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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mardi Gras: a love letter

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2011 at 11:21 AM

Yesterday I dressed as Juans Flying Burrito and flung tortillas at people. What a city.
  • Yesterday I dressed as Juan's Flying Burrito and flung tortillas at people. What a city.

Note: This is just my fourth Mardi Gras, but after the events of the last few weeks (and last four days, especially) I've truly come to feel like New Orleans is my home. So now I present, an email I wrote in 30 minutes to a friend while standing on a balcony on Frenchmen St. (edited for context and grammar) along with a second portion made up of the notes that I took throughout the day. It's pretty long (just shy of 3,000 words) and I should say now that it's not written for people who live in New Orleans (though I hope they enjoy it and think its a good representation of Mardi Gras).

Basically, this is a love letter about Mardi Gras and New Orleans to anyone who's never been down here or, if they have, never had a genuine New Orleans experience. Collected within the story are a series of pictures and videos taken throughout the day. I hope y'all enjoy it while nursing your hangovers or whatever it is you're doing this Ash Wednesday. For those outside New Orleans, I hope this gives you some greater context on why people who live here absolutely love this city.

I love you Mardi Gras. I just can’t stop feeling good.

I'm having a GREAT time. Pretty much just been Charlie Sheening for 72 hours. It’s amazing how I’ve come full circle since first moving to New Orleans in 2007. Back then, I thought Mardi Gras was just a crush of people on Bourbon Street asking people on balconies for beads. It’s so much more than that. There are the parades, the Mardi Gras Indians, the balls and the walking Krewes. There are people of all ages in costume, fire breathers and other circus-type folk performing in the street. People will mount a stereo system in a shopping cart and start a dance party. A brass band made up of high schoolers will jam out on the corner and try to make a name for themselves by blowing at the Preservation Hall Band doing their second line.

Where else could I walk down the street dressed as a Mexican burro with wings (I was a flying burrito) and sling tortillas at people while a brass band plays and we dance and we smile and we yell Happy Mardi Gras at complete strangers in strange outfits and they yell “Happy Mardi Gras” back?

The Preservation Hall band marches down Frenchmen St.
  • The Preservation Hall band marches down Frenchmen St.

I had to learn about all of this over the course of four years. The only way, of course, was through participation. I started by writing about the Hornets and Saints for Gambit, began a brass band documentary (still in production! Go to to see the trailer and click ‘About’ to learn more!) and I cover the civil court system for a legal journal to pay my bills. I’m a working man in New Orleans. What an incredible thing to be able to say.

It’s especially incredible after the last four days.

We started by filming the Rebirth Brass Band at the Howlin Wolf on Saturday night. 1400 people were in there rockin’ out for 90 minutes straight and we got it all on five cameras and on a full audio mix. It was the single coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of in my life, but that’s mostly because I love Rebirth so much and it was the biggest concert I’ve ever seen them play (and I get to relive it forever).

The TeamCoco fan that got sent to Mardi Gras was there. I talked to him and their skeleton crew and they took pictures with the opening band (whom I also wish to film in concert one day) Papa Grows Funk. Got them brochures for our documentary, Lord knows if I'll hear from them again but I was pretty jealous they got to work for Conan and they got to go to Zulu Ball and Bacchus ball.

But TeamCoco left Monday morning! (Or they were supposed to, anyone who saw Conan last night will tell you that — in typical Mardi Gras fashion — they actually missed their original flight out). They told me their producer had ‘perhaps naively’ thought that things would be winding down on Mardi Gras day. Naïve indeed, today is what the holiday is all about. But alas, plans were already made and I implored them to send Conan down for a week of shows. (Also, unfortunately, their coverage of Mardi Gras was pretty lacking. Sure, it was a comedy bit about a random fan, but a little more context would have helped some people get a fuller picture. Consider this an attempt to do just that.)

Oh well. Sunday night was pretty special too. The day before saw torrential downpours and Endymion - a Super Krewe with over 30 double-decker floats — had to reschedule and rolled behind Bacchus, another Super Krewe with the ultimate monster float: BACCHUSAURUS. The parades were so crazy that the city had to close St. Charles Av. for blocks the next day to finish cleanup (I’ll come back to this later, because it is impossible to ignore the waste that accompanies Mardi Gras).

After the parades Sunday came Trombone Shorty's Bacchus Bash at Tipitinas. Just a wonder of a place named after a song of the same name by Professor Longhair with a balcony overlooking the dance floor. Trombone Shorty ( is the closest we have to a genuine American Pop Star in New Orleans. He hangs out with Mos Def and Lenny Kravitz, has a Grammy-nominated album and rocks one of the best live shows in music today. All of which is nuts for me when I realize we're about the same age (turnin 26 in July!).

But it should come as no surprise, he is a contemporary with extraordinary talent raised by the Andrews Family Clan of musicians and had his picture taken playing the trombone when he was a toddler for Bo Diddly.

Shorty came on stage in a Mardi Gras mohawk and rocked out for nearly two hours. Lenny Kravitz came on stage and played the drums as Shorty went OFF on the electric organ. Mannie Fresh came on stage and rapped 'back that ass up'. They killed it, plain and simple. And shit like this was going down all over the city (Questlove, as it happens, was hosting a DJ party on Frenchmen Street, not far from where I am right now).

Lundi Gras (Monday) I took it easy. Had to rest up for today. Some people - my friends girlfriend especially - make foolish mistakes between Monday and Tuesday that prevent you from making it past noon on the biggest Tuesday of the year. I've committed them all. I didn't want to do it again.

I woke up early, took my dog on a walk while wearing a donkey costume (the hat, belt and wings would come later) and rode out to meet Stafford Agee - trombone player for Rebirth, musical supervisor for HBO's Treme and Spy Boy with the Black Feather Mardi Gras Indian tribe - who was masking on Frenchmen, but on the other side of St. Claude in the heart of the Treme, away from the madness of where I spent my day.

Stafford Agee of the Rebirth Brass Band masks with the Black Feathers Indian Tribe.
  • Stafford Agee of the Rebirth Brass Band masks with the Black Feathers Indian Tribe.

I can only give you a glimpse of the Indians because, as much as I've read and seen about them, there's so much more to digest or tell that its best I refer you to the experts. Google The Backstreet Cultural Museum and Tootie Montana or check out Red Cotton's video on Gambit and go from there. I took pictures of as many Indians I could, and they were all Pretty, but there its awe-inspiring how little I saw (or have seen, despite having gone to Super Sunday when ALL the Indians march in a single parade).

And now I'm here. I'm a flying burrito packed with whiskey, wine, beer and … some other things. A friend said I was the perfect Mardi Gras pack mule. Yes, but this mule can write. I've had a notebook I've been writing in for a few hours and am writing this 30 minutes from when I started. Its getting dark and I may head home soon (Krewe de Bleu — the NOPD - clears the streets at midnight, and, regretfully, shootings on Canal and Bourbon have happened in the past [UPDATE: Though not last night! WOOOO!).

Yea, we were having a great time on Frenchmen St.
  • Yea, we were having a great time on Frenchmen St.

Needless to say, I made it home all right. Shooting off that e-mail was one of my proudest achievements yesterday, mostly because it was good to have on record all the shit that I had gone through, but also because it’s a wonder I was able to write all that in just 30 minutes.

Such is the magic of Mardi Gras. It’s the reason I decided to take out a notebook — one I caught from the Krewe of Muses — and start writing everything down (poetically enough, I did most of the writing from the balcony atop my favorite restaurant/bar, the Three Muses, so rest assured that lots of musing went on).

My Muses notebook was nearly filled by the end of the night.
  • My Muses notebook was nearly filled by the end of the night.

The scene on Frenchmen was that of pure, unadulterated joy. I don’t think I saw a single sad person the entire day and, better yet, we saw just four cop cars the whole time I was there (from about 11 a.m. till 6 p.m.). Not that there wasn’t a police presence, but there didn’t seem to be much need for it. Even the poor schmucks that drove down Frenchmen Street had to have had a good time considering gorgeous women were dancing on the hood of their cars (My friend, Saint, made the astute point that most of the cars had out-of-state license plates, “It’s the GPS!” he said. “The GPS told them to make that right.”).

Drivers heading down Frenchmen St. were treated to girls dancing on their bumpers and one girl dressed as a Mardi Gras fairy directing traffic. Again, what a city.
  • Drivers heading down Frenchmen St. were treated to girls dancing on their bumpers and one girl dressed as a Mardi Gras fairy directing traffic. Again, what a city.

Surely, the guy who decided to climb a tree and dance in the branches needed a good scolding from a cop who drove by. But that was all. The man climbed down from the tree and the cop went on his way. Earlier, a group of ladies jumped on the back of a State Police officer’s SUV. They would’ve gotten arrested (and deservedly so) but they were able to jump off in time so that when the cop got out of his car he couldn’t tell them apart from the rest of the people dancing in the street. The cop wasn’t pleased and he let his siren go off extra loud as he cleared a way through the crowd, but it didn’t lead to some crackdown or other ugliness and thank God for that.

Mardi Gras is not without ugliness.

Late Sunday night, presumably while I was dancing my ass off at Tipitina’s, a “loosely knit” Mardi Gras Krewe clashed with the NOPD in the Marigny, not far from where I spent Mardi Gras day. News reports describe a chaotic scene, but before you jump to conclusions about police brutality (or try to sympathize with the tourist who said this was his last vision of New Orleans) you have to remember that this was a group of people marching without a permit and without regard to other people’s property.

A friend who marched in the Krewe (who shall remain anonymous for obvious reasons) managed to not get arrested despite being caught in the middle of the scrum. He described the scene to me briefly as we stood on the Three Muses balcony:

“It was awesome. But yea, there was a lot of illegal shit going on. People were walking on cars like it was nothing, they didn’t have a permit. One guy pulled out a knife and slashed a cop’s tire. It was fucked up.”

INDEED. One thing you don’t do in New Orleans is mess with cops. You think you’re all badass and above the law? You’re going to get tasered. NOPD don’t play that shit. And I don’t blame them. NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas likely has the toughest job in the country. If you look at the crime stats for New Orleans, it’s certainly not something to be proud of.

This State Trooper was not pleased when two girls started dancing on the back of his truck. The girls jumped off before he got out of his car and the trooper then continued along without further incident.
  • This State Trooper was not pleased when two girls started dancing on the back of his truck. The girls jumped off before he got out of his car and the trooper then continued along without further incident.

Yes, the violence in this city is an ugly mark that just never seems to go away and, at times, never seems to stop growing. It’s a very difficult thing to reconcile when you’re on a balcony feeling all kinds of happy. It’s also the reason that the NOPD called in reinforcements from the Louisiana State Police and the ATF. After all, without extra security, who’s to say you don’t get caught in some cross fire going home? Or get mugged? Or worse?

In the course of my brass band documentary, we talked with Tulane professor Matt Sakakeeny. I asked him how he reconciles the fact that New Orleans is a place of such unabashed joy and goodwill and yet also of despair and death. He said what pretty much everyone else comes to know: the violence is gang-oriented. It’s not completely arbitrary. Most of the people killed in this city were targeted. To wit, the only murder on Mardi Gras day was of a man with prior drug dealing convictions.

Which isn’t to justify the violence. Spend five minutes looking at New Orleans history and you’ll see that this sort of systemic gangland mentality that infects a good portion of the (mostly black) population in the city and you’ll find a number of contributing factors that exacerbate the problem: terrible public schools, bad infrastructure, struggling working-class economy and deep corruption and dysfunction in City Hall.

But you live on. You can’t ignore the problem — in fact, most people face it head on. Just look at the Roots of Music or Liberty’s Kitchen, two of a countless number of non-profits that use music and food, respectively, to reach at-risk youth before the streets do — but you can’t let it affect your day to day life (aside from always remembering to stay alert when wandering around alone at night).

Point blank if you ask me about the violence in the city, I’d say, “Yes, I’m a bit worried that I might get shot.”

That’s not to say that I’d put myself in a dangerous situation or foresee myself dealing with people inclined to murder me, but that’s the patchwork nature of this city. A few years ago, I lived in a beautiful Uptown house whose owner received a historical renovation grant. On the next block down, there was a public housing unit. The next block down is the Poydras Home (a wealthy retirement community) and the New Orleans Lawn Tennis Association (a wealthy country club). Magnify that, make each block a neighborhood and spread it around and you get New Orleans: obscenely rich next to desperately poor with just regular folks in between.

But you have to remember what most people in New Orleans are doing: Being happy, staying happy and helping others do the same. It’s not perfect, nothing in this universe is. And when you look at it like that, it’s hard not to think that that’s a microcosm of America. Since I moved to New Orleans I’ve been fond of saying that New York City is what the United States wishes itself to be, but New Orleans is what it really is. Though I’m not sure what that means now that I’ve seen a woman in a purple-people eater costume wink at me…

A one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple-people eater. What more do you need to know?
  • A one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple-people eater. What more do you need to know?

But I digress, really I’m not a very disciplined writer. I just do it for a living. Which in many places would define me. Here’s an out of context quote I heard in the street: “I love him but he’s being ‘my fiancé’”. I took the woman saying that to mean that her fiancé was more about playing a role than being himself, the man she loves.

Mardi Gras makes you think that people are too eager to take on a role in their lives. The Writer. The Fiancé. The Mom. The TV Anchor. The Mechanic. The Whatever. I’d gather that most people may find that this comes naturally and it’s comforting to know one’s place in the world.

But I’m inclined to believe that the only role people should take on is that of Human Being. It’s the only role anyone can live up to. We are all human and we all laugh and love and hurt and cry and dance and sing and, on occasion, dress in wacky outfits (I believe the rest of the country reserves it just for Halloween) and laugh and love and hurt and cry and dance and sing with thousands of wacky outfitted humans in the street.

At one point, you begin to believe that humans can cause a tangible affect on their environment. All weekend we heard the forecast for Mardi Gras day would not be a good one. It was supposed to start thunderstorming at around 2 p.m. But as two led into three and into four, the storm didn’t come. When you’re on a balcony having the time of your life, you begin to think that the sheer mass of people having a good time was enough to keep the rains from falling.

The crowd on Frenchmen was consistent from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. when I left.
  • The crowd on Frenchmen was consistent from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. when I left.

And, of course, there are other ways you can see the tangible effects of New Orleans. On the ride back home there was trash everywhere and its mostly plastic and probably all just terrible for the environment. Maybe its a cop out, but all I can say is 'oh well, that's just Mardi Gras and the cleaning crews have this down to a science). Also, anyone who really wants to gripe about waste and beads should just give people copies of 'Made in China'. I won't watch more the 5 minutes of it - it almost killed Mardi Gras for me. My reconciliation is that we are entitled one day a year to be free, to strut, to dance, to catch beads, to mask as an Indian or just get buck wild. The trash is worth it.

(Video shot from my bike as I rode down St. Charles from Canal Street to Poydras)

And if you do it right, you can get to bed at a decent hour, wake up early on Ash Wednesday and rejoin the rest of the world going about their day-to-day. Mardi Gras is special, but that’s because New Orleans is special. Once again, not better, just special. That’s something to love and cherish.

And to indulge in. After all, St. Patrick’s day is this weekend and they throw a killer parade, too.

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