Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 16

Dear Folks,’s Ash Wednesday. The day when the rest of the Christian world does penance and gives things up for Lent, and New Orleanians nurse their hang-overs and rub Ben-Gay onto their aching muscles and get ready to do Mardi Gras all over again, 52 weeks from now.

And I know, I haven’t written much in quite a while, and all I can say is, mea culpa. Events have been moving too fast, both in terms of Mardi Gras and in terms of changes here in Louisiana (and maybe even in Washington) and already some of what I’ve written seems out of date. So let’s start off with some generalized musings and I’ll get into some more specifics later on.

First of all, this Mardi Gras season was one of the most moving, exciting, giddy, and deeply spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Yes, I know. You’re thinking I’ve had one too many glasses of champagne, and yes, I’ll admit, that was occasionally the case (although we’ve been pacing ourselves pretty well). But I’ll stand by that statement. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras 2006 was like a great religious experience: one which didn’t rely on hellfire, damnation or dogma, but which fed us all body and soul. A joyous, communal, beautiful, funny shout of defiance to despair--and isn’t all faith finally based on a committed nay-saying to the Devil? So who is the Devil? No, I’m not going to get all political here. To me the Devil is what makes us less than human, less than trusting and safe, and which prevents us from meeting the world with unconditional love. The Devil, in other words, is all too plausibly the World itself...and Life itself, which kicks us in the teeth and teaches us anger and fear and cynicism and brutality. It’s what makes us say we got screwed by the Army Corps of Engineers and abandoned by FEMA and our city is still languishing from political in-fighting and life’s hard and probably won’t get any easier any time why bother. It’s what preaches post-modernism, nihilism and the flip answer of “Whatever...” to any question. It’s what foments racism (“those” people, the “bad” people, “they” are the problem... whatever their skin color or the name of their particular prophet). And it’s what leaves us at the end of the day sitting home slumped in front of our television sets, alone, detached, unsatisfied and too deeply unhappy to even accord what we’re feeling the dignity of its proper name...instead we call it “depression” or “ennui” or, if we’re in the mood for one of the Seven Deadly Sins, Sloth (which was once another word for despair).

Well, Mardi Gras this year wasn’t having any of that. Whether riding, watching, throwing or catching, I don’t know when I’ve ever lived more in the moment. Now don’t get me wrong. The “moment” was very often a time of jostling crowds and hurried meals and little sleep and friends dropping by to use our facilities (because, as a local song goes, “Ain’t No Place To Pee On Mardi Gras Day”). This isn’t an atmosphere to gladden the hearts of control-freaks. It’s like...well, it’s like being swept up in a raging flood, and if that’s a tasteless metaphor then I’m sorry. I can’t hope to describe everything to you, but here’s a few quick snapshots...

Last weekend we rode in the Tucks parade. This is a krewe named for Friar Tuck’s, a local hang-out much beloved by Loyola students of a certain age. This is always the self-styled “rudest” of the parades, with squeaking boob toys, Tucks toilet paper, and necklaces featuring the fat friar on the can holding a raised plunger. A day which started out at eight A.M with a gaggle of riders meeting at our house to drink Budweiser, champagne, bloody marys, and margaritas, and THEN go to the parade. Chaos. Except somehow it all worked out, and the day, which had forecast rain, was glorious, hot and bright and everyone screaming “Happy Mardi Gras!!!” till the sound could have split the heavens...which did split open just as the parade ended, dousing everybody and leaving us all as sodden and tired and happy as kids after a visit to a water-park.

Images of amazing beauty...the flambeaux carriers that accompany the night parades, walking down St. Charles Avenue. These are men (traditionally black, now racially mixed) carrying big iron reflectors over their heads holding jets of flame. These flambeaux were originally open kerosene torches in the days before streetlights, to illuminate the floats. Now they’re powered by propane packs on the men’s backs, but they still look scary and primal, and as the smutty flames shimmer in the twilit air they dance and twirl and brandish the fire before them. And there are the floats: Proteus, riding on his sea-shell...Orpheus and the great float Leviathan, which holds more than sixty riders...Muses, the only female krewe to parade at night, riding by in their bubble-bath and perched on their enormous lighted shoe...the Krewe of Chaos (formerly Momus), presenting a satiric tableau modeled after the Dream of Hades, substituting hurricane images for their original Reconstruction targets.

We went to the Boston Club last Friday night, one of the most elite venues in the city. Yeah, alright, so they don’t admit women except as occasional guests. And yes, everybody there was white (except the waiters). And yes, in fact even BILL had to pretend he was from out of town, since they don’t let local men in either unless they’re members. Okay, so it’s restricted. If I’d shown up at Zulu headquarters on Broad Street I might have felt a little strange too. But it was beautiful (a really “clubby” club, like the best Princeton eating clubs, with dark wood and light fabrics and antique silver and starched linen...and come to think of it, some of those clubs were pretty restricted too). And of course, in the middle of dinner, we all had to rush outside and watch the Krewe of Hermes and D’Etat and Morpheus ride by on Canal Street. Influential men and women decked out, not only in discreet jewels and cuff-links but with plastic beads and blinkie light-up necklaces... amazing. It’s actually a shame that, since the local dust-up fourteen years ago that sought to integrate the krewes, guests don’t stand out on the Boston Club balcony to watch the parade...I guess it seemed too, well, elitist. But if you’re going to have traditions, I say go for ‘em. I wish Comus still rolled too (Comus, the oldest and arguably most mysterious krewe, withdrew from parading in 1992 rather than integrate).

And finally walking down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras morning is like attending a huge block-party that stretches for miles. Families boiling crawfish and grilling sausages and throwing frisbees and dogs barking and little kids dressed up as ballerinas and superman. A man dressed up as a human posterior (complete with droppings) labeled FEMA = Fix Everything My Ass. People parking pick-up trucks on the side streets equipped with their own Port O’Potties (did I mention that local song?) The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parading despite almost inconceivable losses, accompanied by real Zulu warriors from South Africa (who were getting into the spirit as much as anyone). Mayor Ray Nagin, costumed as General Russell Honore, riding a white horse at the head of Zulu and grinning like a kid in a candy store. This year’s Rex, Paul Carr Polk McIllhenny, costumed like the sun (and about as rotund) riding on his float and stopping at various St. Charles Avenue addresses to toast former Rex and Comus royalty. The Rex ball on Mardi Gras night (televised for us hoi polloi) and the meeting at the end of the evening of the courts of Rex and Comus...a bizarrely beautiful tableau of such absolute anachronism it’s really kind of breathtaking. Here you have Comus, masked in wax, a smiling enigma in silver with his queen, while Rex (unmasked but bearded) and his queen are dressed in cloth of gold. Pomp. Spectacle. Huge trains. A grand parade and then the curtain closes on another Mardi Gras (and yes, they really do hang a curtain which closes at the end). And after it was all over, the captains of Rex and Comus embracing, instead of their traditional hand-shake... and you could practically hear them saying, “We did it! We actually pulled this off!” And I’ll bet the whole city felt the same.

So it’s the end of another Mardi Gras, our first here. We’re no longer “Mardi Gras virgins”. Today a gang of roofers is working on the house next door outside my study window, and Bill needs a new cell phone, and his mother’s not doing so well, and there are web-sites to design and books to write and more boxes to unpack and elections to prepare for (Bill and I have signed up to be poll watchers...I’ll let you know in detail how THAT develops!) There’s the whole busy world to get along with. But last night was special. A mockingbird was singing in the tree just outside our gallery just as I was going to bed last night, a little after twelve-thirty...that liquid, profligate song pouring out limpid and crystalline onto the quiet air, sounding its endless notes, and never exactly repeating itself. I can’t tell you how beautiful it was.

I couldn’t begin to make this stuff up.

Love and Happy Mardi Gras,


Notes from Atlantis 15

[This entry was originally dated February 20, 2006]

Dear Folks,

Well, a LOT has been happening! And I’m sorry I haven’t written for so long, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking of you all and trying to remember things to tell you.

We started off Carnival last weekend (Feb 11) with the Krewe de Vieux Parade (as in Vieux Carre), a wonderfully bawdy, satiric parade of local artists and cranks which starts out in the Faubourg Marigny and wends through the French Quarter until it reaches Canal Street (or wherever they decide to stop). This year’s theme was “C’est Levee!” and included such floats as “Mayor Nagin’s Wet Dream” (which was pretty much what you can imagine), “Buy Us Back, Chirac!” (a desperate, fat mime pleading with France to rescind the Louisiana Purchase) and “the King’s Float” with a special seat of honor for Michael Brown, who was unfortunately “out to lunch”. The real king was Walter Williams, creator of “Mister Bill”, who lives down here and who’s been making “Mister Bill vs. Hurricane Sluggo” shorts for years. One wonders why President Bush was so surprised by the failure of the levees, when even a lousy little lump of clay predicted it...

There were lots of brass bands, beads, chocolates (for our mayor’s in “chocolate city”) and kazoos flying through the air, and a splendid time was had by all, despite the fact that it was actually COLD: this winter’s been unusually mild, but now the damp wind is coming in every now and then, just to make us appreciate the seventy-plus degree days more. Oh, and I heard New York had a record snow-storm last week. Gee, that’s too bad...

We also attended, and in fact participated in, the second walking parade of the season in the Quarter, that of the Krewe of in wine. A long bibulous lunch at the Court of Two Sisters was followed by a long, bibulous parade, and then a long, bibulous party afterwards... what can I say, some hangovers are simply unavoidable. We were all costumed as various kinds of wine: Bill went as Dom Perignon (in a monk’s robe) and myself as the Veuve Cliquot (in a widow’s veil and black gown ) but were eclipsed by the Taxi Cab-ernets (a couple dressed as two complete yellow cabs), a gaggle of Blue Nuns, the wine fairies (in grape leaves, butterfly wings, and very little else) and my favorite, a collection of disciples all offering various suggestions of, “What Would Jesus Drink?”

There have been other parades elsewhere in the city, although the whole season’s somewhat curtailed: this isn’t the knock-down, blow-out Mardi Gras of years past, so much as a lean, stream-lined version for locals. However, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t had our share of spectacles. Which leads me to the big news of this posting...

We’ve ridden on our first float! So, for all of you who may be interested in doing such a thing someday, here are the rules:

1. If you want to ride on a Mardi Gras float, be prepared to spend some time, and some money. These things don’t just “happen”. In fact, I think a lot of people elsewhere still believe Mardi Gras is put on by professionals. In fact, it’s a very grass-roots thing. The krewe we rode with last Saturday (Feb 18) was the Mystik Krewe of Shangri-La. Started by a group of hard-nosed, insouciant “broads” from St. Bernard Parish, this Krewe makes its own costumes, does its own fund-raising, this year loaded its own beads (which, for the record, weigh a ton when you’re talking about that amount) and works its collective butt off to put this whole thing on. Mardi Gras is indeed a gift the krewes give to the city, and the joy with which it’s given is truly amazing.

2. Be prepared to get tired. We got up at 5:30 AM to shower, feed the cats, put on our costumes, pack up our beads in the van, and arrive at the loading area by 8 AM. Each float gets loaded with what seems like an impossible number of beads (you can barely move), plus assorted stuffed animals, throw-cups, drinking cups, food (for the riders), daiquiris, water, toilet paper (yes, there are toilets) and cameras. We all got settled on our float by about 9:20 AM, at which point we rode uptown by a back route to the parade launching point.

3. Be prepared to wait. We got to the launching-point by 10 AM and then spent the next two hours hanging up our beads (for ease of throwing), arranging our float, and listening to the Marine Corps Band, which was setting up directly across from us and gave us a rousing rendition of “That’s A Plenty” and “Swing Swing Swing”. I’ll bet these guys love the chance to play anything other than Sousa marches! And I’ll bet they’re also glad they’re not in Iraq!

4. Be prepared to get dirty. You wouldn’t think it, looking at those beautiful, gaily-painted floats, but all that gay paint is ingrained with however many years of dirt, drinks and sweat it has absorbed since that particular float has been in existence. No, they don’t make a whole new set of floats from scratch every year. The big krewes (like Rex, Bacchus and Endymion) have new themes each year, and attach new decorations to their old floats accordingly. This is very often a whole year process, and the end product each year is unique. The lesser krewes, however (like us) select from an assortment of floats stored out at Mardi Gras World across the river, with generally festive decorations like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Santa Claus”. We, for example, got the “Beauty and the Beast” float, so half our riders were dressed as “Belles” in peasant gowns, and half (including Bill and me) as “Beasts” in velvet doublets. Very pretty. But those floats are seriously grubby inside, and once you’ve nailed all your “throws” up (see below) and tied everything down, your hands pretty much feel like you’ve been recycling old newspapers. Memo to self: next ride, bring Handi-Wipes.

5. Be prepared to work. Every if you’re not loading your own beads, you still have to arrange them all for ease of throwing. Here’s how it works. The beads come in twelve-strand bundles, tied up with paper tape. You want to keep them in those bundles for as long as possible, because once they get unbundled they tend to tangle up like fishing line and you end up with a big glittery football of about fifty strands, which you have to heave over the side in a lump. The way you avoid this is you hammer heavy-duty nails into the wooden railing in front of you, and then hang your beads on those nails. Then, IN THEORY, you can grab a batch or two at a time, tear off the paper tape, and start throwing. This actually works in practice for about the first half of the ride, after which you’re madly grabbing up anything you can lay your hands on and flinging it...your glasses, your watch, small riders...into the melee.

6. Be prepared to feel like you pitched in the World Series. Which brings us to the parade itself. Okay, you start rolling, and you start hearing those cries of “Throw me something, mister!” and “Beads!” and “Over Here!” and you’re flinging this stuff out like stevedores. Some things are just inevitable. You WILL get sore. You WILL miss some targets and your pretty beads will land in the gutter, in the trees, on the top of cars, and on top of your fellow riders. And you WILL clobber at least a few people. Bill beaned a little kid right in the nose with a handful of beads, after which he felt so bad all he could do was throw more beads at him. Some children cry. Some people start to look a little dazed. But every once in a while you get someone whose catching skills are truly awesome. They’ll stand there, you wing them a handful, and bang! It’s snatched out of thin air. Must represent years of practice. That casual snatch. I don’t want to get too symbolic about all of this, but that gift of catching miracles on the fly is truly something to see.

7. Which brings me to my last point, which is: Be prepared to choke up. Well, maybe not always, but on this parade we certainly did. The thing is, Mardi Gras really IS a family event...a community event, to which tourists are invited only as an after-thought. New Orleans’ reputation as just a binge-drinking Gomorrah should have been laid to rest by now, but apparently the media is still poised to portray us as X-rated and racially divided. Well, all I can say is, on our ride I saw hundreds of black and white hands raised to us, hundreds of happy children and adults of every race and every background reaching up for gifts of beads and joy...mothers and fathers, children in strollers, families balanced on ladders, babies in chest cozies, grandparents, the whole spectrum...having the time of their lives, as were we. It was about fifty degrees outside. It was windy. It was drizzling. There were only a few bands, and some of the floats looked a little moth-eaten. But the crowds were still out there, yelling “throw me something” as if it were a cheer, and yes, it WAS a cheer. It wasn’t a spectacle of an “elite” throwing favors to a “mob”. It was a wonderfully silly event staged by hard-working people FOR hard-working people, and I hope everybody out there who caught something realized that what they were catching were really prayers. I think they probably did.

So that’s all for now. There’ll be lots more parades and parties to come, and I promise to tell you all about them, or at least as much as I can remember! I’ll also be writing more about the politics down here, which is actually changing (a little) and about the politics up in Washington, which may change someday as well. Meanwhile, I’m going out to catch some more beads!

Laissez les bon temps rouler!



Notes from Atlantis 14

[This entry was originally dated February 12, 2006]

Dear Folks,

I’ve been meaning to write to you all about the so-called “Baker bill” for quite some time, but I wanted to make sure I had all my own facts as correct as I could make them. I don’t know if I’ve gotten everything right yet, but here’s my understanding of the whole deal (those of you who know more, please respond and tell me where I’ve made mistakes):

As I understand it, the Baker bill would create a separate entity on the federal level that would be empowered to issue bonds, backed (up to a specified point) by the U.S. Treasury. These bonds would then be bought by investors, and the resulting large sum of money (Baker says it could come to as much as $30 billion) would be used to help flooded-out homeowners in Louisiana. This is necessary because a lot of homeowners down here now own property that’s more (or less) worthless, but they still owe substantial mortgages on these places, places which are now (at least for the time being) uninhabitable. If they don’t get some kind of help, a lot of these people will have to default on those mortgages and declare bankruptcy. This will hurt then, and it will also hurt the banks. Plus it’ll still leave those same damaged houses just standing there, and vast areas of the city will remain in ruins.

As I understand it, the Baker plan would offer homeowners 60% of the value of their homes pre-Katrina, and it would also pay off all (or some) of the outstanding mortgages. I’m not clear how it would work for people who had private insurance: presumably there would be some provision to avoid double-dipping here, but I’ve heard the opinion expressed that those who did have insurance would be penalized as opposed to those who didn’t. I’m really not sure how this argument would hold up, so perhaps someone will explain it to me.

In any event, homeowners would then have money in their pockets to rebuild, or to move elsewhere, or to move to higher ground in the city. Since a lot of New Orleans’ residents apparently want to stay here, it’s hoped this would help to shrink the city’s “footprint”, as people bought new houses on higher ground. Again, I’m not quite sure this would happen, but that’s the idea, anyway. The banks down here wouldn’t be left holding onto properties they don’t want (as they would in the event of foreclosure) and they’d have more funds to lend out as building loans, etc. The Baker fund would then re-sell all the damaged properties it had bought up as large block lots to developers, who could then build new housing, parks, or whatever on those tracts of land. The money thus made by the Baker fund would go to paying off the original bonds.

As I understand it, Baker claims his proposal to be in large-part self-funding, since he believes his group could sell off most of the land it bought and thus recoup its money. There would presumably be some oversight built in to avoid graft (although graft, like hurricanes, happens...) and the whole entity would have a designated cut-off date, so it wouldn’t go on being a government boondoggle in perpetuity.

Anyway, that’s the idea. And President Bush and his “recovery czar”, Donald Powell, say they hate it. According to Power (in an opinion piece published today in the Washington Post and elsewhere) there are three things wrong with the Baker plan: it doesn’t represent a plan developed by Louisiana FOR Louisiana (not true, Baker is a Louisianian, and the plan has the support of all Louisiana’s major lawmakers). It creates a new federal bureaucracy (since when has this been a problem for any administration since FDR)? It could end up costing too much (hmm, let me see...didn’t this administration just request $200 billion more for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?) And the “heavy hand of government” would impede the involvement of the private sector (which would make a lot of sense if the private sector were currently clamoring to invest in New Orleans’ most devastated areas...which they’re not).

The main benefit of the Baker bill is, in fact, that it buys the city time it might not otherwise have. If New Orleans has to wait for the private sector to come to our aid, that will only happen AFTER vast numbers of people have declared bankruptcy and which point the city will have lost huge numbers of its residents and may, indeed, be financially dead.

So here’s what I see. First of all, there does seem to be some need for more money down here. If Mississippi is using the $5.3 billion it received to bail out 35,000 homeowners and Louisiana has six times that amount of needy homeowners, surely they need more than $1 billion more (Powell and Bush have said that the $6.2 billion currently apportioned for Louisiana in Community Development Block Grants will be enough to fix the problem). The Brookings Institute basically came to the same conclusion, in a report released yesterday (so I’m in good intellectual company). They see no way for Louisiana to rebound without some (more) substantial federal help. I know a lot of people elsewhere in the country view this as so much whining on our part, but I’d submit that someone who screams for help after a major accident isn’t so much whining as...well, screaming. The ideology of small government/big government breaks down in the face of something as large as the semi-destruction of a major city. If the federal government is good for ANYTHING, presumably it’s to keep all parts of the United States safe and functional. We have federal funding for roads because roads are just too important, and affect all the states. Likewise a major city is, ultimately, a federal responsibility.

Not to mention the fact that it was the FEDERAL levees and canal walls which failed, which caused 90% of this whole mess in the first place. Since when is the federal government exempt from the ethical and legal constraints that prohibit hit-and-run drivers from leaving the scene of a crime? But I digress...

So here’s the real scenario that scares me, if the Baker bill goes down: that through inertia (in DC) and despair (down here) lots of areas WILL get blighted and won’t be salvageable, even down the pike. Okay, yeah, sure, fifty years from now some ballsy Robert Moses-type may bulldoze the whole area and build Jones Beach South...but for the foreseeable future New Orleans could become like Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins: a living city chained in perpetuity to the dead corpse of its other half.

Please tell me I’m wrong. I’m scaring myself!

If the federal government isn’t willing to support the Baker bill, as written, or make changes in it to address its concerns, it should step up to the plate and tell us how it WILL deal with this very real and terrible problem. Yes, a lot of New Orleans is fine. Please come down for Mardi Gras and spend huge sums of money! But that won’t do it alone. Please help us, which means demanding that your congressmen and senators help us.

Yours, still hopefully,