One of THE MUSES*, trawling past the raucous crowd of tens of thousands, had spotted my “need for bead” and was willing to fulfill it. I raised my arms in supplication. She threw in my direction. She fell short. She tried again. She missed and someone else got the booty.
By now, we had a relationship and were committed to it. So, on her third try, even though she was masked, our eyes locked onto each other, like a missile and a bullseye target. She hurled another package. By this time, she was a good fifty feet away; her float – and the possibility of contact – drifting away from me rapidly. But she was determined. She was a MUSE, after all.
On her third try, she hurled the made-in-china, plastic treasure once more in my direction. I held up my arm, led by my magnetized hand, and thrust it forward towards the magnetized bag of beads that was hurtling in my direction, and…..FINALLY! We made contact! I snagged that missile of booty like an All-Star catcher. She threw it – and I caught it – with such force and determination that the palm of my hand winced in pain.
From behind her mask, she glowed at the success of our journey together and thrust open her arms fully in a victory spread-eagle. I held my prize above my head and pumped it in her direction, cheering at the top of my lungs. Mission accomplished.
Mardi Gras Parade. New Orleans, Lousiana. February 7, 2013.
Mardi Gras: The Grand Poobah of Grand Poobahs. The Big Bacchanal. The Big Climax before the pious denouement of Lent, which begins tonight at midnight, led by Ash Wednesday.
An impromptu road trip last week with my friend, Paul, to the casinos of Biloxi, Mississipi, found us both in the mood for a spontaneous journey over to New Orleans, Louisiana – a mere 100 miles away. And, after a little research revealed that Mardi Gras was a season and not just a one-day celebration and, that the Mardi Gras parades went on for a good two weeks before Fat Tuesday, we decided to carpe the opportunity.
Thirteen hours in New Orleans, (pronounced New OR-lins or N’Awlins, not New Or-leens. It’s also known as The Big Easy and The Crescent City) Louisiana can be like 13 years in any other place. No, wait! I take that back. Thirteen hours in New Orleans is 13 hours in New Orleans. And, ONLY in New Orleans. There is no other city in this country that even remotely resembles it.
Paul and I had been listening to a book on tape on the drive over and, crossing the final bridge into The City – still several miles away – the energy emanating from It was so strongly palpable and I was suddenly overflowing with so much excitement, that I couldn’t concentrate anymore on the story. “Can we turn this off for now?” I asked.
We drove right into the French Quarter, dropped the car in a lot and stepped out into another world. Here was 78 square-blocks of a history-rich world of African, Spanish and French cultures, mingling and comingling. A world of gorgeous architecture, narrow streets, shuttered storefronts and homes, all of them at least 300 years old. A city flush with street artists, performers and musicians.
All of this is played out against the backdrop of the mighty, muddy Mississippi River. This is a city with a tapestry so lush that I instantly wanted to be woven right into it.
New Orleans is, in my opinion, perhaps the most culturally significant city in the United States. It is the WOMB of indigenous American music as we know it. Dixieland Jazz, Jazz, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, Soul, Blues and, as Muddy Waters sang, “The Blues had a baby and they named it Rock n’ Roll.”
Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr. John, Professor Longhair (musical mentor to the two former), Pete Fountain, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Al Hirt, Mahalia Jackson, The Neville Brothers, The Marsalises, Allen Toussaint, Louis Prima. And, that’s just a short list. And that’s just the music.
On to literature: Lillian Hellman, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, John Kennedy Toole (author of “A Confederacy of Dunces”, my favorite novel of all time). And that’s just another short list. And that’s just literature.
Jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, Po’Boy sandwich, alligator sausage. Although not the originators of these signature offerings, Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme are natives of New Orleans and have expanded our national palate in a big way.
Ellen Degeneres is a product of New Orleans. Everybody likes Ellen DeGeneres. And, on another note, how about tomorrow morning, while you’re getting dressed for work and you got to sleep in a few extra minutes because you weren’t standing at the ironing board, you think about crossing yourself in gratitude for Ruth Benerito, the inventor of wrinkle-free cotton.
On the opposite side of this coin of magnificence lies extreme poverty, racial segregation, racism, vice, graft, corruption, an ever-soaring crime rate. You might recall that, when Katrina hit, half of all the public safety officers (police, fire, and rescue workers), simply left the city.
I stopped on Bourbon Street at 5 pm to ask directions from a police officer working the street. He actually recoiled from me, as if he weren’t used to interacting with people. Or, maybe it was because I was sober and upright and this was Bourbon Street – the King and the Queen of the Bacchanal – and he simply didn’t understand what was in front of him. I don’t know what HE was thinking, but for me, the experience felt weird.
What I found so intriguing was that, after the parade, each one of the thousands of people in attendance were wearing the Mardi Gras beads which had been tossed out from the multiple floats. In addition to throwing beads, the Krewes also throw aluminum doubloons, embossed with the Krewe’s name, theme and year of inception. Early in the parade, one of the members of the first Krewe – the Knights of Babylon – tossed out a handful of doubloons which landed right on the left side of my nose, in the exact spot where it had been broken a couple years ago.
I’ve learned that, the “prestige” booty comes not from the ordinary strands of beads tossed, but from the many signature pieces I’d received from the Krewe of Muses, whose fine and generous array of gifts more than made up for the pain inflicted by the Babylon Doubloons. These included customized shoelaces, necklaces and bracelets, magnetized whiteboards, pens and pads, plastic cups with original artwork. As I write this piece, I’m wearing one of the bracelets I caught, a leather band with the letters MUSES presented in rhinestones.
Remember that junior-high school rite of passage that so many of us made to Washington, D.C.? Well, in my opinion, New Orleans ought to be added to that list. Its history, cultural richness and socio-economic compositon make it a profound learning experience, a HELL of a lot of fun and an absolute THRILL to behold.
I don’t know about you, but in our ever- homogenizing, rapidly-becoming-unrecognizable nation, I’m up for a cultural thrill, whenever and wherever I can find it. Even if it lasts for just 13 hours.
Happy Mardi Gras. Happy Lent. Happy Easter.
*The Krewe of Muses. Floats of a Mardi Gras parade are conceptualized and constructed by “krewes” – teams of people who hold membership in the Krewe. Their themes are satirical, political, intelligent. The Krewe of Muses is the only all-woman krewe.