A Very Different Mardi Gras

13 05 2011

My first visit to New Orleans was in November 2006, just about a year after the 2005 hurricane season changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, forever. I am not sure if that is why, or perhaps there’s another deeper reason, but I have always held a very special place in my heart for this city. I never knew the completely carefree New Orleans of bachelorette parties, Bourbon Street and what I thought Mardi Gras was all about, drinking to excess and lots of gratuitous nudity. Instead the New Orleans I found was wounded but fiercely proud, still fragile but resilient.

On my first visit I was struck by how amazingly open people were. Many had just returned to the city and I quickly found that if you asked about the hurricane they would willingly share their story, and EVERYONE had a story. I heard from restaurateurs about the temperatures that soared without power, food liquefying and destroying the walk-in refrigerators to the point that the entire ground beneath had to be irradiated and removed. I heard about a man whose family works for a large luxury hotel as a manager. He expected that it would be fun time staying in the hotel during the hurricane with family, but when the windows began to blow in they were evacuated to the ballroom, only to be at the last minute pulled away from her colleagues and sent to the Superdome. There he witnessed things he could not talk about. I sat in awe as story after story flowed from them with sincerity and a matter of fact candor that was surprising to me. There were moments of anger, tales of unresponsiveness and unfair circumstances, FEMA trailers, poverty and incredible loss. Hair whitened by trauma, souls forever scarred by pure terror, and the worst, the sense of abandonment, that they were the forgotten by this nation. I always like to dig deeply into anyplace I visit, but I was timid when I asked the oyster shucker at Destiny if he thought I should go and see the damage, I did not want to treat this disaster as if it were an attraction to go and see, but I truly wanted to understand. I was stunned at how quickly he answered, saying emphatically that I should go. On the way to the airport before I left New Orleans that first time I arranged for the taxi to take me to see what had happened.

Lenox Chatmon picked me up at my hotel and opened the door for me, but instead I got in the front seat of his taxi. I once again checked to see if this journey of mine was an acceptable request and Lenox began his explanation of all that had happened in the days of Hurricane Katrina, the days following and the subsequent Hurricane Rita. We first descended on the 9th Ward where I was absolutely stunned to see that a year later most of the destruction was still very much visible. Stairs to nowhere, cars underneath houses, fences twisted like tin foil scraps and throughout the area spray paint that very bluntly described what had happened here. Everywhere a sense of desolation, an incredible sense of quiet laid heavy in the air, even though the heat of November is less oppressive than normal. It was hard not to cry as complete and utter disbelief grabbed a hold of me. The amazing thing was as we wrapped up our short tour of the 9th Ward I expected we were headed to the airport, but in fact there was more. Much more. Over the next hour and a half Lenox showed me more and more neighborhoods, some with worse wind damage, others with damage from water, and water lines visible on the sides of the buildings. Every now and then you would see life, a family or two on their porch in the midst of abandoned houses for what seemed (and likely was) like miles.

Upon arriving at the airport I broke down, and from then on New Orleans has been stuck firmly in my heart. Every time I return I feel a stronger connection, but who would have thought that what seems to be its most flashy, showy, touristy festival would hit me with such power and intensity that I would once again be moved to tears (actually multiple times) by the incredible connection and love that New Orleans has shown me.

Flights for Mardi Gras book up fast, so I had to fly in later than I had hoped. All my friends, and even my brother who had opted to come, had already arrived. They were busy grabbing beads at the Bacchus parade as I landed at Louis Armstrong International with way too much luggage and a bag housing a huge tail of purple feathers for my purple peacock costume. Amazing how nice people are to you when you have a crazy feathered tail as part of your carry-on luggage. Luckily the cab line was short and traffic was semi-manageable as I made my way towards the Wyndham Baronne Plaza Hotel, just outside the French Quarter. There would have been no way to get my luggage to my place with the hoards of crowds on Canal Street, even still the cab had to drop me a few blocks away. As I was on the way to meet up with my friends for pizza at Sugar Park I figured it would be imperative for me to check out the festivities just a block or so away from my hotel, maybe just peek around the corner to see the parade. I quickly found that the crowds are insane, my quick foray becoming about a half hour trip to walk one block where at times my feet were barely in contact with the ground, which was slick with alcohol, slippery beads and some other unsavory and thankfully unidentifiable substances. As I rounded the bend and began a long search for a taxi I was beginning to worry that we had made a very bad decision to come during Mardi Gras. Thousands of people gathering to grab a few plastic beads?

I was relieved when I walked into Sugar Park, a cozy little building in what seemed like the middle of nowhere that offers pizza and is BYOB. My friends Andrew, a local and Julie, my roomie for the weekend from SF, and a new friend visiting, Krista, were there in good spirits, dripping in beads. Our other SF contingent, Kimberly and Killian had opted to save their energy for the next day, brother Omar and friend Katie from SF and her cousin Marissa were impossible to contact (phone service is very difficult during Mardi Gras, texts don’t work either) so it was just four of us. Food was waiting, but they had finished most of the wine that they’d brought so I headed to the small market across the street to grab some Abita Amber, and was starting to feel human again as I ate and tried to catch up and listened to their accounts of the parade. I went to Mardi Gras with very little of an agenda, only to dress as Sagittarius for the Society of St. Anne’s parade, and also to join in on the purple party on Lundi Gras, as a purple peacock. I had heard about the purple party from both a friend of a friend and a very close friend, Jane, thinking that the two parties were one in the same, but I had very little information.

“So what’s the deal with this purple party anyway?” Andrew said just a little loudly for the tiny restaurant and its 10 diners…
“Well I know it’s some time tomorrow but I really do not have any information about it, I figure I will hear something about it soon, don’t worry we will figure it out.” I replied.

Within seconds a woman from the next table hopped up and said, “In most places there’s six degrees of separation, but here in New Orleans it’s one, my friend Stuart is the one that runs the purple party! He’s sitting right over there.” She pointed…

I think I must have blushed wondering, jeez here I am coming to a city I am not a part of and claiming I am going to this party that I wasn’t really invited to and I have invited all my friends and now look what happens. I think I stammered something of an apology and asked if it was ok if a few of my friends came to the party. She immediately demanded that we go and called over to Stuart to tell him we were coming. We chatted a bit and she asked me where I had heard about the party, I mentioned the acquaintance that had told me about it but it didn’t ring a bell with her (who knew that was a different party) and so she was about to depart back to her table when I introduced myself and asked her name. As she said Tracy… it struck me, my friend Jane, an avid fan of New Orleans, had told me about the purple party and told me I absolutely must meet Tracy. She said, if you don’t run into her you have to go to her shop Kabuki Hats.. And of course here she was standing in front of me… I was in town no more than an hour and a half and had all the information I needed provided to me. Uncanny and for one of many times this trip I heard that if you are open, in New Orleans things like this happen all the time.

We finished up and were joined by another friend of the group, Kevin, who I met for the first time and we decided on his recommendation to head over to where he was staying to meet up with Emery and Kristian. We were greeted by a grand staircase edged with Jurassic ferns leading to two rocking chairs and as we walked into the quiet house we saw a Christmas tree with presents around it all lit up. A gorgeous place, it was fun to see the little details such as well-placed coffee cans conveniently nailed to the walls where they can most easily be filled with beer caps. Back and forth we nestled in little areas where we could enjoy some guitar and banjo playing and eventually a fire at a fire pit. Their group came home to find us free-loading in their house, my friend Julie and I uninvited and making ourselves at home, doing our best to drain their keg of Abita (with iced pint glasses), a freshie with each pour, and they could not have been more hospitable, even though they both had to get up very early the next day. Emery filled the house with the home-cooked smell of red beans and rice as we played guitar out by the smoky fire. Every now and then we would see the lights dim and hear the wheeze of the circular saw as either Kevin or Kristian would chop up some more wood (claimed from a neighbors dumpster) for the fire. There are moments that just cannot be described, and this was one, a feeling of complete happiness filled every cell of my being as they humored me and let me play some of my songs for them, I felt the glow from the fire and a glow of supreme content within my heart. I could not have had a better introduction to the weekend.

At the end of the night Julie and I headed to our hotel, an interior room with a teeny window that looked out onto an atrium filled with the echoes of revelers throughout the night, but we slept pretty well.

Excitement filled us as we woke and prepped our costumes for the purple party. We headed to Napoleon House for a classic cocktail, the Pimm’s Cup, and some lunch and then zipped back to the hotel to prepare to meet up with the “Flash Mob” outside of Harrah’s. With a lot of struggle (cell service was still spotty) we managed to connect with my brother, Katie and Marissa, who I had yet to see. We had to of course stop by The Roosevelt for a Ramos Fizz along the way. The “Flash Mob” started out to be a couple of purple people milling around while a DJ spun tunes for some interesting dancers, not affiliated with our group… one woman moving her ass like nothing I have ever seen. It was a pretty interesting scene. Slowly the group started to meld and get to know each other, not really by name save for a few asking who the hell we were and how we knew Stuart, but not in an adversarial way, just in a curious way. As we gathered people asked to take our photos and I enjoyed being the subject in all my peacock finery. Finally our fearless leader Stuart arrived with a scepter of ribbons and we started our procession along the streetcar tracks to Chickie Wah Wah, a bar up Canal Street. Along route we chatted and one woman asked how we had ended up here. When we told her of our chance encounter at Sugar Park she said, “Lady NOLA either loves you or hates you, and if she loves you she takes care of those types of things.” She said very matter-of-factly, “She must love you.” It was a pretty long walk before we were able to get on a street car that was mostly full, but it was so fun to see the reactions of the riders as we filled the red car with purple plumes, sequins and satin. Dripping feathers and sequins, we got off the streetcar to cheers as we met up with the rest of the Purple People and entered the bar where Tribe Nunzio was playing for us. Purple punch was available and my first King’s Cake was presented, made by Stuart himself. Kimberly and Killian arrived, rejuvenated from the previous night, with purple eyelashes for us. A gender illusionist named Pickles gave Tracy, my new friend Desier and me a makeup lesson in the ladies room and we drank lots of beer.

Happily drunk we made our way to a neighborhood bar called Pal’s which has burlesque drawings on the walls and about three cases of Miller High Life cold and ready to go on the bar. Go in the back and you can play air hockey and see the swinging saloon doors that offer very little protection as they lead into the men’s room covered with nude photos of women. Upon seeing this we immediately ran into the ladies room to see if it had similar décor, only to find Burt Reynolds in a very interesting pose. At this point food became imperative and we hit Santa Fe for some food outside since there was a long wait for a table. My brother was chilly, so a waiter who was actually just finishing his shift loaned him his sweater to wear on the condition that he leave it with the host after. Food came a bit too late for me, we hit dba to see Little Freddie King, he was amazing, but I was done. After a few head nods, my feathers a bit droopy, time to go.

I was glad to get a bit of sleep since Mardi Gras day was full of activity which started by getting up at 5:30am to head over to Emery and Kristian’s house. As we drove there we saw the first groups setting up everything from barbecues to smokers along the parade route. We had to get up early to try to find the Skeletons and the Indians, which was all new to me. The Skeletons drag huge chains through the streets of the Bywater to wake the living, reminding them that life is precious and you should get up and live it. This was especially poignant to me considering that I lost a great friend, Tommy Bermejo, just a week before. The Mardi Gras Indians represent different tribes of local native Americans, it was said that when slaves were able to escape that they were often taken in by the local tribes as their own and to honor this safe harbor they gave tribute to their tribes at Mardi Gras, they work tirelessly to make elaborate costumes. We all piled into a huge Suburban and began our journey with a quick stop back to Pal’s for Bloody Mary’s.

Rolling through the streets we listened to WWOZ 90.7 who gave reports on Mardi Gras filled with the classic Mardi Gras tunes that I was sad I did not know yet. Round and round we went trying to avoid getting stuck in traffic and looking for Skeletons and Indians. This tradition really struck me, amazing that you could experience such pain and suffering as slavery, something so negative, but in the same instant find something so positive as the open arms of those tribes for those runaway slaves.

We hit the Bywater Cultural Center but unfortunately there were not yet any Indians there. We had to pick up another part of our group Susanne, and right where we grabbed her there they were, the Skeletons. Amazing with the enormous chains behind them, said to be a relic from a slave ship.

We aborted the mission to put on costumes and shared space in the mirror as we primped and preened (especially their group, they were birds!). We left Emery’s house a wreck of glitter and feathers and it was back into the car and it off to Marcus’ house. Apparently Marcus throws the party every year to kick off the Society of St. Anne parade. St. Anne’s is a group of highly creative people that have some of the most incredible costumes. Some mini-krewes like the birds exist but generally anything goes. My half horse/half human costume wasn’t that great compared to my peacock, which I should have worn again in restrospect, but it was really comfortable which is key. When we parked the car and arrived close to Marcus’ house we were greeted by a bull that had crazy dark techno punk music coming from it and a crazy seemingly very “touched” guy who was rolling it around a parking lot.

As we got closer to Marcus’ we saw throngs of people all gathering together, the colors and the excitement building until someone said, “We are rolling! ROLLING!” and the groups started to march. The parade weaved through the tiny streets of the Bywater for quite a while, it was amazing to see the various outfits, sometimes you would see the same groups over and over, but then you would see a totally new group as people peeled on and off the route, some stopping in bars along the way to the French Quarter. The excitement of the parade shifted as we entered the Quarter and we saw that now it was not really the mutual adoration of each others costumes but now the tourists were watching us, we became the spectacle.  As we were rolling down Royal street a very finely dressed gentleman said, “What are YOU doing here?!” It was Chris Hannah of Arnaud’s French 75 bar, one of the greatest bartenders in the world, in my opinion. With him was my dear friend Vince from San Francisco.

Luckily our group knew a gracious woman who owned a gorgeous apartment overlooking Royal Street in the heart of everything where we had a chance to take a break, throw some beads and eat some hot dogs. When we arrived she was excited to see us even though, once again we showed up without “an invite”. “Sagittarius and Leo! Let me take a picture!” She said smiling as we posed. We got a much different perspective from the balcony!  After some more hot dogs we got back on the route and headed to Constantine’s house.  Susanne and Krista had met him during a previous Mardi Gras, so there we were in one of the most gorgeous apartments (historic of course) overlooking Jackson Square. On the way we luckily ran into Chris and Vince again who had a shopping cart full of a Pago Pago cocktail, thank goodness as we were very thirsty again by then. There was red beans and rice to give us some extra energy and we enjoyed just hanging out there. I never met Constantine but I thank him for his hospitality, I was getting good at this uninvited thing…

As we left the rain came down a bit and we figured we should shoot up to Tonique for a cocktail and start heading home to the house. Walking the streets we crossed Bourbon, a much different type of mood than where we had been, I barely noticed it. We crossed through into an area of gay bars which offered some new and interesting scenery and I had a chance to check in with some gay bouncers at a club while one of our group got cigarettes there (I wanted to make sure he came out unscathed!) They were sweet and funny and it made me think how lucky I am to also live in a city that is as open as San Francisco and New Orleans are. In fact it made my think of the Mint, my favorite karaoke Bar in SF.

Tonique makes delicious cocktails! Two Aviations and a couple chicken dances and we were feeling well-oiled and it was off to hit the Backstreet Cultural Center once again in search of Indians. When we arrived there was a ceremony going on, a green tribe member was in a gorgeous beaded and feathered costume. We stayed for quite a while watching as the blue tribe children danced played and then saw a peach colored tribe member approach but then retreat. The whole scene was surreal, and very beautiful, and I found myself crying as I now knew a bit more about the incredible significance of some of the Mardi Gras traditions, to know the backstory was huge.

We decided our best option was to keep on walking so we continued on foot, a LONG walk but filled with amazing opportunities to talk to folks in the area. We soon hit the Treme neighborhood and entered the Candlelight Lounge. This place was a definite neighborhood bar/hangout. Here things get a bit hazy, not because of alcohol, but more because as I started to enjoy a sense of amazing peace… The scene seemed to be full of locals, I think there was a band, I think I remember some food being grilled. It was a scene no less, and we enjoyed being a part of it. Katie and my brother were still not with us, communications become really difficult due to lack of cell service and the overall craziness of Mardi Gras day, but she was calling so I ran over to a little area where there was an opening to outside to talk to her. I heard some of the worst news. For those that do not know, I have been a regular at The Mint Karaoke Lounge for many years, ok, perhaps you may laugh, but it’s a great spot, and as anyone who has a regular hangout knows you get to know your fellow bar flys intimately. It seemed to me that Katie was telling me that one of our closest friends from the Mint, B, had passed away. In disbelief I ran from the bar. I cannot begin to tell you the surreal nature of this statement, given to me by a mutual friend of his who also happened to be there with me in New Orleans at the same time but not exactly with me, just insanity. I cried, I screamed. I kicked boxes outside the Candle Light but I was helpless. What could I possibly do, save make the rest of my old and newfound friends absolutely miserable. B would never have wanted that, he was a partier… He would not have wanted things to be any different… So I went back inside, told my friends why my face was tear-stained and told them that we must continue on. Another reminder that life should be lived, no remorse, no waiting, no stopping. Wake up and live before you die. Moments of intense joy are right there next to deep sadness. That is living. It became more clear to me than ever.

We continued on after the Candle Light on to where we saw the Zulu parade was ending and happened upon the celebration at the end… We were right in front of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. As we stood there deciding what to do, our friends decided to grab a beer and walked in, so we followed. We were received in a polite yet indifferent attitude. I was so honored to have been allowed entry into this special place. We continued on our journey, and I offered my little bow and arrow to a child along the way.  We found that many wanted to have their photos taken with us as we passed their door steps. We also heard a young girl say, “Where are your beads!?!?” in horror, and I realized that after all this time I had not yet received one strand.  As I grabbed the one she tossed me I enjoyed a pulse of exhilaration upon catching it. We finally made it to the wonderful and comforting Emery/Kristian compound where Emery had crafted the MOST AMAZING GUMBO I have ever had. They let me invite Katie and my brother over to enjoy it with us, and we simmered down to a low boil in terms of inebriation, ending the day with a little more music on the guitar but trying not to overdo it. I even got the baby in the King’s Cake which I think means I have to make the next cake or host the next event.  We watched the creepy Rex celebration on TV where the young girl and really old Rex hang out at this gala thing, totally surreal. I really wanted to see the French Quarter shut down at midnight on the dot, but once Julie and I got back to our room-cave of darkness it was lights out literally and figuratively.

Amazingly we went to sleep so early that we were up early ready to enjoy one last day of relaxation (or so we thought) in New Orleans. Julie and I played tourists eating beignets and iced coffee, and of course I got my favorite the Verti Marte shrimp po-boy undressed with pickles and butter. We actually toured the Katrina exhibit at the museum which was very moving, and then viewed the Mardi Gras exhibit. Having experienced it the day before the museum seemed weird as of course it could not possibly do it justice. Before we knew it we had to head out to meet the group for one last time (although half had already headed home that morning) for dinner at a really cool Lebanese restaurant, then off to Arnaud’s for a Ramos Fizz from the esteemed Chris Hannah. While there my buddy Vince happened to be there (not really surprising actually by this point) and told us that very soon the Treme Brass Band would be playing at a bar not too far away. He said, “It’s this place called the Candlelight” to which I replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there…” (He was a bit surprised!)

Texts back and forth that they were playing and to get there soon helped us peel ourselves away from the delicious cocktails.  There was a cover, and a more diverse crowd than the day before, so we paid our $5 and found a spot up front around a table and started to ease into the amazing vibe that the band created. Vince told me that his heart was wounded hearing about Katrina until the first time he returned and saw Uncle Lionel, band leader. “When I saw that Uncle Lionel was okay I knew that New Orleans was going to be okay.” he told me while wiping a tear from his eye. He too was missing our friend Tommy Bermejo dearly, so I told him about B from the Mint and we cried a few tears, just a very emotional time, all the while the band played on. Funny that the Candle Light had become such a special place to me all in the matter of a day.

Uncle Lionel likes the ladies so was available for a few photo opportunities and the entire group at the Candlelight was in great spirits. I watched as a man walked in, a lady on one hand and a cigarette in the other. He accidentally touched it to the arm of the woman working there as they hugged, she hollered at him jokingly and he walked to the bar smiling. I smiled at her good nature and offered my icy MGD bottle to soothe her arm where he’d burned her. She said to me, “You know who that is? That’s Kermit Ruffins! He’s my ex-husband! I told him he can add some money to the alimony check!” For those not in the know Kermit is one of the most amazing jazz trumpeters and musicians. After a bit more sitting the Woman Whose Ex was Kermit demanded that we get our asses out of the chairs and get up and dance, so we did, and I saw a woman give the most amazing tambourine performance ever. I am not sure who she was but she joined the band for just one song and was hitting the tambourine on every possible surface of her body, each time getting a different sound, all the while with the most exhilarating beat. The whole scene just brought pure joy, vibrancy and an electric feeling of being alive. It was really amazing. As the night wound down I headed to the restroom while my friends began to chat with the owner of the Candlelight. I had heard rumors of the importance of the Zulu Coconuts and had secretly thought how amazing it would be to get one, but tried not to be so needy, so wanting, and since Mardi Gras was over I thought I would have to wait for next year. Much to my dismay as I exited the restroom I watched in awe as the proprietor of the Candlelight handed coconuts to Vince and Julie. I headed out front to meet my other friends, trying not to be jealous and finally just coming to terms with it. I have learned recently that wanting is not a way to get something, but to be grateful and happy with what you have is much more productive. So although it was hard for a second, I decided that this was not my time to get my coconut and to be happy for my friends who did. The minute my mind was set on this path the door of the Candlelight opened, and one of the staff came up to me.  She said, “They want you in there.” and turned around.  I followed her back into the bar and she led me to Leona Grandison, the proprietor. Leona asked me a few questions, I guess to gauge my sincerity and worthiness.  I can’t remember exactly what she said I was in a very intense state.  I think it was something like, “Do you like it here in New Orleans? Where you from?”  I explained to her how special her bar had become to me, I told her that I was at the same time filled with joy and remembrance of my friends lost, just basically feeling alive, I think I tried to explain how I felt in the City of New Orleans. She motioned to a woman, who I think was her daughter, and pointed to a shelf behind the bar.  She brought a coconut over to Leona and placed it in her hands. It was a surreal moment as she transferred it to mine, almost as if for safe keeping. I was almost on a different plane, but I think that as she gave it to me she said something like, “You come back now, I expect to see you back here.” And that was it. The most amazing end to my Mardi Gras.

A usual celebration continued that evening, we stayed up all night to prevent missing our 6am flight, drinking at various places, hanging with each other, enjoying the company, basically just being. I headed home and straight to my dear friend Tommy’s wake.

White/Black, Light/Dark, Rich/Poor, Young/Old, Gay/Straight, Happy/Sad, Living/Dead, they are all one. New Orleans reminds me of this. She is so special to me.  I am so grateful to her for reassuring me that I am on the right path, that each step of this journey is meaningful even when I don’t know exactly where I am going.  I never really understood the concept of a parade.  I always thought, “What’s the point?  Where are these people going?”  Now I think I get it.