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Throw Me Somethin' Mister:
by Robert Klein Engler | 2010
Most people don't realize it, but if you are a member of the Krewe of Zulu, then before you parade on Mardi Gras, you have to shave your nuts. Not only that, you need about 100 nuts, coconuts that is. Once the nuts are shaved, they are drilled, drained of their milk, and then painted and carved. Mostly they are painted black and gold, but they can be decorated as you see fit. You can't throw them out all at once, either. You have to save 50 for when the parade rolls through Uptown, then about 50 more for when the parade reaches Downtown. These Zulu coconuts are very poplar throws, and people are honored to get one. It can make their Mardi Gras. Recently, a Zulu coconut was offered on E-Bay for $225.
Early Ash Wednesday morning, two women ride the street car along the river. A low fog clings to the water like a scarf. They resume talking after the car leaves the Poydras stop.
"Dat sure was a crazy time, yesterday."
"You lift your shirt?"
"Just a little bit."
"Honey, you too ol' for dat."
"What you mean? Dat man said he liked to see 'em slappin'."
A middle aged man enters the coffeehouse from Royal Street and looks around. It is obvious he has never been here before. I notice, too, that a young man looks up from his newspaper the way an alert leopard looks up from a watering hole. The young man has stopped eating his sandwich now and looks steadily at the older man who fumbles through his pants pockets for change. When he reaches for his wallet, I see the older man did not take his Rolex off before he left the hotel room. I am sure this oversight does not go unnoticed by other eyes as well.
Outside, workmen are painting the building across the street the tan color of flesh. They have a radio playing as they work. Up and down the paint roller goes, the long pole reaching up to the white cornice and then down to the slate sidewalk, up and down, leaving a fresh coat of color on the wall that time and traffic have faded. Now the middle-aged man has his coffee and looks around for a place to sit. It has to be next to the young man eating his sandwich. No sooner does the older man settle in his chair, when the young man looks at him and asks, "You got the time?"
How rare the light is now that defuses from Royal Street into the room. Rifts of hardly audible jazz filter down from speakers half-hidden in the corners. The way some men join with others to make music is a mystery to me. I conclude that Jazz and the Blues are two ways of singing that should enter the body through the feet or hands and not the ears. When we braid the strands of the world together, some threads are short and some are long. So, in blues songs you can rhyme "roosta" with "used ta."
Should I tell these two about to merge, "Breathe in the night blooming jazz, Man!" Or how about, "I like coffee and I like tea. I like Jack Daniels, but it don't like me. I got the sweet, sweet sugar blues." I look at my notes: "In 1936 the New Cadillac Night Club presented Tony's Dixie Ramblers Orchestra." Now, it is Mardi Gras. If ever I ceases to love, then play "His eye is on the sparrow" for me.
With the French doors open and their fan windows above, it is difficult to know if this space worn with dust from coming and going, with potted ferns, the odor of coffee brewing and the chime of cups against saucers is truly outside or inside; past, present or future. The two worlds of private and public, of sweet kisses in a closed room or the noisy shuffle of roadways, come together as if through a porous membrane that could be the eye of the creator. It is in this fog of light, suspended in the portal between in and out that these two men join their destiny. "I am staying at the Marriott," the older man says.
Tom takes the train back to Chicago before I do. I want to stay another week and go up river on a steamboat. It is a pleasant ride, with foggy mornings and good food, yet the scars of Mardi Gras are present even on this steamboat. They must have had a party on the last cruise for there are strings of broken Mardi Gras beads in dark corners, small pieces of Mardi Gras paper stuck with tape to the baseboards, and the floor of my cabin has Mardi Gras confetti not yet vacuumed up.
Our first night out from New Orleans, as we churn up river after dinner, I think of Tom riding the train back to Chicago. The paddle wheel sounds like an old locomotive as it slaps the river and, as is the case on water, my thoughts are long and backward looking. I remember Tom telling me a detail about his affair with Jackson that I can't get out of my mind. As they were embracing, Jackson asked Tom, "What do you like? What do you want me to do?" "Imagine that," Tom said to me, "someone asking me what I like."
That simple question proved to Tom that Jackson was not selfish. I look out across the water to the line where trees, sky and fog meet. We glide away into a sleep, into a dream. We forget about our wounded self. The shards of Mardi Gras are good for dust, now. The ones we come to know go their way. On the slippery deck below, a little boy walks carefully, holding his father's hand. What would you like?
Train travel in this country could be much better. First class or coach, it is still a form of travail—work in motion. Nevertheless, a day on the train is enough to realize that you are truly leaving one place and arriving at another. Out the window you may see the bare trees blur by, then the fields fan their furrows to another line of slow paced trees against the silhouette of farm houses and finally, purple shapes against the horizon. The parade passes by on a blur, just masks and feathers reaching after love and ashes.
Looking into the mirror of the train window, I remember getting beads from Arthur at Jackson Square. Arthur told me Mardi Gras is too expensive for him. He lives in New Orleans and works for the Post Office. He says an invitation to join a krewe may cost $750, and then another $1,500 for throws to ride on the float and a costume and the ball—it all adds up and becomes too much for his salary.
What does Arthur do, instead? He dresses up, buys a shopping bag of beads and heads to the French Quarter. There is no mail to deliver on Fat Tuesday, so in the French Quarter he hands out the beads to anyone who looks like they can't afford Mardi Gras, either. Once, he saw a woman with hair colored, purple, green and gold and wearing a long, gray Confederate coat. He handed her some beads and she thanked him. As he walked away, she called him back. When he stopped and turned, she flashed open her coat so he could see the black, lace bra and panties she wore. "Very tasteful," he said, and walked on.
The train moves into the wetlands by the river, now. An old tree has fallen over, its stump, like a cracked open bone, tries to tear at the air and whatever is near. Below, stretches of gray water reflect the sky like the other world behind a looking glass.
There is something blessed about the rusted sheds and rotting railroad ties we see along the tracks on the way back to Chicago from New Orleans. There must be even in this mold and rust some memory of light. That is why such patina draws us to look again. Only years can make this red talcum on metal, this white flour on wood. That air force jet, heavy with ordinance, I saw on display at the Baton Rouge river front museum rusts like this old shed, too. One man flies a war plane, while another develops an acute awareness of himself. Who is to say? Now, birds build a nest under the bombs. Look, a sparrow lifts itself from the sagging roof and flies above the open field. New green creeps upward. Dear me, the magnolias are blooming, and dogwood, too. We glide away from spring on steel rails. We leave behind the mythical land of Araby the Blest. Even though we are old, don't chase us off so soon. Let us reach after what we long for, and hope it hides behind the mask the world wears.
It has been said that New Orleans is "The only major city one would hope, lower than a periscope." Any city lower than sea level and surrounded by water can expect trouble sooner or later. When that city is New Orleans, then trouble could be only a Mardi Gras away. When trouble did come, it was in the form of a hurricane. Not the hurricanes the tourists drink, but the wind and rain of hurricane Katrina and then the levees failed. After that, help came, but it was a stuttering help. "What do they know?" a resident of the French Quarter asked me. "Those FEMA folks, they don't know the difference between a London Street Dyke and a Bourbon Street dyke."
The wind blows and the wind subsides. The flood comes and the flood goes. Black shingles torn from the roofs give way to blue, plastic sheets. The Lower 9th Ward seems lost for sure. Nevertheless, the parades roll again. "That's life," someone says. "Ces't Levee." If you don't have much, then you can't loose much. Still, it is a loss, a loss that leaves you with mud instead of ashes. My waitress tells me she used to live in Midcity. "The water was up to my eyes," she says, and then adds, "Like an old bathtub, there is a ring around the city, now."
When I was a boy, the basement of the old house my mother inherited after father died, always flooded during a heavy rain storm. Brackish water spilled out of the drain in the basement floor like oil. It was raw sewage, but what did I know, then. I just stood on the stairs watching the water rise and looking at my mother who hoped the water would not rise so high as to reach the motor of her washing machine. If it did, there would be no money to buy a new one.
It is no accident that Mardi Gras comes before Lent, just as youth comes before middle age. At Mardi Gras a man can take the day off from worry and regret and pretend he is a king, then on Ash Wednesday he can remember the clay from which we are made. In most men there is a part of themselves they do not know. We only find out about that part by looking back. It could be the part of us gone to ash. What made him desire that person, that body, and that taste of love at midnight? Perhaps it is the same force that dries the grass and fills the pond with rain. The same force that paints the heron with a splash of white against the blue-grey cypress trees. So, then, what happens to that youthful love, that taste we can't get off our tongue? Some live with it and watch it cut a channel like an old river. Others say it grew old and crabby and lives alone in a rusted trailer at the edge of town.
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