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Throw Me Somethin' Mister:
by Robert Klein Engler | 2010
Some writers who comment on the bland aspects of American culture say that in New Orleans the sordid is being replaced by the pseudo. So, the sordid corners of the French Quarter have given way to the chrome and polish of Disney World. New Orleans today is not what it was during Tennessee Williams' time. Nevertheless, the Quarter Scene restaurant is still here at 900 Dumaine. There you can sit at the table where Williams used to sit and look out the window with the hopes of seeing Stella walk past. Surprisingly, you may see still a few women who fit the part perfectly.
Yet, even here people chat on cell phones, the cash register is more a computer than a calculator and SUVs lumber down the narrow, cobble stone streets. In spite of these change, one may still see remnants of the sordid in the gay sections of the French Quarter. Barracks Street is gentrifying, but late at night it still keeps a gritty edge. Even if the French Quarter turns into a southern version of Aspen, Colorado, gay men here may not only preserve the secrets and magic of makeup for future generation, they may preserve also the sordid for those living in the shrink wrapped future.
Gay men and Mardi Gras go together like coffee and chicory. Or is it red beans and rice? It is understood here that some men must lie down in the gutter before they convert by grace to a risen glory. This movement from flesh to spirit is one of the masked motives of Mardi Gras. Certainly, for everyone Mardi Gras is also a chance to see and be seen, but it is also a chance to be masked, to present yourself to the world as a mystery and to see the mystery that is another. It is a chance to put on a mask or to take off one. Not everyone, however, wants strangers on their property looking down on masked revelers.
Even though music permeates the culture of New Orleans, Mardi Gras has no official song. In fact it has no "official" anything. People just sing and do what they want. If Mardi Gras had an official song, I would want it to be "If Ever I Cease to Love." While this song is the official anthem of Rex, one of the oldest krewes in New Orleans, that's as far as its "officialness" goes. Even if others choose the song "Iko Iko," or "Mardi Gras Mambo," or something yet more jazzy, I like a song that has at its heart a sense of the tragic, the way a pecan can be coated with chocolate and make a sweet and crunchy mouthful.
Aguste Davis wrote a special band arrangement of "If Ever I Cease to Love," for the inaugural Rex parade of 1872. The song was also a favorite of visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff. There is a CD "Mardi Gras, Vol. II," that holds both "Iko Iko" and "If Ever I Cease to Love." A simple piano accompanies the voice in this version as we hear, "In a house, in a square, in a quadrant..." In truth, the title of the song holds more potential for the tragic than the melody or lyrics. That's the way with a lot of art. In fact, the song somewhat approaches the serious and tragic and then retreats. That is the way of Mardi Gras. It has both a serious and tragic side, but always we come back to the comic and the human. For a day, one becomes a queen with feathers and rhinestones while another turns away to gather ashes.
Ironically, after the meeting of the Rex and Comus courts on Mardi Gras night and the signal that the end of our Mardi Gras celebration is at hand, this song is sung, often with nostalgia for all that is ephemeral. "What is man that God is mindful of him? He lasts like the grass of the field for a day, and is then thrown into the furnace."
I think of my mother and the rickety house we used to live in when I was a boy. A dusty, late afternoon settles on our small world. We are out playing down the block, across from the coal yard. It is supper time. Her voice rings out from the from porch. Time to stop playing. She is calling us home. Outside, the crowd thins. People step over plastic cups and spilled beer and go on their way. The voice of authority shouts over the trailing laughter, like the voice of your mother, "Clear the streets! Mardi Gras is over."
The events that the news media report about the crowds in the French Quarter, the public sex and the women baring their breasts, or men and their dicks are not the real Mardi Gras for most who live in New Orleans. For these people, the real Mardi Gras takes place all over the city and focuses on parades, balls and private parties. With the exception of Fat Tuesday, what happens in the French Quarter, and especially along Bourbon Street usually involves tourists and occurs at night after the parades are over.
In recent years there have been attempts to clean up the image of Mardi Gras by passing laws against public nudity and there was even a campaign to promote Mardi Gras as a family affair. This put the focus on the krewes, their floats, and the parades. Getting a good spot to see a parade and maybe catch a throw thus becomes for many a year long quest. If you can't find a place along the curb to see a Mardi Gras parade, you can buy a ticket to one of the restaurants along the parade route and see it from their balcony. A spot at Michaul's on St. Charles will cost you $190 on Fat Tuesday. That includes food and drink. Kids under 12 get in for just $90.
Before I left Chicago, I made arrangements to meet my Chicago friend, Cookie, on the corner of St. Charles and Thalia so we could view one of the best parades together. I never made it to that corner. I only got as far as Canal and Saint Peters where I saw the Bacchus parade. As luck would have it, I even managed to snatch one of their purple doubloons. It wouldn't have happened if some drunken girls had not butted in front of me, blocking my view, but by doing that let the tossed doubloon fall right at my feet.
Unlike parades in some cities, Mardi Gras parades encourage people to become part of the pageantry. The crowds that line the streets during Mardi Gras are as much a part of the spectacle as the floats and bands. Many people have been staking out the same section of curb or neutral ground for years. There are also parties that begin and end during the parades right on those section of curb. The krewes themselves often parade with upwards of twenty floats and thousands ride on them. When the maskers on the floats hear the cry from the crowd, "Throw me somethin', Mister," they shower the onlookers with doubloons, beads and other souvenirs. Some people create elaborate nets with targets on a pole to catch what is thrown.
I like the parades that roll at night best. People gather on the streets that are up river from the French Quarter and leading to Canal to see the floats and riders. The looming shapes coming out of the darkness are other worldly. When we see them approach, we remember from childhood how kindness came with a tinge of terror. Soon, the gathered crowd begins to shout, "Hey! Throw me somethin', mister!" Then, the riders toss out strands of colored beads, plastic cups and doubloons. Boomerangs of pearl beads flip through the air. Bristles of arms reach out for them, as if they were the arms of the resurrected dead reaching for light. Someone is lucky and makes a catch. Other beads are snagged on the low branches of trees. Doubloons fall on the street with a metal sound that is half the sound of coins and half the sound of dreams. "Throw me somethin', mister!" It takes so little to make us happy, now. The kings and queens of old give their blessing—purple, green and gold abound. For a moment, it is like heaven. There is enough that glitters for all.
Suddenly, reality strikes. A cellphone beeps and a man by the light pole answers. He tells his friends to hurry up and meet him here. Undaunted, the crowd waits for the next float and then the cry goes out again. "Throw me somethin', Mister!" How many times during Mardi Gras have we head that shout? For some it is a plea, for others it is a prayer or even a taunt. Throw me something, purple, green or gold. Throw me beauty. Throw me joy. Throw me my youth again and my true lover. Throw me something so I may pretend. Throw me something so I may forget.
Mardi Gras is like an opera. It is like a Latin opera, not a Nordic one. This being said, let me contradict myself and say that Mardi Gras is like "Tannhauser" on wheels. Just as gay men are attracted to the opera, so are they attracted to Mardi Gras. There is music, dancing, singing and most of all a chance to wear elaborate costumes. Unlike the opera, however, the drinking takes place at Mardi Gras all the time, not just between the acts.
The city of New Orleans is the elaborate stage for this spectacle and the various krewes are rolling opera productions with their masked prima donnas. Here is a chance to wear purple green and gold beads and feathers. Here is a chance to share in the symbolism and history of carnival that goes back more than a century. The 1892 Rex parade, entitled "Symbolism of Colors", assigned the meanings justice, faith and power to purple, green and gold, respectively. Although that parade was two decades after Rex's founding, those meanings have been associated with these colors ever since.
In his essay, "The Personal and Collective Unconscious," Jung writes, "Masks, as we know, are actually used among primitives in totem ceremonies—for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality." When the Spanish first laid out the city of New Orleans, they planned for each house to present a facade to the street, and have hidden from view a garden and private quarters. Today, the streets of the French Quarter present us with such a mask. Behind the mask of those facades, wonderful gardens still grow. "Some of dem gardens is so pretty, you can sleep out der with a pillow." On Fat Tuesday it is expected that many will wear a mask in public. There are so many elaborate masks to be seen both in shops and on faces. The feathered ones especially seem to give the heart wings. Others are corrosive and even demonic. These are the ones that perhaps give rise to a subtle vertigo of the soul like the fog that clings to the live oaks on a damp night at Jackson Square.
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