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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.

Friday, December 01, 2023

✍Two Christmas Stories / December 2023


Two Christmas Stories




photo credit, Mark Konikoff




βš“ βš“



~ Fiction ~

Roman Γ  clef, cher

by Leonard Earl Johnson 

of Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana

 www.LEJ.world βœ

Β© 2023, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved 

Your comments and corrections

are welcome

click here






Leonard Earl Johnson / Photo Credit: James Wise

 πŸ’”LEJ's Louisiana, 
Yours Truly in a Swamp
a monthly e-column 


Leonard Earl Johnson

of Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana


 LEJ  2005          /        Photo credit: Frank Parsley

Story Number One


The First Christmas After Hurricane Katrina
by Leonard Earl Johnson


Β© 2023, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
Originally published in 2005 in a slightly different version

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

The water is gone, but so are most of the customers. In time the bar will fill again. But not this shirtsleeve warm night, December 17 ~ nearly four months after Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2005.

The street cars are silent.
Now and then a lone vehicle scurries down a darkened street towards some destination not obvious to any onlookers ~ had there been onlookers. 

Military convoys make up the only traffic moving regularly on this or any other street.  Armies of mostly Spanish-speaking civilians follow behind them, hired by FEMA to rake and push the massive debris mounds ever closer to the curb. 

🚦Neither stop lights nor street lights 
blink a bright red and green🚦

After Katrina   /   Coleen Perilloux Landry

Everywhere 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 pour over some brave heart's intact gallery. 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 hang from rafters, along with toy gray helicopters lifting little plastic refugees from little blue-tarped roofs.  The bartender sports a red baseball cap with cotton pasted around the rim of the bill.  A tiny silver bell dangles from the front.

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

have come to this bar to meet an old friend just arrived aboard Amtrak's Special City of New Orleansfrom Chicago, that broad-shouldered
 behemoth at the other end of the rail line.  

He rode down on this unique train to show support for Arlo Guthrie's Friends Benefit Tour for Louisiana MusiciansThe Amtrak special stopped for fundraiser concerts ~ "Out on the south bound odyssey," all the way to New Orleans. 

This night my friend and I are making our donations at the tour's last stop, at Tipitina's on the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue.

open the French Doors and spot my friend at the far end of the bar. He is clearly overdressed and over served.  He is wearing a camel hair topcoat, a gray wool suit, a white cotton shirt and a red silk tie.  A fast-pace Chicago uniform in a flood slowed New Orleans parade.  A parade not too swift in the best of times ~ these are not the best of times.

mural behind the bar twinkles with tiny blue lights sprinkled over a snowy hillock of white deer nibbling mistletoe berries dotted among the evergreen pines.  The mistletoe berries are represented by tiny red lights.

"Mistletoe is poison," my friend is telling the bartender, in his booming Chicago voice, "and its berries should be white!"

brewery representative from Saint Louis, Missouri is also behind the bar.  He is wearing a sport coat that looks to be made from Anheuser-Busch labels, and he is passing out samples of Red Wolf Beer.  My friend takes one and lifts it in my direction.  I move down the bar and accept the brew.

"Must be a Santa after all," my friend booms to the largely empty room.

From a green felt-covered table, an elderly couple often seen here before The Storm, looks up and smiles.  No one is dealing.  Their cards lay face up.  We tip our beer towards them. They are wearing evening clothes and his gold studs, set with diamonds, flash back at the mural. She is ash blonde, well-painted, and wearing a red sequined gown.  She unzips the gentleman's tuxedo.

My friend an
d I both say in stage whisper that she is an expensive date.

The man laughs and asks, "How better to spend my FEMA money?"   She slaps him playfully.

"Where is the vice-squad?" my friend asks in a real whisper. 

The bartender sits down two more Red Wolfs and says, "In diapers with Senator Vitter, at the Canal Street Brothel?"  We all laugh, enjoying the sexual peccadilloes of our betters. 

My friend is 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 say.  "We ~ NOT Chicago ~ are 'The City That Works!'" 

He snorts at hearing Chicago's famous motto laid up against New Orleans' famous work ethic.

"Cops protecting brothel patrons," I say, "and people in evening clothes entertaining themselves for free."

We both look back at the couple and laugh.  My friend mutters, "Maybe not free, but a lot less than the cops charge." 

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

The beer distributor gives us two full six packs of Red Wolf and smiles, "Please, I need to find one of those scarce airplane seats out."

The bartender says, "Allow me to put that on ice for you."

get up to go to the restroom as my Chicago friend yanks a hanging blue snowflake from its tether. He bellows 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 does not know he is talking to fathead number one.

The Saint Louis beer man 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 red helps him to his feet and they stumble outside balancing themselves by holding on to articles of each other's clothing.  They lunge into the limo and motion for the beer man to join them.  He shrugs and climbs in.

Coming out of the restroom I drop a quarter into a slot machine.  The last of my FEMA money whirls away.  I do not care.  It is Christmas and my friend is in Town to wine and dine us for three fat ~ if somewhat shipwrecked ~ days.  

We have known each other since the Fabled Sixties' college daze in Carbondale, Illinois, where Guthrie's special train stopped to play a concert at Southern Illinois University.  He likes having, as he puts it, "A writer bum for a friend."  I like having a rich one.

In a wastebasket beside the slot machines, I spot seven paper teddy bear tree ornaments.  Each has the name of someone lost in Hurricane Katrina across its brown belly.  I pick up one and read the name, "Senegal Breaux."  I gather them all and stuff them in my shirt pocket. 

Back at the bar I sip my beer in silence. The bartender smarting from my friend's harsh words, punches up Linda Ronstadt singing Blue Bayou, on the jukebox.  He pushes a remote-control button next to the cash register and a lone gray helicopter opens its bomb bay doors and sends red and green glitter drifting down into our beers.

We stand to leave, and my friend tells the bartender to keep the remaining Red Wolfs.  He gives 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 stares at the empty curb.  "Where the Hell's my driver?"  

say, "Forget it, let's walk."

He slips out of his topcoat and hands it to a bewildered man in  
blue jeans and a t-shirt that reads:

"Find Every Mexican Available"

We walk along past mounds of rubble towards Tip's. My friend accepts a paper teddy bear and holds it up to ambient Christmas light.

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

"Let's distribute them like handbills," he says.

It seems all those who are back in Town are also headed to Tipitina's. 

We start singing, "We three kings from Orient are..."  When someone asks, "Where is your other king?" we hand them the teddy bear named Senegal Breaux, and keep on our way, "Bearing gifts we travel so far..."
 Copyright, 2023, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved



Story Number Two  

Long Before Katrina




December 2023

~ Fiction ~
Roman Γ  clef, cher
by Leonard Earl Johnson 
of Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana


a monthly e-column
 *  *
From La Porte Texas 
to the Promised Land
by  Leonard  Earl  Johnson

Β© 2023, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved 

The year of the last Cuban Boat Lift, 1980, I served aboard the diesel burning M/V Sealand Venture.  She was a sturdy German-built US-flagged container ship running scheduled stops between Houston, Texas and Rotterdam, Holland. 

I sailed as the officer's Bedroom (B. R.) Steward --- a kind of seagoing chambermaid.  Not a high rank, but a joyful one owing to the large amount of shore leave it afforded.

A good B. R. arranges to be on such terms with his officers that all but the Captain, whose stateroom doubles as the ship's office, lock their doors in port. 
Ostensibly this keeps out 
In Port at La Porte, Texas
shore thieves.

Effectively it ends the good B. R.'s duties by breakfast.  Freeing him to leave the ship for the rest of the day. 

This is a gratuity valued more by a good B. R. than money.  I was a good B. R. 

During that same year, the Venture quit the wharves along Houston's downtown Ship Channel and began calling at a newly constructed container terminal at Morgan's Point, near the little town of La Porte, Texas.  A spot so far out-in-the-boonies it was barely in from the Gulf of Mexico.

* * *
The Port Authority's decision to move their container terminal to Morgan's Point was ~ and is ~ a great thorny urchin in the belly of thirsty sailors in port from every corner of the Earth. 
πŸ›³    πŸ›³
  Now, mind you, near the new terminal there was a dirt-floored, tin-roofed watering hole known as, The Little Goat Ranch. It sat invitingly in the turn at Barbours Cut, on a jutting beachhead walking distance from our berth. 


The Little Goat Ranch's services were mercifully available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and a hand-painted sign in white scrawling letters with random splats and dribbles proclaimed it from the mirror behind the bar, 

"We No Close Never"

The town of La Porte, a meager destination if ever there was one, lay two-miles straight inland.  I took a bicycle with me aboard ship in those days, and it was a pleasant two mile ride over newly rolled out asphalt roads separating pastures populated with long-horned cattle dotted around giant live oak trees laden with Spanish moss

The town did offer the Space Shot Motel and Bar, for those who got lucky.  A Spanish movie house, for those who did not.  Also, Rosetta's Cuban Fajita CafΓ©, and the Gulf Coast Railroad Emporium, with its back-lighted oval sign flashing, "Lionel Trains for All The Ages -- Toot! Toot!"

The sights of La Porte and The Little Goat Ranch were certainly appreciated, but they were dim lights next to Houston.

* * *

Our Savior is found
One gorgeous Fall day in the Gulf Coast Railroad Emporium I made the acquaintance of Cowboy Castro, a fine looking blue-eyed, brown-skinned Cuban, with a not-so-fine looking, "purple pick'em up truck." 

Crowning the truck's left fender ~ amid a lifetime's collection of dents and scratches ~ stood a two foot tall plastic statue of Jesus holding a bleeding red heart in one hand and a chromium pigtail radio antenna in the other.  Cowboy Castro was in the Emporium purchasing tiny red lights for the eyes of his rolling icon.  "To light the world on the road to Jesus!" he said with a brilliant if likely duplicitous smile. 

I hired him on the spot to drive me and my bicycle back to the ship.

We followed the red-eyed beacon of Jesus down the new black top road not all the way back to the ship.  We stopped for, "Refreshing beer beverages!" on Cowboy's suggestion, at The Little Goat Ranch.

Later that evening (still at The Goat Ranch), the ship's Mate, Bos'n, Chief Cook, and I secured Cowboy's commitment to meet our ship each voyage and drive one or all into Houston.  Cowboy was then to wait as long as it took, round us up gurgling in the morning light, and return us shipside, and, need be, help us stumble up the accommodation ladder.

* * *

Shore Leave and Liberty for all!
Houston was a shining alabaster city undulating under a polluted sky on a pool of booming oil prices.  An anything-goes Babylon of the US Gulf coast.  

Cowboy's "purple pick'em upbecame our winged angel flying us to Heaven on Earth.

Despite his loudly professed religiosity, and being on "extended break" from Texas A and M, Cowboy performed his duties splendidly. Even, in time, joining our romps in port out of La Porte.

Our favorite Houston destination was a long gray building along Westheimer Drive named The Green Door. Neon tubing atop its flat roof showed chicken heads kissing among flashing red hearts and green dollar signs.

Along a low-slung front porch a row of green doors greeted the needy visitor.  Beside each door hung a lantern similar to those used by old-time railroaders.  If the lamp was lit green you could enter for a price and talk privately with a scantily clad man or woman behind a plate glass window.  By the power vested in money pushed through a slot in the glass you could persuade your selection to converse and display their charms. 

Praise the Lord, it was living porn!  Shocking, I guess, but with the possible exception of Cowboy, we were depraved salts and not missionaries.

Truthfully Cowboy loved The Green Door as much as we did and always arrived screaming Biblical quotes like, "Better to spill your seed in the belly of the whore than upon a barren rock!" 

He would then enter a door labeled "Girl" and, as he put it, "Wax philosophic with the Jezebel inside."

* * *
One sacrament too many
On a warm December night, back at the ship to meet an early sailing board, Cowboy helped us up the ladder and joined me in my fo'c's'le for a parting drink.  After several we passed out. 

As the moon rose mid sky we awakened on the deck by my bunk rocking against the bulkhead.

Our ship was gently slipping out to Sea. 

"I've been shanghaied," Cowboy hollered. He cursed first in Spanish, then in English.  Then he threw Lone Star Beer cans at the Gulf of Mexico on the other side of the porthole, and then at me.

I yelled back, "You Bible thumping Aggie, you think I want a stowaway in my cabin, for Christ's sake?!"

The word "stowaway" brought us both up short and sober.  He ceased his fretting and we made an agreement to make the best of our situation till reaching Miami in two days.  Miami was our last Stateside stop before heading out across the North Atlantic for Rotterdam.  Cowboy could easily walk off the ship there and catch a plane back to Houston with no one the wiser.  

We settled in and became comfortable traveling companions.  He stayed in my cabin drinking beer, watching television, and feasting on food I spirited from the galley.

At night we talked of how lonely Christmas was at Sea, and how Norwegian sailors lashed evergreen trees to their ship's foremast at Christmas time. 

He told of his family's immigration from Cuba, "Before Fidel," and wondered if he might see the "Crimson Devil's Isle."

"Perhaps when we pass through the Straits of Florida?" he asked.  I reckoned not.

South of the Mouth of the Mississippi, near New Orleans (which sits in a hole below Sea level), we picked up television from Baton Rouge and saw film of the huge Cuban Mariel Boat Lift currently washing onto the beaches of south Florida.

Cowboy laughed at Florida's "gringo governor" greeting Cuban boat people while literally mopping his brow. Then Cowboy's eyes lit up like the red-eyed Jesus on his purple truck. "Carumba!" he exclaimed. "If I passed myself off as a Cuban boat-person I could slap slogan those gringos all the way to easy street."

I was shocked and said so, "How could you say that after fleeing Castro?"  
At that time, Norte Americanos saw Cuban border crashing as noble, even sanctified and blessed by our Founding Fathers.  Hell, it was half John Wayne and half Thomas Jefferson inspired by the three-headed Gott of The Holy Trinity!  

America's hospitable foreign policy rippled across the water beckoning like a belly dancer waving food stamps and housing vouchers to any freedom fighter fleeing Castro for Florida's eager welcome wagon.


"Fleeing Castro?" He peered back through sun glasses with prove-it on his face, and asked, "Are you crazy? That Castro was still in the hills when I left Cuba.  This Castro," he said, pointing thumbs at his chest, "was fleeing hunger!  I still am!"

As Cowboy was saying this I felt the ship slow and go dead in the water. I left him plotting his economic salvation and went topside.

The Mate and Bos'n were walking back from a Jacob's ladder slung over the starboard gunnel. Six sunburned Cubans walked smartly behind.  Off the stern, an unpainted rowboat with an upended oar sluiced in our wake. From the oar flapped a white cloth painted with black letters spelling, "S O S."

I followed behind and waited 
along with the Cubans, outside the Captain's door.  The Mate and Bos'n went in.  When they came out, I said, "Excuse mecould one of you come with me?" Both declined.

"Not with the fight I'm fixing to have with that drunken Steward over six supernumeries," the Bos'n said.  He turned off towards the crew's quarters.  The six Cubans trotted behind close on his heels.

The Mate shrugged, "Sorry, Leonard, I'm facing a long ton of Federal paper shuffling."

"You best come," I said, rubbing my beard, cherishing the fleeting powers of pirates and rogues.  "We're in rough waters, Mate, rough enough to beach us."

My actual power was that any ship's irregularity meant Federal paper work for the Mate, and the Mate hated Federal paper work.  He came along.

At my fo'c's'le I turned the latch, opened the door and stood back.

"Hi, Mate," Cowboy grinned, lifting his beer can.

"Jesus, Moses and Mohammad!" exclaimed the Mate, slamming the door tight. He looked at me and several words formed buds on his lips before, "Holy Mother of Lenin!" bloomed out his mouth.

* * *

Cowboy's second coming
In Miami, officers of the United States Coastguard poured over our decks and collected the six Cubans, now grown to seven by the addition of blue-eyed, un-sunburned Cowboy Castro.

On our return voyage we lashed a Norwegian Christmas Tree to the foremast and strung it with yellow light bulbs furnished from the Bos'n's locker.  

As we hove'round Barbours Cut and slipped up against the wharf all eyes searched the hill. There was no Cowboy Castro waiting for us.

Wfound his beat up purple truck and used a key from under the floor mat to drive ourselves into Houston for Christmas Day.  Then, two days after, as we tumbled down the ladder headed for The Goat Ranch, Cowboy drove up in a brand new blue pick'em up truck.

Cowboy explained on the drive to Houston, "They couldn't find me a purple one." He laughed, slurped from a beer can and handed a fresh one to the Mate.  He told us he was going back to school, "but not to Texas A and M and those dumbass Aggies!

"You know why piss is yellow,he asked, "and come is white?  So Aggies will know if they're coming or going!" He slapped his leg and laughed again.

He told how the Miami V. F. W. had bought him the truck and the gringo governor of Florida had gotten him an appointment to the National Maritime Academy at Kings Point, New York.  He grinned and said, "I start next Fall. After that I'll be sailing with you legal like, Mate!"

The Mate popped open his beer, rolled down the window, and screamed a wild Texas "Wah-hoo!" at three steers nosing a discarded Christmas Tree. "God bless us all," he said, pulling his head back in the cab, "and welcome to The Promised Land!"

Copyright, 2023 Leonard Earl Johnson, all rights reserved

Your comments and corrections

are welcome

click her



LEJ's Lagniappe 

Tommy McClain with CC Adcock,



~    ~    ~



Β© Leonard Earl Johnson 
Heading Ho Ho Home / photo credit, Mark Konikoff

If you wish to read any month's column go to www.LEJ.world 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.world,
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

Β© 2023, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved 
 www.LEJ.world βœ