March 02, 2006

Lent is here, but oh what a Mardi Gras

When we made the decision, in spring of 2000, to move to New Orleans so that I could begin my doctoral studies, I thought that we'd be overrun with visitors. Who wouldn't want to come to New Orleans? I had friends from college visit me in Milwaukee. We had friends come down from Milwaukee to Texas when we lived there. So it only seemed that since we were moving to one of the most, if not THE most, interesting and different city in America, we would have plenty of visitors. I especially expected hordes of friends, like Visigoths tasting the delights of Rome for the first time, to pour out of the hinterlands of America and beat down our doors during Mardi Gras.

It never happened.

Sure, we had friends visit us. But fewer than I expected. And none, absolutely none, during Mardi Gras. My mom and sister visited us during the other New Orleans event, Jazzfest, once. And that was it.

I was puzzled. Why didn't people want to come see us in New Orleans, during one of the most different celebrations in America?

I got hints here and there. Slowly it became clear to me. Mardi Gras in New Orleans was associated with big crowds of young people participating in licentious behavior. My friends, in their mid-30s, didn't see anything in it for them. Their exposure to Mardi Gras consisted of brief television pictures of college-aged kids cavorting half naked on Bourbon Street, flashing various body parts at each other for cheap sets of beads. I even heard of a teacher in a northern state getting upset at a young girl who went to visit her relatives in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and who brought back beads to give to her classmates. This teacher snatched the beads away, according to the story, and made a reference to the disgusting things that are done to get beads.

My exposure to Mardi Gras was different. I first had to learn that Mardi Gras was just one day out of a Carnival season. Technically beginning on January 6th, Carnival continues until Ash Wednesday, serving as a time when one gets all their sensual pleasures out of the way before beginning the Lenten atonement before Easter. I had known about Carnival the way it was celebrated in Europe, having been in Germany during the Carnival season, but I hadn't equated New Orleans Carnival celebrations with Europe's. But, like Europe's Carnival, New Orleans Carnival season consists of balls and parades, especially in the last two weeks before Ash Wednesday.

I also learned that the questionable behavior of Bourbon Street was something that locals STAY AWAY FROM. In fact, if you're a local, you're kind of embarassed to be on Bourbon Street. Filled with everything that appeals to tourists shedding their normal lives for a brief time, such as T-shirt shops, strip clubs, bars that serve "Huge-Ass Beers" or "Hand Grenades," Bourbon is often jammed with visitors, not people who live in the city. And during Carnival, this is doubly true.

What I discovered was that the true Carnival, away from Bourbon Street, consists of many different traditions and cultures, all of which provide reasons for and strengthen family bonding, and bind average New Orleanians to their city. Over the four years I lived there, I took in parades uptown with local families, their children excitedly waving from step ladders along the sidewalks and neutral grounds, watching contendedly the beautifully ornate floats gliding by, catching beads without having to give up anything in return (and sometimes the beads were quite creative and beautiful). I attended balls, including some with some licentiousness, but all in good fun (like the MOMS ball, where you show up in a costume fitting the theme and hope that it is judged adequate, or you show up naked, to get in). I listened to the music, and became amazed at the breadth and life of the city's musical scene. Like Christmas, which has a canon of traditional and modern carols, hymns and songs, Mardi Gras has inspired a whole canon of its own music, which is played almost non-stop in the week leading up to Mardi Gras.

So it was with only slight hesitations that we made plans to go to this, the first Mardi Gras after Katrina. Many in the rest of the country may have wondered why New Orleans would throw a party so soon after so many died and so many others lost everything. Why would a city, bankrupted by nature and the folly and neglect of governments from the federal on down to the local, spend money it didn't have to provide this bacchanalian orgy? To us, it was perfectly clear. Without Carnival, without Mardi Gras, the city would lose its soul, not to mention an economic shot in the arm from tourists. And so we went.

And it was a PERFECT Mardi Gras. The parades, smaller than in years past because most of the high school bands that participated were absent because the children still have not returned to the city and their high schools, still had us enthralled, hoping to catch the eye of a woman or man on a float and get a good set of beads. Fat Tuesday itself was warm and sunny, and the Zulu parade, the biggest predominantly black parade, actually had real Zulus from South Africa marching with them! The French Quarter, away from Bourbon Street, was filled with locals in costume (as we were) walking around and mingling, dancing to real and imagined music filling the air. The Jesus freaks who come down to harangue Mardi Gras revelers and denounce New Orleans as both Sodom and Gomorrah combined held their tongues and demonstrated quietly in Jackson Square. Just off the French Quarter, on Frenchmen Street, a crowd of costumed locals danced to latin salsa outside Cafe Brazil.

The city is not back to itself. One need only go to the destruction of the Ninth Ward, where right next to the levee breach the blocks for at least a half mile around look as if a nuclear bomb were dropped, to know that New Orleans will never be the same. One need only go to the eerie quiet streets and houses of Lakeview, by the other levee breach, to know that the city is not the same. In fact, these areas feel like graveyards, and probably should be treated as such (unlike the idiots who we saw open a strong box sitting by the side of a Ninth ward street and take out watches that were in it). But, the culture is alive. Mardi Gras Indian tribes, those groups of black families who mask and costume in amazing plumage and beads and meet in the streets to boast and parade, were still roaming the avenues and byways of New Orleans, even in the Ninth ward, on Mardi Gras. These people were forced from their homes, and in many cases still have not returned permanently, nor do they know if they ever will, but they came back to continue the tradition. Brass bands, those unique New Orleans amalgamations of marching band and hip hop performers, many trying to make it in other various venues around the country, came back to perform in nightclubs and march in the parades.

But for me, the true spirit of Mardi Gras came at the end of a long day. Megan and I, and our friend Elizabeth, on the way to our costumed wanderings in the French Quarter, stopped to get some red beans and rice in the Treme, the neighborhood just to the west of the French Quarter. As we rounded the corner, our red beans and rice in hand, we happened upon another little kitchen set up at a private home. They were serving ribs and chicken and corn on the cob, and Elizabeth was tempted. She ate some and loved it. On the way back, some five hours later, tired from walking and maybe a little tipsy from alcohol, we stopped again on the way back to our car. The owner, a man who neighbors called Peanut, and his wife Sharon served us up a plate of ribs, dirty rice, crab-boiled chicken, and some cold wine for $7.00 apiece. They were happy we came back, and Peanut explained that every day they cooked these plates for crews that were helping rebuild New Orleans. He told us that if there was food left, he took it around to neighborhoods and gave it away. He said that God was good to them, and they wanted to share his goodness with others. With a hug and a God-bless you, he sent us on our way, full and contented.

I would ask you, please remember New Orleans, and most of all, remember the Mardi Gras spirit and culture it possesses. It may seem foreign to you, and you may want to judge it. But if you spend some time there, you'll be surprised at just how deep and important it is to the city and its people, and how unique it is to America. If New Orleans is to ever come back, it needs Mardi Gras.


Blogger Mary B. said...

I'm glad that Mardi Gras lives on, better than ever.

p.s. prepare to be flogged for changing the 's' to a 'z'.

7:47 PM  
Blogger typingelbow said...

I came home to NYC to find a snowstorm brewing. Oh, New Orleans, I miss you. Someday, I'll swap my moisturizer for sunscreen and move back to my adopted home.

1:11 PM  

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