Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 2006)
Our tipsy author, right, with fellow revelers at the Rex Parade, Mardi Gras morning.
Weird Shit’s Still Going Down: Notes From Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2006
By Gabe Soria
I’ve been in love with New Orleans since the day in May, 1993 when I first set foot on its soil. Since then, I’ve been a resident of the city three times and have gone back over and over when I wasn’t. Mardi Gras, for all its faults and gross public image, is important to New Orleans residents and expatriates alike, so when the chance came to visit my city for the first time after Katrina during Carnival, I jumped at it, but not without some second-guessing trepidation. What follows are rough impressions of my experience being back in town from Saturday, February 25 through Mardi Gras to March 1, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent…
Disembarking from the plane and already the Twilight Zone schisms from reality are apparent. This scene happens in the first couple minutes of the episode, the part right before the credits when the Rod Serling voice-over comes in and lets the viewing audience know that some crazy shit is about to go down. What’s Louis Armstrong International without its perpetually open souvenier stands and ersatz French Quarter bars? Too much like the Salt Lake City airport, that’s what. Outgoing passengers ain’t got nowhere to buy their last minute cans of Tony Chachere’s seasoning, authentic cookbooks or Hurricane mix. Incoming passengers don’t have anything, except for the baggage claim, and that is hardly a picnic. Everybody seems a bit hunted, a bit guilty.
Nothing makes you realize how much you’ve given up until someone’s taken away the lights, and the “Arriving Flights” underpass of Louis Armstrong International is a third world kick in the nuts: the absence of ambient light is palpable, and the illumination provided by taxis, shuttles and pick-up cars feels like interrogation by headlight. At the same time, though, it’s kinda eerily beautiful, as though everything is powered by steam and gaslight. We hear later that they’re still working to restore normal power. The airport of a major American city still doesn’t have full power six months after a disaster? What the fuck is going on here, I ask myself, resigning myself to joining the chorus of people asking that same question.
The town is aswarm with bootleg political shirts, jockeying for space in Decatur Street tourists shops with your typical novelty T-shirts about states of tequila intoxication. Most of these shirts feature embattled mayor Ray Nagin in Photoshopped Willy Wonka drag, making some sort of sport about his now infamous Martin Luther King Day “Chocolate City” speech, possibly the biggest effect a George Clinton song’s ever had on the political scene. React how you want to the speech—reading a transcript in retrospect, it’s obvious to this writer at least that Mr. Nagin’s frustration with his black contemporaries left him feeling a bit loose at the mouth, but I ain’t mad at him—you can’t help but realize that there’s a little bit of smug racism at the core of the these shirt’s makers, that they finally feel justified at putting the screws to a black mayor who, admittedly, said some dumb-ass shit. But then I realize an important fact: I don’t think I’d ever really want to hang out with someone who wears their politics, left or right or straight up centrist, on their literal shirt-sleeve. I mean, I’m all for band t-shirt propaganda, but this? Nah. One T-shirt maker has gone the extra satire mile, though: for sale at the Circle Bar are “Ernie K-Doe for Mayor” tees, featuring the smiling face of the late and lamented Emperor of the Universe. Bumper stickers can be had, too. One drunken night, I find myself fervently wishing that K-Doe wins in a write in. In the storied history of corrupt Louisiana politics, the election of a deceased and much loved R&B singer has got to be an improvement.
Chased on a Bike
Weird shit’s still going down, though. On a perfectly fine afternoon, the wife and I mount bikes to ride down to a parade to meet a friend. Normally, yours truly is a bit more savvy about the safe routes to travel, but the hurricane-depleted lack of population has thrown me for a loop. Why not take a jaunt down a clear street a block closer to the river? The answer becomes clear when we make a left on Josephine Street towards St. Charles. A group of kids—12 to 14, black—are hanging out in front of a corner grocery/liquor store and begin shouting out warnings about how “Y’all don’t know where you ridin'”, etc., etc., and one kid’s bold enough to do a little mock run after the wife, who’s trailing behind on a too-small borrowed bike. The kid’s pursuit is half-assed, and he stops almost as soon as he starts, but it’s a neon-lights reminder that New Orleans is still a fucked-up place, race-wise.
In fact, this little incident is an anomaly. While statistics may not prove me right, the general impression one gets during Mardi Gras is of détente, peace. Sure, fratboys might get beaten down by cops along Bourbon Street after one Huge-Ass beer too many, but for the rank and file of the city, a “we’re all in this together and ain’t it fine” feeling pervades, usually. If you say “Happy Mardi Gras,” to anybody, they respond in kind, and mean it. But this little incident… well, they’re kids, so it doesn’t really mean much. It means that they’re acting like they think they’re supposed to act; it means that they actually think that their corner store is something to be protected; it means that they’ve learned that being young and black and aggressive can freak the fuck out of people going about their own business. Still, it’s days before I can stop picturing kicking the kid’s head in if he tried to touch the wife, and my subsequent murder at the hands of his numerous cronies. Yikes.
The 9th Ward Marching Band
Not that it needed saving by anybody, but the wife’s and my Mardi Gras is definitely given a soul-rousing boost by seeing the Mr. Qunitron-led 9th Ward Marching Band parade with the Krewe of Proteus on Lundi Gras night. For the uninitiated, Quintron and his wife Ms. Pussycat were and remain the owners and operators of the Spellcaster Lodge, a house/venue located on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. They’re both musicians, as well as puppeteers. Long time fixtures of the weird underground of New Orleans, they’re more like good spirit elementals rather than impeccably dressed scenesters, which they are as well. The 9th Ward Marching Band started as a loose-knit, almost renegade marching assemblage, but over the years they’ve gotten their weird act together, and while sharp and somewhat professional, they still make the squares nervous. While watching them march in their smart red and white outfits, playing “Rock me Like a Hurricane,” I notice that the crowd lining the parade route is going BANANAS for them. Everybody can feel that this ain’t no sarcastic, ironic hipster bulllshit—it’s true American weirdness and beauty at its finest. But you can also tell that they make some folks delightfully nervous. This can probably be best attributed to the bands in-between, resting music. When there’s a lull in their routine and things calm down, the 9WMB’s glockenspiel players start tapping out the theme from the slasher film “Halloween,” with the tubas coming in every now and then to deliver an ominous “bruuummmmmm.” It’s the film score equivalent of the fabled brown sound—you can tell by the looks on people’s faces that they recognize the minor key tune, and they like it, but don’t like it at the same time. It’s a brilliant moment, and I want to buy whoever thought of it a beer or ten.
The Dead Zone
The night of Lundi Gras finds the wife and I and our friends Judson and Courtney taking a shortcut on a drive downtown to hit a Quintron/Peaches show. The shortcut takes us through the area of town known and Mid-City, where Courtney lived previous to Katrina. Her new home features a handful of possessions salvaged from her house and cleaned of mold, but she’s basically begun anew. But driving through her old neighborhood… yikes. Once you get a few blocks off St. Charles, heading away from the river, a frightening change takes over the streets. They’re empty. They’re dark. Everything looks haunted and miserable. A few FEMA trailers are parked here and there, and on occasion someone seems to have managed to get a porch light working, but on the whole, it feels as if we’ve driven directly in a George Romero zombie flick. Any moment now I expect to see a shambling corpse slouch into the street, attempting to suck the brains out of our car’s passengers. No such thing happens, of course, but I am glad when we eventually make a right turn onto relatively populated, lighted Esplanade. The fact that a few moments earlier I was half-joking about wishing I was armed with a shotgun kinda makes me want to cry. I’ve NEVER wanted a gun in New Orleans, not even in my worse moments.
Mardi Gras Day (and on into the night)
Mardi Gras morning rolls around and all seems to be aback to normal in the city, at least for a few hours. Working on a few hours of sleep, the wife and I roll out of bed and into our costumes (I’m going as a jerk dressed in a jumpsuit and furry cap; the wife’s going the classy route by masquerading as a magical French schoolgirl). Walking over to St. Charles, we begin to see a parade of friends walk by; everybody seems to be well on their way to drunk before noon, but nobody’s got a mean buzz on. It’s all hugs, everywhere. Families lining the filthy parade route in their chairs and ladders look bleary-eyed and happy. When Rex starts to roll, you see people catching beads… and handing them to little old ladies and kids next to them. Everybody’s saying, “Hey, darlin’,” and “Excuse me,” and you’d be hard-pressed to spot your usual line of sweaty guys being led plastic-cuffed into a paddywagon (though I’m sure it’s happening somewhere—you can’t buck tradition in one year). The hours melt away—at one point, the wife and I are eating hamburgers with friends, the next, we’re at our home base eating red beans and rice cooked with a nice hamhock, the next, we’re being dropped off downtown. But by the time the Morning 40 Federation hits the stage at Checkpoint Charlie’s for their annual Mardi Gras night show, as the festival comes to its natural inevitable end, the feeling in the air is undeniably powerful, completely ecstatic. You can feel the desperate urge in the club to let loose, to raise one’s arms high above and scream. And as the Federation lurches into their first amplified ode to boozing and 9th Ward living, everybody in the room does exactly that. I’m grinning from ear to ear—it’s the feedback and the beer, most definitely—but it’s also the hope and love I’m seeing right now, that I’ve seen all weekend. Sure, folks are cynical and tired, but they still believe, much more so than I think anybody else in any city would or could, for they know that’s there’s an ineffable something to New Orleans, something that just can’t and won’t quit, ever.