And in a wild and sudden dance
We mocked at Time and Fate and Chance
— William Butler Yeats, The Wanderings of Oisin
And in a wild and sudden dance
We mocked at Time and Fate and Chance
— William Butler Yeats, The Wanderings of Oisin
When I moved to New Orleans back in 1999 I didn’t really know what to expect. Certainly I didn’t anticipate that at age 32 I’d discover a whole new holiday. And not just a new holiday, but an entire holiday season.
I’m talking about Carnival, of course, and Mardi Gras, and it’s not really new at all. In fact, tomorrow will be the 150th Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.
But it was new to me. Mardi Gras was in a cultural blind spot. I really had no idea what it was all about.
I still don’t. That’s part of the charm. It’s too big and too weird to grasp fully. Like any major holiday, it is many things to many people.
And make no mistake, Mardi Gras is a major holiday here. They say it defines this city, and I believe it.
I just got this poem (via e-mail) from Cristophe, the magistrate of the Krewe of Clouet, which evokes the spirit of the day:
CALL TO CARNIVAL
Hear Yee, Hear Yee revelers all!
It is once again time to heed the call
Of the pantomine and ribald of carnival.
Be a king or a queen and wear a crown,
A jester, a muse, a siren or a clown.
The day is marked for fantasy and mirth,
A day set aside by our mother earth,
Who in her wisdom conjures the spirits of jest,
For her children one grand day to fest
And invoke the heros of myths and odes
To raise joyous toasts as mysticism unfolds.
Join with the masks, the capes, and the plumes.
Don the cloak of a thousand costumes.
Be led by the music and move with the dance
For the day starts early and well in advance.
Thus informed partake with your friends
And celebrate the magical distant ends
Of Mardi Gras and all that it lends!
And today is Lundi Gras. We’ve got friends from out of town staying with us, and more friends coming over to visit soon. My toenails are painted bright green and my costume is coming together. It’s the most weirdly wonderful, wonderfully weird time of the year.
Happy Carnival, y’all.
Last night I tended bar at a party for about 20 minutes, having been conscripted by the host. I thought that was noteworthy since I’ve produced a television series, ostensibly about mixed drinks, for over a dozen years now, but I’ve never tended bar before.
It was fun. And not nearly as hard as Bartender J makes it look.
The party was a blast. The Endymio-Rama, it was called. Rotary Downs rocked, food and drink was in generous supply, and the people were beautiful. Especially the guy from New York in the homemade spacesuit.
We woke up this morning to the sound of major demolition. Sure enough, they’re tearing down Physicians Hospital, just like we heard they would.
I don’t mourn the passage of these buildings too much. They were in pretty sad shape pre-Katrina, abandoned for years. I’m not sure if they were salvageable.
My boss and I came by again after lunch, and I took some more pictures.
Then it occurred to us that video would be better, so I shot a short little movie with the still camera.
Then they tried to shut us down! They sent a guy over to tell us: “They don’t want you taking any pictures.”
Me: “Why not?”
Him: “I don’t know. They just said they don’t want any pictures.”
Me: “Well that’s too bad because I’m planning to take a lot of pictures.”
Later PJ told me he shot some video of the demolition and they told him the same thing. Who do these people think they are, anyway? And what are they hiding?
So I called the Times-Picayune and WWL-TV and gave them the lead, such as it is, and of course I’m posting pictures and video to the internet.
And you can bet I’ll be there tomorrow morning with a video camera.
If you’re from New Orleans, or if you care about the city, I wouldn’t advise you to watch this allegedly funny video. No, it’s not funny. It’s just plain hateful. If you watch it, it’s going to make you angry. So don’t.
A mysterious construction project is underway on Bienville between Salcedo and Lopez, a block from our house. A neighbor told me they’re building 30 homes which will be sold for $125K each. I thought that was interesting, so I went over Sunday and asked about it. I didn’t much care for the reception I got: I was told not to walk down the street (Lopez) even though it’s not blocked off, and it’s a city street, after all. In fact they wouldn’t talk to me until I went back to Bienville. Two guys told me they didn’t have any idea what they were going to build, which I find hard to swallow. They gave me a number for a Chris Salmons (??? — they seemed unsure of his last name). I called the number and got The Shaw Group. I spoke to Mr. Salmons, and though he didn’t know what the site was at first, he checked and got back with me yesterday: It’s going to be a trailer site.
Well, that’s fine by me. Some people seem to have a not-in-my-backyard mentality. Not us. Bring ’em on. A lot of New Orleanians are still homeless, and they need places to stay, and this seems like a pretty reasonable location. It will be nice to have more people around.
But do the construction workers have to be such pricks about it?
Prediction: This block will still be chock-full of trailers in March 2007.
Update: A few hours after posting I passed by the site again and was amazed to see the trailers on site already.
That was quick. Gravel in the morning, trailers by late afternoon.
I learned a few days ago that our neighbor Dan died back in October. I don’t know where or how, but we certainly miss him. He will never cut our little patch of grass or fix our door again. Rest in peace, Dan.
Update: Shortly after posting this, I learned that MaPó’s mother died just a few days ago. Jim Louis’ mother died very recently too; Jim lives right across the street from MaPó. And Jose, the Cuban guy who used to live right next door to us, told me that his mother died just a few weeks ago. Xy’s coworker’s mother died two weeks ago; fifteen fellow teachers helped clean up the yard of her flooded property in Lakeview. So that’s four mothers gone, and I think at least three of them might have been hastened on their way by the ill winds of Katrina. But I think Dan is actually survived by his mother. Tragic.
Some while back I signed up with the Preservation Resource Center to have our house inspected by an expert. Today, it happened. I was visited by an architect and an engineer, Remi and Bill, volunteers from San Francisco. They were quite taken with our house, but more importantly they didn’t see any major problem arising from the flood damage. This was a relief to me, as I’ve been a little nervous ever since my neighbor insisted all these flooded homes would have major structural issues in a few years. In fact, Remi and Bill said our house was in the best shape of any they’d inspected so far.
Famous at last: I was interviewed for Open Source, a public radio program that culls stories from the internet.
Xy got punched in the stomach today by a third-grader. She confiscated a basketball from him; he was playing instead of getting in line for the bus. She’s fine. He’s expelled. Same kid that took a crap in the stairwell last month.
Oh yeah. The schools are in great shape.
Yesterday a bunch of teachers from Xy’s school gathered at the Dry Dock in Algiers Point for snacks and drinks. So after work, I rode my bike down Canal Street, took the ferry across the river, and joined them.
It was fun to hang for a bit with some less-than-sober schoolteachers. Sadly, they seemed to be in agreement that the new charter schools are not all they’re cracked up to be. There seems to be a craze in New Orleans right now to charter many of the schools, and one gets the sense that it’s become a fetish, a supposed silver bullet for all the problems in the school system. Yet the teachers report that they’re still dealing with — how shall I put this delicately — the “same old shit.” Of course, this is the most chaotic year ever. Hopefully things will improve.
Xy and I ate a couple burgers, then we went around the corner to the Crown & Anchor for pub trivia, my favorite Thursday night activity. We played one round, didn’t place, and decided to head home. Xy took her car over the bridge; I took my bike to the ferry.
Only when I got to the ferry, I discovered it was done for the night. Mind you, the sign on the East Bank still indicated it ran ’til midnight, but apparently it stopped before 9pm.
Alas. So near to my home in Mid-City, yet so far. The Mississippi River is no small obstacle.
I stopped back at the Crown & Anchor and asked some people out front if anyone was headed over the river, but they were all West Bankers. I called Xy’s cell phone, but got no answer.
So I started to ride in the general direction of the Crescent City Connection bridge.
I noticed I was near Malik Rahim’s house, which is a center of activity for the Common Ground Collective. I rode past, but the place was dark. I didn’t see anyone out front, and I didn’t feel like knocking.
I continued toward the bridge. Bikes aren’t allowed, but a vague plan was forming in my head to hitch a ride, something I haven’t done for 20 years.
But as I approached, I saw flashing police lights. Then I saw a bunch of Mardi Gras floats. They were lining up a convoy from one of the dens, probably at Blaine Kern’s, over the bridge to the East Bank for a parade this weekend. (Which krewe, I don’t know.) The floats are drawn by tractors and move slowly, requiring a police escort. The idea popped into my head that I might be able to hitch a ride with one of the floats since they were headed my way and probably had room for my bicycle.
I rode to the end of the line, but by the time I got there, they were moving out. Too late.
I began to follow behind the floats, and then I got my lucky break: A van pulled up (a three-generation crew of contractors from St. Louis) and asked for directions. I asked if they had room for my bike, and next thing I was riding with them them over to the East Bank. Whew!
Last night Todd Price came by and we paid a visit to my Hoosier Mexican neighbors. Todd is the only person writing for the local alt-weekly who also speaks Spanish, and he’s researching a potential story. At the neighbor’s house there were a bunch of people gathered around the TV watching Univision, mostly sitting on the floor as there seemed to be little furniture, though chairs were brought in from another room for us guests. I didn’t follow much of Todd’s conversation with Victor, since it was in Spanish, but afterward he debriefed me. I learned that they’re paying $1100 for rent. That’s for a two-bedroom apartment, roughly twice what the landlord was charging before the storm. I’ve heard of rents skyrocketing, but this is my first direct experience, and I’m not quite sure what to think about it. On the one hand, there are nine people living there, including several wage-earners, so maybe they can afford it. On the other hand, this not a luxury condo by any stretch of the imagination. $1100 seems like a lot. In fact, that’s about what our monthly mortgage payment is.
I was wondering how long it would be before someone proposed this:
The time has come to blockade the Mississippi.
It might sound crazy, but as frustrated as people are down here, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Our friend Andrea visited us this weekend. It was a bittersweet visit.
Sweet, because it’s always sweet to catch up with close friends.
Bitter, because Andrea and her husband PJ are former New Orleanians who have made the difficult decision not to return. They’re starting over in Indianapolis, or elsewhere, but not here. It is a loss for New Orleans. Check out Andrea’s website to see what we’re losing. I don’t blame them in the least for leaving, but it is sad.
It was bitter, too, when we visited their little house in Broadmoor. This was the first home they ever owned. This is where they lived just after they got married, where they started a family with their little boy who turned one a few months after Katrina. Now, the house seems to be a complete loss, totally devastated. Not only was it flooded, but a good portion of the roof blew off. Water from above and water from below… They lost virtually all their possessions, and the house itself is in pretty sad shape, and it is being devoured by mold.
But the visit ended on a sweet note: We went down to the Marigny for the Krewe du Vieux parade.
If you’ve never seen Krewe du Vieux, it is the smallest of “official” Mardi Gras parades, and the only one that still goes into the French Quarter, and the best parade of the Carnival season. The floats are drawn by donkeys or people — no tractors. To say that the floats are irreverent is a huge understatement. They are vengefully iconoclastic, wickedly satirical, vulgar (sometimes bordering on obscene), clever, hilarious, and wonderful. This parade, more than any other (except maybe the “underground” krewes) exemplifies what I love about New Orleans and Carnival.
The wind was bitterly cold, the coldest weather we’ve had this winter. Even more bitter was the thought that hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians remain displaced from their home city — and may be getting evicted from hotel rooms even now. It won’t be a very happy Mardi Gras for most of us. But ironically, for those who have returned, it might be the most heartening ever. New Orleanians know how to celebrate in the face of adversity.
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A few days ago, as I was riding home from work, a strange feeling came over me, like déjà vu. After a moment, I realized what I was feeling was a sense of normalcy. The debris had just been cleared from that block of Jeff Davis, and there were no blue tarps in evidence, and I didn’t see any trailers in the immediate vicinity. The sun was shining, and there was a pleasant breeze in the oak trees. For a brief moment I could almost imagine that the floodwalls had never broken, or that I’d been transported back in time to February 2005.
Which got me thinking… The past has always seemed very close at hand in New Orleans. And New Orleans has always been a tragic city. Could those two facts be linked? Could the pain of the city’s constant struggles compel its denizens to look backward, wistfully, to a bygone era?
I don’t know. Just a passing thought. All I know for sure is that normal never felt so strange, or so sweet, or so fleeting.