September 2010 / Be A New Orleanian Where Ever You Are
Leonard Earl Johnson
"Where were you," asked the bartender, "when the levees broke?" The bar he tended was the great art deco bar, Sazerac, at the Hotel Roosevelt.
"In historic downtown New Orleans," as I used to hear the WWL radio announcers say over the 1950's, "fifty-thousand-watt voice of New Orleans," when I was doing time for the Illinois Board of Education. And New Orleans was a dream yet to come true.
"Where was I when the levees broke in New Orleans?
"I left late, long after the mayor's mandatory evacuation. Most everyone I knew had already gone. And I don't drive. I got a ride out that Sunday evening, as the storm was moving in. The winds licked at our wheels as we drove across the bridges down near the Rigolets."
"The Rigolets?" He sat a fresh bottle on the bar, then refilled my glass. "Not a good place to be when a hurricane's coming."
"No," L. A. Norma said, walking up to the bar. She was returning from her cigarette break out on Baronne Street, "swapping lies with the doorman."
Norma told us she, "Left at the television's first rumblings. Even then I had the good sense to go west."
"When we left all roads out were closed," I said, "but those going east.
"A friendly policeman told us we could turn west later, after we got out of Town. We were among the last to leave -- over bridges that washed out soon after.
"You know, we traveled the very path the storm took. But didn't know it, of course."
"So, I was in Hammond, Louisiana the next day when the levees broke. Hammond took a bad hit, too. No flooding, but for days we had no news. No papers, no phones, no electricity. For a week, maybe more.
"It was fast, the world changing, I mean. But at the time it was hard to see just what was going on.
"Tell you the truth, nothing I felt during those days jibbed with what I later learned was happening."
"It's been five years," the bartender observed, "and everyday I think of something about that. How the world changed."
"That's post-traumatic-stress syndrome," L. A. Norma said, from atop her self-confidence. She noted her credentials for the bar tender: She had been an appointment secretary at Cedars-Sinai, in Los Angeles.
"I worked for a bunch of doctors," she smiled. He polished a glass.
"When things happening are so huge you only realize them later, when it comes to you in bits and pieces, that's post-trauma!" Norma flipped her new cell phone open. The bartender sat his shiny glass on the bar.
"Yes, I guess so," I said. "I didn't get scared about being on the Rigolets bridge with a storm coming in till a year later.
"The first I knew something ultra-big was happening was when the Pentecostals opened a charity storefront in Hammond. I ate their hot dogs and beans without thinking I was 'needy.' A barefooted lady came in while I was there and asked for shoes. They gave her flip-flops. 'Gee,' I thought, 'what am I doing here?'
"When the levees broke," I motioned for two new glasses, "Norma was in L. A., and I was safe at the hearth of a fallen monk who taught English in Hammond. He was friends with an English teacher I met the year before at the Tennessee Williams Festival. She had a red truck and two psychotic cats. She was the last person I knew with wheels."
"Buses, trains, airplanes?" a stranger sitting to my left asked.
"They had all quit days before. The streets were deserted. Remember Amtrak's story about not being able to reach Mayor Nagin to offer a train out for evacuees? I was at Union Station knocking on their boarded up doors and they couldn't reach me either.
"From Hammond, old Illinois colleagues living in Lafayette took me in for six months. They saved me from FEMA!"
"Think of that three-day-fish thing," Norma said.
"Eventually I rented a small apartment in an old railroad hotel renovated earlier by New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff. Elvis Presley once stayed where now I lived.
"Five years later, I divide my time between New Orleans and Acadiana, and I see New Orleans less as 'The Universe' and more as part of a larger Universe of Coastal Louisiana. Or the Gulf. Do you know half our tourists are Gulf Coast locals? Many is the Cajun child dreaming tonight of that 'playhouse' in New Orleans, 'On The Banks of The Old Pontchartrain,' as Governor Jimmie Davis used to sing."
"A great way to think of The City," Norma said, laying her phone on the bar and punching up this Vince Vance music video, I Am New Orleans, on U-Tube.
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Copyright, Leonard Earl Johnson, 2010
Be Safe This Hurricane Season
Get a magnetized image of LEJ's fat face to scare off hurricane vermin from your refrigerator.
Magnet size: 2 & 1/2 x 3 & 1/2 inches
"It'll keep bugs out'a your ice-box, next time, sugar!"
~ L. A. Norma
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Leonard Earl Johnson
302 Jefferson St.,
Lafayette, LA 70501