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Rampart Street Blues April 23, 2011

Posted by Mark Folse in Crime, French Quarter, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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Late night is quiet on Rampart Street, unlike its distant cousin Bourbon with its drunken river of tourists, barkers and throbbing cover bands. The street has a half abandoned air, with as many dark facades and For Lease signs as there are bars. There is a subtle thrum of dance music from The Ninth Circle but with a name like that I suspect business hasn’t really started at eleven. The talk and laughter from the Voodoo Lounge just barely carries across the street , unintelligible as birdsong and just as comforting, a reminder that you’re not alone on the dark side of the Quarter.

I walk cautiously out of long habit learned when I lived in Treme in the 1300 block of Esplanade and would amble home late at night down the well beaten neutral ground path we all called the DMZ. That was BC—before crack—when walking head up and mostly sober was usually protection enough, before the Clockwork Orange horror of 21st century midnight city streets. I park on Rampart almost every Thursday night and feel more comfortable each time, less likely to bristle like a cat at the sight of a lone Black man approaching on the sidewalk on the lake side of the street but the old New Orleans habits die hard. I remember the genteel way my grandmother said “nigrah”, warning me that if she put too much coffee in my child’s café au lait I would turn dark and wonder if its ever possible to escape completely something bound so tightly in the limbic brain however good one’s intentions.

The gap-toothed marquee arch over the padlocked Armstrong Park merely amplifies the darkness of the abandonment behind the gates, adds a graveyard sense of menace to the lake side where I park but at the same time I am reminded that centuries past the African slaves gathered in what was once Congo Square the place became sacred to the ancestors and the loa and suddenly the darkness is not threatening but a presence watching over me with no particular intent. I murmur my own ancestors’ names like telling the beads of the rosary and feel a bit safer.

Two young women are coming up the sidewalk and their conversation quiets as we pass, looking at me askance as if to ask: do I belong here? Am I a lost tourist? Most white pedestrians keep to the river side of Rampart, but my car is just up the block. Behind them comes a young man alone, walking slowly up toward Canal or perhaps Iberville. Reflexively I cut between two cars and walk up the street toward my own car, parked a half-dozen spots ahead, pressing the remote to unlock the car and turn on the interior and headlights.. I keep an eye on him until I would have to turn my head, then wait a beat for him to pass before I turn my head. He is still walking, paying me no real attention.

I don’t feel especially nervous. My caution is ingrained, part the training of decades living here and in Washington, D.C. at the height of the crack wars, in a block where three people died late at night just coming and going as I am. I think of my grandmother again, of her maid Sylvia shared with my mother—one of the only black people I knew growing up along with Jo Jo my father’s handyman, a perfect match for the character in The Green Mile who I revered like a Hindu demon in overalls. Sylvia was invited to my sister’s weddings, but not the receptions.

I think of the friends I still know from the lakefront, the one’s who harassed me when my sister enlisted me as a young boy to drop literature and hammer signs for Moon “The Coon” Landrieu as he was known for being the first white politician to reach out for the Black vote, friends who still wear the casual racism of the lakefront like a comfortable old Saint’s jersey. Do I belong here, on this bock of Rampart halfway between Treme and Iberville? I believe I do, envying the comfort with which the Treme character Davis McCalary carries himself through the Treme, wishing some bit of the innocence of youth with which I would search for lost cats in the blocks behind my house on Esplanade, an innocence lost in part on the streets of D.C. where police helicopters would hover over the house lighting the alleys in back, the small yard from which I would occasionally hear the crescendo and diminuendo pop pop pop of gun battles.

I remember the young boy who walked in front of my car at the suburban shopping center at Elmwood one day, forcing me to stand on my breaks. He stepped into road mindless of the cross walk a short ways up and stopped, turned and glared at me as his mother and sisters passed. His body was tensed as if to spring, his eyes not angry or hateful but dead, with no discernible light in them. He was perhaps ten. And I wonder if innocence is something we have all lost.

As I sit in my car lighting a cigarette with all these thoughts passing through my mind I think again about the spirits of Congo Square, wonder which of the sainted loa I should beseech to purge me of the dark past of my own ancestors, the French planter refugees from the Haitian slave revolt, the German farmer who with two enslaved was probably thought a prosperous man by his neighbors, the great-great uncle who once owned a plantation in Plaquemines and lorded over his fields on a black stallion my mother was forbidden to ride and so took particular delight when taken up to the front of his saddle, the living memory of white women screaming at young black children in the ninth ward and all the baggage of desegregation, the palpable racism of my own youth in the early Nineteen Sixties.

What will it take, I ask, to finally cast off the last threads of white sheets of my own ancestors for something like the white robes of baptism? In which river must I immerse myself to step out born again as nothing but a child of God, a child of New Orleans? The street, the answer comes from somewhere. That river is this sidewalk, its people the living waters. Next time, I tell myself, I will not cross into the street but stay on the sidewalk and whoever comes and I will pass as two children of God in a new covenant that breaks the seventh generation curse, just two men passing each other on the streets of New Orleans, the place we both belong.

The Edge of Friday Night January 29, 2011

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, art, blues, French Quarter, music, Toulouse Street.
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The Kerry Irish Pub is the first bar with music pouring out the door the tourists reach as they enter the quarter from the Casino and the downtown hotels nearest the river. The regulars are crowded up toward the door but the tourists gravitate toward the band for a few songs, as obvious and routine in their appearance as the homeless. A couple wearing feather boas; the three men in odd hats, one in a ten gallon wool hat with a Burger King child’s crown over the crown of the hat, another perhaps in a Carnival-colored jester hat or one of those tall Cat In The Hat numbers: it doesn’t matter. I really don’t remember, just their motleynes, announcing to the world that they are in New Orleans and not at home in Alabama or Arkansas or east Texas in a corporate office park or a construction site, not tonight. They are playing dress up with drinks, a combination of the innocence of childishness and the fervor of youth, the way my daughters guy friends might act when they smuggle beer into the backyard and got into my hats.

You sit in front, listening to the band but you ask the transients between songs where they are from, what they plan to do in New Orleans. They never stay long; all our bound for Bourbon Street: Disneyland Sodom where the only thing real is life of the barkers, the bartenders, the musicians playing endless covers of Lynard Skynard when they pack up for the night and and leave it behind. I live next door to a Bourbon Street guitar player in this dismal shack of a shotgun, so pathetic looking from the outside that when the landlord was doing some work and took off back to Mississippi leaving my door ajar for hours no one came in and cleaned me out. No one was looking for a place to light a crack pipe I guess, or perhaps there is still some honor among the poor. I live on the edge of a gentrified neighborhood and the pickings are better a few blocks over. Taking my bargain basement TV and laptop might strike a little too close to home–who might be robbing their own house of their few ill-gotten things–and the shopping is better up the block. That’s reality, where my neighbor the musician and I live, not the roaring noise of Bourbon.

But the tourists coming in, drawn by the first live band they hear, don’t care. The New Orleans of their dreams is calling, the exotic drinks, the beads and boobs and Big Ass Beers, the daily festival of public drunkenness reserved in their hometowns for a season of Saturdays tailgating before The Big Game, reliving the memory of drunken college parties acted out every night on Bourbon for their entertainment and themselves the star of the production.

I remember a quiet night when a couple and their children stopped outside a bar while the band played a song the parents remembered from their youth, the father explaining to the ‘tweens how they loved that song when they were young and all of them–parents and children alike–staring into the bar over the banister railing that closed off the french doors, the parents lost in a reverie of youth and the children imagining their parents as people young and wild, living out what seems to a twelve-year-old the dream of what life might be if they were only free. I stopped and lit a cigarette that night and watched them until they passed on, imagining the thoughts running through their heads.

You sit at the Kerry with just a few companions in front, the regulars of the bar sitting in the back and the band is just juke box to them, the soundtrack recorded music has taught us to expect of life. The band is a pick up gig. One of your companions is the sister of the drummer and band leader and you know that the regular players were unavailable and the two guitarists are just sitting in for the night. One is an older black blues musician you have hoped to see since a friend gave you an old CD to copy, Mem Shannon, the reason why you came. As the band is unfamiliar it takes them a song or two to fall into the practicality of the blues, a form as stylized as the baroque and and well known to them all so the players quickly pull it together. Shannon plays a red lacquered guitar covered with the dials and switches of the days before every player had a row of effect boxes at this feet, plays with the easy facility of long experience, and you think of B.B. King. The other guitarist is a guy named Danny Dugan, and on his jet black guitar with the whammy bar handing loose and broken he plays in the familiar rock-flavored tenor with occasional metal slide of a llife long fan of Dickie Betts.

They are two men of the same age but different in race, experience, the musicians they emulated. And yet as they play in an unfamiliar combo they follow each other from the corner of their eyes. With an occasional eyebrow arched like inverted slurs they support each other’s solos with perfect rhythm work, two practiced disciples of the blues each in their own style. The band leader gives directions between songs, sings with a voice pure and inspired as gospel for the love of the music. The tourists come and go and none leave anything in the tip jar. The regulars chatter in the back but fill the jar with cash when it is passed, understanding the price of their chosen ambiance. No one except the few of us in front is really paying attention. I sit rapt and follow the the way these two musicians settle into an unfamiliar gig and find a way to make incredible music with the grace of toreadors practicing without a crowd.

I mostly watch Mem Shanon, the fast and delicate finger work, the wrist flicking vibrato, as concert house perfect as any violinist but learned over decades playing to disinterested bars for the pure joy of the music, eyes sometimes closed with a slight smile of delight and other times looking up to the sky as if to search for approval from the God his elders told him hated the devil’s blues, the gospel tempos of the church stolen by scoundrels. I watch him eye the other guitarist as they trade licks just for the pure pleasure of it and the hope of enough in the tip jar and the bar cut to buy them dinner after and a cab home, playing not for the disinterested tourists who drift off to Bourbon or even for the regulars who make offerings to the tip jar the way the jaded fill the collection plate but for the pure love of the music, playing for themselves, for each other as the sort of men who play an edge of the quarter club on a Friday night for tips and drinks because they only want to play, would bring their own beer and find a room and play because they can’t imagine another way to live.

This is how art is born and tradition lives, not because of but in spite of the crowd, because these unfamiliar players share just enough of the vocabulary and are long practiced to make a pick up gig into something wonderful, because they can’t imagine a better way to spend the evening. An audience of two or three is almost irrelevant, but I like to think we add something to the moment, the smoke of our cigarettes rising up to heaven like josh stick offerings to the real heart of why New Orleans is, people who play and live and make an art of life because they can’t imagine another way to be.

Miss Marty, Mother of Strippers November 24, 2010

Posted by Mark Folse in French Quarter, New Orleans, NOLA, odd, Toulouse Street.
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I was going to stick this in Odd Words, but it is part of their RECESSION SEX WORKERS interview series and not really literary so much as it is about something Odd and local that most locals, much less tourists, know about: the strip club house mother.

Miss Marty, Mother of Strippers

Like strippers, they survive on tips that they accumulate from dancers for the items and care they provide the girls backstage. House moms are hired by strip clubs to enforce the club’s rules about the dress code, schedule and conduct. They’re entrusted with a dancer’s cash, secrets and belongings. The house mom at Penthouse Club on Bourbon Street, Marty Morgan, has the ability to ensure a dancer’s place on the schedule or promptly get her removed from it. She’s the seated goddess Demeter, with her crock pot cheese dip and homemade watermelon soup. Her desk is an encyclopedia of all things stripper-related and her meatloaf is beyond amazing. She’s the eyes and eyelash glue behind the scenes, and she cares deeply for the women in her midst.

The Patio on Royal April 17, 2010

Posted by Mark Folse in French Quarter, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, Toulouse Street.
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The carriageway is not just a conduit from the street but a corridor in time, a passage into my past of Gert and Sadie’s apartment on Royal and the private patio behind, into childhood memories of the Sixties and visits to my father’s aunts. The mostly shaded plants are blooming but I recall aromas of liquor and Kent cigarettes and Jean Nate powder. I get down on my knees as if to pray and I could in this temple of memory but I only wish to capture for a moment the perspective of a child bored with the adults inside and entering the lair of imaginary pirates.

It seemed there were more maiden aunts in those days, and I frequently saw my mother’s cousin, a sweet woman who lived with my grandparents but there was something of the pressed leaf about her, a dry and rigid antiquity. She worked her whole life as a bank teller and read screen magazines and played a lot of solitaire or concentration with us children if we were around and would give us little stand up cardboard bank calenders with a mercury thermometer. She was a dear woman but my memories of her are those a woman might have taking out an old dress from a trunk in the attic, stiff and crackly.

There was something magical about Sadie and Gert, these women who moved into the quarter in its seedier and consciously bohemian days, Gert with her voice rich with a lifetime of cigarettes and experience, my father’s maiden aunts in the sense that neither was married but Sadie was once the very special assistant to “Coozin” Dudley Leblanc and the other had worked for the government and traveled the world. I once had the two halves of a torn soft cardboard ticket from the last Roosevelt inauguration its circus ink colors still bright, and I still have a rough wool blanket from Guatemala of antique white with a pattern of fantastic, caricature animals of red and blue Gert brought back from her travels. I still have a royal quarto abridged children’s Iliad and Odyssey beautifully illustrated in the flat manner of old Greek vases, something they kept around for bored children back before they came equipped with their own portable electronic entertainment and which I loved so much they gave to me.

When we went to visit I had that book, the stoop where I could watch Royal Street pass by and the patio. To get to the patio you passed out the back into a tall well containing a spiral staircase with a thick banister of dark wood. I did not get to see that staircase on this visit. It has been enclosed and is now the entrance to the owner’s residence above the shop–off-limits–and so I understand why the women in the shop in front would not let me in the back the few times I asked as I stood among the perfume bottles, pretending to sample scents while I studied every detail of molding and ceiling, looked for traces of the water stain on the ceiling that was a permanent fixture in Gert and Sadie’s day and confessed finally why I was really there.

I thought there was a fountain but found none, perhaps conflating Gargia-Lorca’s private Grenada (I am very fond of Lorca) with Gert and Sadie’s world but remember the French Quarter is largely Spanish in architecture and perhaps that is where we acquired our Andalusian patios tucked back from the dirty street. Looking at the hasty camera phone pictures I snapped it seems an ordinary French Quarter patio–no, not ordinary, there are no ordinary patios in the Quarter, I meant typical of those I know from the commercial front of the quarter, the larger houses with an L of slave quarters wrapped around the back.

It is long and narrow but spacious enough that there are two planters, a round one of cast concrete in the middle front and a larger rectangle of brick toward the back and several along each sidewall, and still room for an iron table and chairs and a scattering of stand alone pots. I recognize the elephant ear and African violets, the ferns and hostas but I’m no naturalist; there are a few spindly but healthy looking trees that I can’t identify. The plants are largely the deep green of specimens raised for the shade, and they deepen the dimness of the courtyard’s well, but the soft light is peaceful like the nave of an unlit church.

The stairs go up on the right to the narrow slave quarter balcony, and are painted a color so dark in the dim light I take it for black. All of the trim is this color against the antique white of the painted brick and plaster and there is a Germanic cast to the space, appropriate to the Folses of the Côte des Allemandes. In places the plaster has fallen away and exposed the brick but that’s not the sort of repair people bother with, preferring the character of such architectural liver spots. The window air conditioning units are inconspicuous but the one incongruous piece is a large air-conditioning compressor elevated on a platform along the far wall and away from the house.

I know there is another child visiting this same patio. There is a child’s height basketball goal, the sort you fill the base of with water, standing in the corner. I didn’t have any such entertainment and its a bit sad that video and I-pod are sucking their minds dry so that they do not know how to entertain themselves when left alone in such a place, something so radically different from the blocky suburban house they likely know that it is an immediate jump start to the imagination and I wonder what memories they will have of this place, if forty years from now they will stand next to the two men in Jazz Fest chairs enjoying the Spring weather on Royal Street to press their eyes to the barred windows of the carriageway doors until they explain themselves and one of the men smiles and kindly lets him or her in.

Kirsten Brydum Remembered January 23, 2009

Posted by Mark Folse in Crime, French Quarter, je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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As residents of the French Quarter and the entire city prepare to Remember Wendy Byrne*, I want to share this comment on my 2008 murder victim list post.

New comment on your post #1941 “Remember 2008″

Comment:
Today is Kirsten Brydum’s birthday. We celebrate in her honor her in San Francisco, CA by inviting everyone and anyone to join us in Dolores Park for a picnic and bonfire later on the beach.

Thank you for remembering and not keeping quiet about the violence the effects us all – we are all in this together (as Kirsten so aptly reminded us). Together we can unite and bring light to the darkness.

Author : Will

You can see all comments on this post here:
https://toulousestreet.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/remember-2008/#comments

* UPDATE: The Second Line for Wendy has changed to Saturday afternoon. For updates, follow HumidCity.com

* UPDATE 02-01-09 : Here’s an LA Times story on Kirsten’s Odyssey and how it ended violently in New Orleans. I worry about the naivete of some of these punk volunteer anarchist types. They’re probably not big on Marx, but I suggest the bone up on the concept of the lumpenproletariat.

*** UPDATE 02-02-09 *** Members of the Iron Rail, an anarchist collective bookstore in the Marigny, are organzing a volunteer escort service called The Brydum Tandem Project for people who need assistance or just someone to help them get home safely in the Marigy and Bywater area. Details here. Given Kirsten’s leanings, I think this is an excellent memorial and a positive activity against crime.

Queen of Denial? February 9, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in 504, Carnival, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, French Quarter, home, Hurricane Katrina, Jazz Fest, je me souviens, Katrina, levee, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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Hollywood Reporter columnist Ray Richmond came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, wandered Bourbon Street and its immediate environs like a good tourist–noting the drunken hordes, the breast obsession, and the beads, all of the touchstones of a Tourist at Mardi Gras. His blog notes that he did venture out of the Quarter and into The Ruins, fand found “a watterlogged [sic] ghost town pockmarked with wide swaths of untouched damage. Meanwhile, those who dared stick it out — or more likely, had no choice — are forced to live in flimsy FEMA trailer housing where their homes once stood.”

His reaction to this odd (to him) juxtaposition was to wonder at the boosterism of the city fathers in promoting Carnival, and the commitment of the costumed locals to have their day even in the middle of Year Three of the postdeluvian era.

The local and national media don’t really talk about this stuff anymore, as Hurricane Katrina is yesterday’s crisis. It’s also far better for tourism and for the city’s tenuous self-esteem to promote the fact that New Orleans’ self-gratifying, anything-goes character is back in full. “New Orleans Hotels at 90% Capacity — and Counting!” exulted one headline. The only hurricane you seem to hear about anymore is the one that’s served in a glass (dark rum, pineapple juice, splash of grenadine). It’s all something of a facade, of course, but that’s spin marketing for ya. There’s simply not as much to be gained from peddling the slogan, New Orleans: Merely a Shell of What We Once Were.

“….We can all sleep better knowing that New Orleans is once again safe for the rowdy and the inebriated, the naked and the perverse. For a city that’s still struggling to crawl out from under the lingering devastation of Hell and high water, it now finds itself drowning in denial, which rapidly has become the most powerful of opiates for these huddled, thinned-out masses.”

Ray, we are not merely a shell of what we once were, even if half of the city’s buildings are. Carnival is not denial; for us it is life. The picture of the man dressed as a soiled baby president is part of (or a dedicated hanger on to) the Krewe of Saint Anne, one of the groups dedicated to elaborate costuming in Mardi Gras. The people who worked half the year on fantastic costumes in spite of the state of our city are no different than my wife soldiering through celebrating Christmas while her mother died. To suggest Mardi Gras is inappropriate would be tantamount to suggesting that commerce in New York be suspended for a few years because of 9-11. If that were to happen, what would be left of the city? Would what remains even be New York? The same is true for New Orleans: to cease to be ourselves would be to surrender, and we have not, will not give up.

For people like the Krewe of St. Anne and all of those you saw following them, Mardi Gras is not a denial but instead a celebration of who we are, of why we live here. It was an affirmation that we do live here, that we will live here, come hell or high water or both, in the way we have for close to three centuries. We not only had Mardi Gras this year, we had it last year, and we had it in 2006 — six months after the Federal Flood, when half of the city had no running water or telephones. We costumed and paraded and partied.

We’re glad the tourists are back, even the vomiting hordes of Spring Break in Hell types. We need their business. We need your business, and that of your readers. Tourism remains a top industry. We want you to come for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and we want you to take time out from those celebrations to see the rest of the city, the real city that stands in hollow, gray ruin not a mile from the Fairgrounds where Jazz Fest plays. We want America to know the one thing your story missed. We stand in ruin because we have been left to our own devices to rebuild. The money is all gone down the rat hole, parceled out to pay for fabulous no-bid contracts to Haliburton and their ilk for debris clean up and other tasks that followed the storm and flood. The money meant to help rebuild is tied up in Byzantine federal red tape. Little has actually reached the people who live here. And still they come home, maxing out their credit cards and cashing out their retirement and one-by-one rebuilding their houses and lives. We are doing it on our own because we just. Sinn Fein, baby.

They come home because they have tried life elsewhere in America when they had no choice but to leave, and they chose to come home. The come back because there is no place for a Krewe of St. Anne’s in Houston or Dallas or Atlanta or Memphis. They come home not for Bourbon Street but for the joie de vivre of the entire city, for the way of life which Bourbon Street caricatures for the tourists. The come because we have built a culture here over 300 years which is different than what the rest of America has, a life visitors don’t understand but are drawn to, which they come and sample with envy. A person may still be waiting — two-and-a-half years later — for a final insurance settlement or a check from the Road Home program, living in a camper trailer beside a home they are trying to rebuild themselves after a long day’s work elsewhere. They may be tired and beaten down, but they will have Carnival.

This is not denial. This is who we are. This is why you came, why the hordes on Bourbon Street came. This is why the floats rolled and the marching crews walked. They city may lay still half in ruin, but New Orleans is back because New Orleans is a people and a way of life. We have risked everything and spent every penny we have to be here because we will not let that way of life vanish from the earth, cannot imagine spending a life elsewhere, a life different from this.

See you at Jazz Fest.

Down by the riverside February 6, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, French Quarter, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, NOLA, Odds&Sods, parade, Rebirth.
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This year on Mardi Gras, with my family all home sick I took off all on my own oddy-knocky and made a point of trying to catch all of the marching krewes I could and taking a lot of pictures, starting with waiting for the Krewe of St. Anne’s on Royal Street in the Marigny and ending with finding St. Anne’s as they marched down to the riverside. I managed to track down the Ducks of Dixieland and Kosmik Debris, but never saw Pete Fountain (largely because I stayed in Marigny until after 11 waiting for St. Anne’s). I also found the Krewe of Whoo Hooo, Mondo Kayo dancing on Frenchman, and a few other odd groups I had not seen before.


Video of Krewe of St. Anne at Royal and Frenchman Streets

As a result, I missed most of the day’s parades, only catching a half dozen perhaps of Zulu as they turned onto Canal Street. The corner of Royal and Canal is not a great place for throws. The floats make a turn there and the barricades are kept far back. The only beads I had for the day were two pair I got from Queen Colleen, mother of old friends who famously parades through the Quarter pushed in a shopping cart by her adoring students and family.

colleen.jpg
Queen Colleen

My one throw was from Zulu. Not a coconut, but a walnut painted in gold. At the day’s end, when I joined St. Anne’s at the riverside and had taken my fill of pictures, I joined the St. Anne members who were memorializing their dead of the past year by throwing beads or more personal items into the river. I clambered down onto the rocks, and offered the Zulu nut to all of the ghosts of New Orleans and the Federal Flood. Inspired by the story of the Bone Men below, I invited them all to come and walk with me the rest of the day, to come and taste the visions of a day spent walking through Mardi Gras, to see the pictures I had captured not with my camera but with my memory.

riverside.jpg
St. Anne’s at the river

mourner1.jpg

St. Anne’s mourners
mourner2.jpg
More St. Anne’s mourners

Memo to my friends and family: this is how I want to go. Hire a band, invite everyone I know, and take my ashes and put them in a cart and parade them through the quarter on Mardi Gras Day. Take them to St. Anne’s in the Marigny, and parade down Royal to Zulu and Rex at Canal Street. At mid-afternoon go to the Moonwalk and wait for St. Anne’s, and scatter them there.

The Last Mardi Gras February 4, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, Flood, flooding, French Quarter, ghosts, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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As I did last year, I’m going to just re-post a piece I wrote in the fall of 2005 on Flood Street – Dispatches from an Imaginary Disaster, and then for Carnival 2006 and 2007 on Wet Bank Guide called The Last Mardi Gras.

If I don’t see you at St. Anne’s or on Frenchman, I’ll see you on the other side. As I once heard a Mardi Gras Indian chief say on WWOZ one Monday night in the long ago, “don’t be fallin’ outta yo’ house with no needle and thread in yo’ hand.”

The Last Mardi Gras

In this city, people talk incessantly of past pleasures and of those to come, even as they regard the meal or the drink or the parade in front of them. We live in a stream of memory as dark and deep and powerful as the river. Memory’s currents clutch at us and steer our lives, must be compensated for just as the ferry pilots must at every crossing, must be feared less they take us down into an eddy from which no body returns.

Some of my earliest memories are of Mardi Gras. I remember as a child of perhaps five seeing Indians dancing at the corner that might have been Galvez and Canal as we drove to my great aunts’ on Royal Street. Later that day or perhaps a year before or after, I can clearly recall watching Rex passing down Canal from atop my father’s shoulders. Half a life later, my girlfriend and I slouched outside a hall in Arabi in the lost hours before dawn on the night of MoM’s Ball, and a famous photographer took our picture. I’ve never seen this photograph, but I will go to my grave easier knowing that years from now, on a wall or in a book, someone will see us in our motley glory, dissolute and unrepentant and utterly glorious in the moment. They will see us and say: this is what Mardi Gras was like back then.

Twenty years separate those moments, and another twenty separate that MoM’s Ball from the first postdiluvian Carnival. For all that span of years and a century before, Mardi Gras has been as reliable as high water. No one really needed to tell me there would be a Mardi Gras this year as there has been every year in my living memory, and as I am certain there will be a Mardi Gras when no one remembers what it meant to sit on the lawn of the Wildlife and Fisheries building of a certain winter Tuesday. No disaster leaving behind life more complex than the cockroach could prevent it.

Just as certain, at some point of during Tuesday;s twilight people will begin to talk of about last Mardi Gras, and of the Mardi Gras to come with the certainty of the sanctified they are most certainly not. The last time in living memory Carnival was interrupted was during World War II. Frankly, I don’t understand why. The soldiers and sailors on leave wandering Perdido Street drunkly in search of women wouldn’t have been harmed by the tableaux of paper maiche floats lit by the dripping oil burners of the flambeau. Carnival was probably canceled by somebody from the wrong side of Canal Street, whose father before him decided Storyville had to be closed to protect the doughboys of World War One from dissipation. There always a Do-Good Daddy looking to tone the city down.

I don’t think anyone with the city in their heart understood the cancellations, but I’m sure those generations accepted those losses the way we accept the closing of a favorite restaurant: by finding a new and equally good one to sit in and eat and drink and discuss the loss of the old favorite, remembering what we ate on such a date and with whom. Until, of course, we discuss where the owner or the cook of the failed place is expected to return, and start to anticipate the day we will sit at that as yet unset table, and remember what we ate on such a date and with whom.

Of course there will be a Mardi Gras. I might need to ask which krewes would roll on what nights, to inquire of friends where the MoM’s Ball might be. But no one needed to tell me that Mardi Gras would happen, especially the one hidden inside private parties in bars or in courtyards, punctuated by forays out into the streets to parade. The year the police went on strike and the parades all fled to the suburbs and the Mardi Gras of the hoteliers and the airlines was canceled, we dutifully assembled at the Wildlife and Fisheries Building on Fat Tuesday.

Suspicious National Guardsmen and out-of-state troopers warily regarded the ragged parade of the early intoxicated, smelling of burnt leaves and breakfast screwdrivers, dressed in ways only the part-time preachers among them could have imagined, and then only in a place warmer than the city in February. We were not about to let a simple thing like a police strike spoil the party. Several among us dressed as the National Guard in uniforms from the surplus stores in Gentilly, armed with perfect replica rifles by Mattel. When we went to buy wine and beer at the Walgreen’s on Canal, and our friends burst into the door yelling “secure the beer cooler,” clerks fell to the floor in fright, fearing perhaps that the Guard had had enough, and were about to shut down carnival.

I fled the city a few years later, and did not return for Mardi Gras once for almost two decades. The few Mardi Gras that followed the police strike were colored by my reasons for leaving the city, memories rent by heartache and drowned in drink. Those last few years did not yield the stories I would tell my children if they fed me too much wine at some holiday dinner years from now. For many years, the police strike was the Last Mardi Gras. My children, a boy ten and a girl fourteen, grew up knowing Mardi Gras through the Disney film fairy tale filter of the stories I dared to tell them, from the magazine that came with the king cake from Ma Mere every year, in the music I played them from Twelfth Night until the day. We ate jambalaya and king cake, and donned masks and beads to dance wildly to Mardi Gras Vol. 1 in front of the large plate glass window of our home in a small Midwestern town. Neighbors across the street peered through their curtains intermittently at the scene, but no one ever worked up the courage to ask us what we were doing.

I have taken my family to New Orleans. The kids had sneezed powdered sugar all over each other at the Cafe du Monde, fondled baby alligators on flat boats out of Barataria, had learned to eat seafood and gumbo and jambalaya, had even wandered with me through Storyland in City Park. I took them to the exhibit at the Cabildo to learn about Mardi Gras. It’s a wonderful set piece but, like a high school health film on sex, it is not quite the same as the actual experience.

So we piled onto an airplane bound for New Orleans the year before the Flood, and went to Mardi Gras. I took them to St. Charles and Napoleon, and my son waved his deftly caught spear with complete abandon. My daughter was bashful about begging trinkets from strangers in a strange land, until I flung myself stone cold sober on my knees in the middle of the Avenue and begged as loudly as I could for a female horse posse rider to give me a purple, green and gold flower for my daughter on her first Mardi Gras. After that, she got the idea. No pretty girl on St. Charles Avenue should go home without her weight in beads. She only needed to ask.

We stood for hours all weekend, parade after parade, never tiring of it, interrupted only by a friend’s party Endymion party on Saturday night. After Endymion, I left them with Ma Mere and set out after midnight to return to the MoM’s ball for the first time in two decades. MoM’s had always been one of my favorite things about Mardi Gras, a gathering of all who chose to live in the fabric of Mardi Gras and not just inhabit a costume for a few hours, a party only the resolutely dissolute can enjoy, or survive. MoM’s is what I hope Saturday night in Hell will be like, should I find myself stuck there between planes. But thousands in a shed did not hold up to the memories of hundreds in a hall in Arabi decades before. I don’t know if I will return to MoM’s, preferring this one true memory of carnival’s past. And then I can say well, I don’t go anymore, you know, but back when…

I agonized for weeks and months before we went: should I take the children to the Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, or back to St. Charles? As I child, I spent most Mardi Gras at my great aunt’s apartment on Royal Street, now the Hove’ Parfumier. I decided they should have a glimpse of the secret heart of Mardi Gras, or as least as much as they could handle. So we rose up early on the day, donned our costumes, and boarded a cab bound for Frenchman Street. We waited endlessly across from the R-Bar for St. Anne’s, not knowing those marchers had chosen another route. Facing a rebellion, we took off and made our own way up Royal, stopping to sit a moment on Tante Gert and Sadie’s stoop, making Canal just in time for Zulu.

After Rex, I left them in my sister’s care for the endless truck floats, and retired to friend’s places in the Quarter. I stopped briefly in the Abbey, a place that had never been the same since Betz sold it. Instead of the usual motley crew of bikers or transvestites or other folk I had often encountered on past trips home, I found it full of drunken twenty somethings who looked frighteningly like the crowd I remember from my own days, as if the Abbey were haunted for the night by the spirits of the place of my memories. I bought a round of snakebites for a familiar seeming couple and then the currents swept me back to Frenchman Street, a mad Green Man second lining with a huge palm tree totem given to me be someone who knew just how to complete my costume.

Now I have a new last Mardi Gras. We are coming back to the city to stay, to march again and again, so that there is no longer a Last Mardi Gras, just the last Mardi Gras. I will march until my time is done, and then I will borrow a ritual from St. Anne’s, in this city of borrowed rituals. I will have my children scatter what remains of me into the river on Fat Tuesday. For me, it will be the Last Mardi Gras. For them, it will simply be a moment from last Mardi Gras. They will say a few words, shed a tear, and then all of us will be swept away by the currents. They will turn away from the river, while nearby a drunken trumpeter will perhaps blow a few bars of Oh Didn’t He Ramble, and I will march in their hearts back into the Quarter once more.

Coming to Take You Away January 19, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, French Quarter, Krewe du Vieux, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Rebirth, Remember, Toulouse Street.
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The Magical Misery Tour is coming to take you away (coming to take you awaaayyy….). Perhaps, once you’ve seen us all out on the streets, you’ll think they should be coming to take us away. No matter. It’s time for the Krewe du Vieux to once again stain the shiny, Sidney-Torres washed streets of New Orleans and once again diminish the city’s magical brand as They City That Forgot to Care.

Our King is Ronald W. Lewis of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: Director, House of Dance & Feathers and President, Big 9 Social Aid & Pleasure Club.

The secret sub-subKrewe of B.L.O.G.* will once again celebrate by getting notoriously drunk and failing to each other at the ball. Our featured drink will be Absinthe. As the self-appointed captain of this nearly non-existant group, I proclaim Bec our Queen, since I’m so pickled she’s going to make it and march. Not as pickled, however, as I will be later tonight. My personal theme this year is Getting L.H. Really Drunk and Taking Embarrassing Pictures I Can Use To Advance My Career at the Bank. My costume is titled: Oh! Wendy? but only someone who thinks Capitol when they hear “hill” will figure out how the hell it fits into the Seeds of Decline’s theme of Fools on the Hill.

Don’t forget the new start time–6:30 PM–and the new route. route08.gif

And don’t forget the Krewe du Vieux Doo, at 2121 Chartres St., featuring 101 Runners (Mardi Gras Indian Funk), Juice with Special Guest J.D. Hill, Honey Island Swamp Band, and Late Night Trip by Quintron and Miss cat (whatever that is). Tickets are advance sale only at:

  • Mardi Gras Zone: 2706 Royal Street
  • Louisiana Music Factory: 210 Decatur Street
  • Up In Smoke: 4507 Magazine Street
  • Miss Claudia’s Vintage Clothing and Costumes
  • *B.L.O.G. is the Benevolent and Order of the Garrulous.

Stringing up dozens January 13, 2008

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, French Quarter, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, Uncategorized.
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In a world where all of our holidays come cleverly packaged on the shelves–Christmas trees with embedded lights decked and holiday cookies ready-made at the local grocery’s bakery–most people no longer have the simple traditions long ago. I once cut my own tree, wading through a foot of Minnesota snow at 20 degrees to do it, but I can’t say I’ve ever strung up popcorn. Holidays like Halloween are much the same. Our children’s costumes come in plastic bags and no one dares put out a homemade treat since we now another parents will just dump it in the garbage.

Mardi Gras is one place where the handmade is still valued. Yes, the parade floats are largely mass-produced and much recycled by a handful of shops, the stores are full of kitschy decorations and of course there will be lots of people roaming St. Charles Avenue and the French Quarter in costumes from some store named The Party Pit. That is part of Carnival, but not the heart of Carnival.

On the big day, hundreds of African-American men and women will step out of their houses in costumes like these. The Societé de Sainte Anne and all of the other small marching groups will step out in elaborate costumes made by hand, either by themselves or by seamstresses. My own costume for Krewe du Vieux is still forming up, but it’s fairly simply and mostly conceptual. I may find it easier in a busy life to dress my son store-bought, but I’ve always tried to assemble my own costumes. I don’t got to the lengths of Danger Blonde, who yearly makes custom beaded-object throws and fabulous bustiers for the Divine Protectors of Endangered Pleasures, but if you’re going to dress you might as well be do it right. Every year around this time, I head in my head the admonishment of one of the Mardi Gras Indian chiefs being interviewed on WWOZ sometime back in the 1980s: Don’t be fallin’ out of your house with no needle an’ thread in your hand. I wish to hell I knew who had said that, but it’s stuck with me forever.

One thing we must do every year at our house is collect all of the caught beads we’ve saved up (and my son and I are dogged parade goers, working the neutral ground from morning to night all the week-ends before Carnival), and begin the slow process of untangling, matching up by size, and making up new dozens to toss back out when we march through Marigny and the Quarter.

Stringing up dozens is one of those tasks like cleaning out the attic that is often is slowed down by “remember when” moments (wasn’t Chaos funny last year? Remember the guy we saw….), as well as interrupted by comedy: finding that whoopee cushion, or the little foam rockets you can launch with a rubber band on the tip that turns our bead stringing party into a temporary war zone.

My son groaned this year when I told him it was time to string up the beads into dozens. He would rather hang out with a friend and play his WII. For him, Carnival is mostly new. I am a native with thirty years of Carnival under my belt before we came back to New Orleans in 2006, but this is really only his third year and his second as an Orleanian. It was not, for him, a tradition but a chore like cleaning up his room: until we got started, and found the whoopie cushions and rockets.

As long as I have legs to march I will look forward to stringing up the dozens, especially the few years I have left before my 12-year old boy is either too damn busy to help (like his socially swirling 15 year old sister) or gone from the house. For me, it is not the arrival of King Cakes in the stores (and most places were putting them out with red and green sugar in December), or the first time I open the paper and it falls open to the débutante pictures of Krewe’s ball, or even taking down the Christmas decorations with Mardi Gras Vol. 1 blaring on Twelfth Night. Carnival begins at the Folse house when I start to haul in and down the bags of tangled baubles and dump them out onto the table, and we closed the circle that connects the last Mardi Gras to this year’s Carnival, one string at a time.

Way down yonder way back when November 18, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in French Quarter, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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This old newsreel seems to focus a great deal on the river. It’s interesting to see cars driving past the Cabildo, and in fact how little traffic there seems to be in the French Quarter

Complicated Life September 16, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, French Quarter, New Orleans, NOLA.
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As my own swirls life madly out of control and into what a acquaintance who moved from professional musician to corporate citizen once called The Swirling Vortex, it’s time to stop and listen to some fine advice for everyone who lives in New Orleans, or wishes they did: remember why we’re here.

Damn, that felt good, now, didn’t it? Go ahead, play it again. Or better yet, click on the Share This link and give this video five stars now to show your appreciation.

Here’s some info from the You Tube posting:

Filmed in mid-2005, this is a glimpse into life on the French Quarter’s lower Decatur Street before Hurricane Katrina.

Originally written by Ray Davies of the Kinks, this track is performed by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band featuring Clint Maedgen on vocals with a guest appearance by the New Orleans Bingo! Show in the video.

http://www.myspace.com/preservationhall

http://www.myspace.com/clintmaedgen9

http://www.myspace.com/thebingoshow

The New Orleans Jazz Vipers April 18, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in French Quarter, Jazz, Jazz Vipers, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Toulouse Street.
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Ok, well, the video sucks. Bad camera holding and you can’t see them on stage. Too dark. And the wind noise on the camera and the bad sound board work, well. Screw it. I had fun. If you don’t know the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, get thyself down to the Spotted Cat some Friday night and discover the best time in New Orleans. No cover. Tip well.

These cats were one of two traditional jazz bands we caught on Sunday at French Quarter Festival. The other was the Andrew Hall Society Marching Band, who are a living diorama of a pre-Rebirth, traditional brass marching and concert band. They are Living National Treasures. I keep meaning to ask them if they are the same outfit as the Andrew Hall Society Jazz Band that used to play the Maple Leaf long, long ago on Saturday nights. Those guys were already old in the 1970s.

Anyway, just take a peek at the scene, then close your eyes and let the music carry you away to The day before yesterday and well into the distant decades at the other end of the 20th century. The Vipers are keeping the traditional jazz alive in New Orleans for the future.

Krewe du Vieux Goes to Hell February 8, 2007

Posted by Mark Folse in Carnival, Catholic, Dante, French Quarter, Hell, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, NOLA, satire, Toulouse Street.
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Ed Note 5-13-08: Sorry, kiddies but, no, I don’t have a cite for these. Perhaps you should try looking in that big building behind the student union, you know the one with all the books in it that doesn’t sell t-shirts?

As a first-time marcher its probably way out of my league to make suggestions to the assembled captains of the sub-krewes that make up the Krewe du Vieux, but I think the appropriate response to the trumped up protest by an out-of-town group against the parade’s past themes is to adopt the theme:

Krewe du Vieux Goes To Hell

Think Dante and the circles of hell. Think of all of the wonderful examples of sin that could be represented. Imagine Bill Donahue clutching his chest and turning purple. I think this is far superior to my original idea of Great Popes of New Orleans (as I hum the jingle to the old cooking show, sung I’m pretty sure by a girl I had a terrible crush on when I was 11).

No, I think if these guys are right and we’re going Down Under–sans koala’s and Fosters–I say we ought to go out in style. And Heck, looking at these maps of Hell (its been a long time since I crack the Inferno), it looks to me like those of us who Choose du Vieux get the good seats, with an excellent view of the hypocrites and pretty much everyone in local government down below.

upperhell.jpg
Sure, it may seem a bit harsh to pick on these pathetic protesters, but this isn’t a devout group of local churchgoers. This is a group protesting the 2005 parade in 2007, a group that comes every year to try to save us all from the debauchery, the heirs to the Grape Force whose real mission is to abolish Mardi Gras as we know it. Look closely and you may see a few of them on Circle Six.

malbolgia.jpg

Again, it’s probably not my place as a first-timer new to my krewe to propose themes. But, I’m just saying…

satanhell.jpg

Middle Aged Men Gone Wild in the French Quarter! August 7, 2006

Posted by Mark Folse in French Quarter, New Orleans, NOLA, Odds&Sods.
4 comments

Big Daddy gettin’ funky with the Hot 8 at Satchmo Fest.

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