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Throw Me Somethin' Mister:
Fictions and Fragments from Mardi Gras

by Robert Klein Engler | 2010

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To everything there is a season... A time to weep, and a time to laugh.

—Ecclesiastics 3:1-4

.1.

Chicago to Mardi Gras in New Orleans on the old Illinois Central railroad can be an historic trip. On a map of the U. S. the trip south is almost a straight line from top to bottom. On the ground, it takes a while to leave the clutter of railroad yards and block after block of dilapidated Chicago south side housing. At 55th Street we see the outline of the gray, Gothic spires of the University of Chicago campus. Then it is on to Homewood, Illinois and prosperous suburban housing, their driveways and porch lights ever so inviting. Finally, corn fields as far as the eye can see stretch into the night.

There are four men in the compartment next to mine going to the Mardi Gras, too. I hear them laugh and talk about their farts, even with my door closed. "I hope you like this," one of the men says, "Cuz I just left one in there." Then there is a silent pause. Another voice, more seriously, says, "It so weird not to see snow out the window." When I see the men walk together to the dining car, they all wear black T-shirts. They have beads on, too, that must be left over from last year's trip. As they walk past, I see written on the back of their T-shirts, "The Dead List." There follows six names in white type. The top two names are crossed off in red. It's safe to assume these men are the four remaining.

For those who know, the echo of folk singer Arlo Guthrie can be heard as the City of New Orleans Amtrak train approaches the station at Kankakee, Illinois. It is past midnight when we reach Carbondale, but the prairies of Illinois are still the table on which we ride. Early the next morning, while we eat French toast in the dining car, the train arrives at Memphis, Tennessee. There, one may see the great pyramid out the window and be reminded of Graceland. As we roll out of Memphis, I have a troubled thought that Elvis now inhabits the body of Bill Clinton.

From morning to afternoon, the stops assemble: Yazoo City, Jackson, and Hazelhurst, Mississippi. The train ride becomes more interesting when we reach the southern part of Mississippi and begin to enter Louisiana. After Hammond, Louisiana the scenery changes and a look out the window tells us we are in the South. The corn and soybean fields of Illinois have given way to wetlands, swamps and Spanish moss hanging from the hoary branches of cypress trees. Late that afternoon the Superdome appears and then the Amtrak Station in New Orleans. Because of the curvature of the earth, I always joke and tell people it is easier going south to New Orleans on the train than coming home. Getting to Mardi Gras, like middle age to old age or tipsy to drunk, is all down hill. Coming back, the locomotive, like a repentant sinner, has to struggle uphill all the way.

.2.

Tom Middlebrook sits across from me in the dining car as the train pulls out from the station in Champaign, Illinois. Tom is middle-aged, balding and has an academic look about him cultivated from years of teaching. He took the train from St. Louis to Chicago earlier in the day and is happy to be on the connecting train to New Orleans. He is also happy to have someone to talk with because his layover in Union Station was long and boring. He wanted to see some of the city again, but a cold snap prevented him from walking around without the heavy coat he did not pack. In the dining car you sit with whomever the steward assigns you, so after a few moments of chatting about the weather, we are joined by two middle aged, black women. We are all going to New Orleans and Mardi Gras, so we strike up a friendly conversation.

Later, in the club car, I have a drink with Tom and continue our conversation. People will talk their heart out on a train, so, Tom decides to confess what he wants most to a stranger he may never see again. I find out Tom is in love with a married man. Not a straight married man, but a younger, gay man who is trying to have a monogamous relationship.

Tom confesses he slept with Jackson once, and wants to do it again, but thinks it would be wrong. Maybe the first time wasn't such a good idea either. It happened in an unexpected way, with Jackson making the advance one afternoon when Jackson's boyfriend Peter was away on business. Tom and Jackson met for a "business" lunch and eventually ended up at Tom's downtown apartment. Now, he tells me he only sees Jackson at a few social functions that they share with mutual friends. They look at one another across a room, or talk politely, but never speak alone about what happened between them. Tom says he still gets a lump in his throat whenever he see the younger man, but moves in the way a plodding beast moves from one dry water hole to another.

The thing that bothers Tom the most is that it was probably chance or his bad luck that has Jackson living with Peter rather than him. If only one day Tom had turned the corner on Maple Street sooner, or stayed in the bar half an hour longer having a second beer, he might have met Jackson and they would be traveling to Mardi Gras together instead of Tom alone in a coach seat. Emily Dickinson says the soul selects its society then shuts the door. Tom is worried his door shut too soon.

I have a sip of bourbon and try to be encouraging. The liquor bites, but the ice cools the sting. Eventually, our conversation lags and we each say goodnight. As he walks back to his coach seat, I follow Tom with my eyes until the doors between the cars hiss shut. Now, the whistle blows when we pass a crossing. I remember Peggy Lee singing the Johnny Mercer song, "Blues in the Night." You can almost hear the whistle of the train in that music. "My mamma done tol' me, when I was in pigtails, a man is a two-face. Whoo-ee, ol' clickety clack's a-echoin' back the blues in the night." Alone, I jingle the remaining ice in my glass and I look out the window to see the glow of a farm house front porch light caught in the fingers of a bony tree. Then, far off lights of a small town glide past cushioned by an immense darkness. The train follows the highway and for a moment the twin headlights of a single car trace the night with us. Suddenly, they veer off around a curve, leaving only red tail lights bleeding into ink.

.3.

"Baby, why don't you wanna come back to Chicago with me?" the conductor asks.

"That's not it," the car attendant answers laughing. "That's not it."

After a night of jostling, the train approaches Memphis, Tennessee. The crew is talking among themselves and the radio stations are broadcasting rock and roll and rap versions of love songs. The sun will be up in a half an hour. In this half light, the blossoming light of loneliness, you realize how much we all want to love and be loved. When we pull away from the Memphis station, the sun is up and the day is new. Somewhere out there the ghost of Elvis Presley is restless, looking for the right song. Muhammad says the dawn comes when there is enough light to tell a white thread from a black thread.

.4.

Rumor has it that the story of Mardi Gras begins with the words, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Now, two hundred years after the Louisiana Purchase and forty-seven days before Easter, something happens in New Orleans, Louisiana. The world there turns upside down. The work of anonymous seamstresses is on display in the street. Beaded Medici collars and feathered headdress encrusted with shell are strutted with pride along with exposed body parts and fantastic robes of moss. A rain of confetti, doubloons and plastic beads fills the air. Antics fill the street. The festivities even pre-empt the Soap Operas on the local TV station.

In 1875 Mardi Gras day was declared a legal holiday in Louisiana, and the city of New Orleans has been celebrating that holiday almost every year since. These days, color photographs of His Majesty Rex and the Queen of Carnival appear on the front page of "The Times-Picayune." Young men may stay drunk all day and mothers worry. Forget the murder on the West Bank or the train derailment. Today, you don't have to hurry. You can linger under a promenade of palms. Forget the fallen world made from sweat and tears. Today, a boy can blow soap bubbles to bother his grandmother or throw snappers in the street. Today, you can be a devil or a nun, drive down Decatur Street honking your horn, strut with an umbrella, smoke a fat cigar. You can decorate your bike, wear polka dots on silk, feel the sunshine in a glass of bourbon even if the fog rolls in. Wear a garter and those black, mesh socks, or a flowerpot on your head or a hat of lilies. Today, you may throw beads from a balcony, walk down the street tipsy with the one you love, paint scars with makeup, or hide them with feathers. This is the place. Weaves of wrought iron and magnolias hypnotize the eyes. Today, the parades roll and we eat ribs and sausage and fried chicken. Today, the alligators dance. Today, is Mardi Gras! Honey, I'm so happy I could cry.

.5.

The New Orleans train station is busy with people arriving for Mardi Gras. Some of them are already in their costumes and have had too much to drink. I try to negotiate a course around them towards the front doors. I overhear that someone lost their bag, and then see people demanding in a loud and frantic voice to find a security guard. I realize that they did not lose the baggage of themselves.

Outside, the weather is perfect and the temperature is in the low 70s. I hail a taxi and hope to make it to the hotel without any problems. Then I realize that I hoped too soon. Because the train was late coming into New Orleans, the Mid City and Bacchus Krewes are getting ready to parade. The route they take makes going down St. Charles or Canal to the Hilton hotel impossible. We are stuck in traffic, now, waiting for the parades.

I know more about getting to the hotel than the cabby does, so I talk him into taking me down river to Esplanade in the French Quarter. From there I walk and then take the river front light rail to Poydras and the Hilton.

On the way walking, I pick up a string of beads and some throws laying in the street. One has a medallion that says "Trojan." This must be a new krewe, I think, but then read on, "Trojan Condoms" it says on the other side. I was an hour getting to the hotel, and as Mardi Gras would have it, the party that I left behind at the train station continues by others in the hotel lobby. Waiting to check in, I see two gentlemen in tuxedos walk past with green shopping bags that say, "Endymion." Yes, this is the place!

.6.

There is something foreign about New Orleans, something distinctly un-American. Some say it is the most Africanized city in America. Others say it has cultivated the art of decay and decadence, so unlike the optimist air of midwest, small town America. Perhaps this decadence come from the fact that some of the original settlers of New Orleans were female prostitutes followed by the "casket girls." These girls brought with them their burden of tragic love from France. Manon sings about this burden in Puccini's opera, and even if she dies mistakenly of thirst in an imagined desert outside of New Orleans instead of a real swamp, we are moved to tears all the same.

If the French instead of the English had colonized India, then India would look like New Orleans. Or, if you can imagine France without cheese, than you can imagine the French Quarter, a place described by one pundit where no one speaks French and no one has a quarter. New Orleans is a quirk of nature. In New Orleans many things come together in an unnatural union. Like it or not, New Orleans is gay in the full and traditional sense of the word. Because New Orleans is gay, it also grants us immunity from the ordinary. In the days when wealthy gentlemen came over from Texas or down from Atlanta to sow their wild oats in Storyville, they used to say that "If it happened in New Orleans, it never happened." Now, Las Vegas is starting a new advertising campaign derived from that southern sentiment. The Las Vegas campaign touts, "What happens here, stays here." I like the New Orleans saying better. Among other things, it points out the difference between the drunk and the gambler. There is a tragic sense of life in New Orleans that is more profound than the festive sense of life in Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, the gambler always has a hope, but here, in the Big Easy, the drunk has just about lost his.

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