Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Mardi-Gras Fable

The ancient patriarch gathered his children to his deathbed and explained their inheritances to them.

"To you Bernard, the studious, I leave my money, all of it, to do with what you want. To you, Heimlich, the adventurer, I leave my land, in hopes you will finally make a proper home. And to you, Paco, I leave my most treasured possession, my luck."

"Your luck?" said Paco.

The patriarch pulled out a cheap plastic piece of junk jewelry and handed it to him. Paco said, "Hey pops, this is nothing but a cheap plastic piece of junk jewelry."

"Appearances are deceiving," said the patriarch. "Listen up."

"I owe everything to that amulet, my wealth and my health," he continued. "Without it, none of you would be getting anything. I used to be in great shape but had nothing. Yeah, I know, it's hard to believe, but in my twenties I didn't eat meat and I actually fasted for several weeks every January in order to clean out my system. Then I started eating meat, made a great fortune, and turned into the decrepit mess I am today. I blame Mississippi."

Why I'm Not a Vegetarian

I stuck out my thumb and got a ride right away, out of Memphis, across the border into Mississippi. The driver looked in his rearview mirror and said "You got any pot on you?"

Trick question. I had a couple joints hidden away where they'd never be found, inside a thermos I always kept filled with hot coffee. You'd have to pour out the coffee to find it. Did he want to get high? Was he a nark? Seemed a funny way to bust people, picking up hitchhikers and taking them to another state. All I could say was "Why?"

"I'm being followed by some undercover cops who've been after me for ages. They see a strange person in my car and I just know they're going to stop me. We're about to get searched."

I confessed that I had something rolled, but that it would be damn hard to find.

"Okay, listen, I'm going to let you out of the car at the next stop, then continue on and hope they don't stop me."

The next stop turned out to be a burger joint in the middle of nowhere. He dropped me in the parking lot with my suitcase, sleeping bag, and guitar. Before I could stick my thumb back out, a dark gray sedan pulled into the opposite end of the parking lot, and I could see that the passenger was actually looking at me through binoculars.

They were cops. He wasn't lying. I had to look normal. I had apparently asked to be dropped off, otherwise why was I here. It was nothing but a burger joint. Nothing else for miles. I could just sit there like an idiot, or I could do what it looked like I was expected to do. I went inside and ordered a burger. I sat in the window and ate it slowly while reading a book, keeping my eye on the guy in the sedan who still had his eyes on me. Only when I had finished and wiped my mouth with a napkin did they take off. I had eaten meat for the first time in years, and it saved me from being rousted by Mississippi cops.

I waited another half hour, then went back to the road and stuck out my thumb. The first car that came along was the sedan. They pulled over and questioned me. Yeah, I was on my way to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. No, I didn't know anyone in Mississippi.

Then they asked the same question. "You got any pot on you?"

No way I was going to give them the same answer. "Why?" wouldn't have been the proper response. I pulled out my greatest acting ability, channeled Lee Strasberg, and said "Man, I'd have to be an idiot to hitchhike through Mississippi with pot on me." I didn't look like an idiot. I had actually been reading. A book.

"You're damn right, son," said the cop. "Tell you what, we can't let you keep hitchhiking here. You got enough money for a motel room?"

I did. They took me to a nearby motel where I checked in and spent the night. The next morning I stuck out my thumb again. Got to New Orleans the next day without any more problems.

"My favorite animal is steak." - Fran Lebowitz -

The Build-Up

One reason for getting to New Orleans early is that the parades start at least a week before Fat Tuesday. There's one or two, then five a day, then ten, building to the final day of non-stop neighborhood mini-parades leading to Canal Street where they merge into one giant parade.

I stayed in the house of a district attorney I'll call Paul but whose real name must remain secret for obvious reasons. Every Mardi Gras his front door would stay open and a giant bowl of ganja would sit on his living room table surrounded by rolling papers. It was non-stop party for two weeks. He knew the pastures to invade on cold winter mornings when there had been an overnight rain. We'd head across Lake Ponchartrain, sneak into a farm, and mosey around the cows looking for patties with mushrooms growing out of them. Bruise them a little and if they turned purple, you knew they were the kind. Just the right spice for homemade pizza.

People in New Orleans waited all year for one big blowout, and the city was full of used clothing stores where you would pick this year's costume. Only a lazy bastard would wear what he wore last year. I loaded up on strange clothes for the big day. Don't forget the fancy umbrella, useless for the rain but perfect for dancing down the middle of the street.

I checked out all the places I'd heard about, the Audubon Zoo (where they all asked for you) and the Vieux Carre, home of the world's best balconies. The streetcar line to Desire was changed to a bus line in 1948 so I was reduced to taking a bus named Desire.

I wallowed in all things Cajun, especially the music. Zydeco was something new that grabbed my legs and forced me to dance. I'd heard Dr. John but not the early stuff, Kon kon, the kiddy kon kon, Walk on Gilded Splinters, the dark authentic voodoo Dr. John. Bought a ticket to see him on Mardi Gras day. I'd been into Little Feat but now it was The Meters (now The Neville Brothers) all the way. Saw them live with The Wild Tchoupitoulas, authentic Indians who only come out on Fat Tuesday, whose one and only album I must insist you buy immediately.

The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Mardi Gras, mid '70s

I had already mastered Scott Joplin, and I actually had the nerve to play the Maple Leaf Rag on the piano at the Maple Leaf Bar to a crowd of drunks who have hopefully forgotten. I had always considered him the heart of American musical culture when Van Dyke Parks told me about the man who influenced Joplin, the man ragtime actually came from, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the very first American composer (other than Benjamin Franklin), born in 1829 to a Creole Indian mother and Jewish German sailor father. Gottschalk mastered the piano early, moved to France to study with Liszt, came back and toured the south doing solo piano concerts for union soldiers during the Civil War. Why Hollywood hasn't made a movie about him I'll never know, but allow me to mention that his Souvenir de Puerto Rico, full of African/Caribbean influence, is my favorite piece of piano music of all time, and if you want to know where it all came from, you better give it a listen. (MP3)

Fat Tuesday

Okay, we all know that Ash Wednesday is the day we stop sinning and repent our evil ways. Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, is the day before Ash Wednesday, when all good Christians invite the world to join them in committing all the sins that will be forbidden to them the next day. The world's shortest list is the one of all the sins that aren't committed on Mardi Gras day. This is what all Mardi Gras around the world have in common.

But there's a back story that makes the one in New Orleans unique, and you need to hear it in order to understand why the cheap piece of crap plastic jewelry pictured below is one of my proudest possessions. This is the history as I understand it. The annual Mardi Gras in New Orleans is much more than a chance to blow off steam before lent.

Like most major metropolitan areas, New Orleans was divided between rich and poor. The city is shaped like a U, the outer edges being the rich parts, the Vieux Carre and the Garden District, with the ghetto in the middle, literally blocks away. You can stand on Canal Street and stare at the grandest southern mansions ever built, then walk one block east and find yourself in the deepest poverty. I was sincerely warned by my friend the district attorney that I'd be taking my life in my hands if I wandered too far from civilization. According to him, the entire inner city was populated by blacks too stupid to leave, and who resented my existence.

Centuries ago, the rich people in town took it upon themselves to ride their horses through the ghetto once a year and throw coins and jewelry to the poor who would gather by the side of the road. This was their version of charity.

The poor would line the streets in hopes of receiving a token of mercy, and they quickly learned a lesson. The goal in attending one of these "parades" of benevolent rich people was to GET THE ATTENTION of the riders with the moolah. If you were a rich person riding your fancy horse through the rabble, whom would you throw a coin to, people just standing there going "me me me," or someone dressed like a peacock holding a giant basket with a bullseye painted on it? Something as simple as flashing your tits was enough of an attention grabber to get the guy on the horse to make a donation to your cause. The first patrician to throw a coin at a flamboyant reveler holding a homemade target was responsible for the tradition of observers showing up at Mardi Gras parades looking as outlandish as possible.

Unlike other parades, such as the Rose Parade and other local patriotic affairs, the Mardi Gras represents a give-and-take. Though the booty has been reduced from real jewels and coins and coconuts to plastic imitations, nobody goes to a Mardi Gras parade just to watch - the object is to get something to prove you were there. Each Krewe minted it's own individual coins, the Krewe of Bacchus, the Krewe of Comus, the Krewe of Craw, one Krewe for each parade. Showing up anywhere else on earth covered in cheap plastic jewelry would be considered pretty goddam embarrassing, but not in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, where a neck covered in hideous purple and gold novelty crap was a badge of honor showing how many parades you attended.

The parades in New Orleans aren't something you park yourself on the sidewalk to watch, you go there dressed as outrageously as possible so that someone on the float will throw something at you. Chances are you won't catch it so...

RULE #1: If it hits the ground, do not, under any circumstances, simply pick it up. That's a surefire recipe for getting your hand trampled by a boot. If it's on the ground and you want it, stomp on it, then retrieve it from under your shoe.

If you dream of someday riding on a Mardi Gras float, keep dreaming. Mardi Gras Krewes like Bacchus are as closed as Skull and Bones. Each parade leads to a private party where they change into tuxedos and evening gowns. You are very much not invited. Every year they announce someone who gets to be the honorary king of the festival, and even though they're usually B-level Hollywood celebrities, I'm always jealous because being made honorary king of the festival is just about the only goddam way that a non-insider can actually get to ride on a float.

Once the Mardi Gras transformed from a mini-act of charity to a full-fledged, world-renowned festival, the black community put together their own parade, not a snotty group of whites who deigned to travel through the ghetto once a year, but a genuine celebration of everything non-white, a parade not INTO the ghetto but FROM the ghetto. The marching bands would play real music, not that John Philip Sousa crap. There would be flambeauxs and dancers who actually had rhythm. The map of the parade route would NOT be printed in the paper. It would start in the ghetto and the leader of the parade, with his giant marching stick, would decide at each intersection what direction to go in. There was no way of knowing where to find them. It was the Zulu Parade, reputed to be the best parade on earth, by blacks for blacks, and if you were white and wanted to see it, you'd just have march into the ghetto on Mardi Gras day and try to find it.

I had a girlfriend who lived with her parents. One day her father took me to his office and showed me his pride and joy, shelf after shelf of binders holding his Mardi Gras coin collection. They were arranged by year and covered decades. He pulled down a book and showed me the mint condition coins, one from each parade, like any fine coin collection, each page with plastic so you could see both sides of every coin. Every year he attended as many parades as possible, then swapped with other collectors to complete the collection. I spent an hour going through them. Many were incredibly beautiful, and some of the older ones were actual coins, not just plastic.

He had Zulu coins, which he said were the rarest. He had to trade for them with other collectors. He had never actually found the Zulu Parade himself.

Amulets and coins from other parades may have been fun collectors items, but they weren't gris-gris, imbued with mystical voodoo power like the amulets from Zulu. White people wearing a Zulu amulet during the Mardi Gras were gazed upon with awe. Man, I had just hitchhiked through Mississippi with a bag of dope, actually got stopped by the cops, and didn't get caught. Weren't no paranoid delusions of potentially getting beaten to a bloody pulp going to stop me from seeing the goddam Zulu Parade.

Mardi Gras morning I got up, gobbled some mushrooms, watched a bit of the local parade, then marched into mid-city in search of Zulu.

The rumors were right. I was the only white person for block after block. I searched for an hour then heard a sound down a narrow street that could only be a marching band. I ran down the block and there it was, the Zulu Parade, hundreds crowding the sidewalk as it went by, first a marching band playing a soul tune, not just marching, dancing up a storm, surrounded by flambeaux, flaming torches that whirled and flew, everyone dancing, drinking, me too, it remains the best parade I've ever seen.

Those on the floats were throwing gris-gris but none reached me. Then there was a glitch down the road and the parade stopped with a float right in front of me. People on floats would point at the person they were aiming at, then throw at them till they caught it. The crowd was reaching up, crying "ME! ME" as the coins and beads flew through the air to the outstretched hands. Finally, as the glitch stretched into minutes, the crowd was sated and I was the only one going "ME! ME!" I was the only white face in the crowd. No one would throw me a coin. Ten minutes went by and I knew it was futile.

Then I noticed a phenomenon. People would run up to a float and hand the riders something, a six-pack of beer, anything, just a gift, and they'd be rewarded with a handful of stuff. I had my Polaroid camera. I figured if I was in the parade, I'd like a nice Polaroid of me on the float. I took a shot, waited for it to develop, then pushed my way through the crowd to the still stationary float.

I pointed to one of the masked riders and waved the photo at him. He leaned down, grabbed it, and his jaw dropped. It was just what he wanted. He pointed at ME, emphatically, clutched a handful of beads and coins and threw them. So many black hands appeared between me and the float that I didn't get a single one. The guy on the float saw what happened and pointed to me again. He became as determined as I was to get myself a coin, but before he could throw a second time, the glitch got fixed and the parade took off. I ran down the center of the street, he kept throwing, and I kept missing as the crowd gathered around me. Finally I grabbed ahold of the float and hung on for dear life, dragged down the street, refusing to let go until I got my due.

The rider saw what was happening, leaned over the edge of the float, and actually placed one right in my hands. We saluted each other, I let go of the float, and the parade continued down the street.

I looked around. I was in the center of Canal Street, surrounded by barricades with thousands of people pushing towards me, precisely where I didn't belong. The police grabbed me and threw me out of the street, over a barricade and into a crowd where I was almost crushed to death, but I didn't care. I got what I came for.

And here it is, the symbol of my psychedelic youth, a white boy in blackland, drunk, stoned, flying high, an endless celebration. Amazing I still have it.

I headed to Dr. John, whose concert ended as he opened the stage doors on both sides and let the passing parade through one and out the other, then invited us to join in. Nobody left that theater through the lobby. We all jumped on stage and paraded out into the street with the doctor.

"That's some story," said Paco.

"Yep," said the patriarch.

"So Bernard gets all the money?" said Paco.

"Yep," said the patriarch.

"And Heimlich gets all the land? said Paco.

"Yep," said the patriarch.

"And all I get is this Zulu amulet?" said Paco.

"Yep," said the patriarch, who promptly kicked a bucket that was conveniently placed at the foot of the bed.

Paco put on the Zulu amulet and headed to an audition he had that afternoon for a small part in a Fox sitcom about a white middle-class family who take in a pair of New Orleans flood refugees who turn out to be non-stop Mardi-Gras party animals. Hilarity ensued. The producers weren't very happy with his line reading, but just as he was leaving the sound stage, the casting director, who was from New Orleans, noticed the Zulu amulet around Paco's neck.

"Where did you get that?" asked the casting director.

Paco told him the whole story, ended up the star of the sitcom, and next year was made honorary King of the Mardi Gras.