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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Leonard Earl Johnson (photo credit Frank Parsley) covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for ConsumerAffairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs Newswire and the anthologies: 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.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

July 2009 / A Few Months Before The Storm

Yours Truly in a Swamp
July 2009

Photo Credits: Frank Parsley
Reprinted from Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans

A Few Months Before The Storm

Leonard Earl Johnson

* * *

Outside Brennan's, a few months before The Storm, two black limousines stretched along the curb with open doors and uncorked Champagne. A liveried driver stood near by.

Inside each limo, little wooden boxes held napkins and Carnival trinkets. On the port side, a leather bench seat reached from front to back. "A person could live here," L. A. Norma observed.

On the starboard side, an ice bucket held more Champagne and beside it crystal flutes were fastened by the stem to polished wooden racks.

Handsomely dressed New Yorkers passing on the sidewalk stopped and said they thought we looked like we might be "somebody."

"We might . . ." we started saying, adjusting our black, gray and blue Shibori silk scarf so as to flank our lapels and nicely frame our crystal flute. This ancient Japanese technique of dyeing silk is practiced in New Orleans by the fabric artist Valerie Wozniak. Her results are to 1960s tie-dyeing what Louisiana coffee is to American coffee with skimmed milk. Such silk creates opulent effects and illusions of importance when lifting Champagne to one's grateful lips.

So it would have been, had not L. A. Norma interrupted with, "We might, were we not undeniably us." She laughed, snorted and coughed through a fog of Camel Cigarette smoke. An ash fell in her Champagne flute almost as our host replaced it.

The New Yorkers looked even more convinced we were "somebody" and whispered to a crowd gathering behind them.

Lifting crystal and stepping in and out of stretch limos can make anyone look rather like somebody. We had just left Brennan's annual Saint Patrick's Day Luncheon for scribes and other Blarney spreaders.

What had we eaten at Brennan's, the New Yorkers asked. "The most redolent grillades and grits, turtle soup from Heaven, and wine from God's own vineyard," we declared.

Given the day, we should have had corned beef and cabbage, but none did. None, that is, but Margarita Bergen, Faubourg Marigny's bonne vivant realtor, party-going columnist for Les Amis de Marigny, and traveler home from the Sea.

"It was marvelous," Margarita said of her corned beef. She beamed at the New Yorkers and winked. The man who first spoke looked at the woman by his side and blushed.

Local legend holds that Bergen once attended twenty-seven parties, soirees, auctions, and events in a single weekend. Adjusting her green hat and lavishing "darlings" at the end of each sentence, she giggled, "It was a three-day weekend, darlings."

Not to be upstaged, Norma grabbed the moment by asking our admirers if they had heard the joke about the JFK assassination theorist waiting at The Pearly Gate. She crushed her Camel Cigarette on the curb and said, "At The Pearly Gates, Saint Peter asked the newly deceased if he would like any questions answered before entering Paradise. This is my chance thought the conspiracy theorist and screamed out, 'Who shot John F. Kennedy?' Saint Peter calmly said, 'Why, Lee Harvey Oswald.' The man slapped his forehead and said, 'My God, this goes higher than I thought!' "

The New Yorkers laughed out loud, thanked us and trotted off down the street with their newly formed flock of fellow travelers.

At our table inside Brennan's, former TIMES/PICAYUNE gossip columnist Betty Guillaud -- the woman credited with coining the phrase, "The City Care Forgot" -- pushed back her mink and worked the room's new, old and not forgotten faces.

Someone told the story of David Duke marching one year in a French Quarter Easter parade. Guillaud wagged her finger and said, "No David Duke." We all laughed, but no one reached for their eraser.

L. A. Norma smirked, "Not by name anyway."

Lazone Randolph, lifetime Brennan's employee and former Sous Chef, has been appointed Executive Chef, promoter Bonnie Warren announced to the scribes. Randolph stepped forward to opulent applause, and Irish Coffee was served with a dollop of green-and-white whipped cream. "To steady the writer-cramped hand," Norma told an Internet columnist who was licking her glass.

Thus libat-ed and limo-ed, we pulled away from Brennan's and purred up The River to the ample arms of waiting warehouse magnate and finely-fitted Irishman, Kevin Kelly, owner of Houmas House and pleasure plantation.

Mint Juleps revived us from our taxing journey, and the platonic cookery of Chef Jeremy Langrois refreshed us. Lamb marinated in CC's Coffee was our main course. The soups were two, a sweet tangy squash, and the best leek-and-potato ever tasted.

Marda Burton, co-author, with Kenneth Holditch, of GALATOIRE'S, BIOGRAPHY OF A BISTRO, proclaimed her short-crust sheathed salad greens the best salad known.

Photographer and food writer Kevin R. Roberts turned the conversation to the issue of tipping -- something not expected this day from our overfed gathering. He is against it. On all days. Everywhere. Preferring instead, "A buck added to the bill here and there," and paid as salary to the noble servers of the culinary trade.

Ill-timed drumming, perhaps, in the face of the many attentive servers moving enough silver about our table to satisfy General "Spoons" Butler himself.

"Lucky he didn't get a frog in his creme brulee," L. A. Norma said, from the back of our limousine, as we drifted into the arms of Morpheus and floated back to New Orleans, The City that care -- if not tipping -- forgot.

In the French Quarter, our limousine full of satiated scribes-with-spent-pockets raked together four dollars and forty-five cents to meagerly tip the driver. On the way out we took the last bottle of Champagne.

Thank God the New Yorkers were not there to see it!

This story first appeared in Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans, April of 2005, under the title "Opulence Ever Opulence" and in a slightly altered form.
Copyright, 2009, Leonard Earl Johnson
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~ L. A. Norma

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