Melanie Plesh and the Great Escape / August 2016
Yours Truly in a Swamp
and the Great Escape
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.
Its purpose was to raise funds for art and craft supplies.
for children displaced by disasters like Katrina and Rita."
* * *
Tennessee Williams Festival party. She taught English at New Orleans Frederick
Douglas High School, she told us, and lived on the North Shore.
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,
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.
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.
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," Melanie 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
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
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|
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
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.
Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans
* * *
Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved
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