Testing the new Nikon Coolpix 990. Here’s the view out my office window.
I wanted to let everybody know I survived my first Mardi Gras.
Carnival season begins here in New Orleans on the 6th day of January, also known as Twelfth Night because it’s the 12th night after Christmas. I believe it commemorates the visitation of the Magi.
I knew Carnival had begun when one of my co-workers brought a king cake to work. This is a large pastry decorated in Carnival colors — purple, gold and green. Hidden inside one slice of the cake is a small plastic baby. Whoever gets the slice with the baby has to buy the next cake.
What is Carnival anyway? It’s the season before Lent, that 40-day period of privation and fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday. Hundreds of years ago, people began celebrating the day before Ash Wednesday as a sort of last fling before Lent. This day became known as Mardi Gras, which literally means “Fat Tuesday.” I guess this single day of celebration eventually expanded to a whole season, known as Carnival.
Originally Carnival meant “farewell to the flesh.” It’s still celebrated in most Catholic countries, and New Orleans is definitely Catholic country.
The festivities really picked up about two weeks ago when the parades began. I’ve seen at least ten parades in that time — maybe more — I’ve lost count. These parades are kind of like the familiar Fourth of July parades we all know and love, except that they’re totally different. In fact I’m kind of at a loss for words.
Each parade is sponsored by a different social club (they’re called krewes) and travels a different route through the city. The Krewe of Bacchus brought their parade down our street, right in front of our apartment. The parades feature marching bands and elaborate floats. The riders in the floats (krewe members only) throw beads and other goodies to the crowd. XY caught a doubloon from the Bacchus Grand Marshall, Luke Perry! We also saw Britney Spears and Whoopi Goldberg.
Of course you don’t have to be Catholic to celebrate Carnival. Lots of people come from all over to celebrate. This year, there were estimated to be over 2 million visitors. The mayor announced yesterday that 1,230 TONS of trash had been collected!
I’ve never seen such madness. The city really does shut down and everybody joins the celebration. It’s so incredibly massive, and so much bigger than anything I’ve ever seen, that it was hard to remember that in most of the rest of the country, these were not special days at all.
Unfortunately I came down with a mild cold on Lundi Gras (that’s the day before Mardi Gras) so that put a bit of a damper on things. But since all the parades come within four blocks of our apartment, I was still able to get out easily and see the sights.
Mardi Gras has a somewhat tawdry reputation, which you may or may not be aware of. Lots of college students come here to drink heavily and take off their clothes. But that kind of behavior is largely confined to the French Quarter. For most of the people living here, it’s a family holiday. Kids love parades, after all.
I could go on and on, but duty calls. I’ve got flyers to design, CD-ROMs to burn, websites to update, and design documents to write! It’s back to business as usual.
Here’s an account of a single day, August 2nd, 1999. This was originally published in my friend Rachel’s zine Daybook.
I get up around 7:00 or 7:30. I shower and shave. For breakfast I eat a bowl of granola with rice milk. I grab a carrot and an apple, and leave the apartment around 8:00.
As I’m driving to work a sheriff’s car pulls up alongside me and uses his loudspeaker: “The maximum speed is 35 miles per hour — you better slow down.”
When I get to the office I make coffee, talk with the cleaning lady, check my e-mail. I spend some time futzing around with Macromedia’s Shockwave installer, which seems a little buggy.
I finish up some work from the day before and upload it. It’s a new version of a website called MathNerds.
The university’s Webmaster calls me up, and while he’s got me on the phone we manage to resolve a problem with our CGI access that has been plaguing us ever since I arrived here on June 1st. Short of the long: It’s good news. I’m able to complete a couple of tasks that have been on the back burner for two months.
Our secretary has been working on our newsletter for the past week. I help her save it in an older format so the folks at the Document Centre will be able to read it.
A professor of Spanish stops by my office. She’s in desperate need of a programmer to help her finish a CD-ROM project, and quickly. The CD is called Hispanics in New Orleans. I explain that it’s too much for me to do. She offers to hire me after hours. The money is too good to refuse, so I agree.
For lunch I eat my carrot and apple.
After lunch I put the newsletter on a floppy and take it to the Document Centre. It’s about five blocks away. The August heat is incredible. A few drops of rain hit me, and I swear at myself for not bringing an umbrella. When I get to the Document Centre, I realize I’ve forgotten the damn floppy, so I go back to the office feeling like a dumbass.
I’m so exhausted by the heat that I can’t bring myself to go back out again. I revise an on-line form on our website, then I start work on an HTML tutorial.
I feel like leaving early, so I do.
On the way home I revisit the Document Centre. (Yes, they really do spell their name in the British style. I don’t know why. They’re the spawn of some unholy corporate-academic alliance with Xerox Corporation.) This time I remember the floppy.
When I get home, around 3:30 or 4:00, Xy is just finishing her job application. She’s a teacher; she’s looking for work in the public schools.
I change into my swimming trunks and go up to the pool on the roof of our building. I drink a beer and lie in the sun and write this account of my day. Meanwhile Xy is making guacamole down in our apartment. I swim a few laps in the pool and start thinking about the best way to tackle the Hispanics project.
Later that evening we get together with our friends, Marlon and Delme. (I’m not sure if I’m spelling her name right.) They’re the only real friends we’ve made since moving to New Orleans. They’re from Honduras. Delme doesn’t speak much English, and I speak even less Spanish, but Xy and especially Marlon are fairly bilingual. Our conversation tends to revolve around language itself, as we teach each other in little bits and pieces. Xy wants to go see a Latin salsa band at the Red Room, but when we arrive, the club is closed. We end up at Tipitina’s instead, where there’s a fifty-cent special on beer. The Original New Birth Brass Band is playing. It’s a kind of funky Dixieland jazz I never heard back in Indiana.
When it’s later than it should be, and we’re drunker than we should be, I drive us all home. While Xy and I try to sleep, our two cats chase each other around the apartment all night long.
I thought moving would be stressful, but it was smooth. So smooth I can hardly believe it. But right now I can look up and see the skyscrapers out my window, just a few blocks away. If I stand I can see the intersection of Notre Dame and Tchoupitoulas. So I know it’s true: I’m in New Orleans. But getting here was too damn easy.
Actually there were a couple problems. Five days before we were scheduled to depart, the engine of our ’92 Chevy Cavalier overheated, and the cylinder head cracked, and green stuff oozed out. (Xy called it “engine pus.”) Then my trick knee started to act up for the first time in 15 years. This made it difficult to get around.
Bloomington has been my home for 13 years, and Xy’s lived there all her life. It doesn’t seem possible that a person could just pack all their stuff into a goofy, yellow box (a Ryder rental truck, plastered with URLs and 800 numbers) and leave so easily.
But that’s exactly what we did. With a little help, of course. My in-laws and Lynn Winebarger spent a day packing up the truck with us. Thanks again, guys.
It’s over 800 miles from Bloomington to New Orleans, almost straight south. The drive is easy and even pleasant. But there are no bathrooms at the reststops in Mississippi.
Trivia: Look on a map of the world and you’ll see that Bloomington is at about the same latitude as Madrid. New Orleans is at the latitude of Cairo.
When we got down here, we were on our own. Just me with my trick knee and the little woman. (That’s not just an expression; Xy is tiny.) How could the two of us possibly move all of our stuff out of our truck and into our new apartment? But we did. We used a dolly. It was essential.
There’s a fancy furniture designer who has a gallery and woodworking shop right next to our apartment. A guy who works there, Jorge, took frequent smoke breaks on the back stoop and watched us move in all day. He seemed friendly, and a couple of times I thought he was about to offer his help with some of the heavier items. Finally toward the end of the day, he asked if he could have a word with us. He took us into the studio and showed us a beautiful tall mirror with a painting set in a panel above it. “I’m a painter,” he said. “This is the sort of stuff I do.” It almost looked like a renaissance painting, but the people in it were wearing modern clothes. Jorge asked if we would be interested in buying a painting or in modeling in a painting, or both. But he warned us that some of the modelling might need to be nude.
That night we walked two blocks and ate at The Red Eye Grill, right next door to the Howlin’ Wolf, where Jonathan Richman had played just a week before much to our chagrin. (Ween is playing there next week.) It was good smokey bar grub. But what freaked me out the most was, on our way back, on the street, I saw Grossman.
I grabbed Xy’s arm. “Look! Look at that guy!” But it was too late, he was already around the corner, and when we rounded it, he was already in his car, driving away.
Does he live here now, or what? I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t even Grossman. Maybe it was just a guy who looked like Grossman.
That night, as I lay in bed, exhausted, I thought about Grossman.
“Kirkegaard was the first to introduce the idea of dread as the characteristic mental state of humans,” Grossman said, pacing before us with a piece of chalk in his hand. “It is a beautiful day outside, and we are young and beautiful and intelligent, and we should not sit here with dour expressions.
“But nothing is grimmer than Scandinavian Protestantism. It may have something to do with the climate or the soil. The sun never shines, everyone is drunk. Sweden is one big block of granite with nothing but pine trees, everything is gray…”
I could barely suppress a giggle. This guy was hilarious! But all the students around me were silent and as somber as young Kierkegaard himself. So I stifled my laughter.
“Soren’s father was always making him feel guilty, just for existing. Which highlights a very important point. If you take nothing else from this class, remember this: Parents are the bane of a child’s existence. Your parents are the most cruel people in the world. A child’s rebellion is a matter of absolute necessity. At some point, you must stand up and tell your parents in no uncertain terms: UP YOURS.”
To tell the truth, I wasn’t even in this class. I was in the Philosophy of Christianity class that met in the same room an hour later. I’d discovered Grossman one day when I’d come to class early. Now I was hooked.
“Little Soren Kirkegaard became an utter neurotic. As neurotic as a bedbug. Full of anxiety. He became a great expert on anxiety. The idea of Original Sin goes down into little Soren’s mind like honey down a bear’s throat.
“And how was Kirkegaard’s sex life, you ask?
“It was non-existent. He broke off a five-year engagement and wrote a book about it: Diary of a Seducer. Can you imagine how many people must have checked this out of the library and taken it home with feverish hands, drinking a little Jamaican Cooler and lying back in bed, thinking that they are going to enjoy one of the greatest erotic novels of all time?”
I suppressed a chortle; how could my fellow students remain so straight-faced?
“According to Kirkegaard, anxiety was the essential characteristic of human beings. He developed a theory of anxiety. Anxiety is not the same as fear, he said. Animals experience fear, but anxiety is essentially human. And the object of anxiety is: nothingness.
“Frat boys take note: More women have been seduced by students of philosophy talking about anxiety and nothingness than by being fed Miller Lite.”
On our second or third Friday night in New Orleans, we went shopping at Riverwalk, the tourist-mall, which is only three blocks from our apartment. We stopped at the food court, and I decided to get a daquiri. Having grown up in a mall in the Midwest, the concept of purchasing and drinking alcohol at the mall seemed novel to me.
I ordered a 190 Octane. Hmm, I wonder why they call it that.
It was $4 or $5, which I thought was pretty expensive. But it was huge, almost a liter. And then I took a sip. Wow! I could taste the Everclear.
The mall seemed a lot less obnoxious, and spending money seemed a lot easier, with a buzz on. Maybe the chamber of commerce in my hometown should look into this idea.
Eventually we made our way out of the mall and into the French Quarter, which is right next door. I’d drained my cup by this time, and Xy was thirsty too, so we stopped for a drink on Bourbon Street. We didn’t go into a bar, we just stepped up to one of those little closets dedicated to alcohol. They offered daquiris in small, medium and large sizes. Xy ordered a medium, but when I ordered a large she got jealous and changed up to a large herself. What flavor? We chose One Mighty Punch.
$7 for a drink? What a rip-off, I thought. But when I saw the drink I was amazed. It was 10 gallons at least, maybe 20. And pretty much pure alcohol.
My memory of the evening deteriorates from that point on. I remember my head spinning at one point, as I thought to myself that I was very drunk indeed; then I looked at my cup and saw that I had consumed only about two fingers’ worth. Some insane part of my brain told me I had to drink it all.
Xy and I ended up hanging out on the riverfront with a street musician from South Africa. He was an older gentleman, black, with a long white beard, and I had the impression that he was homeless, but he never actually said so. He let Xy play his cornet. His name was Alexander, but he said that everybody called him Pops.
Xy, being much smaller than me, was also much more drunk, even though she’d had less. She invited Alexander home to spend the night with us. So he spent the night on our futon, and Xy washed his clothes for him. In the morning Xy was as sick as a dog.
Two days later Pops called us from jail. Xy took the call and was rather confused by the story he related. He said he was picked up on a charge called “illegal garments” and that the authorities were making homeless people disappear, perhaps because of the upcoming Mayor’s Convention. But he didn’t ask us to bail him out or do anything for him. He said he’d call back, but he never did.
We’ve been here for almost two months now. We’ve gotten our library cards. We’ve made some friends. We bought an old beater of a car for $700. And we’ve adopted: a little black one and a little blond one.
No, not kids, kittens.
I’m enjoying my job as multimedia specialist at the University. Xy’s going crazy because she hasn’t spent this much time at leisure since she started working at age 15. But she is in the process of getting her certification to teach in Louisiana. She’s just waiting for the paperwork to come back through the mail.
We’re living in the Warehouse District, in a renovated warehouse called Julia Place. Our part of the complex is 120 years old. It’s very spacious and probably more expensive than what we can afford. But we like it. I found it on the Web, just like I found my job.
Our closest friends here are Marlon and Delme. Marlon works at Julia Place as a carpenter. Delme, his girlfriend, is a maid, and she speaks very little English. They’re from Honduras. I can’t even begin to tell you how friendly and helpful they have been to us.
I guess I should draw this to a close. It’s taken much longer to write this than I thought it would, and I’ve still only scratched the surface. Oh well. Thanks for reading these ramblings.