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Going Home July 16, 2012

Posted by The Typist in Dancing Bear, New Orleans, Toulouse Street.
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When I pitched face down on the floor of The Barrel with no assistance from the tricky step up to the bar, I knew it was time to go look for the second line. Sam and I split a sandwich from the grocery across the street earlier, I think, but clearly I needed movement, fresh air in my face. “Purpose,” I shouted as people helped me up from the floor. “I’m going to scout for the second line.” I glanced at half a Jockamo on the table but decided I was fully prepared to reconnoiter over the broken sidewalks leading to St. Claude and Elysian Fields. “Are you su..?” “YES. I’ll text you when I see them.”

Outside the overcast broke for a moment, a good omen for Uncle Lionel’s sendoff I thought. The glimpse of blue, the air on my face as I moved up Frenchman, focused on Royal Street just ahead, my artificial horizon, a dancing bear balanced on the balls of my feet, I moved through a lucid dream, wide awake and walking through an invisible gelatinous substance. Right at Frenchman, a glance at the old folks’ apartments where Uncle Lionel spent his last days at which the second line would stop soon, then a left at Elysian Fields, St. Claude just ahead. Purpose, I thought, walk with purpose, my internal gyroscope, leaning forward at the precise angle that converts the lifting of feet into momentum, a swagger stagger as straight as a swizzle stick.

At St. Claude there were hot sausage and cheese po-boys $7, two women waiting for the bus and no sight or sound of a second line. When I came to a stop purpose got all wobbly and I leaned against the newspaper machine, shielding my eyes. Someone switched on the sun the moment I stepped out onto St. Claude. Nothing. I sent a text back to The Barrel: “638 no sifn od daocid/or/Wnd/lon @ Stclaude/and/ukusian.” The newspaper machine did not seem particularly steady so I crossed the street into Walgreens and bought an energy drink, and took out some more cash. I was on the route and I knew the second line was somewhere down St. Claude so I crossed to the neutral ground and headed in their direction. Purpose, gyroscope, horizon, movement.

The worthless sun-sensitive lenses in my glasses finally adjusted and I could hear but still not see a band in the distance. I stopped and sent another text: “Indinana hwew ehwy comw.” I managed the two blocks down to Touro and saw the second line, police in front. “Police comin 2ns line c”5 +3 %!e+32&8”#,” I wired back to The Barrel. “Drums comin’,” I managed two minutes later. The second line had come to a halt at Touro Street, the scheduled end of the route. “Srtopped at tojro,” I sent back at precisely 7 p.m.. The parade was to come up to Frenchman Street, past the bars where Uncle Lionel spent the last evenings of his long life, dressed in smooth, perfect suits, diamond stick pin and cane, a sharp hat. Everyone was waiting on Frenchman Street not realizing the parade permit had expired at seven and the police forced a stop, that the second line had managed six blocks in two hours and was over. I noticed a group of tubas above the crowd turning down Touro. A piece of the crowd peeled off and followed and so did I. It didn’t matter that the official second line had shutdown at Sweet Lorraine’s and the police didn’t seem to notice the impromptu parade escaping on a side street.

I lost my artificial horizon but was caught up in the flow and the music, just another fish in the school, swinging and swaying in time with the crowd, and no thought of how or where to go. No point to counting blocks or moments. What thought does the fish give to the river except to drink deep and follow the current? I took a few camera phone pictures and three seconds of video. Later I liked the ones of blurry feet dancing in second line in particular, and the two that are upright and in focus. I had abandoned the thought of another text message. We would be there soon enough, the high, bright tubas trumpeting the herd toward Frenchman.

No one expected a parade to come up Kerlerec and hook down Chartres. We were coming from the wrong direction and found no one on the street but the usual crowd you might watch from the Barrel’s bench. The now silent tubas moved as a group toward d.b.a, the crowd scattered and dissolved into the bars. I lurched toward the Apple Barrel where, according to the one reply text message I stopped to read, there was whiskey and Herbie and the umbrella I’d left behind. I arrived just in time to save tee totaling Herbie from the devil whiskey and recover my umbrella, apparently not as attractive as the vanishing Zippo I’d once left on that bar for a minute. I managed my way to the table without another fall and someone slapped a Jockamo in front of me. The Marigny had their parade for Uncle Lionel and no one noticed, except the lucky hundred-and-some who followed the tubas home.

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Nothin’ but the bones January 26, 2008

Posted by The Typist in assholes, Carnival, cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, Mardi Gras, Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Recovery, Remember, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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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.

Note: Hat tip to Anima Mundi and Library Chronicles for first calling out this story.