Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Thank you…

Carrollton and King Arthur (Sunday, January 27, afternoon)

The competition is getting tougher. Sunday afternoon brought better weather and more crowded streets, and lots of kids trying to get between me and my loot.

Lesson learned: I’m still taller than most kids who are say…under the age of 8. After age 8, it could go either way. I’m pretty short, but if I’m taller than them, then the laws of physics or whatever other science classes I failed in high school say that I’m going to get to the beads first.

Note to kids: If I happen to get to that stuffed animal or Frizbee or football or other shiny object first, don’t turn your little teary eyes up at me and think I’m going to fork over my treasure. I don’t like kids, and you’ll just annoy me. In fact, if your parents weren’t standing next to me, I’d give you a kick in the pants to get you out of my way.

I kid, of course (sort of).

I saw King Arthur twice, though the second viewing was completely unintentional. After enjoying it once Uptown, I hopped the bus and headed to the Quarter and my favorite bar, the Erin Rose, not realizing that the parade would be rolling up and down Canal Street. I really didn’t need to carry around any more plastic, but I couldn’t help myself. My prize score: a set of beads with a purple, green, and gold fleur-de-lis. It’s my favorite catch so far.

It’s infectious, seeing the parade roll by again and jumping up and down waving your arms in the air and hoping the person throwing has a good aim. I couldn’t help myself. Unlike Uptown, Canal Street is barricaded, the crowds confined. I prefer my little Uptown corner near St. Charles and Washington, where I am free to chase after a float for a stupid stuffed frog if I choose to.

Overall, the spirit of Mardi Gras is still generous and celebratory. Thank you to the couple on vacation who gave me all your plastic cups because you didn’t want to carry them back to Chicago. Thank you to the people who liked my enthusiasm and gave me all your beads, just to make me happy. Thank you to the woman with the tiny dog in a harness, strapped to her chest to watch the parade, who gave me her alligator beads. And thank you to Beth, who I met at the Erin Rose and who gave me her Mardi Gras bracelet, just because I said I liked it. I’m going to look for you on Mardi Gras day, right where to told me to, on St. Charles and 8th.

And thank you, New Orleans, for really knowing how to throw a party, and for never letting anyone feel uninvited.

The Loot:

Carrollton: 2 plastic cups, 1 mashed up bag of candy corn, 3 dubloons, 36 sets of beads
Kind Arthur: 1 plastic cup, 92 sets of beads

I (still) love a parade.

Sparta and Pegasus (Saturday, January 26, evening)

Saturday evening was chillier, and a good deal more crowded. I staked out a spot on the neutral ground, having been on the sidewalk for the previous parades. It was a different perspective until the drunk douchebags behind me started screaming and hollering and shoving, forcing me to shift back to the sidewalk side of the street.

Unlike many people on the parade route, I’ve been (surprisingly) enjoying the parades completely sober. No, this is not some New Year’s resolution to decrease my alcohol consumption and live a healthier lifestyle. It’s simply my realization that I have the world’s smallest bladder, and I am not willing to miss any part of this experience because I have to run home to pee every 10 minutes.

While my take of the loot was not so impressive for this afternoon, I still had no reason to be disappointed. In fact, I continually find myself amazed at the sheer number of marching bands in these parades.

The high school band geek inside me is tingling with glee. Actually, I’m not particularly musically inclined (I’ve had a piano since I was 10 and still suck at playing it), so I marched in the band front as a flag and a rifle.

I have to think it’s a great thrill to march in a Mardi Gras parade, but I wonder how some of these schools feel after marching in parade after parade. Does it still thrill? Or by then are they just sick of the crowds and the street and, in Friday’s case, the cold and rain? (I remember marching in Scranton’s holiday parade one year when the wind chill was 25 below zero. None of the marching bands could play…the instruments froze.)

But I digress into high school memories of wanting to march in a big parade, any big parade. Huge props to all the marching bands who make these parades great. I’m still jealous, even 20 years after high school.

What can I say? I love a parade.

The Loot:

Sparta: 34 sets of beads
Pegasus: 7 sets of beads, 1 bouncy ball

I ain’t too proud to beg…

Pontchartrain and Shangri-La (Saturday, January 26, afternoon)

Saturday afternoon was most definitely warmer and drier than Friday night, thank goodness. (Side note: My sneakers STILL have not dried out from Friday, and it’s now Tuesday.)

The crowds are getting a little larger as the season rolls on, but St. Charles was still manageable for these two parades. One valuable lesson I learned from my armloads of loot at Oshun on Friday night was to bring a plastic bag, enjoy the first parade, pile the loot in the plastic bag, and start all over again. Yes, I live close enough to walk home with my goodies, but once I’ve staked out my parade spot, I’m not moving.

Lesson learned: As the floats get bigger and the generous souls tossing cheap plastic souvenirs are up higher and higher, rushing the float is not always the best strategy for maximum loot collection. If you’re right next to the float and no one is looking down over the side, you’re shit outta luck.

Strategy: Base my own proximity to the float on how tall it is and where the riders are located. On some floats they’re located low enough to actually hand you the goodies, in which case an enthusiastic smile will usually land you something.

Sometimes they make you chase them. I chased a float for a purple, green, and gold, stuffed frog. And I am not ashamed to admit it. Yes, he teased me mercilessly before finally giving it up, but it was worth it. It’s like Carnival foreplay, and I ain’t too proud to beg.

The Loot:

Pontchartrain: 7 plastic cups; one purple, green, and gold football; 32 sets of beads
Shangri-La: 1 plastic cup, 1 plastic flower, 91 sets of beads

I wish I remembered which one my froggie came from, but I waited to long to write about it and forgot!

Friday, January 25, 2008

I'm a bead whore...

I am...I'm a total bead whore.

And this time, unlike my vacations to New Orleans in the 90s, I even got to keep my shirt on.

After selling my soul to the work gods to leave early and not get caught in the hell of parade traffic, I found that the cold weather and rain probably kept a lot of people away.

I bundled up again, forsaking an umbrella to keep both hands free for loot collection, and headed to St. Charles, a five-block walk. The rain continued all night, and the thunder and lightning made me wonder about the wisdom of standing under the tall oaks lining St. Charles.

But death by lightning strike was a small price to pay for the thrill of seeing my first big Mardi Gras parade roll down St. Charles. It was the Krewe of Oshun, and if I hadn't left my completely priceless Mardi Gras guide at work, I'd be able to write more about them, but I can't.

The floats were beautiful, the marching bands cold but energetic, and the whole parade a grand experience. My first score was a porcelain doll, making me glad to have forgone the umbrella in lieu of having both hands free. And I learned that a parade-goer does not just stand idly by on the sidewalk and wait for the beads to come to them. Oh no, one must rush the floats, hands in the air, screaming "Throw me something, Mister!"

Miss Marie, a coworker of mine, passed out blinking plastic bracelets the other day, and I made sure to wear mine...no way was I going to get lost in the dark.

And then the beads kept coming. Like the rain that pounded St. Charles, I found myself covered in plastic baubles. By the time I was done I had more than I could carry. That didn't stop me from picking the ones up from the street left by others who perhaps had enough already, or who perhaps didn't feel the need to dig around in the puddles on St. Charles for their souvenirs.

But I don't care. I'm a bead whore. And I want more.

I've had a crappy week. I've been sick with a stomach flu, had to buy new tires for my car, and miserable at work. I'm tired, cold, still sick, and broke. And I'm in tears. Not because of my crappy week, but because once again, I'm completely overwhelmed by how many different ways it's possible for me to love this city.

And now that I've finally dried out, I'm taking my tired, cold body and bundling up under my electric blanket so that I am warm and well rested when I get up tomorrow to do it all over again.

The Loot: One porcelain doll, one plastic Oshun cup, one little brown plastic football, one back scratcher, one stuffed rose, three broken strands of beads, and 118 unbroken strands of beads.

Oh yeah...

Now throw me something, Mister!

One free mouthful of sperm...

That got your attention, now didn't it?

No, this is not my Christmas wish list, but rather the offer on a coupon received from the Krewe of Spermes at the 2008 Krewe du Vieux "Magical Misery Tour" Mardi Gras parade.

This was my first Mardi Gras parade, and this Krewe definitely popped my Carnival cherry with a bang. Wickedly funny and definitely dirty, the Krewe du Vieux is a non-motorized (no trucks or tractors) parade that rolls through the Quarter. Known for it's satirical, irreverent themes, this parade delighted crowds throughout the Quarter on January 19.

It was a cold night. Yeah, I know, I'm in the South now, and all my Yankee friends and family will tell me, "That's not cold...Wait till you hear how cold it was here!"

Better them than me, but it was still freaking cold here...in the 30s. I bundled up and took the bus into the Quarter, staked out a place under a lamppost on Conti, and waited. A couple next to me, Dee and Paul, struck up a conversation and made the time pass much more quickly. They were from Austin, Texas, but now live on St. Charles. Good people.

Note to self: Don't carry a camera to a parade. I spent so much time trying to photograph as much as I could that I missed a lot of clever stuff. Also, while trying to take a photo and not paying attention, I got pegged between the eyes with a strand of beads. Lesson learned: I'd much rather catch the beads than get hit in the face with them.

The parade itself featured tributes to Ray Nagin, David Vitter (I recall a "David Vitter's Lonely Whores Club" float), and Eddie "The Hat" Jordan, among others, not to mention a wide variety of other naughty themes.

One marcher pressed a vibrator to the side of my face as he/she walked by. I really hope it wasn't used.

Overall, my first first Mardi Gras experience was a spectacular salute to debauchery, which is everything I expect New Orleans to be.

The Loot: About six strands of beads (including one with a light-up skeleton), one Krewe du Vieux Magical Misery Tour plastic cup, one Mardi Gras marshmallow treat, one green Durex condom (hey, at least when you're getting busy, you're wearing one of the Mardi Gras colors), and the aforementioned coupon that reads: "This card entitles the bearer to one free mouthful of sperm!"

Also of note is a postcard from the Cult of Lafcadio. I'm too unmotivated right now to look into the history of Lafcadio Hearn, but the following quote is dated 1879 (according to the postcard):

"Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists....But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes, than to own the whole state of Ohio."

I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Second Chance for a Second Line

There was nothing as beautiful, or as ugly, as New Orleans in the summer. I moved there from New York City in June 2005, just in time for the hottest months of the year, into half of a pretty, cream-colored, Victorian double-shotgun house on Iberville Street. I shared with a girl who was a writer, like me, and her two cats, who battled with mine for territory, though there was plenty for all three. My favorite part of the house was the picture-perfect front porch, with green trim around the windows and doors, beautiful white columns, and a little iron rail across the front. The oppressive heat didn't make sitting on the porch feasible or comfortable, and I couldn't wait for cooler weather to sit outside and watch life saunter past me down the street (a saunter is as fast as it got in New Orleans). I longed to add a porch swing but never had the chance.

In the summer, everything in New Orleans slowed down until it almost stopped moving. The people slowed down to a crawl, and even the words that came from their mouths came more slowly. Sometimes the music moved so slowly that I could almost feel each note brushing against my skin as it floated past me on the street. The air was so thick and heavy that I could see the dirt suspended in it. Walking through it was like trying to wade across the Mississippi.

Everything in the city was always dirty. I was always dirty, from the moment I stepped out of the shower until the next time I stepped back in it. Even in the shower, the cleanliness of the water was suspect. I loved the fact that New Orleans was such a dirty city. Clean cities have no soul. Dirty cities always have something to hide. That's what makes them interesting.

When it rained, it came down so hard and with such determination that an umbrella was useless. It lasted for only a few moments before the sun came out again and steam rose from the street, baking it and eliminating any evidence of rain. Sometimes, during more powerful storms, the electricity on the streetcars would fail, leaving riders trapped, stranded without AC, sweating and stinking. I've twice experienced power outages on a streetcar. It didn't smell pretty.

I waded through the Quarter every day. I spent hours in the aquarium, contemplating leafy sea dragons and rockhopper penguins, just because it was air-conditioned. I walked the length of the Riverwalk Mall again and again, though I rarely bought anything. At night I would huddle around my cold bottle of beer in a little bar just off Bourbon Street and listen to people talk.

It was impossible to go anywhere in New Orleans and not become engaged in conversation. The people around me wouldn't allow that. It wasn't a city for the solitary soul. I would have had to possess a serious personality flaw or a tragic body odor affliction for someone to not speak to me, and even body odor didn't seem to deter many people.

On weekends I walked to the Sound Cafe in the Bywater for my writer's group meeting. On Thursdays I went to poetry readings at the Gold Mine Saloon, where the crowd was sometimes small but always enthusiastic. New Orleans is a city of words.

I had moved to New Orleans to write. My new friends told me to start writing as soon as I arrived, because if I didn't write my first novel within my first year, I never would. I would fall into the slow-moving, ambitionless rut that seemed to absorb so many people who lived or moved there. Then, they told me, I would spend my days drinking and talking about how I always wanted to write a novel.

My roommate tended bar in a little place on Frenchman Street called the Spotted Cat. I spent weekday afternoons in the Spotted Cat, listening to the jazz bands that played every afternoon. The place was cozy, and many of the bands would play without amps or microphones while passers-by pressed their faces to the glass doors and decided whether or not to come in.

Sundays found me tired but reluctant to stay home. Going to the Quarter required waiting for the streetcar, so instead I walked to the bar at the corner of Iberville and Carrollton to watch TV and chat with the bartender. I didn't have cable at home, and the bartender was cute. On the walk home I would have to side-step armies of scurrying cockroaches on the sidewalk. I didn't step on them if I could help it. I hated the sound of exploding roach guts.

I loved Bourbon Street like tourists loved Bourbon Street, with wide-eyed wonder, though to admit it makes me incredibly cheesy. Partiers could drink in the street in the French Quarter. In fact, it was encouraged, though their libation of choice had to be confined to a plastic "go-cup." The only thing I didn't love about Bourbon Street was the tourists. They moved too slowly for me. I needed to learn to slow down.

New Orleans was saturated with music. Parades seemed to spring forth from nowhere, jazz bands and marchers mourning or celebrating, depending on the occasion for the parade. Some needed no occasion, and most were followed by a second line, revelers who became so enraptured by the music that they followed along, dancing and rejoicing.

Even places where music played no longer couldn't escape their musical history. Congo Square vibrated with the ghosts of dancers drumming and writhing to African beats.

Every doorway on Bourbon Street erupted with the strains of blues, jazz, or zydeco. Kevin Austin sang at the Tricou House most weekend nights, and afternoons at other Quarter venues. He was a little blind guy who stood no taller than I did (I'm only five-two) and had the most beautiful voice I'd heard in New Orleans.

I wasn't working while I was there. I had saved for so long to move that I didn't need to work yet. I would have eventually. I'm not lazy. I dreamed of copyediting for the Times-Picayune, or across the river in Gretna for Pelican Publishing, or for one of the advertising agencies in the city.

I was doing exactly what I wanted to do upon arriving: drinking and reading and writing, talking to locals and tourists, and absorbing even more Crescent City history than I knew before I moved. Stories always sounded better coming from someone who lived in a historic building that I had heard about only in a book. One patron of the Erin Rose, my favorite Quarter bar, led me outside and pointed down Conti Street to the former home of Norma Wallace, the Madam of the last functioning legal brothel in the city before the Navy shut them down in 1917. He rented an apartment inside the building. Once someone I knew lived there, it ceased to be merely a building. It became a character in the drama that was New Orleans.

My days of leisure in the Big Easy ended on August 29, 2005. My roommate and I evacuated to Madison, Mississippi, to ride out the hurricane. For several days we had no power and got very little news. After two days we drove into Jackson to a local bar that had power and a television. For most patrons at the bar, it was our first look at what had happened to New Orleans and Mississippi. I think that moment shattered all of us.

Now, my life has reverted to the chaotic mess of a New York City copy editor hitting the streets to look for work, struggling to find myself and to find my words. I sometimes think the words I need are stuck in that lump I get in the back of my throat when I think about New Orleans, or read about it, or see one of the numerous TV specials about it, and they come out only when I cry.

I didn't celebrate Mardi Gras this year. I sat alone at home and listened to Louis Armstrong. There are no parades for Mardi Gras in New York, and there is nothing slow and easy about life here. New York is cold and hard, and so are some of the people who live here. It's hard to really see things because I'm moving so fast just to keep up with everyone else that the beautiful things are often just glimpsed as I speed by them.

I don't want to live like this. I don't want to run every day, and I don't want to be cold and hard. I want to sit on my porch. I want to revisit my leafy sea dragons and rockhopper penguins. I want to second-line with joyous abandon. I want to live my dreams, and right now my dreams are big and easy and shaped like a quarter moon hugging the Mississippi as it passes by.

Copyright © 2005 Melissa Lewis