The Katrina Mardi Gras

My Mardi Gras story begins the moment C-Money waltzed into the library on Monday, February 27, 2006; a true shocker – his presence in the library fleeting and rare because C-Money scorns mindless waste of mindful energy, and therefore avoids the library at all costs.  I demand an explanation, “Dude! What the hell are you doing here?”  His tall frame laughed, explaining that he had arrived to rescue me from myself, “I am here to take you to f*cking Mardi Gras that’s what, you hatchet-wound!”  The visions of flooding, pain, and loss that had filled the televisions for weeks provided too tempting an opportunity to see the revitalization, to participate in a renaissance of the jewel of the south on such massive proportions: an emotional swing that humans rarely experience in a single lifetime.  “Are you serious?” I asked.  “Uh, yeah!” he said courtly.  C-Money was always serious, never denying the truth of his natural mystic.  “Did I stutter?”  “F*ck yeah! Let’s Go!”  People look at me disapprovingly, in the middle of the ground floor screaming and jumping like a monkey, gathering my books and throwing them violently into my bag, fearing that without quick action the 6’ 4” southern charmer might change his mind. Damn you boys have a pep in your step, said the friendly janitor, as we scramble towards the exits, fumbling with cell phones.  F*ck yeah, we goin’ gator huntin’.  Within minutes, Stinky is on the line and agrees to trade her car for mine for 2 days so we can travel in style. Truants on Mardi Gras need to travel to the dirty dirty in American style, not in a VW Jetta, but a Jeep Cherokee.  Within minutes, C-Money has commitments to fill the car: Mexico, J-Man, and the Booty are in, and we’re rolling.
We pack the cooler full of whatever we can find including any delectibles in the freeze box; it is a pantry-raiding grab-bag full of booze (half fill bottles of rum and vodka) plus a few random PBRs, Busches, Corona, throw a Gatoraid, half-full bottles of water, some Kraft cheese singles — and anything else that won’t spoil over the next three days and we have a veritable survival kit.  Mexico is still in bed, not atypical for 5 in the PM, after a busy afternoon, but he is our driver, and it is not like he is missing class anyway, because he doesn’t goes to class in the first place; so throw him behind the wheel because he’s done twenty hour straight drives from Texas to North Carolina on no sleep but for the power of Framton leading from his shirt pocket directly to the mucousa of the brain.  J-Man is packin flower-power heat for everyone, moving speedily towards the car with a knapsack full of the unknown, that is mostly sleeping bag and pillow.  Even though this car is ridin dirty, J-Man never fears a car ride with 4 full on honkey-looking dudes.  J-Man is half honkey, half-black, full honey, and cognizant of the phenomenon that if outnumbered by all-white dudes, and not driving, he cannot get pulled over for a DWB; nevertheless we are aware of the risks and therefore must maintain a clean compartment within the car, to avoid any reasonable suspicion.  Not that we are breaking any laws, but we know our rights.  This also explains why the Booty arrives soon thereafter, replete with the the radar detector (to tell me where the cops is) a few minutes late but early by Booty standards, and already complaining that the car has not started moving yet. C-Money has been ready, is always ready, and doesn’t need any clothes, or anything else, because he always keeps a toothbrush on him. 

Six hours later, Mexico pulls us into Atlanta.  Ever since Ray Lewis killed that guy after the Superbowl it’s never been the same.  Hey, goddammit let’s just stay here for the night…”Forget that, Geezy, we have to keep going, continue through the night.”  No man, I have girls here that want to bang me.  I went to college here…I’m telling you.  “Geezy, you haven’t had a girl want to bang you ever.  We have to push through.  There is business to attend to.” The ride continues through the night for the sake of one of the greatest parties on Earth. 

The big blue Jeep pushes through, with Mexico at the wheel, what I could call a flaming head full of steam, but nothing powering it, just going on fumes, the promise of adrenaline and adventure — the greatest high.  Drifting off in the bitch seat while the blue stalion pushes forth, onward into the darkness of the evening with a promise of a sunlight and human contact, the promise of party-greatness, what dreams are made of, pushing deeper.  6 hours later — she seems to arrive with the blueish hue of dawn.  The landscape outside New Orleans’ Parish resembles a warzone: houses, neighborhoods, ripped to shreds, making sheet rock and dry wall strewn about front yards and streets like paper, even months later, trash strewn about the ground like it was just yesterday, as witness to Earth’s fury.  Holy shit!  Someone yells, and for a moment I am awake.  Look at that!  The sign of a Wal Mart is on the ground, the roof is gone.  The veritable symbol of American consumerist power, lay dead in the wake of apocolyptic fury.  We go through our entire lives believing we are strong, that the physical and metaphorical foundations of society are sturdy, and there it lay, ripped to shreds, a storm stronger than this land has ever known, and in a few years, we will see those which are merely stronger.

Have you ever seen a Wal-Mart ripped to shreds?  And I heard this hurricane wasn’t that strong…
Whoever said that was smoking crack.  This thing destroyed an entire city. 
* * *
Mexico pulls up to the Hotel Le Pavillion — a shining homage to post-Victorian industrialism from the days of the railroad and oil barons – and the hotel is remarkably, unnoticeably damaged.

Our reservation, however, is for 2 PM later that day, which we reserved via Expedia’s phone service 6 hours earlier when departing Atlanta’s city limits on I-75. Surprisingly, the hotel won’t check us in at 7 AM.  The obvious solution is to park the car and head into the Latin Quarter, driking beers from the cooler, sleep at this point is not important, we have made it – Mardi Gras, 2006.  It is Fat Tuesday, February 28, so we stumble into the early morning party, Fat Tuesday, in the Quarter, only to find a veritable riot at 300 Bourbon Street at the Royal Sonesta.
Thousands of people are screaming at a balcony.  This is the hotel we wanted but it was booked solid unless we reserved a room at for three days, which according to C-Money, was remarkable — “Normally, you have to book this at least a year in advance.” Swarms of people are waiving towards the balcony too early in the bright warm morning. Young blonde haired women are throwing beads at our heads.  It is a strange party-find, as it would seem to defy all rationality that hundreds of people would be fighting over beads at 7:30, Ante Meridiem.  Booty sees what’s going on…Britney Spears is the ring-leader of the young maidens on the balcony, and she is throwing beads directly at us.  Dude.  Those must be her cousins!  Screams Mexico, and her cousins are getting in the act, bleached hair and drunk on the power of pursuasion, throwing fastballs at our faces.  Without warning, I am star struck and fighting larger, older men for the gifts from the golden haired cow’s godly hands.  Outta my way! I want Brittney’s Beads… I push C-Money and J-Man out of the way as the beads fall to the ground.  Outta my way! C-Money, the Mardi Gras impresario, proclaims, pointing towards the balcony, You people need to listen to me! I am the Bishop Of Crunk! I told you bitches, everyone who’s anyone stays at the Royal SonestaBritney knows! She is a local.  Geezy!  She has plenty of beads.  And she knows the deal.  But the only thing I can hear are irrational thoughts…If I can get Brittney’s beads, maybe I can get closer to her and bang her.  This Bishop of Crunk calls out, Geezy, Britney will not make out with you because you have her beads…Well, then maybe her cousins will?
A stout 50-year-old, the size of a fullback, suddenly pushes me away, head down.  He has somewhere to be, and his posse is now shoving us.  Get away!  You can’t have my beads!  Booty calls out, always prescient of his surroundings — Oh Shit!  C-Money, you see who that was? That’s Emeril Legassi!  Again, star struck, is the PArtyBoyGeeZ. Yo Emeril – your show is the jam – BAM! “Bam!” He responds, and continues to push us out of his way.
Getting pushed around in a crowd by a posse of handlers thinking they are more important than I am reminds me of a night I was in line at He’s Not Here in Chapel Hill for Big Beer Night, which is held every Tuesday during the warm seasons when the outside bar is open.  According to urban legend, He’s Not Here was Jordan’s favorite bar.  It was like he owned stock in the joint, and would fill the place with his revelers while he drank for free – a god amongst men.  Even before he had graduated, the owners had renamed the Bar “He’s Not Here” with a telephone on the front sign, because people would just call and ask for him, and the bartenders knew just to respond – “He’s Not Here!” — when Jordan was away from the party.  While I am waiting in line on a typically quiet summer night, a crew of large black dudes unexpectedly and forcefully bump me out of the way, cutting in line and going directly to the front.  “Hey Jerks!” I yell.  A cute UNC undergrad is next to me. Bright-eyed, a mad look of fear and bewilderment overcomes her impish face, as if she had seen God Himself, or Reagan’s dead ghost of Coldwar Past, and proclaims, “Oh My Gosh…Do you know who that was?” “Yeah, some dickhead who just cut me in line!” She then pushes me out of the way so she can get to the front…What is wrong with you people?  There are rules!  This isn’t Nam!  Once in, there’s a palpable buzz in the bar…  My classmate Richter sees me and quietly discloses, in his sleepy Cali drawl – afraid that if he speaks too loudly more people will stream in from the outside while they seem to be moving upon us faster than the Flood, “Hey, dude, did you see?  Michael Jordan just walked into the bar…” “No way!  I just got pushed by Michael Jordan?  Now I know how Byron Russell feels.”  Peepsing my way towards the commotion, hoping to get an autograph than realizing no way — totally impossible — Jordan is already behind the bar, with a shoe in his hand.  It looks like he is drinking beer out of it.[1]  Guess he cut the beer line too. 
Emeril pushes he way through the bead melee to the center of Music Legends Park, parting the sea of people like a rotund Charlton Hesston. A camera separate from the crowd sits in the middle of the plaza.  Charles Gibson and Robin Roberts then welcome Emeril for the filming of Good Morning America.  Sweet, says C-Money, Time to get some beignets.  Sleepless and disoriented, we head to the jam packed Café du Monde for requisite chicory coffee and donuts. 
Mexico is banging on the windows of the blue chariot. I am lying across the cooler in the trunk area. Everyone else is in the cabin, napping, sweaty, and hot.  Ariba! Yells Mexico, They’re checking us in!  A parade has materialized around the car.  Floats jam packed with Cajuns, Creoles – WAHARHAR! Woowoo zela! Le Zydeco sont pas sale’! Large men dressed like kings and queens, honking and be-bopping, enormous speakers pumping loud magical sounding accordian music from a flotilla civilly making its way around the Jeep which has become a bead-repository at 10 Ante Meridien.  Parade Masters, of various ethnic origins, are smiling, gyrating their hips in creole country, and aiming beads directly at our heads as we stand outside of the car confused and disheveled. Reds, blues, yellows and greens fall like rain upon our heads and the car, possibly scratching the sharp blue paint, barely visible under the litter.  Please baby Jesus, don’t tow this car… Booty snatches a pair of yellow toy underwear floating towards him like a butterfly, and from out the sky he places in the car’s rearview mirror.  He reassures the worry, Don’t worry Geezy.  It blends in now with the community, like camouflage.  Booty then looks at his watch and discloses, Shit, I have to call my girlfriend.  I told her I was in the library.  It is their anniversary, and his girlfriend had even planned to come up and visit him, but decided to travel with us instead.  I look to J-Man, who is puffing a ciggie, for reassurance, and he provides it, Sometimes you gotta make sacrifices to party.
In the early afternoon, the Quarter is still packed with people, but drunker.  A small restaurant on St. Charles St. with signs in the window that simply says, “Hiring,” seems to be a good option.  They are serving a half menu only, but what is available is pure poy bo’ deliciousness: fried oysters, fried shrimp, clam, grouper, and muffalettas for you land-lubbers.  The back half of the restaurant is dark with chairs on the table.  A young waitress with short brown hair apologizes for the limited selection.  “Most of the staff left after the storm and never came back,” she explains, “We are running about half capacity; we’ve had a heck of a time getting the restaurant back up and running since Katrina.”  She is like the evil neighbor who raped your kids and stole your dog. Everyone knows her and just refers to her by her first name.  She says that Mardi Gras has begun to perk things up again, like a godsend, the revelers coming when no one else would…C-Money reassures her, Yeah, we came down for Mardi Gras because we figured, how better to support the city by partying and spending some time here…“Well look at you boys…yes we certainly appreciate the business.  It’s been a good carnival this year, but even this is relatively tame.”  Tame!?  How is this tame?  This is the craziest party I have ever seen…I never want to leave!  She chuckles, Well, we are hiring…
The evening of Fat Tuesday starts at the pool on the roof of the Pavillon, where there is a beautiful pool overlooking the Quarter, as the sun sets over the Gulf of Mexico that lies in the distance.  All those people, outside of this city, watching the same sun move towards them, they don’t know what they are missing…As the sun sets the air chills and we must finish what little is left in the cooler.  a trio of local kids, who could be in college, or highschool, who knows, there are no rules at this point, ask for some drink and who are we to deny?  We are all equal, now, in the waning moments of the Mardi Gras season, simply partiers ready for one last push before sanity returns.  Dark now, again our group of five flow  into the Quarter, swirling indiscriminately with thousands of others – a swarth of all races, sexes, as many types of people as combinations frozen hurricanes and daiquiris.  Drinks are everywhere in the Quarter; like an open container Arabian market.  Bars on the street that will just sell you drinks in styrophome cups out of windows, no one checking IDs.  The opportunities for arbitrage are endless…Hold on Mr. Daiquiri shop operator, for only two dollars I can add an extra shot of ever-clear to my 20 oz frozen drink of death?  How could I pass up such a windfall!  We are wealthy, poor and derelicts alike together under yellow lights and horns.  A homeless man asks for a sip from my sippy cup, and happily I am swapping saliva and sharing moments in time with all who are so inclined.  Soon I am dancing with others, men women old and young in the street.  All for the sake of a city’s renaissance…
At midnight, C-Money is yelling — Midnight — it is time to go.  Hurry, the cops are coming to clean the streets!  Don’t want to get arrested!  Bright lights are shining, street sweepers rushing like Wooly Mammoths in the street, loud horns sounding the alarms to disipate, time for the celebre to end and peace to be restored.  It is now Ash Wednesday.  Street cleaners, officers, and other civic officials have suddenly taken over the Quarter, chasing away partiers who scramble to another block.   Mexico, the devout Catholic, explains, This town is a religious town, so when Ash Wednesday comes around, the party ends.  I don’t understand, How is this possible?  How does it just end at the strike of twelve?  Besides, there are still people in the streets.  It is still going, but clearly, something has changed; it is subdued.  C-Money clarifies, Yes.  This year it seems somewhat exceptional, as if the city won’t mind, however, if it goes on a bit longer.  We have witnessed something extraordinary gentlemen.” 
Yes, although lives had been lost, and the soul of the city had been haunted, along with the rest of the country by images of people stuck roofs, stranded, surely facing the end, as the government waived from helicopters and lacked resources to save them in their time of greatest need because a war was being fought a world away.  No, the most powerful forces in the country never came to help.  What did come, however, was the resilient quality of human nature, the partiers, commuters who wanted to be there to keep the tradition alive, with the hope that the party might ensure the Big Easy’s survival until Jazz Fest, then summer time cafes, if we could move things along for a few more days, weeks, months, until next year, and the next, eventually, by partying, together, maybe the city could be rebuilt and the ghosts could rest finally.
I wake up on the floor of our four star hotel room.  At first, confused, disoriented, I don’t know where I am.  The curtains are drawn and the Victorian landscape is quiet, and it is quiet outside too.  Ash Wednesday has arrived, like baseball season, and the Spring, always coming a little to early, but always welcome.  My bearings had been lost, and I don’t remember getting home.  J-Man had disappeared from the herd last night.  Like a litte boy, I call to him, J-Man, J-Man…We lost you.  What happened to you last night?  The light skinned brother answers cryptically, as if the wind had carried him upon a path, inevitable that he would be lost only to return, like the wind.  It could be the native in his blood.  “I don’t know.  I was with you guys, then next thing I knew I was lost, and found myself with locals instead.  They walked me around the city all night, and at the end of the night, when I had to leave, the woman grabbed me and we kissed. I think on the hood of a car.  Right in the middle of the street.” “That’s crazy J-man, how did she look?”  “I don’t remember.  I am fairly certain she was attractive, but that’s not really important.”  “I don’t understand.  She must have been good looking then.  Well was she older, younger, what was it?”  “I’m not really sure if I can tell you.” “Do you remember anything?” “Yes it happened, and then I was back here.  All I remember is that it was magical.  Just amazing.” 

[1] Fine.  Jordan wasn’t drinking beer out of his shoe.  But he was drinking a Corona with his shoe in the other hand, holding it up for people to admire.

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