Sunday, November 23, 2008
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Took a road trip to Memphis recently, for no reason whatsoever. New Orleanians are discovering the importance of getting the hell out of dodge every once in a while for the sake of sanity. It was also the first real road trip for my cute little Mazda, Miss Scarlet. Just me and her and the open road and a pack of CDs...
It's a pretty straight shot up through Mississippi and just across the border in Tennessee. As darkness fell, I drove through a snowstorm and (even though the ride was dangerous) I appreciated the change in seasons I was being treated to. Saw a deer crossing the road as I pulled off the highway at a remote gas station.
Didn't have much of a plan for my trip other than to roam around and eat and listen to music. Graceland seemed to be the must-see destination, even though I can't claim to be the biggest Elvis fan. Definitely appreciate his talent and appeal, but I never realized until I saw his mansion what an incredibly tacky dude he was! And his family is ruthless about squeezing every penny out of his legacy they can. Ah, well, that's Americana for you...
Also saw Sun Records and ate some great catfish and spent time at a cool coffee shop. Saw a band showcase with blues, rock and bluegrass, but honestly none of the music was better than what I've heard in New Orleans.
Had an extra day off of work so I could've stayed and wandered some more, but I was craving a day of playing hookie at home with my books and my DVDs and my kitty. Drove 6 hours to get home and luxuriated in doing nothing for the next 24 hours :)
Thursday, February 07, 2008
Only in New Orleans, baby!
The week before Mardi Gras is a mad rush of buying costumes, picking up ball tickets, making concert reservations, stocking the fridge with alcohol, planning out the parade schedule with your friends, putting all the other ducks in your so-called normal life in order so you can enjoy 5 straight days of fantasy fun world and revelry as only New Orleans can deliver. For those of you who still aren't aware: Mardi Gras is not about tits on Bourbon Street. Tourists in the French Quarter will only be looking at other tourists' flashing boobs and puking on other tourists' shoes, since no locals take part in that lame version of Spring Break on steroids. The real Mardi Gras - for the locals - with the traditions dating back hundreds of years, is rich in music, full of elaborate costumes, better than Christmas and Easter for kids, better than New Year's and Halloween for adults, and an exhausting marathon of picnics and parades and dancing and drinking and late nights and colorful days.
I kicked off Friday evening at the famed Zulu ball, the formal African American event for the Mardi Gras season, hosted by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the benevolent societies set up by and for African Americans in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. 17,000 people at the New Orleans Convention Center, men in tuxes and women in full length ball gowns.
What? Me in a ball gown? I had to explain to my friend Allison who invited me that I had never worn a full-length ball gown, not even to prom. (Hey, I went to high school in Cali! We're, like, totally laid back, dude.) Of course I spent the week in a crazed search for the perfect dress, which appeared in the guise of a form-fitting black chiffon number to the floor, with a gold beaded pattern in the shape of a fleur de lis. Then I had to go out and buy some actual makeup (as in eye shadow, powder, lipstick, which I never wear) so I could really look dressed up.
Expensive dress + $10 shoes + costume jewelry = priceless
I looked Oscar-ready by the time I got to the event, but I couldn't compare to the over-the-top gorgeous gowns these beautiful black ladies were wearing: ruffles, trains, diamonds, lace, silk, bustiers, long gloves, feathers, tiaras, fur stoles, the works. The hall was so wide I couldn't even see the other side in the haze on the other side of the stage, and it took me an hour to wander the whole building to check out the dresses and hairdos. Debutantes in tall red feathered headdresses were being introduced one by one in the center of the huge stage, accompanied by their escorts. Each girl daintily bent her knees under her taffeta dress and curtsied once to each side of the hall. On huge video screens overhead her smiling face beamed out as the announcer recited her ambitions ("medical school at Tulane") and recognized her sponsors ("Mr. and Mrs. Prominent Somebody").
Numbered tables around the hall hosted groups of families and friends, most of whom brought their own food, alcohol and centerpiece decorations. An odd combination of formal and picnic. We sat with Allison's friends eating Jambalaya and chicken wings, watching the presentation of the court of Zulu: former and current kings, queens, dukes and duchesses, selected by their communities, gliding across the floor in headdresses 12 feet high and 8 across, brightly decorated with feathers, beads, sequins, all hand-decorated, costing thousands of dollars, taking months to craft. Jaw-dropping pageantry and artistry.
After a few hours of the procession, however, my friend Laura and I decided to sneak out and wander over to the nearest parade, since this ball was only one of many festive occasions going on this Mardi Gras weekend. The evening air was cold, and we wrapped our long formal coats around us as we walked to my office a few blocks away to change into some comfortable shoes. Attired in a ball gown and cowboy boots, I led the way to Lee Circle to watch the Muses parade, the all-female krewe of marchers known for their prized throws.
“Throws” are what the people on the floats throw to the parade-goers, and parents position their kids on top of ladders so they can catch the best throws: not just beads but beads with medallions, beads with commemorative designs, beads with flashing lights, fat beads, long beads, Saints football-themed beads, handmade beads, stuffed animals, toy spears, decorated walking sticks, boas, Mardi Gras colored footballs, candy, bracelets, chokers, noisemakers, and every assortment of cheap Chinese trinket.
Muses, apart from having irreverent marching teams and floats making fun of everything from politicians to FEMA to pop stars, has hand-painted plastic high heels and fancy underwear and disco balls and bandanas to throw. Laura and I sucked on a bottle of champagne while a 10-year old local waved his arms and hollered at the girls on the float to get Laura – a first timer – the best throws. If it sounds dangerous, like it could hurt to get smacked in the head by a heavy throw, it is, it could. Gotta work hard to catch the things you want. The cop on the other side of the barricade would sometimes help the kid pick up really unique throws that had fallen into the street, like a Muses backpack. The smile he flashed us would disappear, however, if some drunken idiot tried to cross the barrier to get to the other side of the street and the cop had to tell him off.
Most of the floats were 2-story platforms painted with themed satirical drawings and slogans, with masked and costumed girls chucking throws to outstretched hands on either side of the street. Some of the floats consisted of just a band playing on the flatbed of a tow truck. Interspersed were crazy fake cheer squads, women dancers in beards and merkins (look it up!), roller derby girls, high school marching bands, the Marine Corps marching band, teenage girls in sequined leotards throwing batons, a team of Lady Godiva horseriders, and the Rolling Elvi (75 Elvis look-alikes on motorbikes).
As every Mardi Gras-related event has an opportunity cost (“If I go to event X, I’ll miss Y”), we ran back from the Muses parade to the Zulu ball to catch the dancing. The Gap Band and Doug E. Fresh, baby. Thousands of couples grooving on the dance floor in front of the stage, makeup and hair and cummerbunds starting to muss as we approached 1am. I felt certain I would run into people I know, since Tremé is one of the neighborhoods I work in (mostly African American, high poverty, high homeownership, strong neighborhood associations), but it was hard to find anyone amidst the dim lighting, costumed crowds and late-night drinking. The only fight that we witnessed broke out amongst a couple of white frat boys, of course. Wandered home with aching feet just before 4am.
Saturday was a mega-parade day, with the Endymion parade rolling for the first time post-Katrina along its original Mid-City route. Many of the parades had to alter their routes due to decreased police presence and concerns over security. Crowd control and safety is taken very seriously by parade organizers and the police. For the parade-goer, traffic and parking are major concerns and I have to carefully map out my cross-city treks during Mardi Gras. Tchoupitoulas Street is sometimes closed because that’s where the floats line up before the Napoleon Street routes, and St. Charles is closed a lot because that’s where people line up their BBQs, ladders, tents, couches, folding chairs for days before the parades. I have to take a freeway detour up to Claiborne Avenue just to get home, and I may or may not get to park near my house.
Did I mention the Saturday parades? Yeah, I missed them. That relates to a very important rule of Mardi Gras: pace yourself. Friday’s big night, followed by an anticipated big Saturday night meant I had to spend Saturday in bed recovering and refreshing. I think I awoke at some point and had a pita-feta-tomato sandwich and a gallon of Diet Coke, but then slumped back off to sleep until it was time to get pretty again.
Wore the ball gown again to my second ball in two days: the Armeinius ball, which is a gay ball where my boss Kristin bought tables for our staff. There was no dancing at this ball (and again, not any real food, ugh) – it was more like a drag show where the court of Armeinius was presented by foul-mouthed drag queen announcers.
The theme was “Let Them Eat Cake”, and the King and Queen of the ball (both men, of course) were dressed in elaborate Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette regalia, accompanied by young pages, i.e., old school boy toys. The King and Queen presided over the show, which consisted of musical numbers featuring drag queens dressed as different desserts. Cherries Jubilee had a wide white-feathered skirt with chocolate a sash and corset, with red sparkling cherry orbs for breasts and a 5-foot tall headdress of whipped cream and more cherries and chocolate. New York Cheesecake came out carrying an immense sugary display of the New York skyline supported by his/her outstretched arms, kicking a Rockette-style chorus line. Pineapple Upside Down Cake was two dancers in half-pineapple costumes they carried on their backs, until the emcee dramatically sliced them apart with a 10-foot cardboard knife. The shiny, colorful, inventive, beautiful, immense costumes were breathtaking in their creativity. We had fun watching the audience as well, as some of the most beautiful women at the tables turned out to be men.
Next, we all ran back to Kristin’s house to change for the next party: M.O.M.’s Ball, which started at 11pm and was my third ball in two days. This was a costume ball where the theme is anything goes, the more risqué the better. No long pants or jeans allowed, unless the doormen were sufficiently impressed with the creativity of your costume or the ampleness of your cleavage. One guy in our group was dressed as a cowboy, and the door was barred to him unless he removed his jeans. A good sport, he entered the party wearing underwear, and left his jeans waiting for him near the exit. As for me, my outfit was a pink wig (cause you gotta at some point start a wig collection if you’re going to live in this town!), a tight black minidress with a silver zipper down the front, tall black high-heeled boots with laces, a pink push-up bra, and lots of cleavage. I got into the party, no problem.
The venue was Mardi Gras World on the other side of the Mississippi river, the massive warehouse where the Mardi Gras floats are made and the walls are crammed with larger-than-life figurines from prior floats. The Meters, the venerable New Orleans funk band, played before a packed house of half-naked party-goers in costumes from cutesy to titillating to verging on pornographic to oh-my-god-no-she-didn’t. I got hit on by a cockroach and a giant condom, plus a priest and a Boy Scout. Vampiras and naughty nurses were passed out in their seats. The free and free-flowing beer was great, as long as you could handle waiting in the long line at the port-a-potty in your skimpy outfit in the cold and then maneuver your way out of your costume in the tiny stall.
A beloved local writer, Chris Rose, was there and wrote about the party and what Mardi Gras means to this city: http://blog.nola.com/chrisrose/2008/02/chris_rose_real_life_returns_b.html.
(I just realized I’m still trying to describe this whole Mardi Gras experience days later, and I haven’t even wrapped up writing about Saturday. Much craziness to follow on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday… Taking me a moment to remember what the hell I did for the next 3 days – ah, yes!)
Slept at my boss’s house Saturday, thank goodness, as did many other weary partiers, and we all awoke bleary-eyed to prepare for more parades. I had to drive home, or towards home, to catch the Thoth parade on Sunday morning, which goes down Magazine Street right by my house. Since there was no parking by the time I got home, however, I had to park a ways away and walk, leaving all my funky costumes and gowns in the car.
Thoth is a very neighborhood-y parade, as the beginning of the route goes down the narrow parts of Magazine, without the throngs of people that line St. Charles Avenue. I drank Heinekens with my neighbors on their front porch until we heard the marching bands signaling the parade’s approach. Then we walked down the street, turned right, and a block away we were on the parade route. I ran into some more people I knew in front of the neighborhood bar, Henry’s. Another friend I knew was riding in the parade, so he threw me tons of red beads as the parade passed. The weather was magnificent, and everyone enjoyed the sunshine and good vibes.
After the parade, my other neighbors invited me over for a crawfish boil in their backyard. They bought about 115 lbs. of crawfish to boil up in a big pot over a gas burner, along with Zatarain’s Cajun spices, garlic, mushrooms, and corn on the cob. I stood side by side with their family and friends peeling the “mud bugs” on a newspaper-laden picnic table and ate up some crawfish until my eyes watered from the spices.
Alison and her roommate Joe came over so we could walk to Napoleon Street from my house to see the next parade – Bacchus. On our way meandering through the neighborhood we came upon a brass band playing on someone’s front porch. The sound of live music in the fading daylight at Mardi Gras is just about as good as it gets!
Hulk Hogan was the King of Bacchus parade, riding in regal cape and crown, sitting on his throne surveying the multitudes from atop his wildly decorated float. I guess the rest of the country was watching the Super Bowl, but I forgot there was even such a thing. We found a spot to watch the parade where someone had set up a projector on the side of their house, so people could watch the Super Bowl and the parades. People riding the floats by would stop throwing beads to look up and see the score and point and cheer. A big finish by Eli Manning, New Orleans’ native son, brought a surprise win to the Giants, and the whole street went wild in front of the projector.
I think at some point around 10 or 11 pm I finally wandered home laden with beads and shoved some pizza in my face, since I had been starving most of the afternoon and evening. As much as New Orleans is known for its food, Mardi Gras is not. No one has time to sit down at a restaurant or go to the grocery store, so usually you end up eating greasy street food at a hot dog vendor or taco truck just to soak up the alcohol.
Nothing much happened Monday day, Lundi Gras, since I stayed in bed completely unable to move. Getting old, I tell ya! Exhausted, I drifted in and out of sleep while my kitty Bijou sat on my feet and purred. The apartment was becoming progressively more of a sty, but that was just about the last thing I cared about. Most of the other suckers in the country had to work that day, but New Orleans was still partying! I did at some point retrieve my car and my clothes from about 10 blocks away, but then I had to borrow toilet paper from another neighbor because I was incapable of making the trek to the drug store.
Monday night was gearing up to be a big one: Galactic, another New Orleans band, at Tipitina’s Uptown. Laura was going to come over so we could walk to the club from my house, but she was taking a long time, so in the meantime I hung out on my front porch with the girl who used to live in my apartment (I know, small town!) and convinced her and her friend to join us for the evening. Laura finally arrived and all of us wandered to a bar called Three Brothers, or Three Sisters, or Three Something, where a group of girls celebrating a 21st birthday party told me they thought I was 25 – I don’t care how much they’d been drinking, it still put a smile on my face :)
At Tipitina’s, I ran into some of my Americorps volunteers, and since I know what it’s like to be a poor volunteer in a third world country, I bought them quesadillas and drinks. We all danced until late, then Laura and I took a cab to the Maple Leaf on Oak Street and stayed until later. That seemed to be dying down, so we took a cab across town to Frenchman Street to check out the scene there. Barhopping in the French Quarter ensued, accompanied variously by Eastern Europeans and Americans living in Eastern Europe. A Bosnian told me he had been waiting his whole life for a girl with pink hair. Oh, did I mention I was decked out in my pink wig again? And why wouldn’t I be?
I think Laura and I got home at around 6:30am, awaking in a panic a mere few hours later, thinking we had missed the Zulu parade, the best and penultimate parade of Mardi Gras. Too hurried to wash my hair – guess the pink wig would have to do again! plus I wore bee wings just because – we rushed to Lee Circle, where fortunately the Zulu parade was still going by. This was the African American parade, originally started in response to being denied access to the white parades. The black float-riders paint their faces up in blackface and wear fake savage outfits to make fun of the white portrayal of blacks way back in Al Jolson days. They have the best throws of any parade, and if you’re lucky enough to get a hand-painted golden coconut, you cherish it for years to come.
And the Mardi Gras Indians ride in the Zulu parade. That’s a whole other tradition that’s too complicated to go into here – you’ll have to look it up! Extra points if you can figure out the link between that tradition and the song “Iko Iko”, a.k.a. “Jock-a-mo fee na-né” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D21nsqe0F-4&feature=related).
We snuck into a bar on the circle called the Circle Bar, acting like we belonged to the private party. We were dressed like loons, so of course we belonged, right? Laura had on a purple petticoat and tall boots and a bustier and a mask. It was Mardi Gras, baby!! Inside the bar we had drinks, seating, bathrooms (score!), a good jukebox, and, oh yeah, REM was there... Plus we somehow positioned ourselves on the balcony of the bar and had prime viewing for the Rex parade coming down St. Charles Avenue in all its colorful splendor. Watching a Mardi Gras parade from a balcony on a gorgeous day with your friends and a drink in your hand? How can you beat that?
Liana and her husband showed up and we all caught heaps and heaps of beads before the parade ended. It was around 3 or 4pm when we walked to the French Quarter to meet Paul and Nicole, two do-gooders who had met while working in relief shelters in Texas following Katrina, fell in love, moved here, got married, and had a baby. Now they were strolling down Bourbon Street, him dressed as a priest, her as Marie Antoinette, and baby Connor in the stroller absolutely loving the music and the array of strange people all around him. Yes, it’s absolutely nuts to bring a 6-month old to Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, but the fact that his parents thought it was fine and the baby was so relaxed was highly entertaining. Little Connor elicited the most shocked and delighted looks on people’s faces as they tried to determine through their alcohol stupor whether they were hallucinating, or whether that baby really was just hanging out bopping his feet to the beat.
We all found a quiet courtyard to sit and eat some very greasy food as the rest of the Quarter got rowdier. Departing near sundown for home, I could feel my body slide into the finish line in anticipation of a good night’s sleep. The end of Mardi Gras, back to work the next day, recovery to take a few days, I knew… My feet were filthy and I spent all my money and my stomach ached from the food and my cat was feeling neglected and I needed 30 hours of sleep and I had no clean laundry, but I was very, very happy.