Tuesday, July 20

GRAVY GULF EDITION: LEONIE OF BILOXI


Biloxi Salon owner Leonie Johnston was getting her hair done the day I visited her business.
A DISPATCH FROM ASHLEY HALL
MONDAY, JULY 19, 2010
I checked in today with Leonie Johnston, owner of Lavish Salon in Biloxi. Leonie let me interview her on June 22 while she was getting her hair done. Now that there’s at least a temporary fix for the well head, I wanted to see how she was doing. When we sat down the first time, Leonie choked up more than once. But today, “It’s almost a numb feeling,” she told me.
She seemed cautiously pleased about the cap on the well head. “You know my biggest fear? That if this cap works, immediately our government is going to do the dance and get out of here.”
Biloxi had government agencies, church groups, and individual volunteers in town for years after Katrina, helping to rebuild. She fears that might not happen twice.
A month ago the din of anger, fear, and despair rattled loudly in Leonie’s salon. But today her mood seemed lighter.
Yesterday she and her husband Bobby were driving across the Interstate 110 bridge in Biloxi when he offered her an apology, she told me. He said he realized that he’d been bitter and cranky lately; he was sorry for dumping that on her. “I said, Honey, you were a lot worse a few weeks ago! It’s OK!” She laughed.
Leonie laughs a lot. She’s tough and extremely active in her community. She has an inviting manner and a warm sense of humor. She calls me “Sister,” even though we’ve only met one time.
To me she has demonstrated a combination of pragmatism and optimism, sorrow and toughness, determination and fear. A lot of folks I spoke to had this spinning pin wheel of emotion. Having endured hurricanes, droughts, recession, and now a massive oil spill, people from the Gulf Coast have both the thick skin of those who have triumphed over tragedy, and the weariness of those who are sick of having to triumph over tragedy.
“I’m waiting on the locusts,” Leonie quipped.
Besides her salon, Leonie and Bobby own Fins and Grins Charter Service, where they offer a menu of private fishing trips. But the federal water closures have all but killed their business this summer.
Leonie said they had one reservation this week. “You’re so grateful to have one trip and then you just giggle. How many ways can I split this? How many bills can I pay?” she said laughing. They have applied to work for BP skimming oil, but have not been called up.
In a normal year, Snapper charters are their bread and butter. “The morning Snapper season opened, they closed the federal waters,” she said last month.
Before the spill, they had all but recovered from Katrina. “We were back!” she explained. “It was so exciting that bid K-word seemed more foggy. But this oil has opened the wound and poured salt in.”
They reopened the charter business in 2008, and business had expanded steadily. So last summer, they bought a bigger boat. They ran more charter trips between January and April than they had the last two charter seasons combined. Since the Deepwater Horizon explosion they have weeks with no reservations at all.
“We were buying the big boat last summer and having all of these big plans looking forward,” she described, “Now I know, for us, that seems so far away. We’re back to square one, which is absolutely pathetic.”
Still, she said Biloxi is hanging in there. “The beaches seem fine. The casinos seem full,” she said. “Overall it could be a lot worse, but it’s just the fear, the unknown.” Afterall, there’s plenty of oil still out there. “You’ve got to keep hoping for the best-case scenario,” she continued.
“Next Spring will this all seem like a big ugly dream? Yeah, I hope.”
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Ashley Hall is an SFA member and contributer to Gravy, the SFA's foodletter. She is traveling along the Gulf Coast to capture stories relating to the oil spill as a traveling Gravy correspondent. We'll be posting relevant entries here, but visit the blog she's set up for the project, Third Coast Byways, for more.