Mardi Gras, finally!

Sorry it took me forever to put this up! Oh my God, Mardi Gras was intense. I loved it, but I think it will take me twenty years to recover from it sufficiently to do it again. Wow. I kept a journal while I was there, mostly because things were happening so fast and wild that if I didn’t at least summarize half of it, it would all be one huge, confused blur. Which means for each day, I have a four page summary of maybe half the things that happened. I kept trying to tweak what I had written and finally decided it was better to just put up the raw diary entries I wrote as things were happening, with the exception of the beginning, which I changed a little for clarity. So here’s some nice vicarious adventuring for you all, to give you a taste of the insanity.

Preshow: We’ve got no call to tease the Indians for acting stupid over shiny beads.

Okay, you have to understand that even though I scheduled this vacation weeks ago and have worked my ass off so I could take some guilt-free time, this is the crazy season at work, and I was way behind deadline because the copy I needed to edit and turn around hit my desk a week late. So, Friday night, everyone else gets out at three, I work until six, jump on the subway and run downtown to my childhood best friend’s book launch reading and party. Barnes and Noble was completely packed, every seat was filled, people were shoulder to shoulder in the aisles, peering around corners, a lot of love there. Plus, her book was great, and she read some pretty powerful passages. It was weird, seeing her brothers grown up. Her youngest brother is perpetually five in my mind, but he’s got a beard now, and her middle brother lost the baby fat and grew long hair and a beard, and looks like a total stranger to me. I kept meeting up with people at the reading who I had grown up with and not seen in more than a decade, really wonderful and bizarre.

I rushed back to the office by 11:00, finished correcting, emailing, printing and mailing every last page, left the office at 1AM, fell asleep by 2, woke up at 7, dashed to the train, met Sam, got on the plane, arrived in New Orleans, and took three buses and a trolley in what turned out to be a wide square around Dan’s apartment before finally walking the rest of the way. Did I mention that New Orleans has no public phones and no cohesive, mapped transit system? When we finally arrived, two hours after we told Dan we’d be there at the latest, we just dumped our stuff and dashed out for food and krewes (parades). Dinner was jerk chicken and corn pudding. Now, up North, jerk chicken is chicken covered in really hot powder and cooked until dry. Down here, jerk chicken is slathered in delicious, gooey, spicy sauce. Yum yum.

The Endymion krewe was so cool, all the enormous floats with masked riders throwing beads out into the crowd, I must have caught ten pounds of beads, all of which I was wearing around my neck, not to mention the ones we were giving each other and getting from total strangers. There was this weird mix I didn’t understand at the time of people committing the most athletic acts to catch these beads, staring each other down in competition, but sometimes giving beads to each other like it was no big deal. Oh yes, and the doubloons. Every year, each crewe mints a number of multi-colored doubloons, and they’re pretty rare and damned hard to catch, so after the parades, people walk along staring at the ground for any cool beads or doubloons they didn’t get. So when Endymion ended and we started waling around, I was feeling jazzed and happy and we were picking up doubloons and extra bits of swag, and I was thinking, “This is nothing like anyone says; beads are easy to get, and this is a pretty family-friendly event.”

And then we hit Bourbon Street.

It looked like a cross between 42nd St. in its heyday, the biggest frat party ever, and Tortuga from Pirates of the Caribbean. It was completely packed; you could move maybe inches at a time, and the bars were crammed. We bought these drinks called Jesters, which were enormous, utterly vile and tasted like frozen margaritas made with half-rotted, half-melted, lime-green Jello. They were utterly vile, but potent, and total strangers were coming up to the four of us, trying to pour drinks down our throats. This one guy tilted his head across us to drink a beer waterfall being luxuriously poured down his throat by a total stranger who had a girl on his arm, and then the drinker happily wiped his mouth on Dan’s shirt, offered us some of the drink in his hand, and we went back out into the street with him still pressing us to drink some.

People were hanging out of balconies, throwing beads to people who flashed them. Girls were rucking their shirts up or down, then lifting their naked breasts and jiggling for a single crappy strand of beads, men were pulling their dicks out on command and jiggling them for more beads. One woman let a man nurse at her breast in the middle of the street, then pulled him in for a kiss. And when I say nursing, I don’t mean a quick nip. He parked there for about a minute. One girl was leaning out of a balcony miming with her hands how big a guy’s dick had to be for her to throw him beads, then spaced her hands wider and wider apart, shaking her head and shooing one guy out of the way to get a better view of someone else. The whole time, we never stopped hearing the wail of ambulances stopping for alcohol poisoning pickups, but thankfully, no fights.

At this point, I had had an inch or two of my Jester and Sam had drained his. I was feeling kinda icky from it, and asked if he wanted to finish it. I didn’t realize at this point that it’s not that Sam particularly wanted more alcohol, it’s just that he really can’t stand things going to waste. He proceeded to finish off the enormous drink, and for a while, he was just really happy and dopey, talking with Justin and Dan and being sweet to me.

But then the alcohol caught up to him around 2Am, (3AM New York time) as we were walking to hail a cab, and I was trying to support his weight and carry his massive sack of beads while not overbalancing from the huge amount of swag hanging from my own neck. We finally caught a cab, and we had barely gone two blocks when Sam leans across two of us, yanks open the door and throws up violently in the street. The cabbie threw us out; we had to beg for him to drive another two yards so he wasn’t throwing us out into four lanes of moving traffic. We caught another cab and Sam threw up again, clearly mortified and apologizing over and over to me, Dan, Justin and the cabbie. We walked with him a bit, looking for a place to sit down and he threw up twice more outside of McDonalds, where paramedics gently pushed us to one side so they could go in and load another alcohol poisoning case onto a stretcher. I’d never seen anyone throw up more than once before, and I have very little experience with drunks, so I was worried and nervous and rubbing his back and trying to keep his beads out of the way, running into McDonalds for napkins to clean him up, feeling like I was being as helpful as I knew how, but I was out of my depth. Dan and Justin were great, though, getting Sam water, trying to get him to eat fries to soak up the alcohol, but mainly staying calm and friendly so it felt like something that sucked but that we could handle.

We started walking home a few miles, as Sam was still not cab-worthy, me supporting him, Dan and Justin leading the way, and the atmosphere was friendly and laid back, but the three of us were reviewing what we knew of blood alcohol poisoning and calling the local hospitals on Dan’s cell (the lines were jammed, too) because Sam had thrown up four or five times by now and was really out of it. Third time’s a charm; Sam was finally cab-worthy and we got back to Dan’s around 4-4:30 local time, crashed for a few hours, and woke up this morning just in time for Mom to call Sam’s dad and track down Dan’s cell, frantic for a call that we had gotten in okay, and we were ready for another day of adventures in the Big Easy.

Sunday: No. Stay there. Stay there. What the fuck?

Today we learned that there was such a thing as too much Mardi Gras. We went out in the morning with the whole gang (there were twelve people altogether staying in the apartment) for Italian food and watched the floats pass by for a little parade, Thoth, I think, which was fun. But then we went to the Dionysus parade. We missed the start of the krewe, which meant we unfortunately never got to see Sean Astin, but the parade itself was fun. We were too close to the start, though, which meant people in the krewe were conserving both their energy and their beads. We got a bunch of chains and coins, but nothing as cool as the first night, except for a really gorgeous mask-and-bead chain Sam caught for me. (A cab driver later commented that people pay to be in the floats in krewes and then pay $300-$900 just for beads, out of their own pockets, which explains why they get very personal and specific about who they throw to, who merits beads.)

But at a certain point after the parade, we took a taxi downtown to find Dan’s friends and it was a matter of chasing randomly around the city while the parade we had already seen made it impossible to get anywhere, and we were just exhausted and overstimulated and frustrated by the wild goose chase for Dan’s friends, who kept telling us where they were and leaving just before we got to them. When we did meet up with one, though, he suggested we bypass the parade and clubs and do the local thing, go to Cafe Du Monde for beignettes and coffee. The French Quarter was beautiful, wide open with a central square park and Spanish-style, 200-year-old buildings all around. There were fortune tellers and the like with little card tables set up, and Cafe Du Monde was great. They only serve three things, basically: cafe au lait, hot chocolate and beignettes, but they were all delicious. I had expected a tiny hole-in-the-wall with tiny, wire-backed chairs, but instead it was like a huge lunchroom with little circular tables and waiters serving soufganiot with lots of powdered sugar and styrofoam cups full of coffee and cocoa, cheap and delicious. Very soul-soothing.

Lundi Gras: Okay, I think we’ve thoroughly investigated all seven deadly sins except sloth.

This morning, Sam and I got up early and went out to the French Quarter on our own, and it has been incredible. We heard a ragtime band and started dancing, and other tourists started taking pictures of us. We had gumbo and po boys and delicious cheesecake on a restaurant balcony overlooking the Mississippi. (This was par for the course in New Orleans; every restaurant served three things that could be cooked in bulk, and did each of them with lots of care and subtlety. No long menus, but no wrong choices either.) Then we wandered down alleys into a voudoun shop where the owners had ten or so subtle little shrines tucked in amongst the various merchandise, which just felt good and right and homey. The altars each had quirky symbols and sacrifices: each had a cup of water, some had little cups of wine, cigarettes or cigars, money and candles burning around little icons and statues. The one for the mother figure just sucked me in; it was delightful.

Sam bought a beautiful, leather-wrought mask and now we’re just wandering, taking in the French Quarter. It’s intense here, for all that it’s laid back: You go from excited to shocked to achy and tired to zen to excited again. There’s such a roller coaster feeling to it, and no real chance to tune out and really rest. We’re in Cafe Du Monde again, taking a quick breather and resting our feet, which we both needed. It’s wonderful playing young lovers in a French Cafe, however hectic. Sam is so lovely to do this with: he’s curious and enthusiastic, and we keep each other’s pace well. A place like New Orleans isn’t nearly as much fun if you don’t have someone to share it with.

I’ve been thinking this a couple of days now, but haven’t had an opportunity to write about it. I’m not much of a fan of Anne Rice, but I feel like walking around New Orleans, I understand why she envisioned vampires the way she did. Everything is overgrown on the outskirts, trees and plants fecund and overflowing these stately old houses, all this decaying, elegant waste. Something at once sensuous and stately, dying but alive like overripe fruit. There is a sense that this city can’t come fully back to life but isn’t ready to surrender to death. The contrast of Spanish/Western architecture overlaid with French wrought-metal gingerbread, the parade’s insanity injecting new life; I can see why she envisioned immortality this way.

Race is such a fascinating, troubled constant here. The night before last, we were walking down a side road, and I noticed that without consciously calculating it, all the various black teens gravitated to one side of the street and all the white teens wound up on the other side.

Oh man, we just walked down Bourbon St. and passed a strip club. Neither of us had ever been to one, so we went and sat right up by the stage. It was pretty empty beyond us, a couple of patrons (mostly other, cheerful couples) and a few guys getting lap dances. The “dance” on stage mostly consisted of “pick a sexual position and hold for three seconds, switch to a new position and hold for three seconds,” and because there was no one there, hardly anyone was tipping. One guy stuck a single in her g-string with her encouragement, and a chubby blonde girl leaned over with a dollar in her teeth and got a kiss in trade. But the stripper, a pretty, long-haired black girl, seemed like a sweet person, so after she got off stage I gave her a dollar and she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said thank you, still topless and wearing only a g-string. The whole experience was weird, fun, and I can now say I’ve been to a strip club.

Then we walked down to the prime spot for the krewes, and started chatting with this nice couple from Kentucky as we sheltered together from the rain. A few of their friends bailed on them, so they gave us free tickets to the bleachers! We’re right now sitting directly across from City Hall, where the mayor will come out and toast the king and queen of each krewe! So cool!

The Orpheus parade was the best so far, really elaborate floats and masks, etc. The only odd point was there were some soldiers marching in formation in some gray velvet and gold braid uniforms, who just sort of parked there while people cheered them. It seemed odd, but they looked kinda cool, so we cheered too, but after they left, I realized that they were Confederate recreationists and I felt kinda bad, like I had just cheered Nazis. Then came these other recreationists in crappily cobbled-together Union uniforms who ran through, and no one cheered. One of the cool things about Orpheus, though, is that the floats mostly held musicians and the mayor toasted each one and had them shake their booties for the crowd. No big names, but nice folks, and lots of floats with bluegrass and Jamaican drum bands or the like.

I feel bad for the cheerleaders and school bands in the parade, as well as the masked riders. No one cheers them, for the most part, with a few exceptions; it’s all about “what did you bring me?” which makes it very different from my experience of parades. Kind of sad.

Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday: Body piercing saved my life.

So here we are at the airport, waiting for our flight. I’m glad to be going home; I actually feel a little energized, knowing I don’t have to pace myself anymore, but at the same time, I’m sorry it’s over. I’m going to write about all the stuff that happened yesterday, but before I do, I sort of feel like I need to remember that there were a ton of things that happened that I just couldn’t remember to write down. It feels like some of what I’ve written is just a cold list of “we did this, we did that,” and doesn’t really capture the frenetic, roller-coaster adventure/assault that was Mardi Gras. I mean, feet hurting, exhausted, assaulted by the depravity, excited, awed, peaceful, romantic. It doesn’t capture parrots resting on telephone wires, or the eight-year-old boy leering and fondling the foam breasts with flashing nipples he wore over his tee shirt, or the jazz and bluegrass, live and recorded, pouring from everywhere. It doesn’t capture the wild goose chase with Dan on a street corner yelling into his cell phone, “What? No, stay there. We’re like two blocks away; you keep doing this to us. You can’t stay still for five minutes??” Or Justin crowing “Mardi Graw!” like some demented pterodactyl.

It was fascinating to see how many people there were in wheelchairs, or chemo patients. I mean, it was hard enough navigating Bourbon St. on two legs or enduring the intensity of the parades in full health; I don’t know how people in those situations find the strength and enthusiasm, but on the other hand, these are people fighting to live their lives to the fullest, determined not to miss out on anything. Really amazing.

The Jesus freaks were interesting, too. They stood around Bourbon St. and the French Quarter with signs and ticker-tape crucifixes, handing out rave-style tracts that said things like, “Body-piercing saved my life – He was pierced for my sins,” but they were polite, not chanting or yelling or getting in the way of people’s fun.

Yesterday we missed the Zulu parade, which was disappointing, because we were really looking forward to seeing an Indian krewe with wild costumes and throwing coconuts and such. But Rex krewe was great, beautiful floats, great throws. Then there was the 18-wheeler show, which was just trucks with quick paper-mache shams on the sides, throwing out heaps of beads like an assault. Not fun, but the guys enjoyed walking up and down the row of stopped trucks, bargaining and arguing for different items.

We argued SF versus magic over Italian food for lunch, and then Dan and Sam talked Dr. Who details while Justin and I commiserated about how hard it is to break into publishing. I really liked Sam’s friends; they’re really great people, kind, fun, smart, friendly and they reflect really well on who and what he values.

We went to a casino, but I hadn’t realized they needed ID and had left my passport at Dan’s house, so Dan and Justin went in and won a few hundred dollars while Sam and I investigated the French Quarter again. Sam wanted to see Bourbon St. again, which felt like too much, and then we went to Cafe Du Monde again (we couldn’t find a different French cafe in the dark) and then we met up with the guys and went to a bar where I rode the mechanical bull while Dan and Justin chatted up some girls and then Sam and I rode together because a few other couples were doing it (the driver made the “bull” really gentle for that so that people had a chance of staying on.) I was elated to hold on to the end when I was by myself and it was harder, but felt disappointed that they didn’t give girls as rough a ride as boys. It felt like men compete and women are just there to jiggle and look pretty, but damn, it was still scary and fun.

All in all, I loved spending the time with Sam, and Mardi Gras was everything we expected and more, a great adventure as well as a test of our endurance and sense of adventure. I’d love to come back, but I think I need ten years to recover.