For more than two decades, even before this corner became a state-of-the-art playground, these men -- and a few women -- have made an annual pilgrimage here. This intersection, where Camp Street cuts through Napoleon Avenue, is the designated gathering point for people who want to carry flambeaux in the Knights of Sparta parade.
Sparta's original-style flambeaux, which spend most of the year in a West Bank warehouse, were brought here on a flatbed truck around noon today, and their two-gallon fuel cans filled with kerosene. All 22 flambeaux now stand in the back of the truck, awaiting their carriers.
Marcus Michael "Bigem" Bernard is only 38, but he's been making the trek to this corner for nearly a quarter-century. "Since I was 13," he explains. "I love it -- the atmosphere, the cotton candy, the candy apples, the weather this time of year."
As it turns out, Bernard won't be carrying a flambeau today. When the last one is handed out, he'll be standing near the front of the line, along with his brothers Carlos and Ricardo Bernard, who also came up empty-handed. Luckily, their oldest brother, Gerard, made the cut. Marcus talks him up as a fabulous dancer. "He's got an unorthodox style," says Marcus. "Jimmie's got the basics down. But Gerard got more stuff than Jimmie."
Jimmie -- Jimmie Tyson -- raises his eyebrows in reply. Some of the other experienced flambeau carriers have been throwing their support to him, saying that he will be the best dancer in today's parade.
"I'm a veteran," he says simply, explaining that he's been doing this since he was 16 with a few years missed here and there, most recently because of a short stay at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Tyson is here with his stepson, Darnell Jackson, a indisputable charmer who at 25 is toward the younger end of the playground crowd. Jackson began tagging along with Tyson when he was 10 or so, first carrying the little red flares and then, in the mid-1990s, moving up to the flambeaux. "People are aroused by fire," he explains, "because there's a danger to it but it's cool to watch." Sort of like bungee jumping, he says, but safer.
Delores Baker walks up, her floppy Tweetie Bird hat bouncing as she walks. She won't be carrying a flambeau. No woman ever has. The torches are just too heavy, she explains, especially once their fuel cans are filled with kerosene. Instead, she -- like the other women and some of the smaller and younger guys -- will carry one of the parade's 30 red flares, which look like big candles stuck onto the end of broomsticks.
Baker is here with her dad, longtime flambeau carrier Joseph "Tootie" Heim; her uncle Frank Heim; and her auntie, Joanne Monroe, a slim woman of 43. Most people here in the crowd know Monroe. "Her daddy was the stick man," says one man, pointing at her.
The stick man -- a job that no longer exists -- supervised a team of flambeaux. At one time, there was a line of four flambeaux aside every float; the stick man's job was to make sure that each float's flambeau carriers did their jobs. He also kept the crowd back so that the flambeaux wouldn't be pushed into the float, which could set the float on fire.
Monroe's daddy -- known as Peaches or Big Four -- was a well-known flambeau carrier, dancer and stick man, say some of the old-timers. But he died when Joanne was small. "After he died, I took over," she says. For 17 years she's come here to carry fire down the parade route in memory of her father.
In the flambeau business, the torch is passed, quite literally, from generation to generation. Even Clarence Lazard, the man who hands out the flambeaux, is called "Mr. Frank's son" because he made his first trip here with his father when he was 12. Last year, Mr. Frank decided that he'd lit up enough parades and put his children Clarence and Karen in charge.
Mr. Frank -- Frank Lazard -- is a spry 79-year-old with a quick grin and a wit to match. On a recent rainy afternoon, he answers the door to his toasty apartment, then walks over to the thermostat to turn up the heat yet another notch before settling down in his favorite armchair, the one with the slight indention directly behind his head. After years of hard work, he's earned this.
"I'm retired," he says. "I sit in this chair. That's what I do." He links his hands contentedly across his stomach. His stocking feet are stretched out, and every once in awhile, he wiggles his toes as if to punctuate a funny point he's just made.
This year, says Lazard, pointing out his front door, he'll spend Mardi Gras day right there on his front stoop. "I'll have a few hot dogs, some cold drinks. Maybe I'll have a beer. Maybe not. Depends on how I feel." One thing's for sure -- he won't be going to any parades. It's too much of a hassle these days.
Lazard's living room walls are covered with framed pictures of his nine kids, lots of grandkids, and his beloved wife, the late Bertha Lazard. Lazard supported his family by working as a mail clerk and scheduling a "vacation" each year around Carnival time to hire and organize the flambeaux for all the big night parades.
He grew up at 1318 Perdido St., where City Hall stands now; when he was a kid he watched night parades that required legions of flambeaux, 200 to 300 of them. Then came World War II. Lazard joined the Army and was stationed in the South Pacific until 1946, when he returned home to New Orleans, became engaged to Bertha Johnson and went looking for work. He found it at the den on Calliope Street where Momus, Comus and Proteus were housed.
In subsequent years, battery-powered lights began illuminating the floats and so the flambeaux were no longer essential. Most big parades kept some flambeaux for tradition's sake, but they gradually scaled back the numbers down to 20 or so. Lazard stayed with flambeaux all during that time, developing a reputation as a solid worker and a bit of a character.
His loyal fans include Sparta Captain Charles Andrews, who made time to talk about Lazard during a Carnival schedule made even more hectic by the fact that his granddaughter Brandin Elizabeth Andrews was crowned the 51st queen of the Knights of Sparta this year. "Frank Lazard is kind of a legend when it comes to flambeaux," says Andrews, who has worked with Lazard ever since Sparta began parading more than two decades ago.
Lazard loves Sparta's old-style flambeaux, the gravity-flow gas torches that a local man, Charles Richardson Sr., is credited with inventing and assembling in the late 1800s. Lazard has a personal relationship with the inventor's family -- he worked for Richardson's grandson-in-law, Anthony Montelaro, until the 1970s, when Montelaro handed everything over to Lazard.
Lazard champions the original flambeaux, their solid composition and, as a result, their safety. "When the flambeaux dance and twirl, the gas is in the tank. They're not dangerous -- no indeed," he says emphatically.
He doesn't feel the same way about the new-style flambeaux, which are attached by a hose to propane tanks that are carried like backpacks. The flambeaux carriers call this the "Ghostbusters" style, but Lazard calls it nothing but dangerous because -- unlike the old-style flambeaux -- they can't be thrown down quickly if their fuel catches fire.
Lazard is, however, just fine with one fairly new flambeau tradition -- tips from the crowd. "That started in the '70s, I'd say. They used to say that it was slowing down the parades, but I don't believe it." If one carrier can't reach a coin, says Lazard, he leaves it and the next guy picks it up. The debate is futile anyway, adds Lazard. "You can't stop it. That's those people's money they're throwing."
To the carriers, the tips are a big plus; actual wages are fairly low. Lazard won't reveal dollar amounts, but carriers say they are generally paid $15 to tote a flare, and either $25 or $30 for a flambeau, depending on whether the apparatus has two or four burners.
Lazard says the tips are especially welcome because most flambeaux carriers are not wealthy -- as far as he knows. "I may have hired doctors or lawyers -- I don't know; I don't ask. Some might be homeless, but I don't question them. If somebody wants a job, I hire him. I do know that I've hired successful laborers. They work during the day and then an hour or two at night. Those are the backbone of the parade."
Along Saturday's parade route, people in the crowd muse about where the flambeau carriers come from. Some have heard that the krewes round them up at the housing projects, others insist that the carriers come directly from homeless shelters or are guys sprung from Orleans Parish Prison just for the parade.
None of this is true. But Anthony Montelaro, descendent of the inventor, says that beneath the rumors lies a grain of truth. "Let's put it this way," he says wryly, "we didn't always have the cream of the city working for us." As a result, he says, New Orleans' finest regularly showed up. "The police knew that there were no questions asked to be a flambeau carrier; you got a flambeau, you went and carried it and at the end of the parade you got your cash. So the police used to stand out there and pick up the guys who had warrants out for them."
Montelaro remembers one year in particular: "We were lighting up at the corner of Napoleon and Magazine and someone -- I won't use names, but he came from the DA's office and he wanted birth certificates on all of these young men that were carrying the flambeaux and flares. I told him it was impossible, and he said that if I didn't comply with it, he was going to have to take me in.
"I said, 'That's fine. What are you going to do with these 200 flambeau carriers and 70 flare carriers?' He said, 'You going to start a riot?' I said, 'No, but I got their money -- they're not going to let me out of their sight. Wherever I go, they're going to go.'" The man thought about it, says Montelaro, then left without pursuing the matter.
Today, at the corner of Camp and Napoleon, it seems as though most of the people waiting here could share a job description with thwarted flambeau carrier Marcus Bernard: "I do a variety-type of work," he explains. "I go on the river, I'm an electrician, I do anything; I'm very flexible."
Behind him, a line of people wait to talk about what they do and where they're from. John L. Battle, 24, his cousin Larry Monroe, 25, and their friend Tiki Glenn, 21, all grew up together in the Irish Channel. Tiki says that he was the first juvenile to carry a full-fledged flambeau; this year, his friends will be doing this for the first time. Kenneth Corner, 45, has been doing this for seven years. He says he stays in the Tenth Ward and is a pizza cook at Rocky's. Miker Brackens, 42, lives in New Orleans East and has been doing this for six years. He paints and cuts grass the rest of the year. Barry Theophile, 49, hails from the Sixth Ward, where he builds houses and paints. He's been a flambeau carrier for 15 years. Kenny Naquim, 35, has been doing this since he was 19. He stays in the Lower Ninth Ward and works for the University of New Orleans. Patrick Landry, 36, is the only white guy in tonight's parade and -- everyone agrees -- is the first white to ever carry a flambeau. He stays in Jefferson Parish now and works as an electrician. Ronald Monroe, one of several Monroes here, is a singer and former stage manager for the local reggae band the Revealers. Roosevelt McKnight, 47, works construction in the Tenth Ward and has been carrying flambeaux for 30 years. Frank Heim, brother of Tootie Heim, 45, grew up in the Third Ward but now stays in the Tenth. He's been carrying flambeaux since he was 15. Warren Hill, who's a supervisor this year, stays in the Sixth Ward and works on the cold-drink truck with Clarence Lazard.
To many of these men, flambeau carrying is a combination of things: it's a link to other people in their family, a way to pick up some spare cash, and it's a grand New Orleans tradition. "People tell me," says Frank Lazard, "that without the flambeaux you don't have a parade. It's like when you make a sandwich and you've got meat, but you ain't got no bread. Something's missing."
The flambeaux's warm light makes Mardi Gras more picturesque, says Munro Edmonson, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Tulane University who has been studying Mardi Gras for 50 years. Edmonson rues the day when the night parades through the Quarter ceased. "It was a sad day because in effect having natural light illuminating the tracery of the balconies and all that -- it was just romantic as hell."
But to Edmonson -- whose research encompasses ties between Mardi Gras' basic class structure, the krewes and New Orleans society -- the past carries more than romance. "When I see a flambeau, I see the class structure, but I also see the history of the slave system. In the old days, when the various roles of Carnival were segregated racially, the flambeaux were a black role at Carnival." Flambeau carriers held one of only a few public Mardi Gras positions for blacks, says Edmonson, along with groups like the Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu club. Until the 1960s, he notes, most everything else was white -- even the marching bands, which were imported from all over the South and even the North.
The flambeaux carriers awaiting their torches at Napoleon and Camp are acutely aware of this history. But in today's parades, they insist, it's not all about skin color. Says Darnell Jackson: "It could be a Chinese person on one side of me and a white dude on the other, but as long as they do their thing ...." He shrugs his shoulders. "Nobody minds."
It's 6 p.m. and the Sparta parade has just begun to roll. The flambeaux have all been lit now and they'll be brought into the parade four at a time, either behind a float or trailing a band.
Darnell Jackson and his stepfather, Jimmie Tyson, are both hoping to follow a band. They can dance better that way, they say.
Band or not, Jackson contends, he's the one to watch. What about his stepdad? "He's smooth," admits Jackson. "He taught me. But look at this." Jackson dances a bit, switches the flambeau from one hand to another, twirls the torch around. "It's more about twirling than footwork," he explains. "But if you can do the footwork, bodywork and the twistin', you're a bad man."
Tyson looks on and smiles knowingly. "It's no problem, darlin'," he says to an onlooker. "I'm still going to beat him." Tyson says that one of his secret weapons is the Chubby Checker twist. "It's old school. But it still holds true." He demonstrates, twisting the flambeau but in a more deliberate way than his stepson. "I'm very careful, darlin'," he says, showing how he always turns the flames to the center -- away from the crowd.
Jackson is being waved in -- it's his turn to join the parade. As they had hoped, he and three others get behind a marching band wearing red uniforms. Jackson seems to be everywhere. He's twirling his burners; he's trolling the crowd, smiling at girls who hand him money; he's re-lighting another guy's flambeau from his own; he's bounding with big enthusiastic strides down the street, rotating the flambeau high above his head. The crowd cheers as he twirls, and he revs up his dance even further as the quarters come flying through the air.
His stepdad has also joined the parade. Only a float and a band separate them. Tyson and three others were waved in right behind the Walter L. Cohen marching band, which -- as it happens -- is Tyson's alma mater. In fact, he used to play trombone in this very marching band. His daughter Jamie Tyson, a 10th-grader, usually carries a Walter L. Cohen banner, he says, but she got hit by something thrown from the crowd at a parade last night and so she's not marching with them today.
Beatrice Thompson, a chaperone for Cohen, knows Jamie well. She watches the elder Tyson and his way with the crowd and laughs. This is obviously a family who knows how to entertain, she says, because people also love to see Jamie. "I'm telling you that Jamie tore the street up," recounts Thompson about last night's parade. "The crowd went wild."
Getting behind Cohen also puts Tyson on a good start, but he's more subtle about it than Jackson. He takes smaller steps, in almost a marching-band cadence, and expends more effort in twirling the flambeau, sometimes pushing the crossbar with one hand to rotate it more quickly. Next to him, Frank Heim is using his upper arms in the same way, rotating the burners in the air. Onlookers are mesmerized for a minute and then you can hear the clinking of coins hitting the street.
Unlike his stepson, Tyson doesn't seem to feel the need to be in the crowd's face, charming them like crazy. Did he do that in his early days? "Did I!" he says, smiling. At this point, however, Tyson's built-in fan club makes such glad-handing unnecessary. Cries of "Jimmie" come from all over the place. He gets a cold beer here, a quarter there, a $20 bill from someone else. He makes funny faces at old friends, thumps his chest at his buddies, shakes it a little at the pretty ladies who reach into their pockets or shake a little back in return. His timing is like clockwork; as he reaches into the crowd, he automatically turns the flames toward the street, away from the people.
At least once, an attractive girl -- a perfect stranger -- leans out of the crowd and puckers up for the flambeau man. Tyson gallantly reaches into the crowd and delivers a little kiss. "Remember, it's not always about money now," he says with a grin.
All this dancing and jumping around is not necessarily without repercussions, he admits. "I'm going to feel it when I get home," he says. "I'm going to have to get into the bathtub and rub myself down with alcohol."
Several blocks before Lee Circle, everything slows down and the flambeaux of his stepson's group are once again visible. As the Cohen band begins a funk number, Tyson begins twirling his flambeau alongside Heim again. Someone throws a can of beer to Tyson. He catches it with one hand and keeps twirling his flambeau with the other. It's a real crowd-pleaser and one he should, by all rights, think back on as he soaks in his bath tonight.
One float and one band ahead, Tyson's stepson is taking a rare pause. Jackson is damp with sweat but triumphant. "I found out that the way I dance is good," he says, his eyes twinkling. "Feel my pockets." The pockets are crammed full of slightly soggy currency -- mostly one-dollar bills, he confesses, but some twenties as well.
Jackson mows through a corn dog and a Coke in three bites and three sips, then hoists his flambeau high into the air once again. As he rounds Lee Circle, a little girl steps out to look at him. He pulls a small stuffed animal out of his jacket pocket and hands it to her. The girl's mother digs for a tip, but Jackson dances out of reach. He wasn't looking for money. Sometimes it's not about that.