All On a Mardi Gras Day

March 2, 2006

Given, O Best Beloveds, that this actually concerns several days of Carnival, not just Mardi Gras itself, and consequently will be very long, with more bead porn than food porn, though some of that, too, you may not wish to wade through it all. If so, here, before you move on, are the statistical highlights:

Parades seen: 10
Mardi Gras Indian tribes spotted: 3
Meals eaten at Jill and Charles’ house: 5
Number of those meals that were excellent: 5
Zulu coconuts caught: 5 (3 by Mary, 2 by Diana)
Bruises to face sustained by Mary after being decked by Bacchus cup: 1
Sunny beautiful days: 4 out of 6
Hours spent walking or standing on Mardi Gras day: 12 1/2
Times Chuck was asked “Hey Morgus, where’s Chopsley?”: twice per block
Bead count: “Seriously, what are we going to do with this enormous pile of crap?”

So after going to class Tuesday AM, and then racing to chemo (two days early in order to make trip possible), and then doing work, schoolwork, house cleaning and packing on Weds, and then Lisa driving me to class Weds evening, and then flying to NOLA on Thurs, by the time we got to our house and found The Thing That Is Broken This Time (pane of glass in dining room window, plus the heat on the other side), I wasn’t up for much more than eating (sadly mediocre food from a new cafe that took the place of a friend’s coffeehouse) and watching Sasha Cohen get her undeserved silver medal.

But we were up and at it early on Friday, first dealing with Scott, aka Interium Contractor Guy, and then Mike Roofer Guy, climbing on to said brand new roof with same to admire it, only for Scott to find some rotted framing wood that means despite the nice new hurricane proof (we hope) roof we will still have leaks, specifically in Steve’s and my sun room which has gone barely a month without leaking since we bought the place. Sigh. Scott promised to handle it and we have our hopes this will be the final end of drips. Still, the new roof looks purty, and the rest of the renovations are coming along tidily, and within a few weeks, we should be all fixed up, and better than ever.

From there, Steve and I drove out to the Lower 9th Ward, which is not fixed up and is as bad as ever, so he could see it for himself. We even found that exposed closet full of clothes that so moved me back in January with Nettie. I’m sorry, I’m tired and I’m fresh out of words and I’m unable to do this scene justice. Steve found himself helpless as well, pointing out that while one might see this kind of devastation in an area after a vicious tornado, you simply don’t see it for block after block after block, mile after mile after mile. It’s Pompei after the eruption, Dresden after the shelling, the beach villages of Thailand after the tsunami, but this time, it’s here.

It doesn’t seem right, but we drove from there to Central Grocery, for muffalottas, and yet it is right, because on Sept 4, we ate one I found hidden in the back of our freezer, and at the time, I genuinely wondered if that was the last one I would ever eat. And now we had one that was fresh and it tasted just like hope.

There are parades most nights the last couple weeks of Carnival season, and while we missed the delightful Muses on Thursday night, we were determined not to miss a single one thereafter, commencing this Friday with Hermes and the skeleton-based, satirical Krewe D’Etat. After parking at the Chimes B&B (thanks, Jill!), and soon joined by Chuck at the corner of St. Charles and Coliseum, we saw our first Mardi Gras float trundling down the oak canopied St. Charles, beads flung from each side of it, another sight many wondered if they would ever see again. And we all held hands and marveled as the flambeau guys, carrying the gas light torches that used to light the night time parades in the days before electricity, came down the street before the floats once more, too. “We’re BACK!” exclaimed one flambeau carrier, as he slapped his hand against ours. And then the beads started to fly and we forgot all about sentiment and the greatness of the moment as another tradition, burning bead lust, came over us. Oh, the screaming and the shouting and the begging and the “Hey, Mistah, throw me something!! Please, MISTAH!!” it was dreadful, especially since very early on I decided to find a good use for this whole cancer hoohah thing and shamelessly doffed my hat and let my bald head shine away. Hey, I have to compete with the cute kids and busty college girls somehow, and after all, that woman who kept snatching the glass beads (the one time traditional throw way back in the day, making a comeback this year and probably the hot throw of any parade) away from me, didn’t let anything get in the way of her competitive nature (she even came up to me, as I stood there, follicle-free, and gloated “They just gave me an entire pack of glass beads!”) and it’s not like I stood there and shouted “I have cancer! Hello, Cancer Chick here!” I just let them draw their own conclusions and toss me really good beads and stuffed alligators if they felt like it. Which, as it happened, they sometimes did. (And some, especially women, blew me kisses, and I indicated with various gestures that I was fine, and deeply appreciated their good wishes as much as their beads. Though those, too. Hey, that’s a nice strand you got there, hanging on that hook next to you…) The riders were quite generous this year, often heaving whole packs of beads, and you’d think that as each parade ended, and that fog of acquisition cleared and we returned to our senses, that our accumulation would be enough, but no, each and every time, that double whammy of insanity and greed returned and “HEY! Throw me somethin’ pretty, Mistah!” You sit there reading this, and think this would not happen to you, but skipping ahead in our narrative, Diana, who joined us on Saturday, thought that too, said she figured beforehand “Ah, beads, whatever, if I catch some I catch some,” and then promptly lost her mind and her usual grave demeanor, and let the record show that even with my bald head advantage, she got fully as many coveted and amazing throws, such is the power of her beauty and charisma and charm, which is really all you need at a Mardi Gras parade, that, and all loss of pride. And each time a parade would end, and she would think “Seriously, what have I done? Why am I like this?” and then the next one would start and there she’d be, sauntering down to a stalled float, and returning to show off her strand of excellent light up Zulu beads. (And John R, to answer your question, I didn’t give my beads to kids because they had more than I did. We did give pretty much everything we caught at Zulu to kids stuck behind barricades, however. And are bringing the other booty home, as we always do, to give away to everyone we know, starting with my classmates last night and everyone in my chemo room today.)

But all was not just cheap plastic crap (though did I mention it’s glittery?) and Krewe D’Etat was brilliant, with hilarious satirical floats, not one of which I can recall at this moment (I will email if I can track down examples), poking fun at the disaster and, more importantly, the response, and they threw doubloons made out of chocolate (Chocolate City, don’t you know) with pictures of Mayor Nagin’s face on them. Just a delight,and probably the best parade we saw for sheer inventiveness, apart from Mid-City. Also, their medallion throws are gargolyes, and Becca sweetly traded me hers for one of my throws she coveted. At one point, I took a wad of small beads right in the face (riders are sometimes not accurate with their tosses, and also, I’ve never been known for any athletic ability, so catchign is not my forte), and man, if being pepper by beads hurts that much, can you imagine being “peppered” with buckshot?

Afterward, we dispared of finding a place to eat apart from po’boys at the College Inn (not a bad option), but Jill called out to us as we were leaving “What, my gumbo isn’t good enough for you?” Of course it was, we had watched her making a perfect roux earlier, but assumed it was too late. We feasted on andouille and turkey gumbo, and finished up with ice cream (a scoop of chevre and a scoop of hazelnut chocolate for me) at Creole Creamery.

Steve, Diana and I went to Elizabeth’s for a late breakfast on Saturday, to see if it had changed since the new owners. Nope; same exact menu, and so we ate two plates of praline bacon (well, honestly), and another of boudin balls in a creole mustard sauce, and a helping of shrimp quiche and another of excellent and goopy Eggs Bendict and we weren’t a bit sorry. Then we went to the Quarter for a jazz funeral for Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, except it never showed up, so we visited with Joe at Faulkner House, and then ran up to the Chateau Sonesta, where Ann, a local PR gal, had thoughtfully arranged for us to have access to a balcony (and later, a media room with a clean bathroom and food) on Canal, so we could watch Tucks. Endmyion, the super krewe known for their fiber-optic floats, was canceled that night, due to thundestorm threats, and postponed to Sunday night. As Tucks ended, we got a call from Ti (one of a small handful–seriously, maybe as few as three–incoming cell phone calls I got successfully during our stay. Something was screwy with all cells, but especially Verizon, and I often couldn’t call out at all, and most incoming calls were either cut off after 5 seconds, or went straight to voice mail), who was right outside, having riden Iris, the all-women krewe, earlier in the day, accompanied by msot of the riders from her float. We joined up with her hugely hilarious and merry gang and went down Bourbon, where Ti noted the crowd was somehow nicer and jollier than usual, just a better spirit overall, and stopped in at the Absinthe House bar (Ti’s family owned the bar decades ago, and she pointed out the street corner opposite where Louis Armstrong, back in town to be the Zulu King, but not allowed to stay at any hotels because they weren’t yet integrated, played five songs as he practiced for his gig later that night. Someone just turned up with a photo of this extraordinary moment), and then Napoleon’s Itch and finally finished up at Lafitte’s. Along the way, I stopped to play theology student with the Jesus freaks who were harassing the crowds (holding up signs proclaiming God’s hate for various groups, including “Jesus-deniers, abortionists, Muslims, Buddhists and Lazy Christians.” Wow, we said; so if we sleep in and skip the gym, we make Baby Jesus cry!), querying how one can reconcile “God is love” with a God who has a hate list longer than Nixon’s. They were not impressed. Nor was I by them.

As it began to rain, we stopped at Ti’s home so she could change for dinner, and were entertained, in all senses of the word, by her aunt Dotty and mom Ella, who is pretty much a rock star in the foodie world (“You know, that’s Miss Ella Brennan,” I said to Ti, who was aware of it, but not quite as trembling impressed as we were, since it’s her, you know, mom, and all), both fabulous, delightful Southern ladies. (“How did you meet my daughter?” asked Miss Ella. “In a gutter on Bourbon St?” No! I said, shocked. “That’s how I’ve met most of my friends,” she said, and then proceded to explain how, back in the day, the gutters were much lower than street level,and one did in fact sit on Bourbon, feet dangling down, “drinking and carrying on,” as her sister Adelaide might have said, and made many a fine lifelong friend that way.) We could have stayed there all night, charmed to an inch of our lives, but duty beckoned in the form of dinner at Martinique, which has a new owner, and I needed to review it. A nice little crab amuse and decent salads gave way to Ti’s excellent flat iron steak, thick and rare to the point of having an earthy hint rather like venison, Steve’s creole shrimp with mango (a decent replica of a dish from the previous regime), and Diana’s nicely done pork medallions with a too salty sauce, excellent the situation with my salmon.

Sunday morning, Diana and Steve went to view the Lower 9th, Diana’s first view of it, which went as you might expect. THe parades were starting early, and going late, that day, so we headed back to the Chimes, where Jill set out a make-your-own-po-boy lunch spread, and we kibbutzed as she prepared a Martha Stewart-style mac and cheese. Then it was the Krewe of Mid-City, which, even though it’s our own neighborhood, we had never seen before (they were parading in Uptown because all parades had been moved to the same route, to make secuirty and other issues easier). Their theme was “Rode Hard and Put Away Wet,” (mid-City got clobbered by the flooding) and each float’s bottom was covered witih blue tarp, while floats themselves sported Katrina themes (spoiled fridges, MRE’s, inept government–you can read about them at their web site if the link worked) with jokes galore written on the signs that covered each float. Wonderful stuff, and a new favorite.

hat evening was the two super Krewes, Bacchus, known for its celebrity riders and fancy floats (Wizard of Oz theme, not altered in the least for post-disaster irony) and the aforementioned Endymion. We stood with a post-grad party-hearty threesome who were devotees of the city, who had purchased a condo on St. Charles just for this purpose (parade-watching) and were dubious of us at first but later decided, drunkenly and yet sincerely (because we didn’t get in their way, and shared what we caught), we were their new best friends. (The guy in the group told us he had down a number of the Race for the Cures, and was worried about me, sweet thing.) Bacchus was terribly stingy with throws early on, causing a near-altercation as one float stopped in front of us for awhile, and not a strand was thrown, prompting one man, despite having his daughter on his shoulders, at first to sarcastically taunt them (“That’s right, why throw? That’s not why you are here!”) and then to pound the float, and then get pissed off at Chuck when he gently suggested he might stop that, and then get dragged off by his friends before he could follow that up with punches. I mention this only because it was the only time, all raucous weekend long, that we met anyone even remotely bad tempered or nasty.

But Bacchus got into the groove eventually, soon showering the crowd with treats, perhaps too energetically, as one plastic cup went WHAM! right into my upper lip (I do think some riders were aiming at my bald head. Well, it does present a target!), raising first a nice lump and then later said bruise. (Still present today.) Sheesh. I just started to duck when the stuff came really raining down. Later, during Endymion, a woman watching the parade handed me her excellent Katrina themed beads, surely the best throw I got all weekend, and I felt so guiltily grateful that I stopped begging for beads, only to discover that if I stood there quietly, I apparently looked even more pitiful, with the result that I was handed even more stuff. Who knew? (Either that or I presented an appealing alternative to the begging and pleading all around.) Here I point out that the crowds were so enormous that night that they extended back over the entire stretch of St. Charles, and none other than Mardi Gras historian and expert Arthur Hardy declared it perhaps the biggest crowd ever. So I don’t really know what the hell the media thinks when it says the crowds were thin this year. They certainly weren’t thin when we tried to get throws. Or go to a restaurant. Or drive anywhere popular. And don’t even think about parking. We finished up the long long day and night with that mac and cheese, and it was so crusty and good….

Monday was spent at home, apart from a Nor-Joe’s deli run for their muffulotta’s and also a supply of their superb homemade meatballs, and two trays of lasagna, that we might contribute to Jill rather than continue to just freeload off her kitchen. We worked on our Mardi Gras costumes much of the day; “Every year, for Carnival time, we make a new suit,” we hummed happily. Diana intended to come as Brittany Spears’ baby, complete with a simulation of the front seat of an SUV, but the components didnt’ arrive before she had to leave to come to NOLA, so she contented herself with a gold lame shirt, Dios De Los Muertos mask and top hat, and looked fantastic. Chuck recreated local NOLA TV personality and scientist Morgus (sort of like the NOLA Elvira), while Steve ahd a shirt printed up that read “FEMA promised me a costume,” and added a Mardi Gras colored painter’s mask and goggles. I took a handyperson’s coveralls, and put spots of black and green paint, plus dyed fuzz and black fluff balls, all over it, then made a head topping of styrofoam glittered up to look like gold nuggets, and added a sign declaring the mess “The Mold Rush of ’06.” It looked like a third grader’s art project. That night was Orpheus, the last super krewe, and the crowds were thinner than the previous night, but then again, it was now Monday and a lot of people had returned home after the weekend, not being from places that, like New Orleans, shut down for Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras. At one point, the largest float of all of the parades stopped for upwards of half an hour in front of us (a previous float had knocked down a power line) and the riders were so generous and nice, that the crowd actually got sated and stopped asking for stuff. “Best float ever! Best float ever!” we all chanted when they finally got under way again and left. I got such excellent throws, I actually experienced bead fatigue and took myself to the back of the crowd, away from the action. NOr-Joe’s meatballs and sauce, tasting like the best spaghetti of my childhood (and thus, my favorite comfort food) ended the evening perfectly.

Finally, it’s Mardi Gras morning, a glorious day that could not have been more perfectly beautiful, a warm but not hot sun, a sky lightly spotted with distant languorous clouds, and one does have to wonder if our God-Hates-You pals back in the quarter didn’t wonder that if God was going to destroy New Orleans with a hurricane, wouldn’t Mardi Gras, center of all devil-delighting debauchery, have been a good day to pick? Or is it possible that God likes a good celebration more than those guys might want think? Anyway, we got up at 6am to head out to the Treme, because we had been told the Mardi Gras Indians (click on that web site to get a sense of what these guys look like, especially their suits, and their cultural history) would be at St. Augustine’s Church at 5:30am. (“Do you believe that?” I asked the woman who told me this, the Indians not known for being reliable, or anything like morning people. “No, I do not,” she said, amused.) But we got there before 7, and damned if the Congo Nation wasn’t outside drumming and chanting. They went over to the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, and shout/chanted in a way that was as much exorcism as it was celebration. And then, through the front doors of the church, a lion skin was carried out as a litter and the doorway was filled with what I first thought was an enormous Christmas tree (“This late? That large” I thought, confused) but instead proved to be Big Chief Donald Harrison in the most magnificent enormous feathered Mardi Gras Indian suit we had ever seen. “I AM….the Big Chiiiiieeeeef…of the Congo Na-SHUN!!” he shouted, and our hearts went into our throats and stayed there. And he came through the crowd, parading, and the Bone Men, the Indians who dress up like Day of the Dead Skeletons, came up and challenged him. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, you betta straighten up before you come see us!” their chief chanted, to which Big Chief replied, “I say Jock-a-mo-fee-ni-nay, this is MARDI GRAS DAY!” And the Bone Men left, as the crowd, full of costumed revelers and too many photographers, went wild.

Deeply moved and supremely joyous, we walked (about three miles) from the Treme to the portion of St. Charles under the freeway, in order to watch Zulu with their real local people, which is to say, local black people, the one element that was notably diminished this Mardi Gras, which is why the return of the Indians is so important and moving, a small gesture of defiant survival that we hope is just the beginning. This route took us strolling right up through St. Charles, lined on each side with families and others, basking in the celebration, and we got stopped at least once a blcok by people who wanted to take our photo (people were delighted by by silly pun and costume), or locals shouting “Hey Morgus!” to Chuck, though one guy who was also dressed as Morgus did not seem pleased at the competition, and lead to our suspecion that it was, in fact, the real Morgus. Chuck stayed in character the whole time, explaining, when asked, that his sidekick Chopsley was “back in the lab. THere was an experiment that went a bit…wrong.” We saw people with hats made to look like FEMA blue tarped roofs, and spoiled fridges (complete with mold and list of contents: “Spoiled shrimp”, “ecoli ersters”), a number of Hersey’s kisses and chocolate bars, two people wearing a sort of skirt made to look like a peaked roof, as if they were sitting on it, folks dressed as MRE’s (with disaster themed meal contents), and best of all, the Heckuvajob Brownies, complete with their little brown skirts and beanies, and sashes full of merit badges for such activities as “Mold Irradication” and “Liquor Consumption.” There was a whole family dressed for the “Life Aquatic” called for during the flooded days, as they rowed themselves out down the (now-dry) boulevard, and another man garbed in black, with signs explaining the various kinds of mold that was part of his make up. We posed for a photo together, and ran away screaming when bottles of bleach appeared. Steve’s costume was challenged by the box-wearing man who had a sign that said “My costume was looted.” Diana met up with a full skeleton crew and they bowed to each other. By the time we took up our positions for Zulu, plenty of clever costumes were going by, and plenty of photos were taken, including one of me perched on the curb, by an AP photographer, who could not know that I was called some days before by her own bureau for a pre-Mardi Gras quote, and would be called again later that day for a post-game-show quote.

Zulu ran late, and broke down about 57 times, so the whole thing took about 87 hours or so, but even so, we had a fine time ferrying beads to the kids in the back, dancing to Rebirth when they came through and chatting with the locals. I brought along three pint bottles of whiskey and vodka, figuring I could use them to score three coconuts and share them with Chuck and Diana, but the latter got two on her own without need for trades or bribes, though CHuck was routinely passed over for pretty much everyone around him (“Guess they aren’t Morgus fans,” he said, understandably dejected) so I did give him one of my three (one simply from begging rather than bribing). The last bottle I took over to a float during yet another parade stoppage, and futilely tried to catch the eye of a guy up top who was wearing a pair of the Zulu face beads I coveted. “What you want, baby?” asked a nice lady, and I told her I wanted to trade my bottle for his beads. “Okay, then,” she said and she and her friend began yelling LOUD, I mean, LOUD, and they got him to look, and we made our gestures, and the deal was struck, to his great amusement. Cheers went up from the crowd as the trade was made, and I kissed my loud lady friends, and Zulu Rider then had the three of us pose for a photograph, and I don’t know which of the four of us was happiest.

Post-Zulu, we walked back to Canal and gratefully used our bathroom and media room before chasing down the art-intensive Society fo St. Ann and their spectacular, Renaissance style, glittery costumes, true carnival spirit, parading with them for a bit, and then watching Rex in the hot sun. I asked an 82 year old lady who lost everything if she ever considered not coming back. “Oh, no,” she said, as if it was the strangest thing she had ever heard, and she is rebuilding and looking forward to her FEMA trailer. From there, we carted our bags of booty and weary selves back to the Treme, stopping for more costume photos (of others and posing ourselves), where we found the Mandinka Warriors chanting “fi yi yah” in full suits, ones they had to make (normally, these elaborate beaded and feathred works of art are a year long effort, from Ash Wednesday to the night before Mardi Gras, but many of the suits were lost in the disaster) just during the last six months. Another tribe, the Yellow Comanches, turned up, spy boy at the front, and the moment they stopped in the street, and spread their purple and yellow wings, just like a peacock strutting his stuff and claiming his territory, made me burst into tears. They met up and chanted each other down, and then the Mandika Big Chief took a microphone and began chanting “it’s not about race, it’s not about color, it’s about coming home together!” as his tribe kept chanting “Come home, come home,” and hte Chief said “Neither rain nor hail nor storm can keep Fi Yi Yah from coming HOME!” And the Chief came down and said “MORGUS!” and posed for a photo with Chuck, while Harry, who we ran into and exclaimed together over the beauty and grace and spirit of the day, told him how very very pretty he was, the best compliment one can give an Indian. Then I spoke to the men from another tribe who turned up, and asked about their suits, and they said “We stood on this corner and we said `We are going to do this come hell or high water,” and damn, the high water came!” Their suits were in their closets, just above the flood lin, so nothing of real value to them was lost, and that made everything okay for them. “And we are going to get our city back,” another said. And it was magic, just magic.

And it wasn’t done. Back at the car, we met a little old lady, Miss Doris, 82 years old, who lives in an 1850’s house on Esplanade and as we admired her genteel decayed archetypal mansion, she invited us in to look around. She showed us family daguerreotypes of “Grandfather Clark,” and family members who came to the US on the ship after the Mayflower. And she said “I spent 40 days in exile, at my son’s brand new Dallas house, and all I kept saying was `I want to come HOME.'” Because there it is, young and old, black and white, one in her house and one in the street outside, both saying the same thing. Home is here.

From there, we walked to the Marigny, to the ecstatic party on Frenchmen, a whirl of costumed dancers spinning with a joy just this side of madness. By now, though, I was felled with a sick-making headache (too much hot sun, I think) and had to lie on a porch and whimper instead of checking out one of my favorite Mardi Gras moments, which meant I missed seeing Alexandra, the prettiest orange and lavender fairy ever, and who I had missed connecting with on the trip, and who was dancing not far away. Bless their hearts, Diana and Chuck agreed to give up photographing around 6pm, and took me home for some needed medication, and then we all went off fro one last Charles and Jill dinner, where Jill wrapped me up on her window seat and fed me bread until my nausea stopped and head felt normal, and then we feasted on Nor-Joe’s meat lasagna and Charles artful salad and traded stories with the Reuters folks who stay there.

And it was a day, a perfect, perfect day.

Then we flew home on Ash Wednesday, and were upgraded to first class because they liked the cut of our jibe, and I drove out to my evening class, and promptly got a flat tire, because the balance between dharma and adharma must always be maintained. And Steve’s t shirt costume was mentioned in a Chicago Tribune story and shown on Channel 7 here in LA, and I was quoted by the AP ( trying to explain that, seriously, there were plenty of people down here for the festivities, and stop it already with trying to make Mardi Gras into what you wanted, but let it be what it is. Which is magnificent.

And then today, I called my chemo nurse and admitted I had no time to get my weekly pre-chemo blood test and she agreed to let me off the hook this one time. “Except, you are feeling all right?” she asked.

“Yes. Oh, yes, yes,” I said.

If you go to New Orleans, you ought to go see the Mardi Gras*,