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.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Life, What a Ride / June 2020

LEJ's Louisiana

Yours Truly in a Swamp

Monthly e-column @ www.LEJ.org

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

*   *   *

June 2020

Life What a Ride
By Leonard Earl Johnson
~ LEJ.org ✍️
Β© 2020, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

*   *   *
We were drinking coffee at a sidewalk table on the corner from my hotel, when I heard the whistle blow.  Monday's Sunset Limited, bound for Los Angeles from New Orleans was arriving in Lafayette on-time-ish enough for lunch. 
Huey P. Long, the Kingfish, Circa 1934
stepping off the Monday train

~ fallen to assassins in 1935 ~

LONG MONDAY, John Prine 
 October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020
Another master
 fallen to The Virus

June 2020


"Life, what a ride,"


Norma said this to our pedicab driver, who wore a T-shirt reading:
"My Parents went to New Orleans and all I got is 
this lousy I.Q."

Everyone likes the t-shirt, he says. 

"I sell a few on the side, 

or at least I did till The Virus."


The Virus,
it makes us feel like we felt after Katrina. 
 Like we were alive at our own memorial service.  

"Like when you've grown old enough to know how your dreams turn out," L. A. Norma tells the driver.  Sure, New Orleans came back after Katrina.  
But not the same New Orleans.  
That New Orleans is a dream gone.  
A dream for which we know the ending.

In May 2016, four years ago last month, Melanie Plesh, the person with whom I escaped New Orleans during The Storm died.  

A round robin e-mail went out from her friends on this year's anniversary.  What follows is the obit I wrote at the time of her death, and happy photographs she made of the last "Ten Cent Martini Lunches at Ralph Brennan's Bacco" (now SoBou ~ 'South of Bourbon') before The Storm.   

The new New Orleans is fine. 
 Full of tasty pastry and pasty-faced folks immigrated here from the cloudy Northwest, to rebuild a NOLa nice as the one we left behind that Monday in 2005.
The newbies have discovered traditions like the skeletal Mardi Gras Bones.  Rattling doors and screens at sunrise. Admonishing Children and the superstitious to behave this day.  

The Krewe / cult of The Bones 
~ with their distinctive drumbeat ~ 
have brought the practice to Royal Street, Faubourg Marigny.  

"You know," the pedicab driver said, "The New Orleans Mark Twain knew was not the one the Kingfish was born to change, nor it the one that greeted me, or later you."

"The old Marigny 
was nice, too," Norma told the driver.

~*~   ~*~   ~*~

Melanie Plesh

and the Great Escape

by Leonard Earl Johnson 
~ first published in 2016 ~
Β© 2020, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

Melanie Plesh, 
teacher, writer, traveler, photographer, seeker.
Lifelong resident of New Orleans. 
Died of cancer at sixty-three, 
18 May 2016. 
Her passing cut a new wound, 
and opened the old one named Hurricane Katrina.
Melanie and I escaped together during The Storm's early first half. 

Janice Becker* and Melanie Plesh 
Photo credit / David Gabe Friend

News of Melanie's death reached me on a day when 

Art Garfunkel was giving a $120-ticket fundraiser at the 
Acadiana Center for the Arts ~ eleven years after Hurricane Katrina and
her ugly bigger sister, Rita.

It was a traveling show billed by promoters as Katrina-inspired. 
Its purpose to raise funds for art and craft supplies.
"Dream Boxes, 
for children displaced by disasters like Katrina and Rita."  

Melanie and I met a few years before Katrina, on Bourbon Street, at a 
Tennessee Williams Festival party. She taught English at New Orleans Frederick 
Douglass High School, she told us, and lived on the North Shore.

Some of her Douglass High students loved her for bringing Shakespeare 
where never before the boards had been so trod, she said.

  "Mostly they ignore me, but I'm doing good anyway." 

Katrina washed Frederick Douglass away.

Melanie was easy to like. A do-gooder, who actually did good.  

A lovely spirit who left a comfortable North Shore school, 
where students drove nice cars, and came to Douglass... 

"Where they steal them!" 

L. A. Norma said, making us all laugh, 
that day.

By the time Katrina hit, Melanie had moved to Marigny Street, 

near the Friendly Bar, in Faubourg Marigny.


When hurricane people say a storm, "takes landfall," they are talking about 

the middle of the storm ~ the eye.

Next comes the calm, then the second half of the storm, with winds coming from 

the opposite direction. 
Katrina's landfall was early Monday, August 29, 2005.

Sunday, August 28 began as calm, clear, and blue as the Lord ever gives. 

Near the coast Katrina crept towards us like Carl Sandburg's little cat's feet. 
In a few hours She would be roaring down the streets of New Orleans 
like a Pride Parade on steroids.

Melanie's Son, Timothy Lachin, lived in Paris, where he taught English. 

He had been phoning  
across the Atlantic for days. 
"This is the big one, Ma," he would say, "you've gotta get out!"

But Melanie was one of those burned by the huge, slow evacuation of the year 

before, and vowed not to evacuate again.  

I, too, had foolishly decided to ride out this storm, because of "last year."

By the time the error of judgement hit me, Melanie was the only person I knew 
still in Town with more than two wheels.

 She was thinking it over.

By then, City Mayors and Parish Presidents from every town and parish around 
were pushing each other off the tv-podium to tell their citizens that 
if they planned on staying they should get an indelible marker
 and write their Social Security number on their arm.


Norma had gone to California earlier, and NOLa was nearly a ghost town. 
Everything was boarded up. Anyone still here was boarded up, too. 
Armstrong International Airport and the Union Passenger Terminal 
no longer picked up the phone.

I was getting calls 

from all over the World promising shelter
 if I would just come join them. 
But I could not. 

I did not drive, and 

Feather Bike was no match for such a storm as Katrina.

Feather Bike      /        Photo credit: Melanie Plesh

Melanie to the rescue. 
We loaded her little red truck with supplies for a day or two, 
and her two feral cats, caged and angry.
Once Melanie chased these cats with rocks and taunts,
 and then she came to love them. 
We would not be leaving without them.

Melanie alone could touch these wild beasts.
In a misguided moment, 
I held open a pillow case. 
Melanie dropped in the cat named Orange
who instantly came ripping out the bottom, 
and streaked across the kitchen linoleum,
 like Katrina's pilot fish.  

His partner, Red, stood frozen next to the stove,
then joined the screeching race.  
Melanie brought up the rear.

By the time we left Town, The Storm was licking the wheels of our little red truck,
as we skittered across the Rigolets. 
With the cats inside their cages now fainted into 
the arms of catatonia.
The storm behind us was halfway up to its eye, 
and the bridges we were crossing 
were literally washing away behind us.  
Had we understood all this at the time, we likely would have fainted too.

We fled along the very path of The Storm.

Because a uniformed policeman told us we could only go East. 

"The West full?" Melanie asked the policeman, as 

rain sprayed him from every direction including up. 

"Just the road to it," he said. 

We landed on the North Shore, in Hammond, 

at the hearth of a kindly fallen monk. 

Weeks later we decamped to Lafayette, Louisiana. 

"Where the English isn't English and the French isn't French," detractors say. 
Somehow we communicated, lived well, and grew happy. 

"Not a bad outcome for a serendipitous old scribe like you,

Norma says, when I tell this story

"Not to mention," Melanie used to say, 

"all those train rides snaking in-and-out of Big Swamp City!"  


Before leaving the kindly fallen monk's hearth we agreed that
Melanie would be first to make her way back in to New Orleans,
where she would retrieve select items from what she might find of
Squalor Heights, my Faubourg Marigny garret apartment.

Melanie was a seeker ~ who would save my treasures 

a brave journeyman on her way through Life. 

For over twenty-years she co-directed the 

Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project, and 
in 1999, she traveled alone to Russia on pilgrimage to the grave of 
Fyodor Dostoyevsky.


On my first trip back to New Orleans I found Melanie where we had arranged to meet,

 sitting, sipping beer in the window seat at Molly's on the Market, Decatur Street,  
Boots on the Ground  / Β©  Coleen Perilloux Landry
a bar in the Quarter that did not close during The Storm.  

This day,
 The City is mostly empty of all but military 
and a few stray folks like us.

"The army gives them ice," Melanie said, 

pointing her thumb back at the bar. 

I joined her for a cold beer.

She had my copy of the anthology,

FRENCH QUARTER FICTION, signed by all contributing authors.
And a silver medal given to me when a boy by Pope Pius, XII.

Melanie Plesh, thank you for the ride out of Town.

May you find among the billowing clouds 
John Kennedy Toole,
Shakespeare, Voltaire, Dante, Goethe, Twain, Sandburg 
and Dostoyevsky.

Back home in New Orleans, 
our memory of you takes us once more around the dance floor.
Merci, mon amie!

Your comments and corrections are welcome:


Lagniappe du Jour
Ralph Brennan's famous Bacco Ten-cent Martini Lunches,
pre-Katrina photos by Melanie Plesh and others

Janis Turk (background) 
Cathy DeYoung (RHINO Jeweler)

George Dureau's tripthich back-of-bar, Cafe Sbisa, New Orleans
Janice Becker

is the model in black in the first panel

Alyson Raymond, with martinis and olive oil 

Janis Turk, Thomas Kahlor, Paula Chavis, 
Melanie Plesh, Alberto Navarro, Leonard Earl Johnson, Josh Clark, 
Victor Campbell, Margarita Bergen, Karisa Kerry, L.A. Norma's hat, 
Judy Konikoff

Lee Grue

Margarita Bergen, Karissa Kerry, Lee Grue, L. A. Norma,
Alberto Navarro, Leonard Earl Johnson, Josh Clark, Victor Campbell

Friend of Norma, L. A. Norma, Leonard Earl Johnson

Leonard Earl Johnson

Cathy DeYoung (RHINO Artist), Karissa Kerry
David Parker, Alison Raymond

Paula Chavis 

Thomas Kahler

Cathy DeYoung,  Melanie Plesh

Karisa Kerry,  David Parker, Josh Clark

Rosemary James

Rosemary James, Poster Photographer, Lee Greu, Norma's Friend,
 L. A. Norma, Leonard Earl Johnson, the Bar Tender.

Friend, Janis Turk

Steve Halpren, L. A. Norma. Leonard Earl Johnson, Judy Konikoff

Bacco Mix Master

Melanie Plesh, Alberto Navarro, Leonard Earl Johnson

Lady in Blue

the Last Ten Cent Martini Lunches before Katrina
 by Melanie Plesh and others

* *

Sonnet for LEJ's Gold Tooth
Enamel, You Were Valiant, But You Succumbed

by Melanie Plesh

LEJ with tooth / Frank Parsley
At birth a squawling, darling baby boy,
Content to gum the nipple, lived content,
And morning noon and night he sucked in joy,
While father sold hot meals that paid the rent.
β€˜Til finally, one otherwise dull day,
When all was still, his mother hit the roof!
And screamed β€˜til Illinois itself did quake.
Instead of gums, on mom he used a tooth. 
You know the rest, how one tooth leads to teeth, 
How meats replace the nectar that we’ve known.
But ersatz nourishment leads but to grief.
The food we hunger for remained at home.
However, now you sparkle when you walk
And all your words are gilded when you talk.

Love, Melanie, aka Clothilde Goldfarb

17 October 2004
Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans

* *
Copyright, 2020, 
Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved

~   ~   ~  ~   ~   ~  ~   ~   ~  ~   ~   ~  ~   ~   ~  ~   ~   ~
Go here For 

*  *  *
If you wish to read any month's column go to www.LEJ.org anytime. 

They are posted on the first of each month and polished for the next few years.
~   ~   ~

~  ~  ~
 LEJ's Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp

is a monthly e-column @ www.LEJ.org

and historically at

Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans,

publication of the

It is written by Leonard Earl Johnson of Lafayette and 

New Orleans, Louisiana
Archives: www.LEJ.org

* * * * * * * * * * * 
Β© 2020 Leonard Earl Johnson, 

All Rights Reserved 

* *