February 16, 2007

Mardi Gras (B)log: 2/15: Recall Mayor's Ball...

Well, we went to the Mayor’s Ball tonight, a cold Mardi Gras Thursday when any walk felt too long and there was barely time to wait for tossed beads. Once again we’d received tickets from our friend Heather, who works as a lawyer in the mayor’s office. I knew we had to go, but the weather was so shitty that we almost stayed in, hesitating even after we’d dressed up, Kim had done her hair, and we were already an hour late.

The main hallway of Gallier Hall was full of people, almost all African-Americans, around 90%, I’d guess. A low roar of totaled conversation greeted us as we reached the top of the staircase. Inside the same ballroom we’d visited a month ago for the King Cake party, tables of elaborately dressed friends of the mayor listened to three vocalists backed by a dj. The decorations tonight were opulent, with long gold banners along the ceilings, and green-purple-gold colored flowers, boas, and table cloths placed around the room. The chandeliers sparkled and the bartenders worked smoothly, getting a drink into every hand.

We stood between two of the tables and sipped wine as people pushed by. The lead singer went into a song that I’d heard on the radio just last week, a soul ballad about wanting to go home to New Orleans. This is an exile’s lament with the central line, “I’ve been gone from my home,” a description of displacement. The melody begins very similar to the Sam Cooke song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” then loosens up and sounds a bit like R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” Tonight, as the singer reached the section where he names neighborhoods (“the Westbank, Gert Town, Pigeontown, Gentilly,” etc.), Mayor Nagin passed right behind Kim, who had her back to him and was waving her hands gently in the air. I laughed at all three of them--singer, woman, and mingler.

This is the fourth time we’ve seen Nagin in person in the last month, and it’s getting to feel like Ulysses, where the Lord Mayor’s carriage drifts by and we, citizens of another Dublin, brush up against it in the middle of our daily toil. I still don’t know what to say to him, and avoid any handshakes or hellos. His presence isn’t so much the powerful glow of many politicians, but an awkward centrism, some magnetic charge due to his role. Think about it: US history books will forever carry the name Ray Nagin, the man literally in the center of the storm, a player in a disaster that defined these United States at this time. In person, he doesn’t seem up to the part, and his discomfort is somehow symbolic of a collective burden and failure. There goes Nagin, I always think. What the fuck IS this?

We went upstairs, first to a small ballroom where a loud Latin band played to just a few un-dancing people. Across the hall, we found an R&B band with a couple singers, a sax player, and rhythm section, all of them dressed in red blazers and black slacks, working through the Motown catalogue. Kim and I both had our overcoats in hand, and were glad to lay them across a couple empty chairs and take to the dance floor. Hardly anyone was out there, though the tables in the room were full, mostly of middle-aged black folks. We danced to “You’re Love Keeps Liftin’ Me,” but not too hard, just our typical gyrations. After sitting out a number, we rose when “a song for the lovers out there” began: “oooooooh ooh oooh ooh, baby, baaaby.” No one else joined us on the dance floor as we swayed slowly.

“It’s like we’re at prom and everyone’s wondering if we do it,” I whispered. Kim wrapped my beads around her neck so that we were linked by a strand of green. When the song ended, we sat back down, but the band switched speeds and kicked into “What I Say,” and Kim took the floor. The lead singer improvised, “See the girl in the black dress on,” which is what Kim had on, so I joined her and we went all out. I was sweating and spinning and we dipped our shoulders in time and laughed and pointed up at the ceiling when the band paused in staccato.

It was a real workout, and when they finished, we made our way to the table, intent on bailing out. Just as I picked up my coat, I noticed newly appointed recovery czar Ed Blakely walk in the door. I recognized him from the UNOP planning meeting a few weeks back, where he’d promised to get things done, claiming to be the only man for the job. It was a heartening rally cry, and he followed it up just a few days ago with a demand that the Louisiana Recovery Authority turn over all funds to him. Blakely has experience in urban design and re-design all over the world, and an air about him that one only finds in maverick politicians or high school teachers. He’s believable and confident, extremely rare in our current landscape.

Anyway, he made his way across the empty dance floor and began to pass our table. I leaned over and shook his hand.

“I just want to wish you good luck,” I said.

“It’s not about luck,” he replied. “it’s about you.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

“We’re not gonna take the same old easy shortcut in New Orleans,” he said, or something very close to this—it was loud and it’s late as I write this. He seemed ready to talk, slightly angry, perhaps at all this revelry when the job in front of him is so enormous. I hope he stays in town, but like everything else, that’s up in the air.

“You just be you,” he said, finger pointing at me.

I asked if he’d take a picture with Kim, he complied, and I snapped the above shot. Blakely moved on and we were about to exit when the band started up with “Hey Pocky-Way,” as grand an anthem as there is, made famous by the Meters. Suddenly many of the folks who’d sat out the earlier numbers took to the dance floor and soon we were all strutting in time. In a piece of self-promotion, the lead singer broke things down to tell us that they were “The Perfect Blend,” and had us chant “perfect,” and then “blend.” Then he called out a verse about Katrina not stopping no second line. I figured the exit was near, so Kim and I headed towards the back of the room. Seated in the last table next to the door was one Jonathan Bender, a former NBA player from New Orleans. I knew this cause the band had called him out earlier, and when we passed I said what’s up.

In the hallway we picked up a couple more drinks and stood at one of the tables. After a few minutes, Bender passed by and I told him I wrote for a certain basketball magazine, and we’d been wondering where he’d been. He said he’d been around, doing all kinds of things, including starting a foundation. He didn’t have a website yet so I gave him my card and said stay in touch. Seemed like a really nice kid who’s hopefully enjoying the millions from his guaranteed contract. Bender is 6’10” and it was dizzying to look all the way up to talk to him, especially since I was a little drunk at this point.

We decided to walk back downstairs and made our way onto the front porch, where a set of bleachers looked down on the passing Muses parade. It was still cold as hell and we went back inside after catching a few beads. We stood around in one of the smaller rooms and Kim decided she’d take a boa from the mantle above an extinct fireplace. When she tried to do this, the entire thing slid of the mantle, all 18 feet of it. She retrieved it, wrapped the whole thing around her shoulders, turning into a beautiful bird, and we walked upstairs, where not a whole lot was going on.

Finally we exited. St. Charles was a vacant mess, plastic bags and empty cups blowing in the cold wind. We watched as the clean up crews crept along, lights of their trucks flashing slowly as they picked up beer cans and broken beads. Food stands stood shuttered, their crews milling around under flood lamps.

Mardi Gras sure is underway, alright.