LEJ's Blog

My Photo
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.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Christmas after the Storm / December 2012

Yours Truly in a Swamp


Leonard Earl Johnson

December 2012

* * *

                                 Coleen Perilloux Landry

Christmas after the Storm
                          by Leonard Earl Johnson

Dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Sandy

The bartender sports a red baseball
cap with cotton pasted around its rim. A silver bell dangles from the bill, which points forward. A great effort, indeed, but the bell rings hollow.

The bartender looks weary as Papa Noel led along the bonfire-lit Mississippi River rescuing eager folks with promises not always delivered. 

The bar re-opened a few months after Katrina.  In time it will again be filled with song. But not this night. This night is December 17, 2005. Their effort is great but their task is greater.

The City's streetcars are silent. And military convoys are the only traffic moving on any street. Neither stop lights nor street lights blink a bright red and green.
                                     Coleen Perilloux Landry

And homes are splayed open like huge fish with their innards spilling out for the world to see.

Occasionally a cascade of generator-powered Christmas lights pour from some brave heart's gallery. They cast a faint light over a forest of refrigerators strung out along the curb, wrapped in industrial strength tape and the sweet smell of a Mafia funeral.

Inside the bar, sparkling blue snowflakes dangle from the rafters.  Also a toy gray helicopter lifts little plastic refugees from little blue tarped roofs. 

We have come to this bar to meet an old friend.  He arrived today aboard Amtrak's special City of New Orleans from Chicago to New Orleans. He took this train as a show of support for Arlo Guthrie, who made famous the song, "Riding on The City of New Orleans." 

Guthrie was on board with his "Friends benefit tour for Louisiana musicians." The train had stopped along the way giving fund-raiser concerts in Kankakee, Carbondale, Memphis and more. Next show: Tonight in New Orleans, at Tipitinas, on Tchoupitoulas.

We open the bar's French doors and spot our friend at the far end. He is over-dressed and over-served.

He is wearing a camel hair topcoat -- it is warm outside -- a wool suit, silk shirt and modern tie. A fast-paced Chicago uniform.  In a Storm-slowed New Orleans parade. A parade none too swift in the best of times. These are not the best of times.

*  *  *

A mural behind the bar twinkles tiny blue lights over a snowy hillock of white.  Deer nibble mistletoe dotted among the evergreens. The mistletoe berries are tiny red lights.

"Mistletoe is poison," our friend is telling the bartender, 
"and those berries should be white."

A beer representative from Saint Louis, Missouri, is also behind the bar. He is wearing a sport coat that looks to be made from Anheuser-Bush Beer labels. He is passing out free samples of Red Wolf Beer. My friend takes a free one and lifts it towards us. We move down the bar and accept the brew.

"Must be a Santa after all," our friend says loudly to the largely empty room.

From a green felt covered table, an elderly couple we often saw in here before The Storm look up and smile. 

No one is dealing. His cards are laying face up. We tip our beer towards them. They are wearing evening clothes and his gold studs are set with diamonds that flash back at the mural. She is blond, well painted, and wearing a red sequined gown. She unzips the gentleman’s tuxedo.

We nod and say in a stage-whisper that she looks like an expensive date.

They laugh 
and she says, "How better to spend our FEMA money." She laughs again and slaps him playfully.
                 Coleen Perilloux Landry

"Where is the vice squad," our friend asks me in real whispers, "protecting patrons from FEMA brothels?"

Our friend is in his cups and hanging observations with dull Chicago bluntness. He laughs.

"Christmas in New Orleans," he notes,"is not going through the woods to grandmother's house, is it?"

"It's a good system," we say, "The City That Works." 

He snorts at the irony of laying Chicago's motto up against New Orleans' work ethic.

protecting brothel patrons," our friend says, "And people in evening clothes entertaining themselves for free." 

We both look back at the couple in evening clothes and laugh. He mutters, "Maybe not free, but a lot less than the cops charge."

beer rep hands us two more Red Wolfs. He wants to finish and leave. Our friend asks, "Shouldn't you call this stuff Red Riding Hood?" None of us are quite sure what he means by this, but we all laugh the laugh required of our station.

beer distributor gives us two full six packs of Red Wolf and smiles, "Please, I gotta catch a plane back to Saint Louis."

bartender says, "Let me put that on ice for you gentlemen."

get up to go to the restroom as our Chicago friend yanks a blue snowflake from its tether and bellows at the bartender, "What fathead told you to hang blue snowflakes in this swamp-flooded city!"

bartender is startled and blurts back, "The fatheads in Chicago who own this bar!" Of course, he does not know he is talking to fathead number one.

Saint Louis beer distributor smiles weakly and moves towards the French doors. Through the glass we see a waiting limousine with rental license plates. 

The man in the tuxedo falls from his chair. The woman in the red gown helps him to his feet and they stumble outside, balancing themselves by holding onto each other's clothing. They lunge into the limo and motion for the Saint Louis beer man to join them. He shrugs and climbs in.

out of the restroom, we drop a quarter in a slot machine. The last of our FEMA money whirls away. We don't care! It is Christmas and our friend is in town to wine and dine us for three fat days. We have known each other since fabled Sixties college days in Carbondale, Illinois. He likes having, as he puts it, "A writer bum for a friend." We like having a rich one.

a wastebasket beside the slot machines, we spot seven paper teddy bear ornaments. Each bearing the name of someone lost in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We pick one up and read the name, "Senegal BreauxAugust 29, 2005." We gather the teddy bears and put them in our shirt pocket.

at the bar, we sip our beer in silence. The bartender is smarting from our friend's harsh words and punches up Blue Bayou on the jukebox. He also pushes a remote-control button next to the cash register, and one of the gray helicopters opens its bomb bay and lets red-and-green glitter fall in our beers.

stand to leave, and tell the bartender to keep the remaining Red Wolfs. Our friend gives him a one-hundred dollar bill and his business card. "Tell those fatheads in Chicago to go jump in Lake Michigan," he says, "New Orleans is in a swamp not a snowy wonderland."

, our friend stares at the empty curb. "Where the fuck is my car!" he yells, throwing his arms in the air.

We say, "Forget it, let's walk."

slips out of his topcoat and hands it to a bewildered man in dirty blue jeans and a T-shirt that reads: "FEMA, Find Every Mexican Available." 
                         Coleen Perilloux Landry

walk beside mounds of rubble towards Tips. Our friend accepts a paper teddy bear and holds it up to some ambient Christmas light. "Ah, Christ! What am I supposed to do about this?" Then he hands it to a passing pair of National Guardsmen.
"Let's distribute them like hand bills," he says. 

Seems all those back in Town are heading to Tipitinas, too. We start singing, "We three kings of Orient are ..." 

When someone says, "Where is your other king?" We hand them a paper teddy bear and keep on our way. "Bearing gifts we traveled so far ..."

Your comments are welcome, post them in the Blog.
Photo credits, Coleen Perilloux Landry
 Coleen Perilloux Landry's on-line Gallery 

* * *