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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, December 01, 2016

The First Christmas after Katrina / December 2016

LEJ's Louisiana
Yours Truly in a Swamp

Monthly e-column @ www.LEJ.org
on paper at
Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans 
 publication of the

Leonard Earl Johnson,
of Lafayette and New Orleans
Archives: www.LEJ.org


     LEJ.org    2005          /           Frank Parsley

The First Christmas After Hurricane Katrina
by Leonard Earl Johnson
December 2016

© 2016, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
Originally published in 2005 in a slightly different version

The year was 2005, the month was December.  The bar was on Saint Charles Avenue, in Uptown New Orleans.  It had recently reopened after The Storm, and had tried since Thanksgiving to coax Yuletide spirit from the flood-weary City.  Their effort had been great, but their task had been greater.  

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 after August 29, 2005.

The street cars were silent.

Now and then a lone vehicle scurried down a darkened street towards some destination not obvious to onlookers ~ had there been onlookers. Military convoys made up the only traffic moving on this or any other street. Everywhere in Town, neither stop lights nor street lights blinked a bright red and green.
NOLa After Katrina   /   Coleen Perilloux Landry

Along most every street, houses lay splayed open like huge fish with their innards spilled out for the world to see.  Occasionally a cascade of generator powered Christmas lights poured over some brave heart's intact gallery rail. They cast faint light on refrigerators sitting along the curb wrapped in industrial strength tape and the sickeningly sweet smell of a Mafia funeral.

Inside the bar, blue snowflakes hung from rafters, along with toy gray helicopters lifting little plastic refugees from little blue-tarped roofs.  The bartender sported a red baseball cap with cotton pasted around the rim of the bill.  A tiny silver bell dangled from the front.

great effort, indeed! But the bell rang hollow and the bartender looked weary, like some Papa Noel rescuing the hopeless with promises of gifts not always delivered.

had come to this bar to meet an old friend.  He had just arrived in Town aboard Amtrak's City of New Orleans from Chicago, that broad-shouldered behemoth at the other end of the railroad line.  He had ridden on this train to show support for Arlo Guthrie's Friends Benefit Tour for Louisiana MusiciansThe train, an Amtrak special, stopped for fundraiser concerts ~ "Out on the southbound odyssey train pulls out of Kankakee / and it rolls past houses, farms, and fields..." all the way to New Orleans. This night my friend and I are making our donations at the tour's last concert, at Tipitina's on the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue.


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.

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!"

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."

We both looked back at the couple and laughed.  My friend muttered, "Maybe not free, but a lot less than the cops charge." 

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."

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?"  

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.

"Ah, Christ, what am I supposed to do about this?"  Then he handed it to a pair of passing National Guardsmen. 

"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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Your comments and corrections are welcome
Copyright, Leonard Earl Johnson, 2016
All Rights Reserved

Editor's note:
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. 

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Lagniappe du Jour: 

Santa LEJ meeting the train from New Orleans