Turns out life isn't a carnival

Joseph Boyden tries to get into the spirit of the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras, but something just feels wrong

I’ve become convinced nobody can ever fully define what Mardi Gras is, that no one ever really finds just what they’re looking for in the mad week where the city swells to many times its normal size, oozing drunken, rude tourists, beautiful painted women, fat men without pants, skinny girls without shirts, clowns, vampires, fairies, gays, straights and in-betweens willing to bare it all for the chance of catching gaudy trinkets that those riding the parade floats throw out. And I’m even more convinced, having participated in New Orleans’ first post-Katrina celebration of all that is wanton, that we are further away than ever before from understanding just what this biggest street party in America is supposed to mean and how it defines us.

No question that a sadness permeated this year’s party. Of course, we all tried to disguise or to deny it by drinking a little more than usual, by screaming louder to “Throw me something, mister!”, by pursuing the objects of our desires, but the masks and face paint and drunken smiles still couldn’t hide it. Our city is wounded, very possibly mortally. It certainly will never be the same, and New Orleanians don’t necessarily like change.

This Mardi Gras proved a particularly strange one for me for a few personal reasons. My dear sister Suzanne and her husband, Donovan, flew all the way from Cape Town, South Africa, along with their friend John, to take part in the madness. Sue and Dono have lived in Cape Town for 15 years, and my chance to see them is rare. When they suggested they should come visit Amanda and me, I ignored that warning buzz in the back of my head and demanded they show up.

About the warning buzz. I’ve had other family members down for Carnival before. Just before the season arrives, the mere mention of Mardi Gras makes me begin salivating for a shot of whisky and the sound of a marching band. But I block out the less pretty memories: the promise to Amanda, as midnight strikes on Ash Wednesday and we’re crawling home from Frenchman Street, that next year when Mardi Gras comes, we’ll take a little vacation away from the city. As much fun as it is, the intensity of hundreds of thousands searching for something they won’t ever obtain, packed into a few days, is emotionally, even spiritually, exhausting. But I told Suzanne and Donovan to come anyway. After all, our city needed this Mardi Gras desperately, and the more visitors, the merrier.

The other strange aspect of Mardi Gras this year: a CBC camera crew, headed by the charismatic and tall Evan Solomon, was heading down to document the city and my life in it. Nothing is more unlike my regular life than during Carnival. My routine of writing in the morning, taking a long bike ride in the afternoon, teaching, and then writing again is completely thrown to the birds. A camera crew following me around on the most debauched of days. What if I got drunk and made a fool of myself? What else could my friends think of me as I’m being trailed by camera and crew, other than I must really believe I’m a self-important ninny? Oh boy, here we go.

To top it off, I was invited to actually ride in one of the parades, Bacchus, one of the biggest, with close to 30 monster floats, 18 marching bands, hundreds of riders, and thousands of pounds of beads to be thrown to the screaming masses on Sunday night. All of this on the first Mardi Gras to mark the comeback of the city of New Orleans.

And so it arrives. School is done for the week, and Amanda and I head to our first parade of the season on Thursday night(no family or film crew till Friday morning). The evening is marked by two big parade krewes(krewes are the clubs that organize the festivities): the all-male Krewe of Chaos, and the all-female Krewe of Muses. Most parade krewes split along gender lines, but not all. Two of my favourites, Zulu and Orpheus, allow both male and female riders to take part, but most others follow very strict and antiquated rules that strike outsiders as downright backward. As I said, most New Orleanians are resistant to change.

The excitement in the swelling crowd of adults and children grows as police sirens scream the announcement of the first parade. Flambeau carriers, in years past mostly black men and residents of this city, have been replaced by Latin American men. They carry torches lit by propane, the canisters strapped to their backs, flames shooting up and lighting the darkness. Flambeau carriers are one of the oldest traditions of Carnival, whose purpose was to light up the floats before electricity. People in the crowd throw them change, and the Latin men pick up coins as they walk, a reminder that the men who did this job last year have not returned to their city. The first bit of Mardi Gras sadness creeps in.

Chaos rolls by, the men in their masks and hats looking troublingly like Klansmen, especially those with pointed hoods, on their horses high above the crowd. There’s always a king or queen at the front of the parade, and the king of Chaos is an older man dressed in white tights, a white shiny top and a silly-looking pageboy blond wig, waving a little sceptre over us. But Chaos is over before I realize it, and I remember that many of the krewes lost floats during the flooding. No workers, and no time to rebuild them.

Shortly after, with the same pomp and circumstance, Muses rolls by, the women in elaborate wigs throwing long strands of beads to shouting men and children. Masks hide their identities, as is the custom with parades here, and the allure of this parade is all about the mask and the face it hides. Despite my best efforts, I get very little love from the women in the first floats, and so I abandon my bead-catching mission and catch up with friends. Amanda and I keep a quiet night tonight. We know what the weekend brings, and besides, Amanda is coming down with a cough.

I’d promised the CBC people I’d take them on a “devastation tour,” something that feels slightly exploitive, slightly wrong. Is this the new tourism? I’ve heard about people in the last few months taking bus tours of the most devastated neighbourhoods. But despite my qualms, I want Canadians to see what has happened to such big swaths of this city.

We head out after Evan and I are set up with little lapel mikes. I try to pretend that Janet, the sound person, and Ed, the cameraman, aren’t filming Evan and me from the backseat of my vehicle as we pick our way through New Orleans, leaving the island, the “Sliver by the River” that went mostly unscathed, and heading down to the destruction on Claiborne and beyond.

We cross the industrial canal into the Lower Ninth, chatting about what we’re seeing, the long, dead stretches tucked away from the eyes of the French Quarter tourists. Every street is virtually empty. Block after block of destroyed homes, their contents often a jumbled mass on the pitted sidewalks. On one desolate street, Evan and I explore a home left open, its guts spilling out onto the porch. We open up a little black case, and inside is a clarinet, rusted from the flood and lonely. It is almost the too-perfect symbol of this area, once thriving with artists, musicians and blue collar workers. Evan asks if I feel guilty for celebrating Mardi Gras when so many residents have nothing anymore. Yes, there’s a lot of guilt, I respond, but the city has to celebrate Mardi Gras this year. Not to have it is admitting defeat. And think of the long-term economics: this city depends on tourism and needs it desperately if it’s going to recover at all. The answer still rings hollow in my ears.

Friday blurs into Saturday. I get used to being on camera, trying to act normally. Suzanne, Donovan and John have arrived from Cape Town via Hong Kong and Singapore, the strain of jet lag etched on their good-looking and healthy faces. But they’re game for exploring the city, and I take them out to parades, to a party, to some bars. There’s nothing like introducing virgins to Carnival when you’re a veteran of this silliness and it begins looking routine. You get to see it with fresh eyes; it reminds you why you liked it in the first place. We wear ourselves out watching parades and socializing. Still we go on, the camera crew allowing us some privacy. I keep myself calm and collected. Tomorrow I ride in my first parade, and I’ve managed to snag Donovan a float spot as well.

No idea what to expect in terms of riding in Bacchus. I’m told to be at the convention centre no later than 10 a.m. Sunday, this place that was the scene of so much pain and sadness six months ago. I think of the old woman dead in her wheelchair, covered by a blanket, as I walk through the very same doors she was abandoned by. Inside, the floats are lined up, monstrosities packed to the brim with beads.

And then it’s off to the Hilton, where we dress up in our gaudy costumes. My float-mates and I have been designated to be apples, and the float itself is a Disney-looking apple tree. The theme of this year’s Bacchus is The Wizard of Oz, but nobody I ask seems to know or care why. I feel absolutely ridiculous pulling on my shiny gold top, a huge apple emblazoned on the chest, then something akin to brown parachute pants. Around me, old and young alike, all white, all clearly well-to-do, do the same. Black men in black suits and white gloves busy themselves with tailoring the costumes for those who need it. They hand us cheap plastic masks and safety goggles, help us into harnesses that will keep us from falling off the floats. I look at the people, nearly every one the rich, white Uptown type, drinking beer, eating huge po’ boy sandwiches, drinking more beer, and wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. These men are so completely different from me. Right?

When 3 p.m. rolls around, and most of the parade riders seem pretty well into the sauce, we load onto our floats and begin the journey to our starting point. Once there, big lunches of jambalaya and beer are served. Donovan comments that he has never seen such beefy men. As they line up for second helpings, I recognize the Louisiana fat of the well-to-do. But I push away the negativity. I’ve been invited by them to take part in one of the city’s great traditions. I will not think any negative thoughts. Repeat 50 times. I pop open a beer and take a big drink.

It’s tough to put into words the madness of row after row of screaming people shouting at you to throw them something, anything. We roll down Napoleon Avenue in the gloaming, make a turn down St. Charles. I catch glimpses of Ed, the CBC cameraman, filming me as he fights his way through the crowd. God, I must look ridiculous in my getup. The film crew will leave after the parade, and that part of this grind will be over.

On and on we go, the darkness of night falling, people screaming at me, practically begging. Once in a while the parade mysteriously halts, and these become my favourite times. I can make out the faces of kids and toss them foam footballs. I throw long strands of beads to everyone who wants them. I try to remain politically correct, despite the rider beside me demanding that if a pretty girl wants a bead, she must show him something. By the end, when we roll back into the convention centre, I think I am the only rider in the history of Mardi Gras not to have seen one breast.

The ball. Amanda and my sister Suzanne are waiting for Donovan and me, but nobody informed me that we are expected to bring our own drinks and food. What kind of ball is that? Women in very snazzy gowns, including Amanda and Suzanne, who spent a fortune this afternoon to find something last minute, sit at tables and wait for their partners to arrive on their floats. Thousands of people in the centre tonight, but unlike six months ago, there is more than enough food and drink. Amanda is understandably unhappy. She has spent 5 1/2 hours sitting at a table waiting for me, watching the wealthy of this city gobble sandwiches and wine and her with nothing, only the dignity not to go begging. The positive of this? I decide we are not like these others. We are very different. Doing this once — okay. But not again.

Monday is spent trying to get the image and sound of the masses screaming at me out of my head. Tomorrow is Mardi Gras Day. The Big One. Suzanne and Donovan seem strained by the experience of the last few days. Depressed, like me. But they tell me they’re having a wonderful time, really. We all seem to have lost our centres, feeling ungrounded by the complete lack of anything around us but parties and drunks. Except for Amanda. She’s grounded. She freely admits Mardi Gras sucks for her. To top it all off, she’s come down with a bad cold.

Up bright and early Mardi Gras Day. Amanda has decided to stay in bed and nurse her cold. I put on my kilt and waistcoat. I don’t want to be walking around in my same old skin today: even more than Halloween in this city, this is a day to dress up, to assume another personality. I’ve gotten Suzanne and Donovan and their friend John up, but all three look dangerously exhausted. I’ve seen this look before with Mardi Gras virgins, the thousand-yard stare as they push through the swelling crowds of St. Charles Avenue. In front of an old RV selling real barbecue, we watch the madness of the day unfold.

Zulu, my favourite parade, rolls at 8:30 a.m. It’s a mostly African-American parade, but they allow whites and women to ride as well. Very progressive for this city. Zulu began as a mockery of the white man’s parades early in the 20th century. Zulu’s king is a black man in full Al Jolson blackface and big Afro wig. The rest of the riders, black, white, women, men, are dressed in blackface and Afro wig as well, and wear grass skirts and throw spears and coconuts to the crowd. Amazing to watch at 8:30 on a Tuesday morning.

The long walk after Zulu, from the Garden District to the French Quarter, is another tradition with my friends and me. I feel awful for my sister. It’s as if I’ve taken her on a forced march of the city. By 3 p.m. we’ve wound our way through the Garden District, the Warehouse District, through the Central Business District, made a stop at a friend’s bar for refreshments, and then the final push to the Quarter. By this point, Suzanne is fading, but like a brave soldier she claims she’s fine as she leans against an old car and watches the singing and dancing. I tell her to go home when she needs to, but she holds on. It strikes me then that I’m forcing myself to hold on, that I’m exhausted and have to be up tomorrow at 3:30 in the morning in order to get an early flight to Toronto. As I look around, I see that most of the people I know here are forcing themselves, too. The sadness kicks in. Time for the French Quarter.

The final tradition of Mardi Gras for us: my friends and I meet in front of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on the lower part of Bourbon late afternoon every Fat Tuesday. It’s the oldest bar in America, always guaranteed to turn out a fun, bizarre and excellent people-watching crowd. David, a close friend and a mountain of a man, is dressed in a shocking red pimp suit, but is more subdued than usual. He quietly tells me that his grandmother died this morning and he’s both trying and not trying to mourn her loss by being here on the street. Suzanne and Donovan tell me they are going to take a walk up Bourbon, and that they’ll be back in a little while. I know they won’t be, but don’t say anything. They’ve seen everything they need to. Their friend, John, though, is getting terrifically drunk. He approaches all the pretty girls he can and kisses them, doesn’t seem to notice that they don’t want his affection.

The second part to this last ritual of Mardi Gras is for those left standing at dusk to make our way to Frenchman Street in the Marigny to see the revellers who still have the energy to remain. I try to act like I’m still enjoying myself, but the sadness has kicked in hard, and I now need to act as babysitter to John of Cape Town. He stumbles and follows, calls out to strangers, and very nearly gets his ass kicked by a Vietnamese variety store owner who has clearly had enough of the evening and the endless line of patrons. I explain to John that we should get going, apologize to the owner, and walk away. Surprisingly, John follows. I’d pegged him for the last-dreg type, but he’s hungry, and really, really drunk.

And so it goes, the first Carnival of the new New Orleans. We weave our way through the mostly white crowd, no cabs in sight, the idea of walking all the miles back home making me want to cry. John is stumbling beside me and talking to himself. Along Rampart Street, on the edge of the “Sliver by the River” and beside the deserted projects, I keep an eye peeled for trouble, feeling ridiculous in my kilt. Why do I do this year after year? I make a mental note to promise Amanda that next year at Mardi Gras, we really will take a vacation from this old and sad and sometimes wicked place.

After hours of walking, and after pouring John into his hotel room, I make it home. And that’s what this place still feels like. Home. When I begin to feel sorry for myself, all I need to do is remember I still have one. I quietly unlock my door, pull off my shoes, and crawl into bed beside my sweet Amanda. Mardi Gras doesn’t represent New Orleans, I realize as I try to fall asleep. This city is so much more. Something very different.

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