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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, October 01, 2015

Ruthie the Duck Lady / October 2015

Yours Truly in a Swamp, 

LEJ's Louisiana

Monthly e-column by
Leonard Earl Johnson, 
of Lafayette and New Orleans

Ruthie, the Duck Lady of New Orleans

Leonard Earl Johnson

October 2015
All photo credits: Frank Parsley

* *
Ruthie, it seems like we barely knew you, though we lived within a couple blocks of each other for thirty-something years.  This is the opening line of our obit for Ruthie, who died in 2008 ~ in those early dreadful years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Following this August's ten-year anniversary of The Storm we received so many request for information on what became of her that we decided to run it again. 

You regularly zoomed by us on roller skates, wearing a wedding veil, holding a big white duck and a rolled up poster of you roller skating, wearing a wedding veil, and holding a big white duck. You were existential infinity in motion.

Sometimes you spoke as we pedaled past on Featherbike, our yellow-feather-trimmed bicycle. Once we rode a gleaming French Motobécane, a bicycle we took with us to Sea, when we wore a younger man's clothes.

That French bike was stolen before Katrina, by a newly released ex-con you said you knew and hated. He noticed our casual, below Canal Street, lifestyle and jumped over the fence and plucked our Motobécane and its collage of travel stickers. We mourned those stickers -- an irreplaceable collection from Brazil to the old U. S. S. R. -- more than the bicycle.

You said, "Get a duck. I got a duck. Ain't nobody ever stole no duck."

Maybe, though sometimes they ran them over.

* * *

When dumpy, comical Featherbike replaced that elegant French Motobécane, Ruthie looked at its boisterous yellow feathers, and said,"Looks like Big Bird."

"You ought to know, Ruthie," we said. "Don't they call you the Duck Lady?"

Ruthie sometimes sat on her stoop, a traditional Downtown pastime, watching clouds ("gathering cotton") contemplating the weather, Life and, maybe, her next Budweiser and Kool Cigarette.

"You got a little beer, for later? A little cigarette, for later" was Ruthie's way of offering to accept a beer and cigarette, but not that she expected to return the favor. Ruthie was a no-strings, free citizen of the French Quarter, a neighborhood long associated with free spirits.

She also enjoyed sitting atop bar stools. Pat O'Brien's, on Saint Peter, and Crazy Shirley's, on Bourbon, were two of her favorites. We met for the first time at Crazy Shirley's. It was that era when the fabled Sixties were morphing into the Seventies. 

Our best friend from college was a reporter for the Associated Press newly assigned to New Orleans. I came down to visit from Illinois, and spent a Louisiana early Spring exploring the French Quarter. One day I walked through a magical barroom door marked, "Crazy Shirley's," and there at the bar sat Ruthie and a big white duck.

She accepted a beer from the bartender. Complete with a saucer for the duck. She got "a little cigarette, for later" from a man, in a white-and-red striped shirt, standing just outside the barroom door selling Lucky Dogs. He also gave Ruthie's duck a piece of hot dog bun.

At dinner, that night, my reporter friend told me the story of Ruthie, the Duck Lady -- a proud marcher in New Orleans passing parade. After hearing that how could anyone want to live anywhere else? Within the year I signed up and moved in, next to Ruthie's world.

* *

Ruthie had a voice like Donald Duck's Cajun cousin. She was born Ruth Grace Moulon, at Big Charity Hospital, in New Orleans, of parents from Plaquemines, a small town West of the Mississippi River, near Baton Rouge. As a child she was sickly and lonely. As an adult she was not.

She died at seventy-four, September 6, 2008, from cancer, in Our Lady of the Lake, a residential care facility in Baton Rouge, where she had been evacuated for Hurricane Gustav.

Ruthie gained her four-score-and-more years drinking like a fish, smoking like a chimney, cursing like a sailor, staying out on the streets all hours of the night and day, subsisting on a diet primarily of salt, sugar and preservatives washed down with Budweiser and smoke. 

Many are the pure fallen to an earlier grave.

* * *

Ruthie befriended most people, and all ducks. Easter was a big day on her liturgical calendar. Many ducklings began their relationship with Ruthie as an Easter offering from friends and tourists who passed the little balls of fluff into her welcoming hands, in Jackson Square, in front of Saint Louis Cathedral.

She lived a careless life, and so did her ducks. None of them lasted as long as she did. Most did not make it to the next Spring. But they all seemed happier for the company.

Any one who knew Ruthie knew some colorful version of her car-smashed-duck story. They all ended with Ms. Ruthie bending over the carcass in the street telling the fallen fowl to stay on the sidewalk next time.

The sweetest version came from her friend, David Michel, a New Orleans Police Officer who was working off-duty detail, at Pat O'Brien's, when informed Ruthie's last duck had been flattened by an automobile, outside, on the corner. He immediately dispatched a driver to City Park to scoop up a replacement.

* * *

We sometimes drank beer with Ruthie. And laughed with her. And, truth be told, at her. She was amusing, and -- dare we say it -- an odd duck we are better for knowing. 

We met her boyfriend, Gary Moody, after we had all grown older, and she had moved Uptown, to the Saint Charles Health Care facility. It was from there she was evacuated to Baton Rouge.

Gary Moody had been a sailor on shore leave, in 1963. They met once, on Bourbon Street, and kept up a lifetime postcard correspondence.

Ruthie referred to him all the rest of her life as her boyfriend and, sometimes, her husband. Many felt she had made him up. Until he flew down from Minnesota to dance at her sixty-seventh birthday party, at Rock ‘N’ Bowl, on January 20, 2000. The party was organized by friends as dear as any on this side of Judgement Day.

Filmmaker and friend, Rick Delaup, has an excellent film of Ruthie, in a filmography collection of free souls of old New Orleans. There we again see Ruthie, her small body bent over roller skates, flying down Bourbon Street, wedding veil waving in the whisky flavored air, a soul mate of a white duck cradled in her arms. 

* * *

Once, my Mother, a stern Illinois-German, came to visit. On a walking tour of the French Quarter, we happened upon Ruthie, who asked for a little cigarette for later, then skated off.

My Mother listened to the story of Ruthie's admirable self reliance, and neighborhood colorization. Then said, "Someone should pick her up and put her in a home, where she can be taken care of."

The week after that visit, we saw Ruthie walking along Conti Street with a briefcase-bearing woman in a severe black suit. "A social worker," I thought, "my Mother done dropped a nickel on Ruthie!"

Later that same day, I again spotted Ruthie sitting at the bar at Crazy Shirley's. Over a beer I asked, "Ruthie, who was that woman we saw you with, earlier today?"

'What, who?" she said in her Donald Duck accent.

"I don't know who. Some woman in a black suit with a briefcase. You were crossing Conti, at Royal."

"Naw," she said, "must have been someone who looked like me." The bartender and two flies at the trough laughed. Ruthie smiled her flap jaw snaggle-toothed grin, and lifted her beer. 

How we could use that laugh again today.

* * *

Ever since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita gave a one-two near-death blow to our Paris of the Swamps, we have walked New Orleans battered streets remembering friends who have gone before. Friends who once lived here, above that shop, and there, beside that bar. We wonder where they are now. And do they know what has happened? 

We pass Ruthie's old place. She lived next to 1313 Dauphine, an address that once belonged to Clay Shaw, the man New Orleans District Attorney, Jim Garrison, accused of conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy.

Both Shaw and Garrison are long gone to their reward. Do they sit somewhere in The Beyond chewing over who killed JFK? We wonder if anyone has told them about The Hurricanes of '05? 

Oh, God, 
in your ultimate good humor, please let it be Ruthie who brings them the word.

* * *
Copyright, Leonard Earl Johnson, 2015
All Rights Reserved

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You may not receive a monthly e-mail notice for YOURS TRULY IN A SWAMP, LEJ's Louisiana unless I figure out how to set up a new freemail system. But you can always go to www.LEJ.org

(Don't hold your breath on my figuring out le Internet.  I am a storyteller, not a computer-pinball gamer). 

Contact me if you want on the list - that may get e-mailed. If you wish to read any month's column they are archived at www.LEJ.org. Each new column is posted on the first of each month and polished for the next few weeks. 
Hope you do, I love talking with you,
Leonard Earl Johnson,
Columnist to the elderly and early weary. 

© 2015, Leonard Earl Johnson, 
All Rights Reserved.