Always for Pleasure March 6, 2011Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: MoMs, Mystic order of Misfits, Radiators
It’s sometime toward four in the morning as we amble in loose groups down Newton Street toward our cars and away from the Mystic Order of Mysfits Ball. There’s no real point in wearing a watch to MoMs unless its necessary to your costume, in which case you should find a broken one to wear. The point is to step briefly outside of time and the world and into the by turns quixotic and erotic bestiary of the MoMs, a moment at the peak of Carnival reserved for those who truly understand the masque, who step into their costumes so completely that they are–for a few hours–transformed, surrender themselves completely to pleasant ecstasy the way the devout surrender themselves to be mounted by the loa.
At MoMs are lieutenants whose job is to inspect people’s costumers. The tickets read Full Costume Required, and those who don’t comply are placed in Costume Jail for a while and given the alternative of surrendering their pants. We slip past the inspection line through a break in the police railings just to save time, confident we pass muster. The lieutenant who frisks everyone who enters, with particular attention to womens’ breasts and everyone’s crotch, sticks his hand down the back of my pants and announces loudly that’s he’s found crack. He peers into our eyes and says, well, the only problem is your pupils are not sufficiently dilated. We’ll get to work on that, we tell him. This is definitely not the Family Gras a nearby suburb hosts the same weekend. This is as far from the Chamber of Commerce vision of child-friendly daytime parades and the frat adventure travelogue of big ass beers and show your tits as the Coliseum was from the rites of the mystery cults. It is the ancient Dionysian spirit of surrender to animal pleasure resurrected for the modern world.
This particular party has gone on for over 30 years, a core of a few hundred people from the Gentilly who started out at a Disabled American Veterans hall in Arabi and which has grown into a coveted ticket, a massive party of a few thousand old friends and total strangers in costumes that tend toward the lewd and the illuminated. The same band–the Radiators–has performed for over 30 years but is breaking up this year. I haven’t been to MoMs in seven years, finding the all night revelry with no where to sit and an irresistible urge to stroll and costume-watch and dance until almost dawn a bit much, but I remember the early MoMs balls, spent Wednesday nights in college at the Luigi’s pizza restaurant where the band the Rhapsodizers transformed into the Radiators, and I can’t imagine missing what I feel like may be the last genuine MoMs.
It’s done now and you think you are, too, a pleasant exhaustion in which the muscles are not tensed by hours of dancing but deeply roll-back-on-your-pillow-and-light-a-cigarette-with-a-sigh relaxed. You are aware at some level that it’s cold and damp and your costume is bare-chested but you are flush with warmth. You should be watching the broken and puddled industrial street but your eyes wander off to the constellation of sodium lights in the sky that mark the twin river bridges, a reminder that it’s time to go home.
“Can you give us a ride across the river?” Marie Antoinette asks. Two women in period dresses, one in a full out Louis Quatorze wig and matching makeup, are walking along beside us. “We’re going to Mid-City.” Well, so are we and the chances of their getting a cab in Algiers this time of morning are slim, although an empty United Cab glides by as we walk, ignoring their hand signals.
I look at my friend for a moment. “Sure, come on.” As if rewarded for our generosity, as we reach Lamarque Street and the car we find an abandoned cooler. I open it,and find it is full of well-iced citrus-flavored soda water. A mystic and perfect piece of luck. Our little group and the people around us all fish out a can, and we drag the cooler out of the street so we can leave. As the two women climb into the car I start rearrange things out of the back seat to make room for them. One hands me a stack of books and asks what it is. I give them my best calling-on-a-bookstore spiel about a Howling in the Wires, and one immediately announces she wants to buy a copy. Things are off to a fine start.
Our passengers are bubbling with excitement after their first MoM’s Ball and can’t stop talking about it. We ask where they are from. They’re in from L.A. for their first Mardi Gras and I pepper them with questions, putting on my best cab-driver-out-for-a-tip manners including some blow-by-blow travelogue. We pull up to a stop sign and I tell them we can take a right into Gretna, where the local police could match the L.A.P.D. club swing for club swing on a D.W.B. stop, or a left if they wanted to pick up some crack.” They break up laughing over the crack remark. “This is the over the river and through the hood shortcut.” I can’t help it. If someone is on their first trip to New Orleans I immediately act as if they were guests of friends who just stepped into my house. And there’s something in me of the voluble cabbie once I have a couple of smitten visitors on the hook.
We all fumble in our costumes for a dollar for the bridge toll, and as we drive up the span with the city laid out before us they start to debate if they want to be dropped off downtown to find a cab to Mimi’s, a popular local bar in the Bywater. I know the place well, I tell them. We launched the book upstairs. They turn out to be friends of the owners, and to know the tapas chef well. Marie Antoinette tells us how her friend (Lisa G is all I remember of a name) once spent a night in a sleeping bag with the chef after a wedding they all attended.. “But he’s married now,” she adds. I never get the other woman’s name straight and she remains Marie Antoinette in my head for the rest of the night. Marie has been in town before, and was supposed to interview local blues player and character Coco Robicheuax for her thesis, but I never manage to get out of her what her thesis was about. (He’s the fellow who decapitates a chicken in the radio studio in Treme). I ask them if they’ve been watching Treme and Marie has. Her “sissy” works from the Treme team, doing makeup.
We are a set of four old friends by now in the way that only strangers who share a table in New Orleans ever seem to be. If they want to be dropped at Mimi’s, I think: no problem. Glad to show the visitors a good time. I look at my companion. “You want a drink?” “Sure.” We pull off the expressway at O’Keefe and head downtown. As we near Canal Street, the corners are crowded with people trying to hail full cabs. They would have been lucky to make it home much less Mimi’s if we’d dropped them in the middle of downtown, and Mimi’s is a fair walk from Canal. We make our way around the edge of the Quarter, comparing cities we have known to New Orleans. “I can imagine what would happen if you started asking strangers for a ride in L.A.” and they agree whoever was stranded would be there until it was a safe hour to call a friend for a ride.
We roll down Rampart, Marie pointing out Armstrong Park (“it used to be called Congo Square, she explains”) to Lisa G, proudly showing off her New Orleans knowledge to her first-time visitor friend. When we park on Franklin, Lisa G. holds out a twenty and says she wants a book. “Keep the change,” she says and I wrestle with layers of elastic to find the short pants pockets under my costume. “Fair enough.” Its getting on toward morning but Mimi’s is still full. The woman find a table empty except for a glassy-eyed drunk sitting bolt upright against with wall with a thousand yard stare. They ignore him and circle up at the rest of the chairs and we join them. I excavate the twenty and get a couple of drinks from Neptune the bartender, forgetting that Marie and Lisa G. had promised to buy. I barely sip my whiskey, wondering why I bought it but gulp down the water back. Our table is suddenly crowded with strangers and a few people Marie seems to know. “Y’all just come from MoMs Ball?” people ask, looking at our costumes. A complete stranger comes up and hugs a couple of us. We look at each other trying to figure out who knows him, but he seems to read that. “I don’t know y’all, but I could tell you just came from MoMs. Wasn’t it great?”
Lisa G. keeps telling us how much she loves this place, wants to move here. Lisa G. has lived a lot of places and traveled. Chicago. San Francisco. New York. She’s not crazy about L.A. San Francisco feels comfortable to people from New Orleans, I explain, and tell her the old saw that it’s one of the few places people who leave the city don’t eventually return from. San Francisco is just as bad, says says. People there don’t make eye contact with each other. “Yeah, it has this vibe” Lisa G. says, but it’s not New Orleans.” Yeah, it’s not, we all agree. She has the bug bad, the “NOLA gene” that gets switched on when certain people first visit, my friend says.
“There’s just no other city like this in the world,” Lisa G. says in that wistful way locals know means: she’ll be back.
People in costume continue to pour into the bar, ready to continue their party until dawn. We all admire each others attire and nod appreciatively. More strangers stop to talk about MoMs, and our little foursome grows into a boisterous, impromptu party of extravagantly dressed people who were all strangers 30 minutes ago but who recognized initiation in the mystery cult of MoMs the way Masons once noticed each others watch fob. Here in New Orleans it might have taken a little longer to assemble an impromptu party without that cue, but it likely would have happened anyway. It always does.
No, we all agree, there really isn’t any other city like this in the world.