not theme for fundraiser dinners, parties and coffee shop chatter for years, nay, centuries to come.  

"That will fill our T-P-less days," Norma said, standing beside the cab lighting a cigarette.  She blew smoke in the Cabbie's face and handed him a large bill, "Keep the change."

  ~ ~
The newspaper said we awaited a strong storm headed in from the Gulf of Mexico.

"Debby's the name, flooding's the game," Norma said through a cloud of cigarette smoke. "She's headed for Florida." 

We prayed for Florida, but worried the storm might slip past the point of our prayers and come here.

"Thank Gott, we have a flood wall sturdy as the one that failed us last time," L. A. Norma told the checkout clerk at Rouses on Baronne Street.  The checkout clerk said ~ in a dialect fading from New Orleans' soundscape ~ that she had told her Mother the same thing the day before, "An'da Mayors's been saying dat all weeks."

On our way back to Faubourg Marigny we reminisced over storm preparations of long, long ago. When the effort was no more than stocking up on Camel Cigarettes (for Norma), Chocolate Ice Cream (for me), and batteries for a little transistor radio that had traceable DNA directly back to the 1950s.  We were young and foolish.

"Well, you still got the foolish part," Norma said.  

Next day, she called Amtrak and found the morning train West would not be leaving until that afternoon.  The Governor had been on tv over night telling us not to drown.  We planned on that, but knew some would forget.  "The train will be traveling away from it, on the dry side," Norma said, exhaling Camel Cigarette smoke, "Dry-er side."

New Orleans is expecting a direct hit by a small, fast moving Hurricane and has issued a mandatory 6pm curfew.   Norma booked sleeping compartments to Lafayette.

We phoned for our cabby, and told him during our ride to the Union Passenger Terminal, "New Orleans' DAT DOG hotdogs opened a big place in Lafayette."  On Boulevard Jefferson, just around the corner from the Amtrak stop.

"The menu boasts Hotdogs d'turducken, d'crawfish, or d'gator," I said.

"Two floors, and a music stage, too!  In forty-feet-up, twenty-miles-in Lafayette," Norma added.

He said, "But is it worth it?"

"We will be back in a few weeks for the Tennessee Williams Festival," Norma said to the ticket-taker at the Sunset Limited's platform gate. The ticket-taker closed her eyes and handed us back our ticket stubs. 

We closed the curtains in our cabin, and dozed off as the train slipped out past the Arena and the Superdome. 

Louisiana Superdome          /        Sports Arena         /         Amtrak train yard

"The big one looks like the box the little one came in,"

 Norma said, before snoring.
Copyright, 2017, Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved

*Ray Nagin 

Controversial mayor of New Orleans during Katrina and after.  Noted for holding The City together politically by traveling the country speaking to the diaspora, and holding elections with voting booths outside New Orleans ~ his administration fought with the Bush Administration over information withheld (under claims of privacy) on the whereabouts of New Orleans citizens.  This, some say, was done to thwart Nagin's efforts at holding The City together as a mostly black and blue-voting block in an otherwise mostly white and red-voting state.  It was during this time Nagin spoke positively about New Orleans being a chocolate City.  

Two years after leaving office he was indicted for early post-K. reconstruction graft; found guilty, and incarcerated for ten years (2024 release)

Among Nagin loyalist it is argued his offenses and gains were small (e.g., football trip to Chicago).  Whereas, charges against witnesses flipped by the Justice Department to testify against His Honor were huge.  

Judge Ginger Berrigan reduced the sentence she handed down by one-half of Federal recommendations.  She stated as considerations Nagin's gains from his graft being small, and that he had shown himself to be a good family man, and upstanding citizen outside of this incident. 

One day ~ during the Evacuation ~ I happened upon Nagin, Seletha, and their accompanying Muscle at a crossroads boudin place in Acadiana.  As I recall, President Obama was coming.  In anycase, Nagin and the Muscle were hefting three long ice chests (like we take fishing in the Gulf) full of boudin. 

~ Ray and Seletha Nagin ~

In the checkout line, I said people were judging him too harshly.  "No one knew what to expect from The Storm," I said, "or how to react after."  The Mayor agreed.  His Wife, and the Muscle both noded.  

Remember, Katrina was the World's first major 'non-global-warming' event.  Neither Nagin nor anyone else knew what to do. 

(Carbon spewing interests had yet to switch arguments from, 'not-happening' to 'happening but not our fault'  Meaning they, too, with all their science did not know what to do.)  

New Orleans was left between a ghost town and a frontier town, afterwards.   The City was mostly empty.  Military convoys roamed the streets.  People dipped water from The River. Everything was broken, and nothing was open but a couple of French Quarter bars.  Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the U. S. House, was not alone in his view that New Orleans was too vunerable and should not be rebuilt. 

A few very angry citizens were in Town ~ on the green strips along The River and the lip of Lake Pontchartrain.  

During this strange time, an angry crowd denied Nagin a place on the podium in front of a parade and rally criticising FEMA.  Imagine, the Mayor of The City denied access to his own people by some of those people!

Later, the Mayor's sub-office of garbage pickup-and-scatter issued spanking new trash cans too large for the little walkways between French Quarter and other old houses.  Tempers ran high. 

We remained New Orleanians wherever we were.  But ~ unlike Orleans area parishes ~ where we were was calm and everything worked.  

"Except for you," Norma said.

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~ In Memoriam ~

Dick Gregory 1932 ~ 2017
Dedicated to a Life well lived

Dick Gregory and I attended Southern Illinois University, back in the Fabled Sixties. 

He was from nearby Saint Louis, Missouri.  
I was from nearby Ullin, Illinois.

He said he had not known segregation personally before Carbondale.  "I lived in a black neighborhood, wasn't no white people to be segregated from."   

In Carbondale, he had two dates the same night.  

"In my black neighborhood, back in Saint Louis, getting a seat in the balcony was an honor.  In Carbondale it was segregation."

But he did not know that. Until the night of the two dates.

"For the first date I was honored by a seat in the balcony." He drew on a cigarette and exhaled, "When I took the second date to a seat below I found out what segregation was."

Dick Gregory was a great man, who lived an honorable Life. We are all better off because of his being with us. ~ LEJ.org
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