I’ve Had The Time of My Life

New Orleans is, of course, more than Mardi Gras; but whenever anyone mentions New Orleans, most people’s minds immediately go there.

It is probably the most famous thing about New Orleans, no matter how hard we try to convince outsiders that there’s more to the city that our annual bacchanal…Mardi Gras is always the default; so much so that the entire season is collectively (and incorrectly) called Mardi Gras; Mardi Gras is merely Fat Tuesday (mardi gras literally translates into fat Tuesday) and the rest of the season is Carnival. No matter how often you try to correct people, it never takes and so I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer correct people. It is what it is.

Likewise, people think of Carnival as a debauched event, and there is some truth to that–women do show their breasts for beads, and I’ve seen guys drop trou as well. However, I can also honestly say I’ve never seen that happen on the actual parade route on St. Charles Avenue; perhaps that happens down on Canal Street during parades, but it doesn’t happen in Uptown. I’ve only witnessed it happen in the Quarter–people on Bourbon Street displaying the required flesh for people up on balconies with a seemingly endless supply of beads, demanding boobs or butts or balls in exchange for a strand of beads. I’ve personally never dropped trou for beads–never will; why on earth would you when they are thrown with such reckless abandon from floats during the parades?

Like most New Orleanians, I had some vague knowledge of the history of Carnival in New Orleans; I knew that the theme song “If Ever I Cease to Love” came about because of a visit from a member of the Russian Romanov royal family in 1872; the Carnival colors of purple, green and gold were also in his honor. I knew that Comus, Momus, Proteus and Rex were the original krewes that paraded; that the flambeaux carriers originally were necessary to light up the parades in the darkness of the night; I also knew that the members of those original krewes–that still exist today, even if some of them no longer parade–were made of the city’s ruling class elites, and the krewes were offshoots of the exclusive Gentlemen’s Clubs in the city–the Boston Club, the Pickwick Club, etc.–that also still exist today.

But I didn’t know a lot about the history; I didn’t know much beyond what I would read in the annual Arthur Hardy’s Parade Guide, which I buy religiously every year. It’s easier, of course, now; there are parade apps that track the parades so you know where they are; whereas before you just had to stand on the route and wait, or (if you are lucky enough, like we are, to live close to the parade rout) listen for a marching band before heading down to the Avenue.

So I decided recently, since I’m reading a lot of New Orleans history, to read James Gill’s Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans.

lords of misrule

The white men in jackets and ties were obviously out of their element. Normally, at this time of day, they would be preparing to leave home or office for a couple of drinks, lunch, and maybe a card game at their clubs. Now, on December 19, 1991, they shifted in their seats, returning hostile glances from a large contingent of black men and women in the packed basement of New Orleans City Hall. The city council was meeting in spartan surroundings while its regular chambers were being renovated, but the physical discomforts were nothing compared to the general psychic unease as everyone waited for the great debate on an ordinance to desegregate Mardi Gras parades and gentlemen’s luncheon clubs.

New Orleans is a Southern city, with all that entails and perhaps even more. There were slaves here before the Louisiana Purchase; both the French and the Spanish brought slaves to New Orleans and Louisiana. New Orleans didn’t hold out long as a Confederate city; it surrendered to the Federal navy fairly early in the war, and with that surrender, the Union plan to control the Mississippi was one step closer to fruition. Racism, Jim Crow, and all the horrible white supremacy that comes with those things were evident here; the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that established the horrific doctrine of “separate but equal” was a case that originated in New Orleans, and had to do with segregated railroad cars. Several years ago Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city council finally agreed to remove the Confederate statues and other memorials commemorating the city’s racist past; General Lee no longer stands with his back to the North on his plinth in Lee Circle; the statue of General Beauregard outside the entrance to the New Orleans Museum of Art was removed, and the statue of Jefferson Davis on the neutral ground along Jefferson Davis Parkway was also taken down. Perhaps the most egregious memorial–the Battle of Liberty Place memorial–was also removed in the dead of night.

New Orleanians like to pretend that New Orleans doesn’t have that same vein of racism and white supremacy the rest of the South does; but it’s definitely there. It might have more a genteel veneer over it, but it’s definitely there. Orleans Parish is probably the most progressive parish in the entire state–but that’s also an incredibly low bar to set. The vast majority of people I know were in favor of the removal of the memorials, and whenever it came up on a local news website, the comments against the removal were almost inevitably from non-New Orleanians, and usually ginned up the standard Louisiana complaints about New Orleans: out of control crime, poverty, crumbling infrastructure. But all of those things were also true when the city was segregated and operating under Jim Crow; anyone who reads New Orleans history knows that the city was always a hotbed of crime and sin and debauchery.

Lords of Misrule opens with the attempt by the city council in 1992 to desegregate the krewes; my first-ever attendance at Carnival was a mere three years later, and people were still talking about it. The result was three old-line krewes (Comus, Momus, and Proteus) decided to stop parading rather than desegregate (there is a krewe now parading under the name of Proteus again; I don’t know if it is actually the same, original Krewe of Proteus or a newer krewe who took the name). Opponents of the ordinance claimed it would kill Carnival, which is now one of the primary economic engines of the city; nearly thirty years later we can attest that didn’t happen. Modern Carnival attendees don’t now about those krewes and they aren’t missed. But Gill uses this battle at the city council as a jumping-off place to examine the history of the racial politics in the city, and throughout, he uses Carnival–and how racist events in the city, such as the Battle of Liberty Place–to illustrate and illuminate that history.

It’s an enjoyable read, a little eye-opening in places, but a good read, and he also does an excellent job of exploring how Comus was not only  Confederate, but later, if not directly tied to, then definitely sympathetic to the Klan and the cause of white supremacy. Some of these civic leaders who would be, or had been, King of Comus or King of Rex also were leaders of the rebellion, the Klan, and so forth.

And it isn’t until the final chapters that any bias on the part of Gill becomes even remotely obvious; I got the distinct impression in the final chapters that Gill opposed the desegregation of the krewes–but he never comes out and says that; the final chapters simply read that way to me. I could be wrong.

But I do recommend it. It’s a good, interesting read, and sheds some important light on forgotten parts of New Orleans history.

St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)

Lundi Gras, and the downward slope of the marathon. Huzzah! I have a lot to do today; all trying to get it finished in the window before the streets close for tonight’s parades, Proteus and Orpheus. I need to run to the grocery store, get the mail, and am also hoping to get to the gym as well; I’ve not been since last Sunday, but the combination of all the cardio involved with the walking to and from the office, as well as shortened hours because of the parades, has conspired to keep me from my workouts. I cannot go Wednesday morning, either, because the gym is closed until noon; by then I will be at work. So, if I don’t work out today I can’t get to the gym again until Thursday morning, which would be most inopportune. But I am confident I will get back into the swing of my workouts again; despite the Mardi Gras interruption–that always happened in the past, after all, and I was always able to get back to it.

Exhaustion has also precluded me from writing and/or editing over the last week or so; I have plans to get some writing done today as well as some laundry. I have to decide on a story to write for two anthologies, and I desperately need to rewrite/revise/edit another that is due by the end of the month. I am also behind on revisions of the WIP, and I need to get moving on the Scotty book as well. This will, of course, be a short work week; Wednesday thru Friday, so I am hopeful that I can get a lot accomplished in this time period. I should probably get dressed and head out for the errands; the later I wait, the more likely there won’t be a place to park when I get back.

I started reading Killers of the Flower Moon before bed, but it just didn’t grab me right away; I’ll go back to it, I am sure. Instead I started reading The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher (Florence! Medicis! History!), and am loving it so far. I doubt that I’ll ever tire of either Italian history, or the Medici family.

I did manage to get back to reading on The Short Story Project as well this weekend, between parades and physical exhaustion. The first was the title story of Joe Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghost:

The best time to see her is when the place is almost full.

There is the well-known story of the man who wanders in for a late show and finds the vast six-hundred-seat theater almost deserted. Halfway through the movie, he glances around and discovers her sitting next to him, in a chair that had moments before been empty. Her witness stares at her. She turns her head and stares back. She has a nosebleed. Her eyes are wide, stricken. My heart hurts, she whispers. I have to step out for a moment. Will you tell me what I miss? It is in this instant that the person looking at her realizes she is as insubstantial as the shifting blue ray of light cast by the projector. It is possible to see the next seat over through her body. As she rises from her chair, she fades away.

Then there is the story about the group of friends who go into the Rosebud together on a Thursday night. One of the bunch sits down next to a woman by herself, a woman in blue. When the movie doesn’t start right away, the person who sat down beside her decides to make conversation. What’s playing tomorrow? he asks her. The theater is dark tomorrow, she whispers. This is the last show. Shortly after the movie begins she vanishes. On the drive home, the man who spoke to her is killed in a car accident.

This is a great short story; a ghost story about a haunted movie theater. It moves very quickly, and I love how Hill sucks you in almost immediately. I am greatly enjoying reading Hill’s short stories; and am looking forward to getting back into this collection. It also wraps up perfectly. I’ll be honest; I tried reading two of Hill’s novels and simply couldn’t get into them–which is probably more on me than on him–but as I said, I am loving the short stories, and will undoubtedly go back to the novels; I often find something that didn’t grab me the first time will wind up being something I love when I try it again later.

Then I moved back to Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color, and the next story up was “Girl with a Fan” by Nicholas Christopher.

On the fifth of June, 1944, a young man stepped off the 9:13 train from Lyon, squinting into the morning light. Tall and slender, he had an asymmetrical face: the right eye higher than the left, the left cheek planed more than the right. He was wearing a brown suit, black shirt, yellow tie, and brown fedora. His suit was rumpled, his boots scuffed. He was carrying a leather briefcase with a brass lock. His pants cuffs were faintly speckled with yellow paint.

He cast a long shadow as he walked down the platform. Halfway to the station, two men in leather coats came up from behind and gripped his arms. One of them pressed a pistol in his side, the other grabbed his briefcase. They veered away from the station, guiding him roughly down an alley to a waiting car. A man in dark glasses was behind the wheel. He was bald, with an eagle tattooed at the base of his skull.

At first, this story seemed a bit off to me; it didn’t really fit with the rest of the stories I’ve read in Block’s ‘inspired by a painting’ anthologies. For one thing, it jumped around in time and place, going from Nazi-occupied France to the south seas back to France in the late nineteenth century again; but linking these three different narratives was Gauguin’s painting, “Girl with a Fan”: where the fan came from, when the work was actually painted, and what happened–was happening–with the painting under the Nazi pillaging of the occupied country. Once I grasped what Christopher was doing with his story, I began enjoying it; it’s not easy to juggle three different stories, locations, and time-lines in the space of one short story. Well done, Mr. Christopher, well done indeed!

I also read some others, and will probably continue reading some more today; but I shall save those for a future entry.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s a hunk to get you through your own Lundi Gras.

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