February 21, 2007
Mardi Gras (B)log 2/21: Recap the Madcap
“C’monnnnnn, bra. You gotta take me back uptown.”
“Man, fuck you, I told you already I’m not taking you up there. We’re half-way to Alabama, bra.”
It is not dawn, it is dusk; we are not in an argument, we are in-between jags of laughter.
“Man, you’re treating me like Changeman over here.”
Flavius Josephus has grapefruit all over his burned red face and I’m wearing a straw hat that belongs to our host, Miyako, who sits between us on the back steps. She holds her poodle and keeps telling us we can’t stay all night, she just wants us off the property. The property is a grand old affair of shaggy grass and banana trees, the corpses of an old Mercedes van and a Cadillac in the carport, numerous stray cats, and a pool full of green water. The house is all paint chips and cork board and windows, with a fully-stocked fridge, and a wide brick patio. This is the end of Mardi Gras day and the gentle peace of the Bywater is a good place for the last burning off of vapors. If we could wish for anyplace to bring this thing to an end, we couldn’t have picked a better spot. Of course, FJ and I can’t do much of anything at this point, but he’d better damn well take me home.
“What, you’re gonna leave me all the way out here?”
What follows is an assortment of events, over-heards, sightings, and comments for which I have little in the way of chronological memory. It became evident early on in the run that I’m not one for note-taking, and that old Mardi Gras instincts kick in and unhinge many a responsibility. There was simply no way to be a recorder when you’re busy being a walker, dancer, screamer, and guzzler. From the contents of my suit pockets, I shake out the following…
The Prepared Warriors
The pirate holds court in the Chart Room, just where his wife told me I’d find him. His long, leather-sheathed arms dangle on the shoulders of visitors as they all pose for a photo. I sidle up to him after the shot and see that he’s wearing the cat-eye contacts and prosthetic elf-ears. All 6’6” of him is ready for anything, be it battling warlocks or surprising tourists. “I got the orange juice, a shitload of rum, some herbal tea…..” Like any veteran of hardcore drinking during Mardi Gras, the pirate carries his own thermos with his own special concoction. And like all in his ilk, he’s only too eager to tell you the ingredients. An anecdote from a past carnival, as related to me by this swashbuckler:
“So I had the six pack in my coat pockets, coat just like yours, a flack jacket, and the guy had some scotch. I said, ok, dude, cool, here’s some beers. Pull that out, he gives me some scotch, like niiiice. Another guy says, hey, anyone have any whiskey? I’m like, wham, here you go, pull that out. So they’re like, let’s fuck with the Pirate, you know, test him. Guy’s like, you have anything to eat in there, Pirate? I pull out the chili dogs, say, take that, bro. Oh yeah.”
I get Bloody Mary #1 of the day and tell him I’m gonna have to take a walk.
In Jackson Square, the true, radical, misfit soldiers of the Religious Right have set up camp at the uptown side of Chartres Street. They are not new to Mardi Gras, but my memory of them is usually isolated to Bourbon Street, where they’d march periodically. I’ve never seen them in the Square. But whatever, that’s their dance, better to ignore them. I take a seat on a bench next to a tarot card reader. She and I talk for a minute about face painters and the general business this year, then I lean back and close my eyes awhile. The sun is strong, the sky bright, and I need a rest. But here come these “Christians,” making their move in front of the benches, chanting their hateful slogans. As they begin to pass me, I stand up on the bench.
“How many of y’all think these guys have gone a little too far?” I call out. The square is somewhat busy, and there’s a smattering of applause. “You know what really pisses these guys off?” I ask. “You know what makes them realllly angry?”
One of these fools calls out, “You do!” and I smile.
“What you can do to make ‘em mad is get your palm read! Get yourself a tarot card reading right now!” People cheer some more. A small guy walks up to me.
“Hey,” he says. “We’re trying to run a business here.”
He looks confused. “Are you for or against the tarot card readers?”
“Carry on, then.”
“Get your palms read! It’s the best thing for you, for New Orleans, and for Jesus Christ!”
I sit back down, sip my drink, close my eyes. The “Christians” are down in front of the cathedral now, but their rants are interrupted by a gutter-punk acrobat show. After awhile, I get up and walk down Pirate’s Alley.
Review of the Troops
The Tucks parade rolls in full glory down St. Charles Avenue and passes us at Erato Street around 1:30pm. The sun has finally broken through after a cold morning and FJ and I are feeling alright. I know a couple riding in the parade, so we wait for the expected windfall. When they do float past, it takes my fullest screams to get their attention. They both see me and scoop up clusters of beads and cock their arms. The crowd is too thick to get a direct shot at me, so I run alongside the float, dodging children and lawn chairs. Finally, my friend's wife drops two great medallions to me, then my friend hurls an enormous tangle down at me. It lands right in my Bloody Mary. Instantly I'm covered in tomato juice and vodka, with a motherload of beads in my hands. But what a score.
FJ and I go home to get bikes so we can ride up to Tulane for my radio show at 6pm. Because of the evening parades, barriers block Napoleon Avenue, so we ride down to Tchoupitoulas to get uptown. As we cross Napoleon, we pass by a sea of marching bands. One after another, uniformed high school students wait for their turn to enter the parade. Down past the big supermarket, the bands take up both lanes as they stand in varying stages of attention. Majorettes twirl batons lazily while horn sections blow riffs and the drumlines goof off. We coast past them as the dusk ends, their hats and tightly tied braids and crew-cuts lit from behind by the setting sun. For all the noise and assorted vehicles, the bands emit a gentle innocence, with line after line of kids taking steps into the foray.
At the Spotted Cat
My friend Bill yells into my ear, “That’s my boss!” He points to the large bass player who’s leading the band on the corner stage and absolutely killing it. Bill is grinning his brains out and laughs, tells me he fucking loves this city. Like me, Bill moved down here from New York after the storm, but unlike me, he’s never lived here before, never seen a Mardi Gras.
He’s a bassist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and he’s now going through a revelation, both of the city’s elements of chance and connection, and of the buried roots of jazz. Bill can pick out individual solos in Ellington recordings, but now he’s up to his neck in the living primordial and he’s falling in love it. It’s great to see this feeling on someone’s face, the glow that only comes from New Orleans and consecutive days of booze and the knowledge that you’re not leaving.
I’m feeling happy, too, because I just got my wallet back. Thought I’d totally blown it, noticing its absence only at the next bar down when I went to pay for some food. I took one trip back to the Spotted Cat, but no one had seen my wallet. Back at the restroom in the other bar, I looked in the mirror and said, “Nah. Fuck that.” I told my friend Barbara that we were going back and finding the damn wallet.
Sure enough, when we walked in, Bill comes up and tells us us someone found it. A nattily dressed older black gentleman hands it over to me at the bar.
“I owe you for life,” I told him. “Anytime I see you, now on, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I’d rather have $10 and buy my own,” he said. I laughed, but had no more money, so I went and got him a $20. After awhile, now old friends, he keeps telling me he never steals and occasionally holds my hand extra long. Kinda weird, but I got my damn wallet back.
Castaway (Note: I know this happened Monday afternoon)
Sirens blow in the distance as the cops use Tchoupitoulas Street to circumvent the parade. After colder than usual days, the weather verges on perfection, just in time for Lundi Gras. Flavius and I stand in front of an ancient brick building, watching a boy break the window on a detached door. The door leans along the dividing wall that blocks the view of the train tracks and docks that run down the river. My car is parked behind us at the entrance to the old service road and a massive, rusted-out factory sits beyond the brick building.
I brought FJ here to show him the building, which Kim and I found a few weeks ago. This building looks to be from the 19th century, possibly an old tavern or hotel for sailors. The first floor, which had water and garbage in it the last time I visited, now holds a small fortress of doors and sheet metal. The boy looks to be Hispanic, maybe around 14 or 15. FJ and I greet him and he says “Hi,” then continues to break the window, until it’s ready, I guess, and then he carries it down into the first floor.
“You living in here?” I ask him.
He doesn’t seem to understand English, but does nod and say, “Me.” We watch him go about his construction, then leave him, get back in the car.
“You think he was living in there?”
“Hard to tell. He looked pretty clean and all.”
“Might just be a kid playing in the woods.”
As I start the car and u-turn off the rocky service road, we can still see the boy, hammering on an old kerosene canister on the edge of the Mississippi. Just then, a train passes, gives us a long honk.
Return to Gallier Hall
Sean Payton, coach of the NFC West Champion New Orleans Saints, stands atop a float with a microphone in his hand. The crowd in the bleachers on either side of St. Charles cries his name and howls their homage, FJ and I included. While promising an even better season next year, Payton keeps saying, “You tell the mayor I was here. Just let him know.”
He says it with a mischievous tone, almost like he’s winking. What, did Sean Payton fuck the mayor or something? I wonder. He makes a toast, then asks to have the doors to the hall opened. We are on the front steps of the hall, the doors are behind us, probably 20 feet above Payton and 30 feet across. He picks up a football and we start cheering. The first try banks off one of the monumental pillars of the hall. On the next try, the ex-quarterback threads the needle, and soon the float moves on.
Once again, I’m in this place via free tickets to the grandstand from Heather. The crowd tonight is all staffers and friends of the mayor, a pretty respectable looking, mixed crowd. FJ and I stand out pretty bad. We were already at the Krewe of Orpheus parade further uptown on the route, so we have a ton of beads. I’m wearing a red sash around my head and FJ looks like a Starsky & Hutch extra with his leather jacket and long hair. At one point, I jump for some beads and splash beer over a whole family. Man, I’m that guy. I apologize and everyone’s pretty nice about it. FJ is pretty impressed with my grandstand connections. I take his picture as he smiles lasciviously at a bronze statue of a nymph. The parade ends, and we follow in its trash-choked wake.
On Sunday morning, Kim and I wake up around 11 and drive to Tulane University Medical Center, where Mr. Jimmy sits out Mardi Gras with what appears to be a stroke. Mr. Jimmy is an elderly Greek man who helps out at the restaurant where Kim works. He’s an old friend of the owner, as well as a former merchant marine, a one-time inhabitant of Pittsburgh, and a sweet guy, who buses tables and keeps the waitresses company. Everyone at the restaurant talked last night about how pissed Jimmy must be to be missing the Mardi Gras, knowing how much they need him.
Fortunately, I’d never been to the Tulane hospital. We find it pretty easily, but can’t walk right in. With parts of the hospital closed and no visible security or directions, we end up riding an elevator to a pedestrian walkway on the 2nd floor, crossing to another building, then riding back down to check in on the 1st floor, riding back up to the 7th, and finally find Mr. Jimmy sharing a room with another senior citizen.
Mr. Jimmy seems small, his beard is grown-in a little, but he’s in pretty good spirits. His doctor shows up and explains that he needs to start eating better, which is tough for an old guy who’s lived inside restaurants for half a century. I want to tell the doctor that even though Jimmy’s accent is really strong, he can understand every word of English, but the doctor seems patient enough. He leaves, and the nurse shows up with a meal, so we let Jimmy eat in peace.
Outside we retrace our steps, down and up and across and down again. In this part of town, nothing’s going on. The adjacent hospitals are closed up and the sidewalks are vacant, and you’d barely know Mr. Jimmy or anyone else was there. Mardi Gras feels light years away, when in fact, it’s less than a mile.
What a toll Mardi Gras takes on service workers. I had to break up a hilariously pathetic fight on Saturday night at Kim’s restaurant, between a pretty jacked dude who pushed an old man who’d tried to cut past him in line. The last customers Kim had on Fat Tuesday were a very fat young guy and his father, both horribly drunk. The fat kid puked all over the table, and his father didn’t understand what the big deal was. They locked themselves in the bathroom for an hour. When we walked out of the hospital, we agreed that it was OK if Mr. Jimmy got a little rest instead of dealing with the bullshit.
Because the bullshit did not quit.
Early Tuesday morning, Kim forced Flavius and I to eat sandwiches from a food truck on Frenchman Street. This is the last I eat until I arrive back at the same truck 12 hours later. In between, we dance all up and down the street, then drag our asses all the way home. Kim goes straight to bed and FJ and I stand in the living room debating our next move. We’d been talking for days about rolling down Jackson Avenue to see the Mardi Gras Indians at their traditional early morning starting grounds. But I’m exhausted and decide to cash in at 6am. When I wake at 10:30am on Mardi Gras Day, all of Flavius’s shit was gone and the room cleaned up, so I figured he got a jump on the trip back to Atlanta.
Kim and I hustle down to the Quarter so we’ll have time to walk around and get our faces painted before she has to work. At Iberville and Decatur Street, we watch the legendary Pete Fountain walking krewe pass, and catch a lot of beads. Kim has on her giant sunglasses and boa, and I’m wearing my suit with a big rip in the ass. As we turn away from parade, a guy calls out to me, “Hey, Ferris Bueller!”
We get identical crescents of purple-gold-green and glitter rings painted around our left eyes, and an older tarot reader with long dreadlocks tells me he "likes my style, loverboy.” With my girl and the bright sky, I feel like I just won the lottery. I take Kim back to work and walk off with the boa around my shoulders.
The Quarter is full of people in all states of costume. Countless small krewes march up and down Royal Street, in costumes ranging from Victorian to blackened gothic to walking penis to strippers to Saints fan to geisha girls. For blocks after block, people gather along the street to compare costumes and wish each other a fine Mardi Gras day. The vivid jumble of it all makes me stand against a metal police barrier for a long time, watching the ethereal and the grotesque drift by in equal numbers. A chubby girl with pink hair sings "Amazing Grace" on one corner while a group of frat boys and girls howl in the intersection and a healer tries to remove sin from a whole family on the opposite corner.
At this point, my feet feel like I have rocks in my shoes, no surprise after almost 5 days of aimless walking. My voice is totally shot and I keep thinking I sound like I’m from Treme. The boa is shedding all over the place, the hole in my pants is only getting bigger, revealing half my ass (underwear: on), I’m slightly sunburned, and I know my eyes must be slits because my contacts are worn out. This is my first Mardi Gras in 8 years, I’m older now, but all in all, I feel like I’ve held up ok.
Hell, I’m on the way to Frenchman Street again, to see what I can see. Down there, the street is full of even wilder groups in more psychedelic costumes. Soca music blares from a portable sound system and a “wrestling match” rages between several masked combatants in a roped off “ring.” Feathers and plumes of confetti fill the air, along with several types of smoke. The whole mood feels like a show of force, a demonstration that the weirdos and kids are still here, still sewing together neon blues and lifting their flags. I dance around and run into old acquaintances, but I’m missing something, a group of my own, even just one companion. And just about then, I run into ol’ Flavius. He’s still in town, hasn’t slept, and has Miyako in tow.
“Haa HAaaa!” It’s like we haven’t seen each other in ages. “Where you been, male?”
“Shit, I still haven’t slept, bra. I tried to wake you up, but you were out, man. I was like, ‘come on!’”
That crazy bastard had left my house, driven over to Treme, pulled out his bike from the back seat, and rode around checking out the Indians. Then he made Miyako let him in and cook him some bacon. Now here he is, and it’s 2pm and he doesn’t look to be any closer to Atlanta. We eat from the food truck and talk to some real funny friends of his, people I sorta recognize from the past. But just seeing FJ again restarts my lunacy and pretty soon he and I are weaving around making all kinds of trouble.
For some reason, people attempt to drive down Frenchman Street. A few of these are delivery drivers, but most of them are just lost. When we get back to the group, we watch a brand new Mercedes pull up next to Café Brasil. Three young, well-dressed black dudes get out. They may have even been test driving the thing, because they left the sheet with the model number and year in the rear window.
“Man, are you crazy?” we say. “I can’t even believe that.”
Every vehicle on the curb has people leaning on it, their asses on the windows, the roofs acting as bars for empty cans and cups. But these guys leave the Benz there anyway, walk into the club.
“Look how new it is, bra,” FJ says to me.
“They must want a beer shower or something." Then everyone goes back to what they were doing, with some people resting on the hood and trunk of the Benz. When the dudes come back out, they’re like, “Everyone, can y'all please move?” People start to disperse but Flavius and I are still standing next to the car.
“Say, man, why don’t you give us a ride in that thing?”
The driver, who’s probably around 20, thinks for a minute, then says, “Yeah, you know what? I’ll take y’all around the block.”
We get in and it’s like we’re in a space ship on HDTV. There’s a tint to the windows that changes the light inside to a metallic blue, and every inch of the interior leather is new. I make FJ sit his big frame in the middle seat. The dudes pull out and I’m joking about my boa being caught in the door. People in the street go to look in the window and they see these 3 black kids and me and FJ, both looking extra freaky.
The kids are from Hammond, LA, and seem to be on a joyride. At one point, the driver guns it on a side street, and scares a pedestrian and himself, unfamiliar with the car’s power. We all crack up and he decides to do a few laps on Elysian Fields. When it’s over, we tell them thanks and get out, looking at people on the sidewalk and saying, “Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. New Benz. Ye-ah!”
Understanding that this was a suitably high point to end on, we decide to leave Frenchman Street. I guess FJ does say that he won't take me back Uptown, but I go along to the Bywater anyway. We spend probably 2 hours at Miyako’s crumbling mansion, inspecting the old cars and grapefruit tree.
“This is where I’m moving next, man,” I tell FJ.
As we depart, Miyako stands behind the wrought-iron fence holding the poodle.
"Check it out, man. She wants to make sure we're really leaving."
The ride back uptown includes a lot of verbal jousting, a good deal of traffic, a weird scene at a convenience store, and more yelling. I keep telling FJ that he oughta eat some Popeye’s with me and take a nap, but he’s not having it. Finally he agrees to go back to my place and have a drink, but when we get there, Terpsichore Street is closed, a line of yellow police tape across the Camp Street side.
We get out and ask what’s going on. The two guys standing there watching the cops tell us that someone was stabbed. One of them asks if I want to walk around with him and try to get through on Magazine Street. At this point, FJ and I say a quick goodbye and away he goes.
I walk with this guy John, who says he’s a writer living in a flophouse a block down from me, where Magazine is currently blocked by Jersey dividers and cyclone fence. We part ways there and I talk to the cops, who wave me through the tape. When I walk into my front yard, my neighbors are on the porch.
“What happened?” I ask them.
Apparently, one man stabbed another man on Terpsichore, supposedly because the latter was trying to light his car on fire and then pulled a knife when accosted. The owner of the car claims he wrestled the knife away and stabbed the guy. He stayed at the scene of the crime, where my neighbor found the both of them after hearing the ruckus. The stabbed man is dead, my neighbor says. You can still see him. So I get up on the porch and look over and sure enough, there’s a dead body on the curb, cops walking around it.
“Was he still alive when you got there?” I ask.
“I saw him die,” my neighbor says.
Then they realize who I am, that I’m their neighbor but have face paint and beads covering my identity. They just moved from the back apartment to the front, and were in the midst of a BBQ with friends when the attack happened.
“Do you want some food?” asks my neighbor’s wife.
I go in and sit in their dining room with them. They’re a black couple around my age, down here as missionaries for the Presbyterian Church, she from Harrisburg, he from Atlanta. Apparently the church sent organizers to help the existent local groups on the ground in pulling together their resources for ministry and rebuilding. They’ve been in town a little while and seem stunned by what just happened. They also have a ton of food, sausages and chicken and pasta salad, enough for 10 or 15 people. I eat some wings and we talk about the city and how we got here.
“How long do you think y’all will stay?” I ask. And as soon as I ask I realize our context.
“That’s really the question, man,” my neighbor says.
We talk for awhile more and even joke some about this incident as I’m on the way out. But after I get back upstairs and take a nap, I wake up to that same question. Not so much if I’ll stay, but if enough good people will stick it out. These two seemed like nice, well-meaning people, with the right reason for coming down here. And still my neighbor, a minister who’s here to coordinate restoration and prayer, ends up watching a man die behind a storage pod on his own block.
I meant to get Kim some Popeye’s for when she got off work, so I drive uptown and along Carrollton and back down Claiborne, but none of the Popeye’s are open. The neighborhoods were quiet, the streets wet, everything seemed tired like me. Another Mardi Gras, I think.
These are only some of the things I recall about the last 5 days, but I’m exhausted and recounting all of this is exhausting me even more. I did remember a lot of things as Mardi Gras played out, like how it feels to have another 3 days to go, and how it feels when you know there’s only one left. I remembered the superhuman feeling when you walk with a parade of people in an aimless celebration, feeling like you’re best friends with total strangers. I remembered the sad, weird details, like a lonely beggar in the aftermath of the Orpheus parade. I remembered that a suit looks great but suffers from wear, and that sunglasses are a protective in many ways, and that you can only drink so long until it doesn’t matter. I remembered that, when it’s brimming with people, locals and visitors, the city takes on a new madness, a euphoria that can lead to surreal coincidences, the greatest fortune, and the most idiotic violence. People say it all the time: this is the city of paradox. The body of New Orleans trembles in a different rhythm during Mardi Gras, and even if that body is out of shape, bullet-ridden, and bleeding on the inside, that does not mean it can’t get up and dance.
But now we pause and look around at new beads in the trees and kick bottles into the gutter. Life returns to the irregular rhythm of the wounded, with both foreign and familiar shapes dancing along the horizon. The Super Sunday Mardi Gras Indians Showdown happens March 18th and maybe Flavius comes back in town and the weather will be even better and maybe the streets will be cleaned up and maybe the streets won’t be so bloody and maybe we’ll all feel good as new. But right now, I’m going to bed.