Three Days in the Quarter. Bloggin’ Mardi Gras.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
It’s kind of hard to explain Mardi Gras in New Orleans to someone who has never been here during the five final days of Carnival season, commonly referred to (albeit incorrectly) as “Mardi Gras.” Mardi Gras is, in fact, right this very minute only 34 minutes old. It is the final Tuesday of Carnival, Ash Wednesday following to begin Lent.
You have to love a religion like Catholicism, a diverse faith that somehow, sometime after St. Augustine but before Martin Luther, got the notion that people shouldn’t sin before Easter. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall during that discussion with the Pope. “But Abba, we must allow the people their liberties, lest they revolt against Mother Church.” He nods. Smiles. “Then let there be a carnival.” They shake their heads. “But Abba. A carnival is but one night. This for forty days of sinlessness?” He shruggs. “So make it from Twelfth Night until Ash Wednesday.”Do you think he invisioned what would follow? For the uninitiated, let me give you a hint. I’m going to attempt to blog Mardi Gras for you, in just a few short passages. Bear with me. And if it doesn’t work, come down next year and see it for yourself….
Saturday, February 5
We hadn’t intended on coming to the Quarter…that is, at least according to Aaron. Speak for yourself. I have every intention of being down here as much as possible. Bourbon Street. The heartbeat of the Carnival in New Orleans. The cops are here only to prevent fist fights, gun shots, and looting. Anything else goes. Including the two straight girls making out in the middle of a sea of cameras. There are so many flash bulbs and spotlights that it takes me a minute to realize that they are naked from the waist up. Taptaptap on my shoulder. I turn. Aaron’s nodding towards Canal. It’s time to head back to the car.
Sandwiched into a swell of humanity that momentarily feels like the last scenes from Titanic, I can’t decide if I want to laugh, cry out for help, or try again to breathe against the crush of the crowd. We’re only feet away from the inside of a dank, tiny bar that for the moment looks as open and inviting as the fifty yard line of the Superdome. In three directions, as far as I can see, there are people. Not just standing there. Pressing.Somehow, the three of us have had the misfortune of deciding to return to Canal at the very moment Endymion ends. We’re returning, as are the 149,997 other people behind us. And somewhere around Bienville and Bourbon, we meet the 150,000 people that has just seen the end of the largest parade of the weekend. Immediately, the crowd seizes. We can’t move. People behind us are pushing us forward. The people in front of us are repelling us backwards. This goes on for a few seconds that seem more like hours until, finally, mercifully, the crowd recognizes the empasse and stops. We’re still packed in, with barely breathing room, but at least the pressure has ceased. I have the misfortune of being breast-to-breast with a beautiful brunette–unlike my best friend, should-behind me, who is sandwiched between a large black man and his even larger, unhappy and claustrophobic wife. I smile at him. Over the roar of the crowd I swear I heard him growl. I turn to the beautiful brunette. “Hello, there.”
She smiles. “Hello.” I almost blush. “If we’re gonna be this close, maybe we ought to get to know one another a little better,” I say.
She glances down and winks. “I think we already are.”
We stand there for another moment. Granted there’s not much to say when you’re pressed so hard against a total stranger that you simply have no secrets. Eventually, my end of the crowd gives up and retreats down Bienville, allowing the parade refugees the right of free passage on Bourbon. We live to fight another day.
Sunday, February 6
Aaron’s complaining about his Achilles tendon. I’ve got your Achilles’ right here, my look says. “Relax, dude. You gotta learn how to go with the flow.” He rolls his eyes. Half an hour, two miles, and 100,000 revelers later, we finally arrive in the Quarter. It’s still another ten blocks to Bourbon Street, fifteen to Jackson Square (our ‘destination’ since we have to have somewhere we are going. That’s Aaron’s rule, not mine). We pass down two other side streets. Wow. That’s amazing. A painting, swirls of colors and lights. Nothing real. Nothing concrete. Just colors. Hanging in the window of a gallery. The sign says “Brent Gallery.” Inside the gallery.”Leonard Neirmann,” the guy behind the desk says. I nod, immediately recognizing the name and the technique. “Abstract Surrealism,” he says. I nod again. I’ve seen his work in Austin, Texas. The gallery guy confirms this. We tour the gallery. Aaron’s even more amazed than I am. After seeing the work of several artists, we’re back into the streets. I turn to Aaron and smirk.
“You never would have seen that, if we’d stuck to our plans.” He shrugs. I let it go for now. Food is more important. There’s a bakery. I duck in, dragging him by the coat. I’m starved at this point. “Hungry?” I ask. He nods.”Hey, I know this place! Hannah and I ate here.” We order a sandwich. Turkey and Swiss. “But I don’t like Swiss,” he says. Fine. Ham and Cheese on croissant. In half, two plates. We’ve still got another two miles to walk. Food’s out. Way back, near the back of the property, there is a small patio. Metal tables with plastic chairs. We can barely hear the shouts for beads, the fog horns, the trumpets, of Bacchus running down Canal only five or six blocks away.Later, in the cab back to the car, (you park miles away and take public transportation in), I smile at Aaron, punch him on the shoulder. “Oh admit you had a good time.”He smiles. “Yeah. I guess I did.”Maybe next year we won’t have to have the entire thing scripted? He shrugs.
Home in time for the second half of the Super Bowl. Go Patriots. Yay you. Two advil, two tylenol PM and I’m down for the count.Monday, February 7.Our fourth trip into the Quarter in as many days. The palpable stench of five days of partying is starting to take its toll on Bourbon Street. Yet here we are again, this time with Aaron’s father and a group of men. Today is Boobie Beads day for us. They brought beads. I arrive “naked”. No beads to trade. No worries. By the end of the first block, I’ve flirted my way into five long strands of beads, dropped from ladies on balconies into the hands of the blonde guy blowing them kisses.Two blocks down, I look up on the balcony of the Old Absinthe House. Someone waves. I’m used to it by now. You pick someone out of the crowd, point to them, and throw them a bead. Or if you’re in the crowd, you pick a balcony-watcher and toss a bead up. But this person is different. This person is familiar. I squint through the confusion. Is that?! No way! Yes it is! My first grade teacher and later elementary-school principal! She smiles, winks, and drops down three strands of beads–the big, heavy ones. Good ones for trading later. I toss up two sets of my beads. We wave our goodbyes. What happens on Bourbon, stays on Bourbon.
Two blocks later, I’ve traded one set of the heavy, elementary-school beads for a nice shot of a brunette’s breasts. Now, I’m looking to replenish my supply. There’s a girl on a balcony, waving what I want before me. I motion for a trade. She shakes her head. This one’s gonna cost me. I untuck my shirt, flirting a little. She waves for me to show her something. Jokingly, I lift up my shirt. She shakes her head. What the hell, I think. It’s only fair, I say to myself asI undo my belt buckle. I’m tossing beads up at them to see their breasts. Why not give a little back? And now I’ve done it. I’m standing with my pants down, in the middle of the most crowded street in America. But I got the beads I wanted. They come in handy two blocks later when I find a blonde, just miss her lifting her top. C’est la vie, one might say. But not me. I trade her the new beads for a fresh glimpse. What happens on Bourbon, stays on Bourbon.
Finally, exhausted, we’re back on a street car, headed for the car. And only then do I begin to question everything we’ve been through tonight. Separation, reunion, exposure, and ‘sight’ seeing are only a few of the many memories from this Carnival Season. But you’ll never hear me tell tales. What happens on Bourbon stays there.