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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.

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
 by
Leonard Earl Johnson,
of Lafayette and New Orleans

Archives: www.LEJ.org

August 2016


* *

Melanie Plesh

and the Great Escape

by Leonard Earl Johnson
www.LEJ.org
*
© 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.

Merde!


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
or
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



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