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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.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

June 2012 / Amtrak's Sunset Limited Update

Yours Truly in a Swamp
June 2012

* * *

Amtrak's Sunset Limited Update 
Lafayette to New Orleans to Lafayette   

by Leonard  Earl Johnson

Photograph courtesy of Amtrak

Amtrak's Sunset Limited has changed its schedule and now leaves Lafayette for New Orleans at 5:12 p.m.  A good time for after-workers in pursuit of an easy ride to Big Swamp City charms.

But nothing is harder for this old man than change. A universal feeling? Perhaps. Surely it is why retirement is sometimes ghastly.  (And why you should begin it soon as you can. I began mine during college -- it was the fabled Sixties.)

We are suspicious of night trains because at night scenic Louisiana Swamps and Rivers are indistinguishable from Los Angeles' concrete arroyos.  They are all reduced to your reflection in the window glass. 

Can travel have a greater disappointment than crossing the iconic Mississippi River and not being able to see it?!

Arriving in New Orleans just before 10 p.m. is bad enough. Arriving at 2 a.m. would be intolerable. But a tragedy very possible given this train's deplorable on-time record.

I know it is not Amtrak's fault.  Between Los Angeles and New Orleans Amtrak's hobbled Sunset Limited is often delayed by pig-iron laden freight trains shouldering it off the main line so their un-human cargos can arrive on time.  Once off-schedule it is hard to get back on it.

"Rail Freight Barons and Mitt Romney agree, freight is people too," L. A. Norma said, crushing her Camel Cigarette with her heel. 

* * *

We wanted to avoid sitting an hour near the bridge outside Avondale peering darkly through the Observation Car's mirrored glass at shadowy mounds of post-Katrina landfill (known by train regulars as Mount Katrina), while a freight train full of fresh chemicals lumbers past.

We bought a Greyhound Bus ticket.  It was $5 more than Amtrak, but reliable.

Alas, the shiny new Greyhound Bus put upon us must have been talking to the airlines.  It was very, very cramped and not at all comfortable.

"More-seats must be people, too," Norma grumbled.

After Hurricane Katrina the bus was our only way back to New Orleans.  We learned the rigors of bus travel and even came to enjoy it.  The seats were bigger then, and we met a driver who would update us regularly on his personal Road Home struggle in New Orleans East.

Before each departure the public-address crackled with his instructions not to smoke anything, . . . including Marijuana and crack cocaine!" Fun. And there were perfect thirty-minute stops in Baton Rouge just a short walk from a Popeye's where the chicken was always freshly fried.  Still, the return of post-Katrina Amtrak was welcomed.

Now this schedule change.   Our Greyhound Bus arrived spot on time. And during the Baton Rouge layover we shared a packet of cashews with a sweet young woman from New Orleans East.  She knew the bus driver we had met before, and said he had retired and was living back in his old home.  She was attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and she wore sandals with turquoise stones set in the straps. She had been in elementary school when The Storm hit.

In New Orleans we learned Amtrak arrived nearly an hour early. We bought train tickets home.

* * *

We went to New Orleans to dog and house sit in the French Quarter.  And to see again old friends from fabled 1960's San Francisco. My hippie Mecca of the world.  

One wet afternoon at the Sazerac Bar in the Hotel Roosevelt we relived giving flowers to bemused tourists in Union Square.  Later, we had a world class dinner at Susan Spicer's Bayona.  Another day, we listened to Bo Dallis and the Wild Magnolias doing a Thursday afternoon concert in Armstrong Park, where neighborhood vendors sold us a half dozen char-broiled oysters for $5.  The Greatest!!!

From their San Francisco bartender our old friends brought us word of a great new New Orleans bistro, Sylvain, on rue Chartres (where the French patisserie, Le Marquis, used to be).  Talk about a coast-to-coast buzz.  The food was very good.  And, dare we say it, a better Sazerac than the Roosevelt's.

The train back to Lafayette left at 9 a.m., and stopped twice before reaching the Huey P. Long Bridge.

* * *

The train stopped two more times for flag-stop passenger-drops in Schriever and New Iberia. The Iberia drops were two San Francisco young men who had been the week in New Orleans and were making a side trip to visit a friend in New Iberia.  They were recent engineering graduates with no visible urge to go to work.  It made us proud to see a new generation carrying the hippie banner.  

The new-time Sunset Limited running along the swampy Louisiana coast from New Orleans to Lafayette was a nice ride. The California men thought they saw an alligator during one stop. The train ran as slow as Goofus-W. appears on camera, then stopped to let a freighter pass, and resumed speed with as slam-bangy a ride as Monica Lewinsky gave randy Bill Clinton.  

"Now that it is over," L. A. Norma asked over lunch, "which was worse? A president without any sense but greed, or a president having sex?"

We arrived in Laughingyette about an hour late, or on-time in Amtrak-speak.  We had a lunch date set for our scheduled 12:24 arrival -- had the big nasty freight trains let us pass.

"One-thirty will work," Norma said.  We dropped our bags and rode our bikes to Pamplona Tapas Bar for hamburgers made from their sirloin steak trimmings.  It was good to be there, it is good to be here. 
Copyright, 2012, Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May 2012 / Festin' and Glory in the Land of Boudin

Yours Truly in a Swamp
by Leonard Earl Johnson
May 2012

* * *

Festin' and Glory,
in the Land of Boudin
by Leonard Earl Johnson

Amtrak's train number one, Sunset Limited, pulled into Lafayette -- "Hub City" of Cajun Louisiana -- about two hours late.  We would have happily stayed on board another two hours.  For the company. 

We could have been the cast of a Fellini and Woody Allen movie. We were our own parade!  We were returning from meeting L. A. Norma in New Orleans for the God blessed French Quarter Festival -- the big news from which is that Cyril Neville is back.  He had been in Austin since Hurricane Katrina.  His Royal Southern Brotherhood, formed recently with Devon Allman, took stage in Woldenberg Park overlooking the River.   They wow-ed the Gods.

His talented niece, Charmaine Neville, did her great act the day before in Jackson Square.  Full voiced and with enormous presence -- though thin and sometimes using a cane -- she held the Neville family banner high. Alas, she did not do, "Right Key Wrong Keyhole," her all-time best number.  But she did an homage to garbage men that set a young man behind us yelling that his uncle was a garbage man.  People parted to allow him a front stage spot.  Charmaine touched his hand.  Later, from a happy lady in the crowd, she borrowed a blue straw hat easily recognizable as one by New Orleans renowned milliner, Tracy Thompson.  That lady can strut!

Good times on the River, in the Quarter, strolling, drinking, under shade trees, having a Cuban cigar, then POW, The River!  "It don't get any better," L. A. Norma said. "French Quarter Festival is tops!"  

One afternoon we rode our bikes over to House of Blues, where Missy Meatlocker entertained in the carriage way.  She is a practitioner of the ukulele and boiler of the best bagels this side of Brooklyn at Cake Cafe and Bakery, Faubourg Marigny.  She said she did not know what Will Rogers said of Calvin Coolidge.  "He said, Calvin's Presidency was like 'a man playing a ukulele'," L. A. Norma informed,  "You could not be sure if he was really doing it or just fooling around."

Next week, we met the American Queen, the first passenger paddle wheel steamboat between Memphis and New Orleans since 2008.   "Since America was in the First World,"  L. A. Norma told a man who did not seem to care.  The man was dressed like Mark Twain.  We were at a press party amply feeding at Houmas House Plantation's public dining hall.  We were waiting on the levee.  Waiting for the Gothic American Queen to hove round the bend. 

Houmas House owner, Kevin Kelly, was presented with a piece of ship's rope and paddle wheel by the man dressed like Mark Twain.

A few days later,  we are having lunch on the Sunset Limited with a lady from California who had been a passenger on that voyage.  Our other table mates were from Alabama and the Carolinas.  They liked sailing and riding trains.  One of them was short, and had hands that made you think his Mother might have taken Thalidomide.  When the others had gone back to their cabins he told me he was seventy-three and that his auburn hair was "Chemically dependent."

Boarding the train in New Orleans were a couple dozen or so young and not-so-young folks with Tourette's Syndrome.  Every traveler's dream.  They were as full of joy as humans ever are.  We walked past them looking at the epic mural fresco painting around Union Station by Conrad A. Albrizio.  They popped off randomly with words and sounds, it seems, that may have been directed at the art.  On the train they would have filled the front half of my coach if they had not spent their time in the observation-car.  Everyone walking through to the dining-car smiled.  The happy folks responded to things that may or may not have been directed at them.  Everyone had a good time.

Back in my car, a young French couple whom I had seen on this train before, sat in front of me.  They were going to Alpine, Texas, a place on the railroad they claimed was "Not Texas," but the Chihuahua Desert.  

"Mexico," L. A. Norma suggested they meant.  They didn't understand, but assured her it was in Texas but to them it was not Texas but refreshing desert.  They lived in Paris.

The sounding-offers de-trained in New Iberia and we pulled into Lafayette tired but drawn to the Downtown Alive Friday concert nearby on the International Stage for a cover-band to top all cover-bands, Nik-L. Beer.  Hear them when you can.

Festival International de Louisiane opened the following week in Lafayette.  This is the largest, and many say, best of Acadiana festivals.  Some say even greater things.  It is without question a festival as you dream of them.  Huge crowds, but easily navigated.  Happy faces of all ages spread among outdoor stages, Downtown.  There is a Bazaar of goods from near and far, far away.  And the food!  I loved the alligator sauce piquante by Mark Rotolo of Jambalaya by "Shake," from Baton Rouge.

* * *

The train from New Orleans to Lafayette leaves always on time at 11:55 am (THIS TIME HAS CHANGED check with Amtrak) three times a week, and returns three times a week.  It is possible to go from either Town to the other for only an overnight stay.  But why?  Both Lafayette and New Orleans are worth a few days.  It is true people come here -- both Towns -- and sometimes do not go home.

"Getting there is half the fun," some airline used to advertise.  The train still is half the fun.  You can have lunch in either direction, though the weary crew from the West is likely to run out of food.  A good packed lunch is always a good idea.  But the diner is cheap and "so-so" good, and there you might meet your fellow travelers.  Think of it as a cruise in an old rust-bucket of a leaky ship with a frayed system and an exhausted staff.  Fun!

Following Monday in New Orleans.  In Congo Square, inside Louis Armstrong Park, Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Kermit Ruffins, with singer Stephanie Jordan kicked off International Jazz Day with a sunrise concert that included ritual drumming and more. Hancock performed his standard, Watermelon Man, with students from around the world via an Internet link. Then he flew off to New York City for their sunset concert.  And our God-fest, the great Jazz Fest in New Orleans, begins.

Nik-L. Beer, cover band
Copyright, 2012, Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved