Photo credit: Frank Parsley
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Be a New Orleanian Where Ever You Are!
"Where were you," asked the bartender, "when the levees broke?"
The bar he tended was the art deco Sazerac, at the Hotel Roosevelt. "In historic downtown New Orleans," as we heard WWL radio announcers say when we were doing time for the Illinois Board of Education, in the 1950's. They spoke as Prophets over the "fifty-thousand-watt voice of New Orleans," when New Orleans was a dream yet to come true.
"Where was I when the levees broke in New Orleans?
"Hammond. We left late, after the mayor's mandatory evacuation. Most everyone I knew had 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 set 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," she smiled at the bartender.
Norma said, "I left at the television's first rumblings of a hurricane. Even then I had the good sense to go west."
"When we left all the roads out were closed," I said, "except 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, at the time."
"So, I was in Hammond, Louisiana the next morning 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 stunning, the world changing, I mean. But at the time it was hard to see just where it was going.
"Tell you the truth, nothing I felt during those days jibed with what I later learned was happening."
"It's been five years," the bartender observed, "and every day I think of something about that time. How the world changed."
"That's post-traumatic-stress," L. A. Norma said, from atop her self-confidence. She noted her credentials. 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 set his shiny glass on the bar.
"Yes, I guess so," I said. "I didn't get scared about being on the Rigolets bridge 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 in Town with wheels."
"Buses, trains, airplanes?" a stranger sitting to our left asked.
"They had all stopped days before. The streets were deserted. Remember Amtrak's celebrated 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 the dreaded FEMA!"
"Think of that three-day-fish story," 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. I still see New Orleans as a religion, but less as 'The Universe' and more as part of the congregation of the Gulf. Do you know half our tourists are Gulf Coast locals? Many is the Cajun dreaming tonight of that 'playhouse' in New Orleans, 'On The Banks of The Old Pontchartrain,' as Governor Jimmie Davis sang it."
Copyright, Leonard Earl Johnson, 2011(This story first appeared in altered form September 2010.)
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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
Send a self - addressed & stamped envelope
along with $5 for each magnet.
Leonard Earl Johnson
302 Jefferson St., Box 202
Lafayette, LA 70501