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Throw Me Somethin' Mister:
by Robert Klein Engler | 2010
People from cities other than New Orleans are always trying to compare celebrations and parades in their city to what takes place in the Big Easy during Mardi Gras. There is really no comparison. Chicagoans say that Mardi Gras is like St. Patrick's Day. On St. Patrick's Day you may wear green, drink beer and go to parades. You see a lot of people in Chicago wearing strings of green beads and shamrocks similar to those who wear beads in New Orleans. But that where the similarity ends. In Chicago it's against the law to throw things from a float. In New Orleans, parades would never roll without floats and throws. In Chicago, St. Patrick's Day celebrates just one thing. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras celebrates everything.
As the train approaches a stop at Jackson, Mississippi, we roll past The Midtown Foodery. It is boarded up, just like the once elegant Hotel King Edward. Is Carnival like one of those luxury liners that used to steam across the Atlantic? They had salons of mahogany and mirrors where women in gowns and men in tuxedos danced all night. Below deck, other men sweat and shovel coal into the boilers, their faces black with coal dust. Carnival—caviar and coal—that's what it could be. The waitress at the hotel who pours coffee with a grimace, and the queen on Bourbon Street with the flaming boa—they say God wants a multitude of soul so he also made the Eskimos. The odd is always with us, sometimes boarded up, sometimes like an opera, something like the word "foodery."
There are those at Mardi Gras who worry about growing old, and those who are allergic to the elderly. That allergy comes from worry. If you don't get knocked down by a truck at twenty-five then you will be infected by the wrinkle virus.
But not to worry, it's Mardi Gras Day. Now, the old money meets the new money. They both stand side by side with the no money. What can you say to them? The world is always passing away. Remember when such and such was there? Remember?
"He used to come down here on Mardi Gras day."
"And, now, he dead"
That's it. perhaps. "Iko, Iko, Mardi Gras Day." The sign says, "At the end of the day, make sure it's Herb Saint Frappe." Read his letter. "You got buggy in your soul?" A storm can sweep away a world, so will betrayal.
"He dead! So, we read dis poem for him."
Words bring back worlds.
"Dey got dat cover charge at the Corner Pocket on Mardi Gras day. Cost me five dollar to get in. Didn't leave me much for a drink and nothin' to feel up the dancin' boys. Shit, it bein' Mardi Gras, you'd think you'd get a feel for free."
"So, what do you do?"
"Student at LSU."
"It's in Lafayette."
"Oh, yeah. Student of what?"
"Great, I need a good doctor."
"It's gonna be a while. But wait for me."
"Tell, me doctor, how much alcohol should someone drink at Mardi Gras?"
"Don't ask me. I'm Catholic. Drink as much as you like."
The Krewe of Lame Ducks walks past to the cheers of onlookers. They wear yellow, duck costumes and carry photos of Mayor Nagin, President Bush and Vice President Cheney. It seems many here do not understand the consequence of peace.
Sometimes, it rains the day after Mardi Gras. If the rain starts early in the morning, then it is too wet for the cleanup crews to hit the streets. This early, morning rain turns the flagstones to dark mirrors. It mats the hair of the drunks and droops the feathers of the revelers out until sunrise. The streets collect puddles the way, earlier, we collected beads. A sorry mess gathers by the curbs and runs down the gutters. The heavy scent of beer gives way to the damp perfume of spring. For those of us from the cold north, this rain is the first we have seen in months. It is a friendly rain, so unlike the harsh discipline of ice and snow. The rain washes the bricks to burgundy and drips down the fingers of the banana leaves. Rain makes the wrought iron seemed polished with oil, while above, in the boarded up building, a window with a pane of glass missing is a darkness among mirrors, like the darkness when a mouth opens. The patter of rain is like the trailing off of drums, the going away of leather heels, the soft ticking of time passing away everywhere and for all. The fountain in the courtyard gushes forth, even while it rains.
In 1803 the first U. S. fort was built at the mouth of the Chicago River. In the same year, New Orleans and all the territory claimed by the French was turned over to the United States in that quirk of history called the Louisiana Purchase. Although there was a tradition of Mardi Gras before this turn over, the seeds of Mardi Gras as we know it today were planted when the American flag was raised over Jackson Square.
Lonely Fort Dearborn was settled by Americans who were at the western frontier of the new nation. These settlers had few amenities and in just nine years the fort would be burnt down and most of the inhabitants massacred by the Pottawatomie Indians.
In 1803, New Orleans had a tradition of royalty, very unlike the frontier experience of American individuality. There were chandeliers in the elegant homes, there was silk and lace, there were all night balls and sophisticated teas. There were beautiful woman and memories of civilization in Paris. For many living in New Orleans the coming of the Americans was an event equal to the coming of barbarians. What was even worse, there was no longer a King, but a new President. The French would have to wait another generation before they decided to accept the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Where was all the pageantry and beauty to go if there was no longer a King and a Royal Court? What did the Americans know about the good life? Where did all the ceremony and elegance go? It went into Mardi Gras, that's where.
Anyone who has seen the pageantry of a Rex parade or the ceremony of a Rex ball knows there is a hunger for royalty in the soul of many who live in New Orleans. That hunger is for a King and Queen. That hunger is feed nowadays by Mardi Gras. We may wear plastic beads, but who is to say they are not the real pearls, diamonds and gold in our imagination? Come, take your burden to the Mardi Gras. There is dancin' in the street. Who is to say this is not a ball with wigs and champagne? Set your burden down. The King has room for you at court. Should we go in? Yes, but just imagine, too, how, for a long time slavery cast a shadow over all this make believe.
Men like Tom come to Mardi Gras seeking something they cannot find at home. What they seek is not some kind of decadence like the decadence found at the end of John Rechy's popular novel, "City of Night." The New Orleans of that book is only a New Orleans of the imagination for men like Tom. For other men the book is a beginning, not an end. "City of Night" was the first gay novel my friend Cookie read. She stole it from the dirty book carousel of a truck stop along Highway 14 outside of Chicago when she was twelve.
Men like Tom do not wish to run naked in the streets of New Orleans or don leather and be whipped, either. They just come to Mardi Gras with a hope and an unstated prayer for release. Tom told me that years ago, in his loneliness, he came to New Orleans for the first time. Since then he has found kinship with the damp slate of the sidewalks and the twisted rails of balconies and gates.
On his teacher's salary, it's enough for Tom to just get a place to stay and pay the inflated Mardi Gras prices for food and drinks. Tom may only look and maybe get a kiss from a stranger, but in the end, his pleasure comes from simply being in New Orleans. Next week, back home in St. Louis, he may tell an exaggerated story about his adventures. How would his friends know one way or the other if it were true? After all, he did go to Mardi Gras, and if it happened in New Orleans, it never happened.
Tom has felt the press of the crowds at the parades, heat from the fires of the flambeaux and the lightness of feathers. Perhaps he heard the faint echo of the old song: "Mardi Gras! Chic las pas! Run away, tra la la!" New Orleans and Mardi Gras is the gravitational center of a world this March 4th and it draws him to its bosom. There is a pleasure that comes with being drawn to where something that seems important happens. Simply being in New Orleans is what it is about not only for Tom, but for hundreds of other men crowding the bars south of St. Ann in the Quarter. They arrive alone and leave alone. In between there may be a day of caring, a night of being loved, and an hour of not being worried. There is a reason why the city of New Orleans is called the city that care forgot.
With a beer in one hand and a few doubloons or beads snatched from the air as the parade transverses Canal Street in the other hand, New Orleans reminds the middle-aged queens and balding bureaucrats that there are islands of forgetfulness in the ocean of a desperate world. Mardi Gras also reminds us that after Fat Tuesday there is Ash Wednesday. Then, comes the stretch of late winter days when the larder empties and the northern fields thaw to mud. Indeed, "carne ave," a farewell to flesh follows Mardi Gras. Indeed, the saints come marching in with their hangovers and their bleary eyes, with their rhinestone tiaras and their polyester robes, with their lightsome flesh and their resolve for next year. Now, the refreshed and lonely heart realizes that "If Ever I Cease to Love," then there will be no more Mardi Gras. Don't worry, Tom, there will be another Mardi Gras. Like the call of the body, it comes back. For those who return home with a shiny doubloon or plastic beads there is the token, however dull or aluminum, of a promise to come, of yet an Easter.
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