New Orleans – At a place called ‘the father of waters,’ people are making a comeback from a place they never left – a city that time forgot, a place filled with ceremonies in dark old men, the sound of marching feet, swooning cries of woodwinds, blasting brass horns, and the ivory tinkle of women’s laughter, playing across the keys of black lacquered pianos, by both day and night.
Carnival time, the fortnight before Shrove Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday, is alive, well, neat, compleat, and fussed over like never before, as everyone from the cab drivers to the Mayor, the cops on the beat and hoteliers and restaurateurs worry about the weather, the crowds, the clouds, da gumbo, da King Cake, da oystahs, da po-boys – and every other little thing in the world. Nothing new about that…
The cat driving me in from the airport: “Oh, it’s all right, a little slow, but, that’s how it go…
The weather? (cold, rainy)
“Naw, baby, we gonna party, come rain or come shine…Nothing will ever change that. Put on a garbage sack and party out in the rain – It’s the little things…”
Little things like what?
“Oh, you know, man, since that thing happened, that, how you call, Katrina, y’know…things just, I dunno. They got all these new people, okay. They got to have more…”
“More everything. More jails, more cops, more fines and fees, rules and regulations for Mardi Gras, no charcoalers, no ladders, no nothin’, and everwhat all that whodat stuff like that there, don’t y’see…”
And how. We’re talking YAT dialect in the key of Ybanex, creole style with a lilt of lament known so well – nursed, rehearsed, coaxed out the horn in baby steps and little growls.
First, he says, it was the child support. “Then I paid off that little three grand I owed, thought it was gonna be a cool breeze, and next thing you know, FEMA hit me for another 14…”
FEMA? Fourteen what?
“Grand, baby. Grand. Large and in charge, Jim…Started off as a grant for 8 thousand, now it’s interest on top of interest, almost a hundred percent…”
“Receipts and goin’ on about that. Who knows?”
Then, there’s the jails. They need more, and FEMA led the charge, great pre-cast modular block houses built of bolt-together epoxy-hardened fly ash concrete boxes, all reinforced with tool steel, prewired and plumbed, lifted into place by crane, stacked like Lego toys – and a Sheriff’s race as red hot and dirty as any on record, complete with arguments over who gets to make money off the candy bars and powdered soups, microwaved popcorn – and all that jazz.
“Looks like they be buildin’ them just to be putting folks in there…”
In the barber shop of the Monteleone, founded early in the 19th century by the Sicilian nobleman, Antonio Mountain Lion, they speak of the same things while Pat O’Connell works me in, and the stereo plays windy arias, sung in Italian, tarantellas, belted out in Sicilian dialect, and the hotel men talk in numbers and bookings. Rain falling from an iron gray sky rolls off the black slate roofs in sheets.
They laugh about former Governor Edwin Edwards’ bid for U.S. House of Representatives, his wife’s remark about having three eggs left and how she will make him a papa again…
It’s the federal government, they all agree. They sued the Sheriff for more humane conditions for the thugs who get busted every year during Mardi Gras, making things unpleasant for decent people. In the old days, they cuffed them to traffic barriers where they waited all night long to catch chain and go to The House of the Rising Sun.
Every morning during carnival, they were made to clean the streets of all the trash, sometimes nearly ankle deep.
“But it’s much better today,” Pat says. “Back when I was a kid – well, Mardi Gras was terrible, just terrible.”
The Sheriff has tents, now, with benches. The streets are as clean as a pin. You can see the difference. Feel it.
The new regulations?
“They needed them,” he snorts. “People were just ridiculous. Just ridiculous! They roped off the neutral ground, spaces as big as the barber shop, here, brought their barbecue pits, lawn chairs. Ridiculous.” The neutral ground.
Another mystic concept, unknown to the uninitiated, the outsiders, the unaware. Carnival pulses with a thousand unwritten rules, some of them as elaborate as the Old World medieval game of hide and seek called Ringolevio, some of them just common sense, the kind of things your mama taught you about courtesy, manners.
On television, there is a young City Councilman who seems to be everywhere – at every ribbon-cutting, open house, handshaking, and grin and grab fest. He led the junta that demanded the new rules – and got them.
He says something very profound on the visitors’ bureau channel that is piped in to the major hotels:
“There are limits. You can be free,” he explains, his eyes shining, glazed with unshed tears. “But in your freedom, you must observe limits, or there is no such thing as freedom…It’s not the same New Orleans; it’s the New Orleans we always knew it could be.”
The smiling interviewer brushes past the moment. Later, the young politician appears on a local network outlet talk show, speaking of the unpleasant fact of an abnormally high murder rate among young men, men who think their lives are of little value, and as a consequence value the lives of others in equally small proportions.
Once branded as a criminal, he explains, they rarely do anything else for the rest of their short lives.
As the Mystic Krewe of Druids rolls down Canal, a silver-haired daddy on a green and yellow Harley sweeps by in formation with the rest of the Shriners; he backhands a string of beads, slinging them into the face of a swish young queen who is wearing hoop earrings and elaborate makeup. His eyes water from the stinging blow.