laissez les bons temps rouler
My Mardi Gras ends now, I thought as I stood outside the Omni Hotel. Fat Tuesday was here; the end of Carneval – the final feasting before the fasting of Lent. I had to try it. One time. Now I was hailing a cab to leave New Orleans before sundown.
I’ve lived in the West and the Northeast. Seldom have I heard a person speak of the holiday unless, of course, they were from New Orleans.
Even though America’s a “Christian” nation, to a majority of America’s Christians, Mardi Gras is some pagan debauched orgy. Well they’re right. Mardi Gras is New Orleans on a bender.
I expected it would be loud but what I experienced was exceptionally vociferous. It wasn’t just the University of Georgia Bulldog fellas barking in the elevator; confronted in the lobby by the “CAAAANE swish, swish, wish” of Miami Hurricane frat boys, who were targeted by “SOOEY” pig-calling Arkansas visitors as we all hit the street.
No. It was more than pumped up, drunken Greek geeks and jocks, it was the full throat viciousness of war, more so a victory party brewing before The Gulf War saw a single shot half a world away.
It was a week to rally ‘round the flag floats, boys. Floats glided down Poydras Street with menacing, sneering, satanic Saddam Hussein caricatures juxtaposed by a kindly, fatherly – hey, doesn’t that look more like Teddy Roosevelt – George (H.W) Bush big-head floats. One float even had a shirtless Bush flexing. I never knew he had such a physique; replete with a six-pack of abs. Extraordinary artistic license, the patriotism on parade was unlike any I had seen at my father’s military reviews.
Yet, I did see a Robert E. Lee big head float drive under a column topped with a statue of Abe Lincoln. I mean although that War was six score and six years ago, it seemed relevant; militaristic, but in symmetry with tradition and The South.
But after four days of Bacchanalia, beignets, brass bands, beads, and tap dancing panhandlers, who seemed to know where I got “those shoes”, my friend, Karen and I felt captive to the French Quarter.
It had become claustrophobic, cornered by the Mississippi River, surrounded by the drab, dated metropolis spiking toward the sky. We needed a quiet escape outside The Quarter. Suddenly, Easy Rider came to mind; that cemetery. We spend quiet afternoons at cemeteries and parks back home in L.A.
I wasn’t’ purposely coy with the cab driver. However when I told him, “turn right off Canal” and mentioned Saint Louis Cemetery, he lit into me. “Ah you ain’t goin’ta Sain Louis, are ya’ll? You should have told me. As he took a premature right turn, he continued “I wouldn’t brought ya’ll here”,
As he took the fare, he reminded, “if anything happens to ya’ll, I didn’t bring ya’ll”, and he sped off, leaving us standing on Rampart Street. We walked a block to the corner, where we spied the whitewash walls of the cemetery.
There stood three black police officers. Their dark uniforms artistically contrasted against that pristine whitewashed cemetery wall.
It was plainly visible that one officer on a knee was inserting a small-caliber hand gun into a sock holster, while another, who had his foot on a fire hydrant, stuffed a dagger or switch blade in his sock. The other stood fiddling with jacket and pant belt, as they silently secured extra weapons.
As we approached, one police officer shaking his head said aloud, “Ya’ll ain’t going in there.” I replied, “We want to check it out”. He shook his head faster as another said, “Ya’ll know what’s in there, boy?” Before I could reply, he added, “There’s people in there waiting to rob and hurt you”. He steered my gaze back from where we had walked. “Ya’ll see those? Theys Projects. See them on the balconies watching us? They can see ya’ll down in there. They send boys down to rob you, could stab you.”
Feeling their sincerity and witnessing their patrol preparation, we acted as if heeding their advice, but you know me… Once I saw them leave toward The Quarter, I said, “Let’s turn around.” I won’t pretend. We were hesitant. At the threshold of the cemetery gate, we tiptoed inside. From a balcony outside the wall, an old woman in her rocker cackled a loud laugh startling us.
I went down the first row of tombs along the inside wall; that is, until I came upon a pair of legs poking out from behind a tomb. It could be a drunk sleeping but it also could be a victim, vagrant or some trap. I retreated.
As I walked up to Karen at the gate behind her a middle-aged black man appeared. He stood there quietly looking at us. He was nearly six feet tall with a modest, old school afro. He had calm eyes as he stood there in his black slacks with a worn tan sport coat, an old mustard stain shining from the belly of his dress white shirt. He asked if we were looking for anyone in particular. “No. No one”, I said.
He said, “I know where a lotta folk are” and offered to guide us. As he took us into the maze of tombs, like a Civics lesson, he began talking about historic New Orleans: the peculiar geographic setting – lying between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain under sea level. They can’t bury the dead. They place the dead in these above ground tombs, sealing them, so as they act like ovens. Bodies putrefy. Through cracks, we sneaked peaks at disintegrated bones.
He definitely knew his centuries of local history. The slave trade. The immigration patterns. He was proud to show the tomb of the first Postmaster General of New Orleans; then, the first black mayor who began a political dynasty – the Morial Family tomb. We strolled past by favorite pirate – Jean Lafitte’s tomb.
We asked where was the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau’s tomb? There, we found a lot of graffiti, candles and presents. He coached us through a process – three knocks, three twirls in place followed by more knocks, a present, more knocks and twirls, as we tried contacting her to grant a wish.
There were colossal tombs that he explained were made by the first Italian emigrants, who created “Benevolent Societies” – the original American gangsters. They sold protection or as he called it “insurance”. If you paid them, your family was treated well and it guaranteed burial inside these mausoleum type tombs. He added some people who didn’t pay might make it as well; that, they may not have been dead when they were entombed. “People say they heard screaming awhile in the night. After a week or so it went quiet”.
He didn’t laugh or ever change expression throughout the tour. We sat on a tomb to take in the graveyard framed by the skyline. I broached the subject of this Mardi Gras with its war theme. I asked if it was unusual. He dropped his head. He hadn’t seen it like this. He likewise didn’t quite understand why the various Krewes had made such floats but he knew the mentality.
He had fought in Vietnam, lost family in Vietnam. Mardi Gras had never been the same when he returned. The “live and let live” spirit of his ancestry dampened, if not lost, as he quietly hoped it would be different for a son, who was now in Kuwait awaiting a new war. As we stood to walk out of the maze, his concern was etched on his face.
As we got near the entrance, I turned to Karen, mumbling that we should give him some money. When I turned back, he was gone. As quickly as he appeared, he had vanished.
I looked down both ends of the street. We didn’t get to say thank you. Perplexed, we began to consider if he had even been real; was he a ghost, an angel, our guardian angel perhaps. Was he some validation of our last four days here? Was he a hallucination, as if we just had a parallel Easy Rider scene?
He was so calm, unfettered about his and this City’s past yet weary. I was still thinking of him the next day, as the cab drove us to the airport. I considered that he was “killed-in-action”, if not in body in spirit. When we got back to L.A. we wondered if we had captured his image in of our photographs but he had kept removed, always a distance back for whatever reason.
We found one but he was split in half. I thought it fitting that he was only partially there in body. He had a divine, near Jesus-like spirit and although I was leaving Mardi Gras, he would never leave me.