Yours Truly in a Swamp ~ LEJ's Louisiana
In Remembrance of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita's Tenth Anniversary
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|LEJ / 2005 photo credit: Frank Parsley|
The First Christmas After Hurricane Katrina
by Leonard Earl Johnson
Originally published in 2005 in a slightly different version
The year was 2005, the month was December. The bar was on Saint Charles Avenue, in Uptown New Orleans. It was newly reopened after The Storms and had tried since Thanksgiving to coax Yuletide spirit from the flood-weary City. Their effort had been great, but the task had been greater. The water was gone and in time it would fill with song. But not this night, December 17 ~ nearly four months later.
Streetcars were still silent and military convoys were the only traffic moving on this or any other street in Town. Everywhere, neither stop light nor street light blinked a bright red and green.
Along the street, houses lay splayed open like huge fish with their innards spilled out for the world to see. Occasionally a cascade of generator powered Christmas lights poured over some brave heart's intact gallery rail. They cast faint light on refrigerators sitting along the curb wrapped in industrial strength tape and the sweet smell of a Mafia funeral.
Inside the bar, blue snowflakes hung from rafters, along with toy gray helicopters lifting little plastic refugees from little blue-tarped roofs. The bartender sported a red baseball cap with cotton around the rim. A silver bell dangled from its bill.
A great effort, indeed, but the bell rang hollow and the bartender looked weary, like some Papa Noel rescuing the hopeless with the promise of gifts not always delivered.
I had come to the bar to meet an old friend. He had just arrived in Town aboard Amtrak's City of New Orleans from Chicago, that broad-shouldered behemoth at the other end of the railroad line. He had ridden on this train to show support for Arlo Guthrie's Friends Benefit Tour for Louisiana Musicians.
The train had stopped along the route to give fundraiser concerts all the way from Kankakee to New Orleans. This night we are to make our donation at a concert to be held at Tipitina's on the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue.
When I opened the French doors to the bar I spotted my friend at the far end. He was overdressed, and over-served.
He wore a camel hair topcoat, a wool suit, a cotton shirt and a silk tie. A fast-pace Chicago uniform in our Storm slowed parade ~ a pace none too swift in the best of times. These were not the best of times.
A mural behind the bar twinkled with tiny blue lights sprinkled over a snowy hillock of white deer nibbling mistletoe berries dotted among the evergreen trees. The mistletoe berries were represented by tiny red lights.
"Mistletoe is poison," my friend was telling the bartender, "and its berries should be white!"
A beer representative from Saint Louis, Missouri was also behind the bar. He was wearing a sport coat that looked to be made from Anheuser-Busch labels. He was passing out samples of Red Wolf Beer. My friend took one and lifted it in my direction. I moved down the bar and accepted the brew.
"Must be a Santa after all," my friend said loudly to the largely empty room.
From a green felt-covered table, an elderly couple often seen here before The Storm, looked up and smiled. No one was dealing. His cards were lying face up. We tipped our beer towards them. They were wearing evening clothes and his gold studs were set with diamonds that flashed back at the mural. She was ash blonde, well-painted, and wearing a red sequined gown. She unzipped the gentleman's tuxedo.
My friend and I both said in a stage whisper that she was an expensive date.
The man laughed and asked, "How better to spend my FEMA money?" She laughed and slapped him playfully.
"Where is the vice-squad," my friend asked in a real whisper, "at the Canal Street Brothel with David Vitter?"
We both laughed. My friend was in his cups, hanging his observations with Chicago bluntness. "Christmas in New Orleans is not like going over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house, is it?"
"It's a good system," I said. "We are the city that works!"
He snorted at the irony of laying Chicago's famous motto up against New Orleans' famous work ethic.
"Cops protecting brothel patrons," I said, "and people in evening clothes entertaining themselves for free."
We both looked back at the couple and laughed. My friend muttered, "Maybe not free, but a lot less than the cops charge."
The beer rep handed us two more Red Wolfs. He wanted to finish and leave. My friend asked him, "Shouldn't you call this stuff Red Riding Hood?" None of us were sure what he meant by this but we all laughed the laugh required of our station.
The beer distributor gave us two full six packs of Red Wolf and smiled. "Please, I gotta catch a plane back to Saint Louis."
The bartender said, "Allow me to put that on ice for you."
I got up to go to the restroom as my Chicago friend yanked a hanging blue snowflake from its tether. He bellowed at the bartender, "What fathead told you to hang blue snowflakes in this swamp-flooded city?" The bartender is startled and blurts back, "The fatheads in Chicago who own this bar!" Of course he did not know he was talking to fathead number one.
The Saint Louis beer distributor smiled weakly and moved towards the French doors. Through the glass we saw a waiting limousine with rental license plates. The man in the tuxedo fell from his chair. The woman in red helped him to his feet and they stumbled outside balancing themselves by holding on to articles of each other's clothing. They lunged into the limo and motioned for the beer man to join them. He shrugged and climbed in.
Coming out of the restroom I dropped a quarter into a slot machine. The last of my FEMA money whirled away. I did not care. It was Christmas and my friend was in Town to wine and dine us for three fat days. We have known each other since the Fabled Sixties, since our college daze in Carbondale, Illinois, where the train had stopped to play a concert. He liked having, as he put it, "A writer bum for a friend." We liked having a rich one.
In a wastebasket beside the slot machines, I spotted seven paper teddy bear tree ornaments. Each had the name of someone lost in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita written across its belly. I picked up one and read the name, "Senegal Breaux," underneath that, "August 29, 2005" I gathered the teddy bears and put them in my shirt pocket.
Back at the bar I sipped my beer in silence. The bartender, smarting from my friend's harsh words punched up Blue Bayou on the jukebox. He pushed a remote-control button next to the cash register and one of the gray helicopters opened its bomb bay doors and let red and green glitter fall into our beers.
We stood to leave and my friend told the bartender to keep the remaining Red Wolfs and gave him a one-hundred dollar bill and his business card. "Tell those fatheads in Chicago to go jump in Lake Michigan. New Orleans is a swamp, not a snowy wonderland."
Outside, my friend stared at the empty curb. "Where the Hell's my driver?"
I say, "Forget it, let's walk."
He slipped out of his topcoat and handed it to a bewildered Mexican in dirty blue jeans and a t-shirt that read: "FEMA, Find Every Mexican Available".
We walked along past mounds of rubble towards Tip's. My friend accepted a paper teddy bear and held it up to ambient Christmas light, "Ah, Christ, what am I supposed to do about this?" Then he handed it to a pair of passing National Guardsmen.
"Let's distribute them like handbills," he said.
It seemed all those who were back in Town were also headed to Tipitina's. We started singing, "We three kings from Orient are..." When someone asked, "Where is your other king?" we handed them the teddy bear named Senegal Breaux, and kept on our way.
"Bearing gifts we traveled so far..."
Copyright, Leonard Earl Johnson, 2015
All Rights Reserved
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You may not receive a monthly e-mail notice for YOURS TRULY IN A SWAMP, LEJ's Louisiana 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 they are archived at www.LEJ.org. Each new column is posted on the first of each month and polished for the next few weeks.
Hope you do, I love talking with you,
Leonard Earl Johnson,
Columnist to the elderly and early weary.
© 2015, Leonard Earl Johnson,
All Rights Reserved.
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