Friday, February 20 2004
setting: H.H. Whitney House, New Orleans, Louisiana
At this time of the year in New Orleans, we couldn't expected for a night in a hotel room to be perfectly silent. Sure enough, throughout the night we heard waves of drunk tourists returning from Bourbon Street. (By the way, we were staying in the "Bourbon Street" room.) Interestingly, though, we could only hear them as they walked or lingered the hallway. The moment they went into their rooms and closed their doors, they fell as silent as if they had been snuffed. The walls within the H. H. Whitney House are old school with substance.
We checked out first thing this morning but left our car where we had parked it yesterday evening on Escalade. Then we walked down into the French Quarter for the daylight version of the sort of expedition we had last night. Again we stopped at Café du Monde for beignets and oles, although I was already growing sick of what I'd found so delicious only yesterday. The seating area was crowded at this time of day and the tables were sticky with sugar. There's usually some street musician playing in front Café du Monde. Last night it had been a young white woman with bright artificial red hair and a flute. Today it was an older black man singing gospel and he was pretty good. We would have bought one of his CDs but he wanted $20 for them, money he was raising for God. We draw the line at chipping in for imaginary friends, especially ones supposedly with the power to create their own damn money.
Inevitably, we went down to the waterfront Imax theatre to catch a movie, in this case, "The One About the Coral Reefs." I'd seen an Imax film (a very similar one) when I was here with Bathtubgirl three and half years ago. As it had been that time, today's film was in 3D. We showed up just as the movie was about to start, coming in a different door and grabbing some glasses out of a bin. We were immediately accosted by a huffy employee freaking out about the fact that we'd grabbed glasses from the dirty bin. "I don't want you getting pink eye," she said.
Aside from us and a few teachers, the Imax theatre was filled mostly with young black girls, all of whom had various complicated braids and bows in their hair. Gretchen thought they were cute, even when they screamed at the sharks and clapped their hands in front of their faces in an effort to catch tiny 3D fishes. If it had been a theatre full of little white girls I think Gretchen would have been annoyed instead.
Along the Mississippi, we stopped for awhile to listen to a steam pipe calliope being played atop a docked steamboat, the Natchez. From a distance it had a pure sound, but up close you could hear a lot of non-melodic hissing.
On the way back through the French Quarter on our way to the car, we stumbled upon a Mardi Gras parade. It mostly consisted of marching bands and cheerleading squads. The average age of the paraders was about ten, but they seemed to have worked hard practicing their routines. Sadly for them, not many people had turned out to watch this particular parade (even though it was in the middle of a fabulous sunny 70 degree day). They pelted the few of us bystanders who happened to be there were with endless volleys of Mardi Gras beads.
Up until that point we'd been dismissive of the people we'd seen dressed in Mardi Gras beads. Their wearing of beads had seemed contrived, a checklist item for the Mardi Gras tourist. Part of this reaction steemed from all the Mardi Gras beads we had seen for sale. But when you're being pelted with beads by talented - if underappreciated - young parade marchers, wearing Mardi Gras beads feels more like an societal obligation and less like me-too Loud Americanism. Well, at least for me. Gretchen wore her beads for a few blocks and then began shedding them one by one, mostly by throwing them over the heads of the little paraders and into the anemic crowds across the street.
Gretchen was obsessed with the idea that I should get the perfect po boy while in New Orleans, so she drove me up near the New Orleans Fairgrounds to a place recommended by Jesse, CAS Kathy's long distance boyfriend (who lives in New Orleans). It was called Liuzza's and it was just a humble little community bar and restaurant, with none of the pretenses of the French Quarter restaurants that cater to the Mardi Gras tourist influx. Also, whether by intention or otherwise, they appeared to be ardent supporters of the Slow Food Movement. The po boy I'd ordered was nothing more than a piece of hollowed-out French bread stuffed full of specially-prepared shrimp, but it probably took them an hour to get to my order. We sat near the end of the bar, near a spot where the staff kept setting down dirty dishes or freshly-prepared meals on their way either to the trashcan or to a customer. Gretchen managed to maintain a long multipart conversation with the owner on the subject of all the bread being thrown away. All she had was bread pudding, since little else was vegetarian. She got most of her lunch a few minutes later in the form of free samples at a nearby Whole Foods.
Tonight we'd be staying at St. Vincent's Guest House in the Garden District, the part of New Orleans on the other (west) side of downtown from the French Quarter. St. Vincent's was house in a large winged late-19th Century instutional-type building that had served as lodging for various welfare organizations, most recently as a home for single mothers. These days it's more of a fleabag hotel, at least from the impression given by our room, the apparently infamous Room 50. It reeked of cigarettes and its green carpet was splotched with yellow footprint-shaped bleach stains. Behind the blinds was a window with a view of a dreary hallway. But we couldn't be too fussy; we were lucky that Gretchen had somehow managed to reserve this room at the last minute for the Friday before Mardi Gras.
We set out on an expedition down Magazine Street in hopes of finding a WiFi hotspot. I'd had no difficulty finding them in Manhattan, but I hadn't encountered any since leaving Mary Purdy's apartment. (There had been none at La Guardia or National Airport.) When that pursuit seemed hopeless, Gretchen took me into a lingerie store and tried to map out my interests by quizzing me about various articles of intimate apparel. I'd never done this before and it hadn't occurred to me how very particular I am about what I find sexy. I don't, for example, like anything that is overly transparent. Or colorful. Or plain. Or elaborate.
After awhile we made our way up to St. Charles Avenue, part of the route for the big parade tonight, the Hermes Parade. Gretchen was hungry, so we ducked into a bar that actually served vegetarian burgers. By the time she was done, I was on my second beer and the parade was beginning.
I'd never seen such an elaborate parade in my life. The parade was divided into a long series of clusters, each similar in structure to the next. At the lead would be the float, an exquisitely-decorated platform usually dominated by a huge sculpture of an important Greek God or a ghastly-but-generic human curse. All around the float would be people disguised in makeup, masks, and outfits, and they would throw beads into the crowd, often responding to particular pleas from members of the crowd. After the float went through, a high school marching band would go through, followed by baton twirlers. Finally, a handful of rag-tag fire bearers would bring up the rear, flaming fireballs spilling out of their flaming multi-headed torches. (If these bands, baton girls, and fire bearers were, as I suspect, members of a krewe's auxillary high school, then the fire bearers might have been burnouts doing Friday night detention after being caught smoking pot in the bathroom.)
I was struck by the strongly pagan quality of the parade. It was completely devoid of references to Christianity, veterans, corporate product brands, atheletes, or the awesomeness of the United States. If the floats weren't celebrating some Greek god or some important event in the history of Greek gods, they were celebrating famine and pestilence instead. Like Halloween, it seemed to be a reaction against the stuffy norms of Christian society. The idea of Mardi Gras is to exercise all the dark hedonistic humors out of the system so Lent can be entered in purity.
Unlike the parade we'd run into earlier today, the crowd was very enthusiastic about any beads thrown their way. This was a purely economic effect; with such huge crowds lining the street, there was a much greater demand for beads than there was a supply. People had brought various technologies to aid them in catching beads thrown from floats. The greatest advantage came from being tall, so some people (particularly children) sat atop step ladders. Others caught beads with canes or butterfly nets.
Eventually we returned to our dismal hotel room to drop off the laptop and prepare ourselves to see the French Quarter on the Friday night before Mardi Gras. It was a two mile hike from St. Vincent's, but eventually we made it. Interestingly, we caught up with the Hermes parade, seeing the same floats we'd seen over an hour before on St. Charles. I wondered if they'd be sore tomorrow from all the beads they threw.
There was no parade scheduled for Bourbon Street. Instead, people milled around in violation of each other's personal space. They sipped drinks and kept a constant watch on the balconies above. Up there various frat boys and spoiled rich kids swished beads back and forth in their hands, only rarely throwing them down. They were waiting for just the right lady to state her case for why she should be given anything. It was rare for a woman to successfully state her case unless she showed the frat boy her titty. Some frat boys were more selective than others, only throwing their beads to blondes. Gretchen really wanted to get the beads that had a rubber ducky every so often, but when she figured out what the terms were, she abandoned the pursuit in disgust.
Now I was the one who was hungry, so we went into a surprisingly uncrowded Mexican restaurant called the Country Flame (which sounds like a bad translation out of a foreign language). It had no atmosphere at all, but it did have Red Dog beers. Again I ordered myself a po boy, this one built around a slab of fried catfish. It came slathered in a little too much mayonaise, but it fit the po boy description better than that shrimp thing I'd had for lunch. Gretchen ordered some sort of enchilada and it was absolutely horrible.
Later we passed a balcony on Royal Street, and this time it was middle aged white women throwing beads. One of them threw me a string of white beads.
As we returned to our hotel, a couple of young women were just leaving. They apparently felt naked walking into town without beads, so when they asked if they could have some we gladly donated to their cause.
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