LEJ's Blog

My Photo
Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Leonard Earl Johnson (photo credit Andrew Payne) 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.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Rio Sweet Rio / September 2016

LEJ's Louisiana
Yours Truly in a Swamp

Monthly e-column @ www.LEJ.org
and on paper at
~ Les Amis de Marigny ~ 
publication of New Orleans
Leonard Earl Johnson,
of Lafayette and New Orleans
Archives: www.LEJ.org
September 2016
* *

Rio Sweet Rio
by Leonard Earl Johnson

Ryan Held
Twenty-one years old, middle-western wholesome 
~ hell, his hometown is Springfield, 
"Land of Lincoln" Illinois ~ 
and handsome as a speckled pup, Ryan Held 
left the 2016 Rio Olympics wearing Gold. 
It was Held's very first international competition.

I lived in Rio de Janeiro when I wore a younger sailor's clothes. 
Three years aboard a U.S. flagged ship 
and in a little apartment on Rua Peru, 
a few blocks off Copacabana Beach. 

* * *

I stayed glued to the tv during the Olympics, 
as cyclists careened down mountains and cameras panned the statue of

Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado,  
 where often in yesteryear we tippled with friends at the bar under the big toe of Jesus. 

 Ah sigh ~ to be again in that beautiful city, 

spirited and broken so like New Orleans.

It was there I met Chilean dictator and torturer-n-chief, Augusto Pinochet 

~ more about that in a minute.

Back to Ryan Held and the U. S. victors.
They made us one with them.
 Gotts off Mount Olympus who healed our old worn heart.

Held won his Gold swimming relay 
with Caeleb Dressel, Nathan Adrian, and Michael Phelps, most decorated Olympian ever!

Standing on the Medals Podium they looked sculpted, 

with lines graceful as sailing ships. 

Michael Phelps, 
latest Olympian Gott to touch Earth
patted Held's arm and then embraced him in his human moment 
of joy and tears. 

Our anthem was playing and these glorious men shed tears. 
Humans touching The Mountain,
as we watched. 

If you lived on Olympus yourself you would have been moved. 

Might it have been thus in ancient Greece? Love? Achievement? Joy? I know the first Olympians wrapped leather dried hard in the Sun around their fists and proceeded to pound each other to the death. 
"That must have brought up some tears," 
L. A. Norma says.

Rio sweet Rio, 

thank you for the political boondoggle and shameful profiteering 
that was the Olympic Games of 2016.

Maybe the Games have always been organized 

by corrupted men ~ feigning greatness but with hearts beating
 far, far below Olympus.

This year we forgot about them, 
while our hearts hang-glided with true Gotts in Ipanema, and on the Mount Olympus of the mind.

* * *

Back to Earthly profiteering and boondoggling.
Here is the story I wrote about Brazil and Pinochet in 2013.

The Day I Met Augusto Pinochet
by Leonard Earl Johnson

It was January, 1991 (Summer south of the bulge) when I met Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet. We met in Brazil. Seven years later he would be arrested while on a medical visit to Europe and placed under house-arrest by order of the World Court for his presidential practice of throwing Chileans out of airplanes over the open Sea, and other undiplomatic policies. 

I had arrived at Hotel Sol Ipanema two weeks earlier, with a belly full of whisky and a bleary eye.

Our plane came down through the clouds over the city of Bras
ília ~ Viewed from above the new capital city resembles a butterfly, some say. Others say it looks more like an air-craft carrier. 

L. A. Norma says, "One might deduce your political inclinations from which you see." 

Brasília is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Planned and developed in 1956. Lúcio Costa was principal urban planner; Roberto Burle Marx landscape designer, and the great Oscar Niemeyer the principal architect. 

Oscar Niemeyer was one of the 20th Century's soaring young architects. Brasília gave him wings. He died in 2012, at 104. He had been blocked from entering the United States to teach at Harvard because of Communist Party membership. (After fighting World War Two to save the U. S. S. R., the U. S. A.'s state religion became anti-Communism, and its zealots greatly feared Commies going to Harvard).

* * *

On April 22, 1960, Brasília became Brazil's new national capital, wrestling the honor away from its ancestral home in coastal Rio de Janeiro ~ a city with much kinship in music, dance and doom to New Orleans. This move into the Amazon, (722 miles by road) greatly chagrined the world's diplomatic corps and their attendant camp followers.

Greeting me at Rio's Aeroporto Galeao was an aide to the United States Cultural Attache.  He carried a small, white box with a red silk ribbon that I presumed was for me. But let us face it, I was drunk. He placed me and the box in the rear seat of a large, white Chevrolet, where the box remained when he departed.

It was early morning when my plane reached Rio. The Ambassador and the rest of his staff still slept in their jungle apartments in 
Brasília.  The Cultural Attache was doing likewise somewhere in giant Rio. I stood beside his aide, with my eyes twirling before the front desk of the Sol Ipanema

The aide explained to the desk clerk, "Mr. Johnson is more important than he looks."

Casa de Cultura Laura Alvim, on the beach at Impanema
And so I was. I was traveling at the expense of the United States government and American Airlines, exhibiting photographs and teaching a workshop at nearby Casa de Cultura Laura Alvim ~ on the beach at Ipanema. 

The exhibition was titled "Bourbon Street and The Sea." It was inspired by New Orleans photographer, John Ernest Joseph Bellocq (1873 ~ 1949), who immortalized the ladies of Storyville. My exhibition consisted of portraits of male street hustlers in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and merchant sailors around the world. 

"America's foreign policy is a baffling beast," Norma says giggling, when this story comes up in conversation.

The exhibition went well, and at the reception afterwards I asked American Airlines' South American Manager if he might bump me up to first class on my return flight.  

The aide to the cultural attache said later, "They don't even do that for us."

The South American manager suggested I come see him the next week at his downtown offices near the Old Opera House. 

I had already asked the embassy for an advance on my State Department stipend. With it I paid for an extended stay at the Sol.

View from the Sol
The Sol is a fine, small hotel popular with several of the world's diplomatic corps and uniformed military. The thought "CIA hotel" crossed my mind but not my lips. (Had we not read Graham Greene in our college daze?)

Next morning, Ipanema's beaches drew the song-praised "young and sweet / pure and gentle," dressed so revealingly! As young and sweet should. 

Me?  I was amply hungover and of a girth not given to bodily revelations. Like the song says, I walked on with a sigh. Cloaked in what Brazilians would see as more like a burka on the beach than 
proper Seaside attire.  I was at ground zero for 

Bossa Nova and the Girl from Ipanema, the Veloso Bar.  Sipping Wild Turkey, while wearing snowflake-looking, tie-dyed navy and gray boxer-baggy trunks with a matching hip length beach jacket. This outfit had been sewn for me especially for the trip by Shirley Jensen, a late New Orleans matron with needlework famous in her day.  

On the day I met Pinochet I was so dressed.

I had walked from my hotel along the beach to a large neighboring resort, the Caesar Park, to take coffee and the afternoon newspapers from Miami.

In front of Caesar Park this afternoon were several large German cars and one large, lone, white Chevrolet. I glanced in the Chevrolet half expecting to see my lost red-ribboned white box, and met the glare of several large men wearing dark suits and glasses. No white box was seen.

Inside the hotel,

the lobby rumbled with similarly dark suited men, assorted reporters, and cameras with portable lights. I caught the eye of a woman who had interviewed me for Brazil's O Globo TV

I wore that beach coat for her interview, 
over a white shirt and tie.  It looked rather like an Armani design, I thought. My coat looked "terrific," she had told me. Head swelling, I agreed telling her I had bought it in Lisbon (always a good lily-gilder in Brazil).

I asked, "What is going on?"

"We are following Augusto Pinochet on a jewelry buying stopover before flying off to South Africa for arms shopping."

Lights and cameras came alive in front of me and by my side stood Augusto Pinochet wearing a double-breasted pin striped suit. He looked neither large nor menacing.  He looked like any Latin businessman. He looked at me, and neither smiled nor spoke. 

Augusto Pinochet
 I said,"Good Afternoon, Generalissimo" ~ perhaps not exactly correct. Pinochet was a president retired "upstairs," to run Chile's military. I should have called him el Presidente.

Generalissimo, spoken by itself being known throughout the post World War Two worlds of that day as the title for Spain's famed military dictator, Francisco Franco.  I had read it was a comparison Pinochet liked.

He smiled and moved on. The crowed followed him. 

A waiter in starched whites brought over a cup of black coffee and the Miami Herald.

Late the next morning I went to see the manager of American Airlines' South American interests. His secretary led me in and brought us black coffee and a bottle of Wild Turkey.

On a large Amazon-mahogany desk sat a small television with a built-in Video Cassette Recorder. On the screen was Pinochet looking at me in the lobby of the Caesar Park. A voice-over, roughly translated, was saying, "Pinochet in civilian clothing and visiting North American photographer, Leonardo Arl Johnson, wearing a 'Lisbon coat,' meet in the lobby of ..."

On the flight home I sat in first class flanked by deluxe food carts, wine, whiskey and a white box wrapped in a red silk ribbon. Inside were expensive chocolates molded like propellers and other airplane parts.

* * *

Lagniappe du Jour:

Hang Gliding, Rio

Adenddum Wikipeddum

Pinochet was arrested in London on 10 October 1998 in connection with numerous human rights allegations, but following a legal battle was released and returned to Chile in March 2000. In 2004, Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia ruled that Pinochet was medically fit to stand trial and again placed him under house arrest. By the time of his death on 10 December 2006, about 300 criminal charges were still pending against him in Chile for numerous human rights violations, tax evasion, and embezzlement during his 17-year rule and afterwards. Pinochet was accused of having corruptly amassed a wealth of US$28 million or more.
* *
Copyright, 2016, 
Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved

Your comments and corrections are welcome: Comments

Go here For 
T-Shirts, Koozies, LEJ.org icebox magnets
and such falderal ...

You may not receive a monthly e-mail notice for LEJ's Louisiana / Yours Truly in a Swamp unless I figure out how to set up a new freemail system. But you can always go to www.LEJ.org

Don't hold your breath on my figuring out le Internet.  I am a storyteller, not a computer-pinball gamer). 

Contact me if you want on the list - that may get e-mailed. If you wish to read any month's column go to www.LEJ.org anytime. They are posted on the first of each month and polished for the next few weeks. 

For more L. E. J.'s Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp go to w w w . L E J . o r g

Monday, August 01, 2016

Melanie Plesh and the Great Escape / August 2016

LEJ's Louisiana
Yours Truly in a Swamp

Monthly e-column @ www.LEJ.org
 on paper at
~ Les Amis de Marigny ~ 
publication of New Orleans
Leonard Earl Johnson,
of Lafayette and New Orleans

Archives: www.LEJ.org

August 2016

* *

Melanie Plesh

and the Great Escape

by Leonard Earl Johnson
© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

"Didn't She Ramble" ~ Kermit Ruffins 

Melanie Plesh, 
teacher, writer, traveler, photographer, seeker.
Lifelong resident of New Orleans. 
Died of cancer at sixty-three, 
May 18, 2016. 
Her passing cut a new wound, 
and opened the old one named Hurricane Katrina.
Melanie and I escaped together during The Storm's early first half. 

Janice Becker* and Melanie Plesh / David Gabe Friend

 Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen: 
Hey, That's no Way to Say Goodby ~

News of Melanie's death reached me on a day when 

Art Garfunkel was giving a $120-ticket fundraiser at the 
Acadiana Center for the Arts ~ eleven years after Katrina.
It was a traveling show billed by its promoters as Hurricane Katrina-inspired. 
Its purpose was to raise funds for art and craft supplies.
"Dream Boxes, 
for children displaced by disasters like Katrina and Rita."  

Melanie and I met a few years before Katrina, on Bourbon Street, at a 
Tennessee Williams Festival party. She taught English at New Orleans Frederick 
Douglas High School, she told us, and lived on the North Shore.

Some of her Douglas High students loved her for bringing Shakespeare 
where never before the boards had been so trod, she said.

  "Mostly they ignore me, but I'm doing good anyway." 

Katrina washed Frederick Douglass away.

Melanie was easy to like. A do-gooder, who actually did good.  

A lovely spirit who left a comfortable North Shore school, 
where students drove nice cars, and came to Douglas... 

"Where they steal them!" 

L. A. Norma said, making us all laugh, 
that day.

By the time Katrina hit, Melanie had moved to Marigny Street, 

near the Friendly Bar, in Faubourg Marigny.


When hurricane people say a storm, "takes landfall," they are talking about 

the middle of the storm ~ the eye.

Next comes the calm, then the second half of the storm, with winds coming from 

the opposite direction. 
Katrina's landfall was early Monday, August 29, 2005.

August 28 began as a Sunday calm, clear, and blue as the Lord ever gives. Though 

Katrina crept deceptively towards us like Carl Sandburg's little cat's feet
in a few hours She would be roaring down the street 
like pride on steroids.

Melanie's Son, Timothy Lachin, lived in Paris, where he taught English. 

He had been phoning  
across the Atlantic for days. 
"This is the big one, Ma," he would say, "you've gotta get out!"

But Melanie was one of those burned by the huge, slow evacuation of the year 

before, and vowed not to evacuate again.  

I, too, had foolishly decided to ride out this storm, because the year before  

I had been with other friends creeping along for twenty-four hours 
all the way up to Memphis before finding overpriced rooms. 

By the time the error of my judgement hit me, Melanie was the only person I knew 

still in Town with more than two wheels. She was thinking it over.

By then, City Mayors and Parish Presidents from every town and parish around 
were pushing each other off the tv-podium to tell their citizens that 
if they planned on staying they should get an indelible marker
 and write their Social Security number on their arm.


Norma had gone to California earlier, and NOLa was nearly a ghost town. 
Everything was boarded up. Anyone still here was boarded up, too. 
Armstrong International Airport and the Union Passenger Terminal 
no longer picked up the phone,
and I was getting calls 
from all over promising shelter
 if I would just come join them. 
But I could not. I did not drive, and 
Feather Bike was no match for a storm like Katrina.

Feather Bike               /             Melanie Plesh

Melanie to the rescue. 

We loaded her little red truck with supplies for a day or two, 
and her two feral cats, caged.  
Once Melanie chased these two cats with rocks and taunts,
 and then came to love them. 
We would not leave without them.

Melanie alone could touch these wild beasts.

In an instant, 

as I held open a sturdy pillow case, 
Melanie dropped in the cat named Orange
who came ripping out the bottom 
and streaking across the kitchen linoleum like
Katrina's pilot fish.  

His partner, Red, stood frozen next to the stove,

then joined the screeching race.  
Melanie brought up the rear.

By the time we left Town, The Storm was licking the wheels of our little red raft,

and we skittered across the Rigolets
with the cats inside their cages fainting into 
the arms of catatonia.

The storm behind us was halfway up to its eye, 

and the bridges we were crossing 
were literally washing away behind us.  
Had we understood all this at the time, we likely would have fainted too.

We fled along the very path of The Storm, because 

a uniformed policeman told us we could only go East. 

"The West full?" Melanie asked the policeman, as 

rain sprayed him from every direction including up. 

"Just the road to it," he said. 

We landed on the North Shore, in Hammond, 

at the hearth of a kindly fallen monk. 

Weeks later we decamped to Lafayette, Louisiana. 

"Where the English isn't English and the French isn't French," detractors say. 
Somehow we communicated, lived well, and grew happy. 

"Not a bad outcome for a serendipitous old scribe like you,

Norma says, when I tell this story

"Not to mention," M
elanie used to say, 

"all those train rides snaking in-and-out of Big Swamp City!"  


Before leaving the kindly fallen monk's hearth we agreed that
Melanie would be first to make her way back in to New Orleans,
where she would retrieve select items from what she might find of
Squalor Heights, my Faubourg Marigny garret apartment.

Melanie was a seeker ~ who would save my treasures 

a brave journeyman on her way through Life. 

For over twenty-years she co-directed the 

Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, and 
in 1999, she traveled alone to Russia to visit the grave of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


On my first trip back to New Orleans I found Melanie where we had arranged to meet,

 sitting, sipping beer in the window seat at Molly's on the Market, Decatur Street,  
Boots on the Ground  /  Coleen Perilloux Landry
one of two bars in the Quarter that did not close during The Storm.  

This day,

 The City is mostly empty of all but military 
and a few folks like us.

"The army gives them ice," Melanie said, 

pointing her thumb back at the bar. 

I joined her.

She had my copy of the anthology,

FRENCH QUARTER FICTION, signed by all contributing authors.
And a silver medal given to me when a boy by Pope Pius, XII.

Melanie Plesh, thank you for the ride out of Town.

May you find among the billowing clouds 
Shakespeare, Voltaire, Dante, Goethe, Twain, Sandburg 
and Dostoyevsky.

Back home in New Orleans, 

your memory takes us once more round the floor.
Merci, mon amie!

Your comments and corrections are welcome: Comments
Lagniappe du Jour

George Dureau triptych, over bar at Cafe Sbisa, NOLa
(*Janice Becker is the model in black in the first panel)

All following photos are by Melanie Plesh and are of the last 

Ralph Brennan's Bacco 
Ten-Cent Martini Lunches before Katrina.

Ralph Brennan's Bacco
the Last Ten Cent Martini Lunches before Katrina

* *

Sonnet for LEJ's Gold Tooth
Enamel, You Were Valiant, But You Succumbed

by Melanie Plesh

LEJ with tooth / Frank Parsley
At birth a squawling, darling baby boy,
Content to gum the nipple, lived content,
And morning noon and night he sucked in joy,
While father sold hot meals that paid the rent.
Til finally, one otherwise dull day,
When all was still, his mother hit the roof!
And screamed ‘til Illinois itself did quake.
Instead of gums, on mom he used a tooth. 
You know the rest, how one tooth leads to teeth, 
How meats replace the nectar that we’ve known.
But ersatz nourishment leads but to grief.
The food we hunger for remained at home.
However, now you sparkle when you walk
And all your words are gilded when you talk.

Love, Melanie, aka Clothilde Goldfarb

17 October 2004
Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans

* *

* *
Copyright, 2016, 
Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved

Your comments and corrections are welcome: Comments

Go here For T-Shirts, Koozies, LEJ.org icebox magnets
and such falderal ...

You may not receive a monthly e-mail notice for LEJ's Louisiana / Yours Truly in a Swamp unless I figure out how to set up a new freemail system. But you can always go to www.LEJ.org

(Don't hold your breath on my figuring out le Internet.  I am a storyteller, not a computer-pinball gamer). 

Contact me if you want on the list - that may get e-mailed. If you wish to read any month's column go to www.LEJ.org anytime. They are posted on the first of each month and polished for the next few weeks. 

For more L. E. J.'s Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp go to w w w . L E J . o r g