The First Christmas after Katrina / December 2016
Yours Truly in a Swamp
on paper at
|LEJ.org 2005 / Frank Parsley|
© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
The water was finally gone, but so were most of the customers. In time the bar would fill again with song. But not this shirtsleeve warm night, December 17 ~ nearly four months later, since August 29, 2005.
The street cars were silent all over Town.
Now and then a lone vehicle scurried down a darkened street towards some destination not obvious to onlookers, if there had been onlookers. Mostly there were none. And military convoys made up the only noticeable traffic moving on this or any other street. Everywhere, neither stop lights nor street lights blinked a bright red and green.
|NOLa After Katrina / Coleen Perilloux Landry|
I opened the French Doors and spotted my friend at the far end of the bar. He was clearly overdressed and over served.
He wore a camel hair topcoat, a gray wool suit, with a white cotton shirt and a red silk tie. A fast-pace Chicago uniform in our Storm slowed New Orleans parade ~ a parade joyous but none too swift in the best of times. These were not the best of times.
A mural behind the bar twinkled with tiny blue lights sprinkled over a snowy hillock of white deer nibbling mistletoe berries dotted among the evergreen trees. The mistletoe berries were represented by tiny red lights.
"Mistletoe is poison," my friend was telling the bartender, in his booming Chicago voice, "and its berries should be white!"
A beer representative from Saint Louis, Missouri was also behind the bar. He was wearing a sport coat that looked to be made from Anheuser-Busch labels. He was passing out samples of Red Wolf Beer. My friend took one and lifted it in my direction. I moved down the bar and accepted the brew.
"Must be a Santa after all," my friend boomed to the largely empty room.
From a green felt-covered table, an elderly couple often seen here before The Storm, looked up and smiled. No one was dealing. Their cards were laying face up. We tipped our beer towards them. They were wearing evening clothes and his gold studs were set with diamonds that flashed back at the mural. She was ash blonde, well-painted, and wearing a red sequined gown. She unzipped the gentleman's tuxedo.
My friend and I both said in stage whisper that she was an expensive date.
The man laughed and asked, "How better to spend my FEMA money?" She laughed and slapped him playfully.
"Where is the vice-squad?" my friend asked in a real whisper.
The bartender sat down two more Red Wolfs and said, "In diapers with Senator Vitter, at the Canal Street Brothel?" We all laughed, enjoying the sexual peccadilloes of our betters.
My friend was in his cups, and hanging his observations with the heavy tinsel of 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," I said. "We are 'The City That Works!' "
He snorted at the irony of laying Chicago's famous motto up against New Orleans' famous work ethic.
"Cops protecting brothel patrons," I said, "and people in evening clothes entertaining themselves for free."
The beer rep handed us two more Red Wolfs. He wanted to finish and leave. My friend asked him, "Shouldn't you call this stuff Red Riding Hood?" None of us were sure what he meant by this but we all laughed the laugh required of our station.
The beer distributor gave us two full six packs of Red Wolf and smiled. "Please, I gotta catch a plane back to Saint Louis."
The bartender said, "Allow me to put that on ice for you."
I got up to go to the restroom as my Chicago friend yanked a hanging blue snowflake from its tether. He bellowed 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 did not know he was talking to fathead number one.
The Saint Louis beerman smiled weakly and moved towards the French doors. Through the glass we saw a waiting limousine with rental license plates. The man in the tuxedo fell from his chair. The woman in red helped him to his feet and they stumbled outside balancing themselves by holding on to articles of each other's clothing. They lunged into the limo and motioned for the beerman to join them. He shrugged and climbed in.
Coming out of the restroom I dropped a quarter into a slot machine. The last of my FEMA money whirled away. I did not care. It was Christmas and my friend was in Town to wine and dine us for three fat days. We have known each other since the Fabled Sixties, since our college daze in Carbondale, Illinois, where the train had stopped to play a concert. He liked having, as he put it, "A writer bum for a friend." We liked having a rich one.
In a wastebasket beside the slot machines, I spotted seven paper teddy bear tree ornaments. Each had the name of someone lost in Hurricane Katrina written across its belly. I picked up one and read the name, "Senegal Breaux." I gathered them all and put them in my shirt pocket.
Back at the bar I sipped my beer in silence. The bartender smarting from my friend's harsh words, punched up Linda Ronstadt singing Blue Bayou, on the jukebox. He pushed a remote-control button next to the cash register and a lone gray helicopter opened its bomb bay doors and let red and green glitter fall into our beers.
We stood to leave and my friend told the bartender to keep the remaining Red Wolfs, and gave him a two-hundred dollar tip and his business card. "Tell those fatheads in Chicago to jump in Lake Michigan. New Orleans is in a swamp, not a snowy wonderland!"
Outside, my friend stared at the empty curb. "Where the Hell's my driver?"
I say, "Forget it, let's walk."
He slipped out of his topcoat and handed it to a bewildered Mexican in dirty blue jeans and a t-shirt that read: "FEMA, Find Every Mexican Available".
We walked along past mounds of rubble towards Tip's. My friend accepted a paper teddy bear and held it up to ambient Christmas light.
"Let's distribute them like handbills," he said.
It seemed all those who were back in Town were also headed to Tipitina's that night.
We started singing, "We three kings from Orient are..." When someone asked, "Where is your other king?" we handed them the teddy bear named Senegal Breaux, and kept on our way. "Bearing gifts we traveled so far..."
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Lagniappe du lagniappe
Doreen Ketchens, NOLa Clarinetist par excellence, You Tube