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and in terms of changes here in Louisiana (and maybe even in Washington) and already some of what I’ve written seems out of date.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,



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