i n t r o
p h o t o g r a p h y
w r i t i n g
v e n u e s
b l o g
a r t i s t s
o u t r o
a f f i l i a t e s
Throw Me Somethin' Mister:
by Robert Klein Engler | 2010
Tom told me he decided to color his hair before he left St. Louis to attend Mardi Gras. "Maybe it will take off a few years and mask a shadow or two," he said. Tom was going to give up this type of masking because he did not like the smell of the chemicals and was always afraid of getting them in his eyes when he showered out the residue. "But just one more time," he says, and so he begins to create a mask for himself.
He puts on the plastic gloves and oozes the color solution into his hair, careful not to get any on his ears and wiping off any extra from his temple and the back of his neck. He feels the hair color tingle on his scalp, then looks in the mirror and realizes he is really getting older. The streets of New Orleans will be filled with youth when he gets there and he wonders where his has gone. As the force of the water from the shower washes away the excess color and the scars of a few years, he keeps his eyes closed.
Tom can't help but think of a virgin in her bath, how she prepares her body with scented oil for the marriage bed. Afterwards, he dries himself with a fresh towel. Fortunately, the mirror is fogged up so he doesn't have to see again the extra pounds he carries around his waist. If only he could mask his love handles and spotted skin. There better not be a Tadzio on one of those floats to hypnotize me, he laughs to himself as he steps from the shower into the humid bathroom.
While he rubs the towel through his hair, Tom thinks that maybe on the train to New Orleans he will wear his father's old wedding band. He'll do that just in case someone wonders why he's traveling alone. I can always say I'm married and away from home on business, he reasons. "With this ring I do thee wed." Who will believe that? A ring may mask Tom's finger but not his heart. Still, gay teachers from a small town always walk a thin line, so he will wear the ring, just in case. When he gets to New Orleans, the gold band comes off and stays in the pocket of his toiletry bag. The best masks are not done over much.
Eating a meal at a good restaurant in New Orleans during Mardi Gras without a reservation seems impossible, and it seems even more impossible to get a reservation. I decide to eat at the grill just off the lobby of the hotel. I wonder what Tom is doing? Down on Bourbon Street, no doubt. I look around and see a group of college boys waiting in line to be seated at a table. I remember what Tom said while we had dinner on the train, "Whenever something beautiful walks by, I foolishly think he is looking at me." Suddenly, the decorum of the lobby is broken by shouts of, "Zulu, Zulu!"
The first Krewe of Zulu king spoofed Rex by wearing a lard can for a crown and holding a sugarcane stalk for a scepter. That was a 100 years ago.
"We're from California. Can I take your picture?" A girl asks.
"Go right ahead, honey. Happy Lundi Gras, y'all."> The waitress pours me another cup of coffee without batting an eyelash.
In 1857 The Mystik Krewe of Comus staged the first modern Mardi Gras parade. It was a nighttime, torch lit procession of floats illustrating themes from classical mythology and literature. Ever since then the street festivals and trappings of Mardi Gras have been exported from New Orleans to other cities. Nevertheless, Mardi Gras is still very much a local, New Orleans affair rooted in local traditions. In many ways it is the cultural bedrock of the city. This is never more evident than in the meeting of the courts of Rex and Comus that takes place on the night of Mardi Gras. Here one may see a cross section of New Orleans high society and the movers and shakers of the city. It is a far cry from the antics on St. Ann in front of Oz. If what happens in the French Quarter is the mask of Mardi Gras, then the Rex Ball is the manners of Mardi Gras. Rex still maintains many of the old traditions of Mardi Gras, and it offers not only a history of public service, but is a mirror to the past, a past where real kings and queens reigned and brought an image of order and grace to the world. Let the parades and the good times roll. Rex may outlast them all. Someday, Rex may even parade through the French Quarter again. In the meantime, the Rex Ball is one of the few places left outside of the ballet where you still see boys in tights.
"No! I got medical bills," the woman says to discourage the panhandler asking her for money on the dock by the Spanish Plaza. The panhandler looks the other way and walks on. Why bother? he thinks.
I came down to the Riverwalk to see the arrival of Rex, the King of Carnival, the Monarch of Merriment, or as he is sometimes called, The Lord of Misrule. So did hundreds of other people. The forecast for rain kept others away. This is not a large crowd, but a determined one. When Rex comes ashore at the Riverwalk with all the pageantry of a real King, I jokingly tell the man next to me that up in Chicago I have seen many queens but never a king. The rain that held off all day is beginning to fall as a light mist, now. Then it starts to pour. People scurry under whatever shelter they can find. A few open their umbrellas or put on pocket raincoats. Moments later, the tow boat docks, and after some radioing back and forth Rex emerges. Down the ramp he comes into the pouring rain, masked and majestic, followed by three lieutenants, each wearing a costume, one gold, one green and the last purple. They toss beads and doubloons as they walk to the bandstand where Rex will read his proclamation.
The tolerant father we wish for comes to love and bless us, now. We follow, rain or not, picking up beads and doubloons along the way. I lag behind but am fortunate to pick up a strings of plastic beads. Each has a crown shaped medallion on it with the word "Rex" to make it official. Then there is music and fireworks that explode over the river in a multicolored display. We are happy. We saw what we came to see. The rituals of Mardi Gras proceed rain or shine. The last flickers of fireworks reflect in the water. Then the river is gray in the light of late evening and shimmering the way water shimmers when it boils.
Sometimes you'd like to know the whole story: if not that, then at least the mystery that comes with each day. A couple in the French Quarter this Mardi Gras morning reminds me of that. He is dressed as a purple, green and gold samurai warrior and she is a vision of multicolored feathers. All I can overhear as they hurry past is the man's anger and his plea for justice.
"Where is Judge Green when you need him?" he asks with dismay.
"Judge Green's in prison, honey."
Ryan is 21 years old and studies art at Tulane University, assuming one actually studies at that university. His jelled and spiked auburn hair is in itself a work of art. Mardi Gras for Ryan is a mystery and an opportunity. It is a mystery because like most things in the world when you are 21, Mardi Gras comes to his life void of history and tragedy. For Ryan Mardi Gras is an opportunity as well, because Ryan brings to the party a new body and like a new car with dent resistant doors, he can throw himself into the race, go fast and not worry. Chances are he will bounce back even if he gives his heart to what passes for a day.
When I first see Ryan he has his shirt off and is leaning against a light pole across the street from the gay bar, Oz. He wears a complement of plastic, Mardi Gras beads around his neck. I sense he wants to talk and I want to listen, so I approach him.
"You look like an artist," Ryan says to me.
"It must be the camera that gives me away."
"No, it's a look in your eye," he says laughing.
As we talk, I look down into the well of Ryan's eyes and see the years he has to live until he is as old as I am. There are no details, just the shape of yearning and wonder. What could have happened if I had turned the corner of St. Ann earlier, or stayed later in a bar for another beer? Soon, Ryan's boyfriend for the evening returns from taking a pee. After that, Ryan decides the mask of my age is too gray for their golden adventures and he turns to leave. We all laugh and hug, and then they are off to another bar and lost in a sea of people. The last I see of Ryan is the reflected light of Mardi Gras skipping off his spiked hair like the light locked in pearls. Now, I could be like that drunk Robert Tallant describes who clings to a lamppost and yells, "Hey, Mardi Gras! Come back here."
Mardi Gras in a time of almost war presents the mind with a dilemma. How can we party when others are about to kill and die? Actually, I believe the answer to this is not so difficult to pin down. Given the fundamental unconscious motives in both human endeavors, it is not uncommon that both can exist simultaneous. Let's say one may mask the other. Let's say both a party and a war may grant relief. The beads are fake but the bullets are real, or is it the other way around? No one knows who it is on a float, behind a mask. Or do they? Sophocles asked, "Who is the slayer, who is the victim?" Are those rosy cheeks only rouge or the glow of someone in their prime? In 1497 the monk Savanarola changed the carnival of Florence into a bonfire of the vanities. A year later he was consumed on the same fire. I got my flagboy. I got my spyboy. Big Chief. I feel good. Even today, some religious fanatics make it to Mardi Gras. They walk up and down Canal Street before the parades start with placards that read, "The Wicked Shall Be Turned into Hell," and "God Hates Sinners." Some bystanders try to argue with them by shouting disapproval, but that does not work; nor does the blasphemy yelled by those who hate the Bible persuade the protesters. These men with their signs of disapproval read scripture, but not the whole of it; they weight the words of scripture, but with the thumb of their own will on the scale. Only a broader vision, a vision that see the created order as very good can embrace Mardi Gras. By the time Rex reaches Canal Street it is two in the afternoon. The day is bright and full. We take off our shirts. The warm sunlight feels good on our bare skin. "Laissez les bons temps roulez encore."
Beads, beads, beads. Mardi Gras beads are everywhere you look in New Orleans. People throw them down from balconies to the street, and up from the street to balconies. There are big beads and small beads. Rice beads and pearl beads. Beads with skulls. Beads like chili peppers. Beads shaped like marijuana leaves. Crawfish beads. Blinking, electric beads. Beads that glow in the dark. Space alien and flying saucer beads. Beads with royal crowns or cannibal bones. Beads lie broken in the gutters and caught in the branches of trees. Some folks won't pick up beads if they are in the street, but others don't mind, just as long as the circle of beads isn't broken or dirty. If someone cute throws you beads from a float, and you catch them, well, that's perfect. That's what Mardi Gras is all about—the human connection. That makes your day, but beads found in the street are good to wear, too. The super krewes toss bags and bags of beads per block when they parade. People try to wear as many strands of beads as they can, all different sizes and colors. There are long strands you may wrap around your neck twice and short strands you may wear on your wrist. Some people will do anything for beads. They are called "bead whores" here. One woman said the reason why houses in New Orleans are sinking is because the attics are filled with beads.
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