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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

L. E. J. 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, and Country Roads Magazine, 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, November 09, 2009

December 2009 draft

Yours Truly in a Swamp
December 2009


The First Christmas After
Reprinted from Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans


by

Leonard Earl Johnson


*
*
*


The bar on Saint Charles Avenue had tried all season to coax yuletide spirit from the Storm-weary City. Their effort was great, but the task was greater. It re-opened a few weeks ago and in time it will again be filled with song. But not this night. This night, December 17, 2005, street cars are silent and military convoys comprise most all the traffic moving on the avenue or any other street in New Orleans.


All over The City neither stop lights nor street lights work. And homes are splayed open like huge fish with their innards spilling out for the world to see. Occasionally a cascade of generator powered Christmas lights pour over some brave heart's intact gallery. They cast faint light over a forest of refrigerators sitting along the curb wrapped in industrial strength tape and the sweet smell of a Mafia funeral.


Inside the bar, sparkling blue snowflakes dangle from the rafters, along with toy gray helicopters lifting little plastic refugees from little blue-tarped roofs. The bartender sports a red baseball cap with cotton around the brim. A silver bell dangles from its bill. A great effort, indeed, but the bell rings hollow and the bartender looks weary as some Papa Noel dashing up-and-down The River rescuing the hopeless with the promise of gifts not always delivered.


We have come to this bar to meet an old friend who has just arrived aboard Amtrak's City of New Orleans, from Chicago, that broad-shouldered city at the other end of the railroad track. He rode down on this train as a show of support for Arlo Guthrie, who made famous the late Chicago song-writer Steve Goodman's, "Riding on The City of New Orleans." Guthrie was on board, too, with his "Arlo Guthrie and Friends" benefit tour for Louisiana musicians. The train stopped along the way giving fund-raiser concerts from Kankakee to New Orleans. Tonight we are making our donation and hearing him at Tipitina's.

When we open the French doors we spot our old friend at the far end of the bar. He is over-dressed and over-served. He wears a camel hair topcoat, wool suit, silk shirt and tie. A fast-paced Chicago uniform in a Storm-slowed New Orleans parade -- a parade none too swift in the best of times. These are not the best of times.


A mural behind the back bar twinkles with tiny blue lights sprinkled over a snowy hillock of white deer nibbling mistletoe berries dotted among the evergreen trees. The mistletoe berries are represented by tiny red lights.


"Mistletoe's poison," our friend is telling the bartender,
"and those berries should be white."


A beer representative, from Saint Louis, Missouri, is also behind the bar. He is wearing a sport coat that looks to be made from Anhauser-Bush Beer labels. He is passing out free samples of Red Wolf Beer. My friend takes a free one and lifts it towards us. We move down the bar and accept the brew.


"Must be a Santa after all," my friend says loudly to the largely empty room.


From a green felt covered table, an elderly couple we often saw here before The Storms looks up and smiles. No one is dealing. His cards are laying face up. We tip our beer towards them. They are wearing evening clothes and his gold studs are set with diamonds that flash back at the mural. She is blond, well painted, and wearing a red sequined gown. She unzips the gentleman’s tuxedo.


We nod and say in stage-whisper that she is an expensive date.


He laughs and says, "How better to spend my FEMA money." She laughs and slaps him playfully.

"Where is the vice squad," our friend asks in a real whisper, "protecting patrons from FEMA?"


"Or the Canal Street Brothel," we say.


He laughs. Our friend is in his cups and hanging his observations with dull 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," we say, "it's the city that works."


"Cops protecting brothel patrons," our friend says, "and people in evening clothes entertaining themselves for free." We both look back at the couple and laugh. He mutters,
"Maybe not free but a lot less than the cops charge."


The beer rep hands us two more Red Wolfs. He wants to finish and leave. Our friend asks, "Shouldn't you call this stuff Red Riding Hood?" None of us are quite sure what he means by this, but we all laugh the laugh required of our station.


The beer distributor gives us two full six packs of Red Wolf and smiles, "Please, I gotta catch a plane back to Saint Louis."


The bartender says, "Let me put that on ice for you gentlemen."


We get up to go to the restroom as our Chicago friend yanks a hanging blue snowflake from its tether. He bellows 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 does not know he is talking to fathead number-one.


The Saint Louis beer distributor smiles weakly and moves towards the French doors. Through the glass we see a waiting limousine with rental license plates. The man in the tuxedo falls from his chair. The woman in the red gown helps him to his feet and they stumble outside balancing themselves by holding onto an article of each other's clothing. They lunge into the limo and motion for the Saint Louis beer man to join them. He shrugs and climbs in.


Coming out of the restroom we drop a quarter in a slot machine. The last of our FEMA money whirls away. We don't care! It is Christmas and our friend is in town to wine and dine us for three fat days. We have known each other since our fabled Sixties college days in Carbondale, Illinois. He likes having, as he puts it, "A writer bum for a friend." We like having a rich one.


In a wastebasket beside the slot machines we spot seven paper teddy bear tree ornaments. Each bear has the name of someone lost in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We pick up one and read the name, "Senegal Breaux," printed across the bear's stomach. Underneath is, "August 29, 2005." We gather the teddy bears and put them in our shirt pocket.


Back at the bar, we finish our beer in silence. The bartender is smarting from our friend's harsh words and punches up "Blue Bayou" on the jukebox. He pushes a remote-control button and one of the gray helicopters opens its bomb bay and lets red-and-green glitter fall in our beers.


We stand to leave, and tell the bartender to keep the remaining Red Wolfs. Our friend gives him a one-hundred dollar bill and his business card. "Tell those fatheads in Chicago to go jump in Lake Michigan," he says. "New Orleans is in a swamp not a snowy wonderland."


Outside, our friend stares at the empty curb. "Where the hell's my driver!" he yells, throwing his arms in the air.


We say, "Forget it, let's walk."


He slips out of his topcoat and hands it to a bewildered Mexican man in dirty blue jeans and a T-shirt that reads: "FEMA, Find Every Mexican Available."


We walk beside mounds of rubble towards Tip's. Our friend accepts a paper teddy bear and holds it up to some ambient Christmas light. "Ah, Christ, what am I supposed to do about this?" Then he hands it to a passing pair of National Guardsmen.


"Let's distribute them like hand bills," he says.



It seems all those who are back are heading to Tipitina's, too. We start singing, "We three kings of Orient are . . ." When someone says, "Where is your other king?" We hand them the teddy bear named, "Senegal Breaux," and keep on our way.


"Bearing gifts we traveled so far . . ."
-------------------------------------------------------

Photo credits:
LEJ's image, Frank Parsley, Parsley Studios, Houston, Texas

New Orleans images, Coleen Perilloux Landry Coleen Perilloux Laundry's on-line Gallery

* * *
Copyright, 2009, Leonard Earl Johnson
* * *


Be Safe This Hurricane Season

Get a Frank Parsley original magnet of LEJ's fat face to scare off hurricane vermin from your refrigerator.

"It'll keep bugs out'a your ice-box, next time, sugar!"
~ L. A. Norma





Send a self - addressed & stamped envelope along with $5, $10 for both images.
Mail to:
Leonard Earl Johnson
Box 202
302 Jefferson St.
Lafayette, LA 70501

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Nov 2009 / Part 3 of Below the Level of the Sea

Yours Truly in a Swamp

November 2009


Reprinted from Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans


Below The Level of The Sea

- Part Three -


by

Leonard Earl Johnson




* * *


Even the Prince of Wales

Stopped on His

Way to a Party in San Francisco


One sunny day after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we stood on an empty Burgundy Street with L. A. Norma. We waited with five or six others for a passing wave from England's bonnie Prince Charles and his new lady, Camilla Parker Bowles. Saint Louis Cathedral School had re-opened in the French Quarter, but little else. The City was in horror-book disarray. Military convoys prowled deserted streets, and we awaited a glimpse of the Prince of Wales on his way to pat a poor little school person on the head.

They passed. They waved and smiled as warmly as neighbors. We could see them very well. They were as close as a Land Rover can be to five or six American citizens standing on a deserted French Quarter banquette. "Without running us down," L. A. Norma said while exhaling a cloud of Camel Cigarette smoke.

* * *


Don't we love hearing our story?

Many New Orleanians found their road back home -- and much of
what they had left. We struggled. Praise fell daily about how true our grit. And how foolhardy. Authors cobbled books about it. Poets sang it. Song-writers, amazingly, did both.

One who recently plucked the strings of our
heart is Les Kerr, a Nashville guitar player with a troubadour's understanding of Bayou Music City, New Orleans.
Kerr was at The Louisiana Music Factory promoting his very good collection of songs about us. The CD is titled: "New Orleans Set," and one song, "Below the Level of the Sea," would bedazzle any scribe on either side of the Faulkner embankment. It goes: "New Orleans . . . it is a writer's town / You live your life / You write it down . . . and it comes out sticky as the hu-mid-ity . . . and we do it all Below the Level of the Sea."

Another of Kerr's songs captures what the years before and after Katrina and Rita meant. Its opening line and title go: "Pray for New Orleans, if you love her too / from sinners like me prayers don't always get through . . ." Enough to make a poet set down their wine and recall again those poems unwritten.

* * *

We watched in a soft rain for the U. S. S. New York, the most politically arresting ship to come down the Mississippi since Farragut arrived with news that we were no longer a part of the Confederacy. With that news came occupation under Major General Franklin Butler. "Spoons Butler," the dreaded Union Governor of Occupied New Orleans said to have palmed the silver from the table. Perhaps. What he brought to the table was an end to the Union blockade of the port.

New Orleans commerce had suffered greatly from the Northern blockade. When New Orleans fell into the craven clutches of Spoons Butler the blockade ended. The City was saved -- by being lost. It might also be remembered that we did not put up a fight.

"Not till the tourists got here a hundred years later," L. A. Norma said, as quite rain drops slashed through her plume of cigarette smoke.

The U. S. S. New York hove into view. America's newest man-of-war was built at the Northrup Grumman Shipyard upriver from the Moonwalk. She was heading out to Sea, to christening in her namesake city. She had been built from the steel gathered after the collapse of the World Trade Center.

"Now, let us see those health-care-yearning Libs find the spot where Cheney put the explosives!" Norma chortled, through a burst of smoke and fire.


* * *


We Saw Michael Moore's CAPITALISM, A LOVE STORY, at Canal Place Cinema.
"Greater truth there than the levees girding The City,"
Norma said walking
from the theatre.


We were on our way to a reception for Florida artist, Mark T. Smith, at the
Angela King Gallery on rue Royal.
Unveiled were paintings done on canvas
used in the Brad Pitt championed tent-project in the now world-famous Ninth Arrondissement of New Orleans. If you bought a tent your money gave a
poor person a new house prayerfully not-destined to flood some day soon. What you got if you bought a painting is the painting, another good deal.

Next day we attended the ceremony
in Washington Square Park presenting Faubourg Marigny (Yours Truly in a Swamp's sponsoring neighborhood) with a "U. S. Top-ten Neighborhood" award from the American Planning Association. Few other than politicians were in attendance.

City Councilmembers James Carter and Jackie
Clarkson smiled and spoke of the neighborhood's vision twenty years ago. Faubourg Marigny Board Member, Gene Cizek dashed in from a preservation meeting in Nashville. Faubourg Marigny President Chris Costello spoke. The talented Lloyd Senset and others took us on house tours. We are blessed to have these people working with us. Everyone else was at the football game in the Superdome. "Life goes on," Norma shrugged.

That evening we went to Roy Blount, Jr's Faulkner House reading at the Cabildo (one of those very old buildings flanking the Saint Louis Cathedral). We bought his book, FEET ON THE STREET, RAMBLES AROUND NEW ORLEANS, which he cobbled together in the flood of New Orleans books following Katrina and Rita. We had never read it, but we had met and admired Blount for many years. He is something of a performance artist. His smart good-old-boy accent is his main stage prop. Given the chance, you will do yourself well to go hear him.

He signed the book: "For Leonard, whose
meat will never go bad again," a reference to the Frank Parsley original refrigerator magnets sold on the false promise of saving your refrigerator from some future Storm.

Blount said he reads this column. We thanked him for that. He had never said it before.

"You never
bought his book before," L. A. Norma said.


-------------------------------
Copyright, 2009, Leonard Earl Johnson

* * *

Be Safe This Hurricane Season




Get a Frank Parsley original magnet of LEJ's fat face to scare off hurricane vermin from your refrigerator.



"It'll keep bugs out'a your ice-box, next time, sugar!"
~ L. A. Norma




Send a self - addressed & stamped envelope along with $5, $10 for both images.

Mail to:

Leonard Earl Johnson
Box 202
302 Jefferson St.
Lafayette, LA 70501