Yours Truly in a Swamp
Leonard Earl Johnson
Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans
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"There is no waterline on the soul of New Orleans." ~ Nick Spitzer, host and producer of NPR’s American Routes
Sheraton Hotel, Canal Street, New Orleans
National Main Streets Conference
June 7, 2006
* * *
*The Big Uneasy
L. A. Norma blew Camel Cigarette smoke out the rear dormer at Squalor Heights. Her house in the French Quarter was untouched by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but since our return from Lafayette she does not like staying there. Come mornings, she herds her courtyard turtles into their food pit and strikes out to explore what is left of The City FEMA Forgot.
This day she has come to Squalor Heights to watch the news on my little black and white television – and me peeling shrimp – at the kitchen table. Between sips of chicory-laced coffee, she talks to the little TV. And me.
She says to one of us, "How fine it is to again have good chicory coffee." In the land of boudin they do not serve the brew.
The TV’s little talking head interrupts to say Saint Bernard Parish board members have returned from a disaster-management convention in Washington, D. C., talking of hiring former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, Michael D. Brown, as consultant and liaison.
"Well, damn it all!" Norma spurts, sitting her cup on the table. She stands inside the dormer and lights another cigarette.
"Those dolts are fixin’ to get hogtied and Republicanized!"
"Those dolts" had come back to Chalmette swooning over meeting "Heckuva’ Job Brownie!" (Brownie opened a disaster consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado, after being fired as director of FEMA).
"Are they crazy?"
I ask, "why not Nero?"
"Why not ‘Spoons’ Butler?" she says, from behind a plume of cigarette smoke.
Nero was the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned; Michael D. Brown was the FEMA director who sat in his Baton Rouge hotel rooms after the hurricanes, putting mousse in his hair and e-mailing dinner plans. Eighty miles to the south, Chalmations were drowning in nursing homes and eighty percent of New Orleans was going under water.
During one of the president’s many after-The-Storm photo-ops, when coastal chaos reigned from Texas to Alabama, Bush turned to Brown on television and said, "Brownie, you're doin' a heckuv’a job."
In a way true. Was not all of America utterly flabbergasted by the job they were doing?
As for Benjamin Franklin "Spoons" Butler, he was Abraham Lincoln’s ruling general during the occupation of New Orleans. He is remembered unto this day as "Spoons" by pink-rouged ladies with fluffy hats, and otherwise genteel manners, for his alleged habit of lifting the silver from the tables of our gracious Southern antecedents.
The heirs of those long-dead hosts twist their lips and snarl his name pining for granny’s purloined silver. Or so goes the story.
Spoons said of the charge, "Poppycock, it’s war!" And told the women to behave better towards his "boys in blue," whom the ladies had taken to anointing with chamber pot dumpings from overhead balconies. Some of the pots were said to have had Spoons’ face painted inside.
It should be noted that New Orleans had no sewerage system at the time, and dumping chamber pots, shrimp shells and any manner of offal onto the streets of The City was common practice. Should that offend today’s delicate memory, be advised the streets were already covered in animal manure.
The seed of the very sewerage system we use today was being laid by Spoons and his boys in blue, as the pots and garbage fell around them.
"The Twenty-first Century was a long way off," Norma remarked, looking hard out the window.
The Spoons Affair escalated, causing the Confederate State’s only ally, England, to pass legislation declaring Spoons an official "beast." This was in reaction to his having issued a proclamation that New Orleans women so behaving would be declared common women of the streets.
Smelling salts and medicinal wine was called for when this news filtered into courtyards and mansions of the newly slaveless. And that was pretty much the end of the matter, until a hundred years later, when The City’s tourist industry revived the battle for the amusement of visitors and the occasional passing pink-cheeked matron of the New South.
The new New Orleans
Norma pushed the dormer’s shutters wide open and pointed at the newly built apartment building inside the courtyard of a Creole cottage three doors down. The building had originally housed slaves. It’s renovation was begun before Hurricane Katrina, and finished just after.
"You could dump garbage off those balconies till the cows come home," Norma snorted, "and nobody would see you from the street or City Hall."
The building had sprouted a new second story, four balconies, brass lantern lighting, and sliding glass doors. It was located in The City’s most famous neighborhood of slave owning free-people-of-color, Faubourg Marigny, and its reconstruction had, in fact, been stop-ordered half a dozen times for violation of historical preservation laws.
Norma closed the shutters and said, "It is not going to be the same city."
I agree, but in some ways it will.
We closed all the windows and headed down the stairs for Thursday night’s reading at the Gold Mine Saloon in the French Quarter. There we drank with friends and bought bar owner and poet Dave Brinks’ new book of great poems, THE CAVEAT ONUS (Lavender Ink). Out in the Gulf of Mexico, Alberto, the first storm of the season was gathering. Katrina and Rita proved you can take fools out of the drink, but not the drink out of the fools.
© 2006 Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved
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