Sad Baritone Saturday January 10, 2015Posted by The Typist in cryptic envelopment, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, The Narrative.
add a comment
A sad baritone blowing big round Jello-tremulous Os of the blues.
That’s what started this ramble into a pleasant melancholia a fizzing afternoon beer buzz of sadness not quite cheerless, simply there like a color in the air a sky so blue and clear you can hear it, a faint hum beneath your feet an afternoon so perfectly empty you just want to lay down in the arms of some big oak and root, thinking: well, if the world is going to caterwaul in a crashing train wreck, I guess I’m not busy today. Go ahead. I voted early.
And then you remember the Indians, stuffed into the lobby of the museum. So you go and the colors aren’t quite right all that expanse of white marble flattening the joyous chromatic colors into something cartoonish , stealing the scene’s perspective like some VCR on endless loop, alone in a neutral cream room of neatly labeled artifacts under glass instead of the slow approach up a street lined with long, low rows of shotguns and maybe a catercorner store.
First just a spyboy peering around the black chalkboard brightly proclaiming Hot Breakfast and Cold Beer, then a hammering of tambourines in the distance and then you spot them, turning a corner: bright-beaded bird creatures from a dream, singing in a language they have made themselves.
That’s when you decide: No, thank you I want to slap the snooze button on that doom clock your time doesn’t apply to us down here we’re on Central River Time and things things are just a bit slower and we’re not quite ready for all your rapturous end time mob of murder and riots. We’re all in pawn up to the brim of our sharp fur felt fedoras so here’s a quarter: call in all your sad Wall Street stories to someone else.
If you’re going to destroy your world try to keep it down to a manageable rumble in the distance, please, perhaps a smudge of smoke on the horizon like a marsh fire and leave us to ourselves to the scat-o-logical chantings of Fi-Yi-Yi to mad tambourine time the bright side of the poverty and sadness you turn into spewing automaton television heads and we turn into a sad baritone sax blowing big round Jello-tremulous Os measuring the girth of the blues just about city sized and right for us, thanks.
Poetry and Blood September 21, 2014Posted by The Typist in FYYFF, Louisiana, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, postdiluvian, second line, The Narrative, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: John Law, New Orleans exceptionalism
Yes, there is poetry in the ground, as the famous 19th century Creole poet said, and there is blood on the streets. If you look at the sagging shotgun shacks at the edge of the fashionable neighborhoods, the ones with the paint peeling from their gingerbread, and see opportunity and not poverty, you are part of the problem of the new New Orleans exceptionalism.
I am a New Orleans exceptionalist with every chauvinist drop of Gallic blood in my veins, but it is tempered by my nearly 300-year old Cote des Allemans heritage, the practically of finding enough to eat in this city, a problem solved three centuries ago by the arrival of my people who came with no glint of gold in their eye but with strong backs and a willingness to make it work, to feed the foolish Frenchman seeking Spanish riches in a land of mud.
The joy that manifests itself in the brass band on the corner or at the head of a second line, the flavor of every forkful of real New Orleans food seasoned with the cast off bits of the pig, is born out of the ecstatic Black church, the fanciful celebration of slaves dreaming of the land of milk and honey in their weekly escape from the Exodus of the hustle, the daily struggle.
The newcomers are as ignorant as my own ancestors, who fell for John Law’s flyers with imaginary palm trees promising tropical indolence and mountains in the background no doubt filed with gold and silver. What the newcomers lack is the experience of the toil of serfdom and a willingness to work hard to build a city. They are not fleeing religious persecution and war but arrive with the uniquely American dream of a quick buck with as little work as possible, with the mark of Wall Street and Silicon Valley stamped on their heads as clearly as the mark of Cain. They come not to build, for all their modern talk of entrepreneurship, but to destroy. They come like the famous swindler and gambler Law to remake an alien land in their own image. They come to a city 300 years old not to build but to destroy.
Orleanians know about entrepreneurship but are more likely to call it the hustle. Grilling pork chop sandwiches in the street without a license or selling ice cups out your window in the summer is entrepreneurship, but it is an entrepreneurship of people looking to make next month’s rent, who have never had enough money in the bank to dream big. There are big dreamers standing on corners selling crack, who are ethically and economically no different from real estate flippers. They see a need and fill it because it’s all about the Benjamins, not the consequences.
The real entrepreneurs are those pushing the pork chop sandwiches, the people who get up in the dark to catch the Michoud bus for the long ride in from the East to a low-paying job. What the newcomers don’t understand is that the people here dream different dreams. They dream of Indian and Second Line suits that will set them back month’s of wages. They dream of a midnight brass band on Saturday night in the club up the street, and a ghetto burger on the break from the back of a pick up truck; not of a vacation in the Caymans. They dream and hope that their eldest child will get the rest out of bed and off to a second-rate school in the dearly bought uniforms of our new exercise in segregation: the charter school. They dream the same dream their parents did at the start of desegregation: a less laborious life, and more time for joy.
New Orleans and much of South Louisiana live by a different standard that the rest of America. They live for the joie de vivre that brings the tourists and the newcomers. A hard way of life has trained them to live not for money but for the joy wherever they can find it. Yes, they dream of nice clothes for church and Saturday night, that tricked out car, that big-ass pickup, the way the generation of the Great Depression dreamed of those things, and when the money is good they will get them. They will dress up and drive that car or truck to a house full of friends where the grill is burning and the drink is flowing and the music a bit too loud. The house may be a small but righteous brick ranch–each a perfect mirror of the post-WWII white Lakeview of my youth before the McMansions builders moved in–or a tumbledown in the city, because so many don’t understand investment. They understand rent. The closest they ever came to investment was the opportunity to buy a Schwegmann’s bond as they stood in line to cash their paycheck and pay the NOPSI bil. The house does not matter. They will go in search of the joy.
The newcomers don’t understand this but they are the joy-killers. Every lease or mortgage they sign at exorbitant rents drives the joy away. They destroy the neighborhood that supported that corner store with the magnificent po-boys at the counter in the back. They will find the corner bar where each generation of musicians learned their trade a noisy nuisance. They will loiter over their free trade coffee, mocking our own chicory as the drink of people who don’t understand coffee although the coffee shop was the center of social and business life in this city centuries ago. They will wax excited when the sketchy store with its square-bottled wine and mouth-watering po-boys turns into some fusion cooking monstrosity.
What will happen when the speculators drive everyone out of the neighborhood at the center of which stands the Indian-practice bar, when some of the newcomers complain of the noise on the street and the odd go-cup abandoned on the hood of their car. When the people who assembled their on Sunday to practice the ancient chants are driven into diaspora, how long will they persist? One hopes they will, just as so many city churches survived a generation or two after their parishioners fled to Metairie, Chalmette or the East. Even if their sacred meeting place of faded bar signs survives, will they bring their children in (sorry, not allowed) or to just stand on the street outside listening and learning? And how long before the NOPD drives by to scatter those children for loitering while Black in the neighborhood of houses their grandparents built?
New Orleans must market its exceptionalism to survive. It brings the tourists, and maintains the remaining jobs in the city. The wealthy men reluctant to admit newcomers to the clubs that were the center of their inner circle drove away the oil men and let the port go to ruin. There are no other jobs. Their narrow-minded stupidity and Southern comfort in the ways of segregation built the city we have today. Is out only choice to mimic them–to try to drive the newcomers and their money away in an effort to preserve our dream, our joy, and yes our exclusivity, our exceptionalism–as they did to preserve their’s? Do we let the newcomers come, and place out hope in the city’s incredible power of assimilation, of Creolization, that our own exceptional melting pot will convert them not into Anglo-Saxon Yankees but blend them into our Pan-Caribbean gumbo?
More importantly, what should we do, what should we expect them to do unless we model it for them and make it a part of that gumbo to care about the dissolution of public education, the generational poverty, the busy Second Line’s worth of bodies that fall each year in a pool of blood? If I knew the answers I would tell you, and I have pondered these questions since the days of the Wet Bank Guide, since that moment a decade ago when we confronted absolute hopelessness and met it with resolution. What should the people who cashed out their IRAs and maxed out their credit cards to rebuild a city with their own sweat and blood say to those arrive with a down payment in hand looking to buy a piece of the dream? That your hustle is nothing unless you understand the roots of the joy you seek to have stamped on your hand Saturday night. That unless you understand this city and are ready to bleed for it, the dream you are buying will ultimately prove as empty as John Law’s promises of three centuries ago.
Yakumo Fee Nah Ney October 21, 2012Posted by The Typist in City Park, cryptic envelopment, Mardi Gras Indians, music, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, The Odd, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Bon Koizumi, Iko Iko, Japan Fest, Lafcadio Hearn, NOMA, Sugar Boy Crawford, Three Mountains of Dewa, Yakumo Japanese Garden, Yakumo Loizumi, Yakumo Nihon Teien
We go in the Wisteria Gate because the crowd is so large and the Japanese Garden in New Orleans is so small. We end up at the back of the crowd as the tour guide makes his spiel, and as everyone finally moves into the garden my friend pulls me back toward the plaque in front so she can read it.
She thinks the name Yakumo Japanese Garden is funny. I’m trying to explain to a gentleman with foreign-accented English why the name Yakumo Nihon Teien (Yakumo Japanese Garden) is funny to a New Orleanian. There’s no quick way to explain Jocomo fee nah nay except to say it’s a Mardi Gras Indian chant rooted in Creole and leave it at that. While we are talking a Japanese gentleman comes up and begins to earnestly read the plaque at the entrance. “And Yakamein,” my friend reminds me, “don’t forget to tell him about yakamein.” The Japanese man bends neatly at the waist to read to the bottom with the practiced habit of bowing rather than hunching over as I did. He comes up from reading the bottom of the plaque and stands admiring it. A woman behind me says something in Japanese, and the man turns to pose beside the plaque. “That’s Yakumo’s great-grandson,” she says in English over her camera, and I frantically dig for the phone. He is Bon Koizumi, a professor at the University of Shimane, Junior College and Adviser to the Lafacadio Hearn Memorial Museum in Matsue, I learn when I exchange my embarrassingly cheap and a bit tattered business card for his elegant one, trying to bow just a bit deeper as much for the embarrassing card as the honor. without getting into a contest that leads me to tip over, feinting like a lineman trying to draw an offsides so that I bow just a bit lower and come up last without provoking a second bow. It is not just an exchange of cards. It is a special moment, Yakumo’s great-grandson in the garden named for him on the day of Japan Fest.
This is an above average Japan Fest for me. After an early set by Kaminari Taiko I manage to watch the entire tea ceremony. In the past it was done in a small room and the doors were closed once it began, but this year it has been moved to the atrium. Once I’m done snapping pictures, I try to sit on my heels with my feet folded under and realize if I want to be invited to participate, I’m going to need a year of stretching and practice before I could sit in that position for 30 minutes. I catch most of the Kendo demonstration, and decide to take their offer to go up on stage and give one of them a few good whacks on the helmet. I take a card. (Another thing to do? Really?). I find the Haiku Society and enter the one I wrote the night before. I don’t know the man behind the table but he recognizes my name as last year’s winner, and we make arrangements to get my book prize. Always nice to make an impression. I once again stump the women who will write your name in calligraphy on a book mark with my annual request for Dancing Bear in traditional characters. The younger woman who draws mine resorts to voice searching some site on her iPhone but manages to make me another temple bell pendant for this year. I wander through the Go room and pick up a pen made from recycled paper at the City of Matasue table. Matasue is a sister city to New Orleans, based in part on Hearn’s residence in their city and our’s. I grabbed some lunch from Ninja sushi, and manage to chop-stick up the last few grains of rice from my plate one by one.
I’m having a fantastic time, and I haven’t met Bon Koizumi yet.
My particular friend and my son text me within minutes of each other. Both have decided to come. Awkward, the little sing-song voice in my head telsl me but it turns out fine. Later they sat and chatted naturally as I went to buy us waters, another fortuitous moment in the day. I buy them wristbands and my son is off to the anime room upstairs but I notice the ikebana table is already torn down. It is four o’clock and I forgot that the times had been shifted to work around the 5k race this morning. It is all over except for the final taiko set. She and I wander back into the hall full of vending tables and I go back to see if the porcelain plate, a fluted rectangle with a high-gloss tropical ocean blue finish in one triangular patch, and the other rough clay with fine striations like the rakings of a karesansui garden. Miraculously it is still there. I’m dead broke and trying not to buy anything but I desperately want one of the miniature net floats, the glass balls bound in a net of rope that I have seen before in Quarter shops long ago. I had a long conversation with the couple behind the table when I first stopped there earlier in the day about the full-sized float, telling them they used to wash up on Grand Isle and such places. They didn’t know they were found in the Gulf. We discuss the wide-ranging Japanese fishing fleet and ocean currents while I occasionally pick up and admire the plate, then wander off empty-handed.
When I come back, they remember me. We’re about to close up, he says, I’ll make you a deal on anything on the table. I pick up the plate. Ten dollars, he says. I smile and reach for the last miniature float and my wallet. As we turn to go I notice something I did not see before, or which was not on the table. It’s a clearly used walking stick inscribed with three Kanji characters. I love walking sticks and can’t resist picking it up, holding it in two open hands and staring after hefting it. The characters mean I have walked the three mountains, he tells me, explaining that pilgrims who visit the Three Mountains and climb to the Shinto temple at the summit of each have their walking sticks stamped with these characters. I think I manage a wow while nodding in appreciation and stand holding the stick out before me at forearms length in my open palms like a an altar boy holding the cloth for the priest at the consecration.
I will never know why, perhaps something about the way and length of time I hold the stick that way, my head moving slightly to take it in from handle to foot, stopping each time to rest on the three characters. Take it, he says.
What? I answer. Take it, he says. It’s yours.
I hardly know what to say. The couple are American enthusiasts. This is not the stereotypical story of admiring an Asian man’s watch too long or too enthusiastically.
Seriously? I ask again, impolitely I realize. I’m just dumbstruck by his offer.
Absolutely, he says with no further explanation,smiling, arms folded to end the discussion.
I don’t know what else to do but return the stick to is customary stance resting on the ground, and shake his hand and thank him.
Earlier I spoke with the architect who designed the Japanese garden, offering my admiration and hearing about his two summers studying in Japan. I offer to volunteer, to pick litter from the dry stream bed that wanders through the garden, the nod of karesansui in the small space, anxious to learn some of the secrets. I feel an invisible poke in the ribs through the corner of the eye from my friend. (Another thing to do? Really? When do you plan to sleep?). I tell him of the gardens I have seen in the U.S., and my dream of a pilgrimage to Japan to visit the gardens. We exchange cards; no bowing this time.
I have always spoken of my hope to visit the Prefecture of Kyoto in Japan and see the gardens as a pilgrimage. Now I stand in my house holding a pilgrim’s stick with its unearned, at least by me, inscription. Yamagata Prefecture is not near to Kyoto. Perhaps I will never climb the Three Mountains of Dewa if I go to Japan, but holding this object I think about the relationship between this gift and geis, the ancient Celtic curse of obligation. I know visiting the gardens of Kyoto is not just a bucket list dream of a man working paycheck to paycheck with no prospect of retirement beyond Social Security. It has always been more than just that but as I place the stick against the wall next to the front room bookshelves I know that I will go, that I must go. There was a reason for the gift neither I nor the gentleman who gave it to me understood at the time, an unspoken communication between the stones of the Shinto temples of Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono and those of the gardens of Kyoto and the American gardens I have seen, the stones I have seen today, a reminder of a dreamy, romanticized desire straight from the pages of Yakumo Koizumi become now an obligation of pilgrimage, no longer a possible indulgence of a man with time and money to spare but an ordained act of grace.
Postscript: Most readers will glance past the title and think it just a clever turn of phrase from a former headline writer, but there is something a bit deeper. The chants written down by Sugar Boy Crawford half a century ago and which became the song “Iko Iko” are phonetic appropriations from Creole, warped either by time or Sugar Boy’s phonetic transcription. Jocomo fi nou wa na né is one researchers assertion, meaning Jocomo caused our king to be born. Jocomo fi na né is approximately “Jocomo made it so”, and I think Yokamo did.
All on a Mardi Gras Day February 21, 2012Posted by The Typist in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
“Don’t be fallin’ out of your house with no needle and thread in you hand.”
I heard that on WWOZ back in the early 1980s one Monday before Mardi Gras, before Lundi Gras and before Orpheus, when that night we stayed home and put the finishing touches on costumes. I don’t know who it was. It might have even been the great Tootie Montana. I like to think so.
I knew about Mardi Gras Indians back then, something that happened deep back in neighborhoods were we never ventured. I saw them first as a very young boy, young enough to remember watching Rex pass from my father’s shoulders. I think it was the corner of Galvez and Canal, but it could just easily have been the corner of Claiborne, back before the expressway. We saw them on the corner as we drove down to the French Quarter early to spend the day at my great aunts Gert and Sadie Folse in the 800 block of Royal Street. My father pulled over to the side in mid-intersection for a moment and to a boy that small they were something monstrously wonderful.
As I sit on my stoop and smoke a cigarette and the first neighbors come out. A young woman climbs into her car in tights and a tank top with a garbage bag of costume. A car pulled up at my neighbor’s. Jimmy said he has to cook 200 pounds of meat today down on Broad. I can hear the cars down on Gentilly Boulevard. I am tempted to jump into the shower and emerge a boneman just as the sun comes up, to go down to street to give the people on Gentilly a proper boneman greeting. I may yet head out the door and do just that. I don’t think most of my neighbors here on the sketchy edge of the Fauborg St. John understand it is a boneman’s role to wake the neighborhood on Carnival Day, but perhaps I could give some child in the back of a car riding up to Mardi Gras on Claiborne Avenue a memory they will recall some Mardi Gras morning when I am gone down the river.
Tootie’s New Suit April 12, 2010Posted by The Typist in 504, Debrisville, Federal Flood, je me souviens, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, postdiluvian, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: David Simon, Treme
Last night America saw a ghost and they don’t even know it.
It spoke a language they did not understand, took a stand, gave a command: Won’t bow. Don’t know how.
When that spectral yellow figure stepped out of the darkness with that downtown sparkle and spoke, the spindly cemetery trees all across this town moved in the windless night and the hairs on the back of a ten thousand necks stood up like the feathers in its headdress.
Won’t bow. Don’t know how.
The last night Tootie Montana spoke he died at the microphone, defending his culture to tone deaf politicians and against a hostile local police force, demanding respect for a century old tradition with roots in in the bead work Yoruba and a strange and never clearly explained solidarity with the American Indian, something I think similar to the identification of the Black Christian church with the Isrealites in bondage.
Won’t bow. Don’t know how.
That ghost wasn’t speaking to me, or to any of the people in the room with me on Toulouse Street. It wasn’t even speaking to New Orleans. It spoke to all of America, to the entire planet. It stood amidst a desolation the American continent has not seen in a hundred years, one only those who came home with nothing to nothing, and the few privileged tens of thousands who came to volunteer, can understand. That ghost said all you need to know about the people of New Orleans.
Won’t bow. Don’t know how.
If that phrase still seems cryptic to you, try this: watch a repeat of Pacific that leads into a repeat of Treme.
Won’t bow. Don’t know how.
Ourselves Alone March 17, 2009Posted by The Typist in 504, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA.
Tags: Cheiftains, Mardi Gras Indians, St. Joseph's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Super Sunday, Ziggy Marley
add a comment
At this crazy collision of our Irish, Italian and African roots on the streets of this Franco-Hispanic city, our individual identities melding into something greater than it parts, we must remember: All we have is ourselves, and redemption songs.
*This is a repost and I’ve taken Sinn Fein out of the title as it causes so much damned confusion. My use of it follows Ashley Morris’ adoption of the phrase and it’s translation–Ourselves Alone–to the situation of New Orleans, and not an endorsement of any political movement outside of this country. I feel the same way about the struggle for Irish independence after the turn of the last century as Lord Byron felt about the Greeks, and if you catch me humming Jonsey’s Motor Car this is why. There was nothing romantic about The Troubles in the North, and its disconcerting to think how easily America might have gone down that path if President Rockefeller had sent Federal troops to support the segregationists at the bridge at Selma.
The Last Mardi Gras February 4, 2008Posted by The Typist 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.
Tags: Carnival, Federal Flood, French Quarter, Frenchman Street, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, Krewe of St. Anne, Mardi Gras, Marigny, memory, MoMs, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Rebirth, Remember, Rex, Zulu
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.
Nothin’ but the bones January 26, 2008Posted by The Typist in assholes, Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: bone men, Carnival, Charleston, gentrification, Hurricane Yugo, Mardi Gras, music, possession, second line, street parade, Sunpie Barnes, Treme, yuppie scum
The weekly newspaper Gambit brings us this story of the fearful future of the bone men and other African-American Mardi Gras traditional marchers. In on of the city’s oldest neighborhoods outside of the French Quarter, the local population is being squeezed by gentrification, rising rents and the demolition of the Lafitte Housing Project. What is at risk here is not just affordable housing or the comfort of coming home, but something infinitely more rare and precious: a living culture unique in North America.
For Bruce ‘Sunpie” Barnes, Mardi Gras day begins quietly in the darkened pre-dawn hours as he takes a solitary journey to a local cemetery to commune with the dead. Kneeling before graves, he asks the spirits of the past to enter his body so that he can become their living vessel, joining his soul with theirs as he takes to the streets. Later, at sunrise, he emerges in full costume, calling out and waking up the Treme neighborhood with his group, the Northside Skull and Bones Gang, which has followed the Carnival tradition for decades.
‘We’ll bring all the past dead spirits to the streets,” Barnes says. ‘Mardi Gras is the one day we do that.”
How much longer will the bone men and downtown Indians survive? That’s part of the focus of the story, which first emerged when the police broke up a traditional second-line parade in Treme honoring a musician who had passed on, scuffling with and arresting musicians. These unscheduled events are a century old tradition cherished by the neighborhood’s longtime residents.
Speaking to the Times-Picayune back in October when the confrontation between musicians and the police took place, lifelong Treme resident Beverly Curry explained why she came out that day in spite of bad leg: “I need to be here, to show my support for our heritage”
For a century, she said, that heritage has included impromptu second-line parades for musicians who die, “from the day they pass until the day they’re put in the ground,” she said. Those memorial processions still occur with regularity, without permits, as is the tradition. But, increasingly, NOPD officers have been halting them, citing complaints from neighbors and incidents of violence at similar gatherings.
….”Curry and other longtime residents point fingers at Treme newcomers, who buy up the neighborhood’s historic properties, then complain about a jazz culture that is just as longstanding and just as lauded as the neighborhood’s architecture.
“They want to live in the Treme, but they want it for their ways of living,” Curry said.
Who the hell decides to move to Treme, then calls the police when a second-line parade passes by? Why did they chose to live downtown, in this neighborhood of all places where second-lines (impromptu and the scheduled social aid and pleasure club versions), where bone men and Mardi Gras Indians are part of the very fabric of the place? What possible benefit is there to this redevelopment if it strangles the area’s culture?
Yes, you, yuppie scum. If you people feel you must live downtown, buy yourself one of those lovely high-rise condos being thrown up in the CBD and stay out of the traditional neighborhoods. You can climb into your Lexus and drive yourself to your favorite Uptown restaurant, if you can bring yourself to pass through or even (gasp!) park in the neighborhoods where the best ones are, neighborhoods full of the sort of people you apparently do want to live next to.
Is this the vision of the future of the city–gentrification leading to the death of the real New Orleans, what happened in Charleston after Hurricane Hugo, the threat I warned readers of WBG about over two years ago? It is a fearful thought, more so than a block-long trooop of possessed bone men: the death of the spirit that walks and sings and dances daily in the people of New Orleans. If the yuppie property flippers and their customers destroy Treme to save it’s quaint architectural charm, then it will not be Treme but something else. Only the bones of the houses of the old place will remain, and the spirits of three centuries will rest uneasily when the bone men no longer come to call on Carnival day.
Stringing up dozens January 13, 2008Posted by The Typist in Carnival, cryptic envelopment, Dancing Bear, Debrisville, French Quarter, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, Uncategorized.
Tags: beads, Carnival, French Quarter, Krewe du Vieux, Krewe of St. Anne, Krewe of St.Anne, march, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, parade, Societe de Sainte Anne
1 comment so far
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.
Tootie’s Last Suit April 28, 2007Posted by The Typist in Carnival, Dancing Bear, Flood, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, Mid-City, New Orleans, NOLA, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Cryptic Enveloment, Tootie Montana, Yellow Pocahontas Hunters
1 comment so far
I so want to see this movie.
The feature-length documentary, TOOTIE’S LAST SUIT explores the complex relationships, rituals, history, and music of New Orleans’ vibrant Mardi Gras Indian culture while telling the story of Allison “Tootie” Montana, former Chief of Yellow Pocahontas Hunters. Celebrated throughout the New Orleans as “the prettiest,” for the beauty and inventiveness of his elaborately beaded Mardi Gras costumes, Tootie Montana masked for 52 years, longer than any other Mardi Gras Indian…
In the aftermath of It All, I had completely forgotten about the St. Joseph’s Night attack of the NOPD on the Indians, and Tootie’s death while testifying to the City Council about it. This sounds like a film that should be run until the print gives out in New Orleans. At the same time, given all the city’s troubles, I hope that this culture does not vanish into the camera’s lense.