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The Tentacle


February 28, 2006

Mardi Gras Wins Again!

Roy Meachum

Twice in my life Mardi Gras died and was reborn. The second time is taking place right now.

At midnight, this Fat Tuesday gives way to Ash Wednesday and the reduced New Orleans public works crews undertake removal of the reduced debris and trash, including the famous go-cups. We are told something like a skin-and-bones version of rambunctious carnival will racket up the echoes of a mostly vacant city. It's going on right now!

In last month's dispatches from the ruins wrought by Hurricane Katrina, I served notice on TheTentacle.Com readers. The French Quarter's corner saloons boasted bunting and signs. The festival's purple, gold and green added the multi-colored stripes of the rainbow coalition.

Come bureaucratic and governmental hell or hurricane's high water, the party was on!

In front of and across St. Charles from the graceful old City Hall, the bleachers were locked in position, looking like they had never been taken away from eight years ago, the first Mardi Gras I witnessed as a full-grown adult.

Childhood carnivals were spent showing off my costume, desperately hoping everyone was fooled. The Quarter provided the best haunting ground. There was always a happy, appreciative throng, eager to take pictures of a small boy in carnival get-up; they insisted on offering pocket change in exchange.

By the way, in those days, the phrase "Mardi Gras" was seldom heard; "carnival" furnished the preferred label for the very last day before Lent. And "the French Quarter" was just as often referred to as "the Vieux Carre," the old square.

The trick to blocking off an entire street had not yet been mastered. Someone had to create the notion of entertainers on every corner, working the old cobblestones. It was highly unlikely anyone would linger on the sidewalks, providing a target for pick-pockets and con artists.

Bourbon Street's strip parlors and clip joints enjoyed infamy for watered drinks and "ladies" to wheedle your money away. All its malodorous features served to attract more out-of-towners. As you would expect.

I'm fairly sure what passed for the law in our culture chose to look the other way when happily soused visitors stumbled from one bar to another, brandishing beer or daiquiri or some version of the Hurricane: several layers of rum first concocted in Pat O'Brien's piano bar.

But I was barely 13 when the City Fathers - all male and all white then - served notice New Orleans' beloved carnival had gone off to war, along with a sizable number of our men and older boys. Mardi Gras stayed away for four long years, tucked in knapsacks and hauled overseas.

Age kept me behind until Canal Street witnessed as bare a V-J bacchanal as the later Mardi Gras has ever presented. No nude breasts dangling off balconies or mooning derrieres for all the world to see. But the flashes of flesh that August 14 evening were more lascivious because they were a great deal more serious.

Working at WJBW, the city's only independent radio station that night, I managed to lengthen a mike cord to reach a window where I perched to describe the goings-on below, on the nation's widest main street.

With that years-ago image in mind, I have trouble trying to guess the scene on Canal Street today, when all the promises come due. In the recent visit, the world's oldest street car ride was still out-of-business.

Five months after the hurricane's devastation, buses had taken up the slack. The city's main business district was trying desperately to get back into business: fast food joints along with five star luxury hotels had hired hurry-up crews. They all aimed full speed for the shortened festival climaxed by today.

A dress rehearsal, so to speak, was being staged on Bourbon Street, but only on weekends; the rest of the week there were really not enough visitors to test out the act. Most of New Orleans still lay in empty desolation and consuming darkness, as soon as the sun sank in the west, on the Algiers side of the Mississippi.

What kind of dancing toward the ecclesiastical 40 days of penance and privation can cut the edge? What laughter can hope to fill up the terrible hollowness? The City That Care Forgot is loaded up with great sorrow.

But not the Quarter, always an artificial monument to what New Orleans pretends to be. That's what visitors love. Where Monsignor Iberville stuck down the Bourbons' fleur de lis, there has always been magic.

Burned down and flooded out, on more than several occasions; menaced by the plague and yellow fever; assaulted by well-meaning moralists, an occupying army and the customary depredations prompted by envy: the very heart of New Orleans not only survived but glorified the city's name.

And that's what's happening today.

The arguments against the alleged "waste of money" went down the tube together with the billions more trashed by official ineptitude. Complaints that carnival celebrations desecrated the dead and suffering provided an alien notion to what today is really about.

The veritable truth exists in the existential notion that accompanies every traditional New Orleans funeral parade. The brass bands muffled their drums, muted their horns and, in general, stilled their voices until funeral parlors had been filled to their brims with tears and words and woeful cries to heaven.

Once the dead had been honored, to full degree, then the mourners returned to the same streets as creatures of joy, blaring full blast, dancing in the second line, celebrating how life still goes on.

And that's what this Mardi Gras is really about.

My city still rambles! King Buddy Bolden's message triumphs again!



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