Many come out to cheer the Krewe of Dreux, some in white HazMat jumpsuits that are the unofficial uniform of reconstruction…”
by brendan costello
This year’s Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans coincided with the six month anniversary of hurricane Katrina. Brendan Costello, a New Yorker who has been in love with the Crescent City since childhood, returned for a first-hand look at how the city observed their annual tradition in the midst of recovery. Although he has been a regular visitor to New Orleans, this was his first Mardi Gras.
The first difference I notice is the waterline, like a giant bathtub ring, marking where the flood lingered on its way back down after the surge. The mounds of debris pushed out to the curb in front of boarded-up businesses and houses seem normal, as though renovations are going on. Then it becomes clear that every building has these piles, or is boarded up completely, or both. It is shocking, and I want to say that the debris seems vomited from the houses and buildings around the city. But the piles consist of sheetrock and lath and everything from furniture to refrigerators to flooring, and I realize that the analogy does not apply, unless it were somehow possible for a human being to vomit their lungs and intestines.
This is New Orleans, six months after a catastrophic hurricane and the breach of three of its levees. Small signs at every intersection advertise construction or demolition services: house gutting, framing and sheetrocking, and stump removal are the most common. A few announce the re-opening of local businesses.
I am driving on Tulane Avenue, a major thoroughfare, and after a close call with a pickup truck, I realize that the traffic lights are not working. Four-way stop signs have replaced the lights. Later, I learn that there is a certain logic to this, since there is not enough traffic in the city to justify waiting for a light to change.
Another ubiquitous sign of the storm’s aftermath is the mark on every house searched by the rescue teams, an “X” with numbers or letters in each quadrant, denoting who or what was found in the house, whether there were persons or animals recovered, or if a coroner was needed. The design is visually reminiscent of the symbols of voodoo ritual, an unnecessary reminder that death imagery has been a part of local color. FEMA, Marie LaVeau, or the Angel of Death has passed this place.
Most of the markings I see have “9-11” in the top quadrant, and naturally I think of what those numbers have come to represent. Does Katrina compare to September 11th? As a New Yorker, it’s an unavoidable question I keep in the back of my mind. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be to the tsunami of December 2004, though one difference immediately comes to mind. Aside from the obvious matter of scale, public reaction to the tsunami’s aftermath was distinguished by the attention paid, however briefly, by relief workers and the media to the psychological impact of the disaster. Aside from several network correspondents having near-nervous breakdowns on the air, how much attention has been paid to the Katrina’s emotional and psychological effects?
Gentilly: Party at Ground Zero
Before arriving in New Orleans, I heard about the Krewe of Dreux, whose home base is in a neighborhood near UNO called Gentilly. This area, along with the Lakeview district, was flooded with roughly twelve feet of water after the breach of the 17th Street levee. The debris piles are larger here, and the water line is so high that for a moment it looks like ordinary sun damage, or maybe the shadow of a telephone line. On some houses it is hard to see because it is above roof level.
The Krewe of Dreux’s ethos and aesthetic could be pegged somewhere between a Grateful Dead show, a renaissance festival and a biker wedding, or maybe an Easter parade on acid. This year, they are rolling on the Saturday before Mardi Gras.
Despite threatening clouds and an ominous sprinkle, the sun comes out and shines on the marchers as they start. We head past empty single-story homes, downed trees and storm-tossed flotsam (a boat sits on the roadway, looking almost like a parked car) to a small park, where locals gather and the party gets going. Many people are seeing each other for the first time since the hurricane, and though the atmosphere is definitely boisterous and upbeat, it is clear that this is no ordinary block party. Balloons and face-painting for the kids, beers and joints for the adults, everyone talking about their status either with rebuilding or relocation. When the drum circle reaches critical mass, the parade begins in earnest.
The ragtag prankster procession ventures out into the street, through the devastated neighborhood. There are people who have come to watch the parade; others sit on lawn chairs next to their FEMA trailer, or are in town to work on rebuilding their homes. Many come out to cheer the Krewe of Dreux, some in white HazMat jumpsuits that are the unofficial uniform of reconstruction. The parade has grown to around 200 people, with a drum circle and the king and queen in full regal attire, carrying the krewe’s standard at the front. A traditional New Orleans brass band brings up the rear, replete with a marshal in top hat and tails, dancing wth a woman decked out in black cape, tiara, and carrying an ornate parasol. The costumes are funky, ranging from yellow togas that seem like Hare Krishna garb to harlequin tunics and jester caps. Many are humorously topical, HazMat suits with day-glo orange vests and festooned with garlands of fake marijuana leaves, and at least two made from blue plastic tarp material: one that looks like a burka, the other a miniskirt and halter top. Everything is beautifully haphazard, simultaneously traditional and improvised. I later learn that the Dreux parade’s only consistency are the two gigantic joints rolled from a quarter pound of marijuana that serve as scepters for the king and queen. (I didn’t see either of these monsters until the end of the day, when the roach was about the size of a bottle of vitamins.) “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, depends on who organizes it and who shows up,” one longtime participant says.
The parade returns to the bar where we first gathered just as the clouds regroup and the rain begins in earnest. A band plays raucous blues inside, and people huddle under a tent or crowd into the bar. This was the local watering hole, and like everywhere else in Gentilly it was flooded out. The interior is gutted, and the bar itself is a makeshift counter of raw plywood. Toasts are made, the crowd cheers, people write welcome home graffiti on the blank sheetrock walls. More than one person is moved to tears. It’s a family reunion, a homecoming, and a bacchanal. It’s Mardi Gras in Gentilly.
After dark, I return to my friends’ home, in the Mid-City neighborhood. They are recovering well, despite having had three feet of water on their ground floor. Their electricity and plumbing work, unlike much of the city. By the time I take a shower and change, it has gotten late, and I am hungry. Although I know that there are restaurants open in the French Quarter, I figure I’d be better off getting something quick and uncomplicated at a convenience store or fast food joint. After three gas station convenience places close just as we arrive, and a packed Speedy Burger drive-thru grinds to a dead stop, I learn that there is no food, gas, or other supplies to be had anywhere in the city outside the quarter after ten pm. Store owners do not have enough staff to stay open for normal hours, and when a place closes, it’s as though they are keeping looters away.
Fewer than half of the city’s population has returned, and the crowd in town for Mardi Gras is much smaller than usual. What if there were more people in town? Would there be food riots in New Orleans, six months after Katrina? I can control my hyperbolic imagination, but I go to bed with a lingering sense of the city’s emptiness, a communal, anonymous loneliness. New Orleans seems haunted in a very different way than it used to be.
Laissez la Bonne Chance Roulez
I have always been lucky in New Orleans. Every time I visit, there is a sense that the city opens doors to me, plays favorites in a way that other, unlucky travelers, do not experience. Sometimes it’s a coincidence, like meeting a friend from home whom I haven’t seen in years, other times it’s just happening on to a great band or bizarre scene.
On Sunday, two of the “super-krewes,” Endymion and Bacchus, roll down St. Charles Avenue. These spectacles are closer to what I’d expected from Mardi Gras, giant floats decorated like giant alligators or wedding cakes, loaded with costumed people tossing beads, cups and other “throws” to the crowd. This crowd is huge, a cross-section of the city’s diverse population, though by all accounts not the size it would normally be. In fact, this is partly why I chose to come to this year’s Mardi Gras — my friends predicted that this year’s festival would be less crowded than usual. I use a wheelchair to get around, and large crowds are generally a tremendous exercise in frustration, so this seemed like the last chance I would have for a manageable Mardi Gras experience.
Once again, everyone I speak to repeats the common refrain, “I lost everything, but I had to come back for Mardi Gras.” Many displaced people are staying with friends or family, some still assessing what they are going to do with their homes. As with the Dreux party, I feel like I’m at a family reunion, or a giant communal picnic. This is not a stereotypical titties-and-beer frat boy phenomenon — this is a family event, with kids running everywhere and parents sheilding their youngest from the rain of beads.
Initially, I have no interest in catching beads. Watching the krewe members on the floats, however, it occurs to me that these people, like everyone out on the street going crazy for plastic, need to see that the spirit, the heart of this city is still alive. And so I hoot and holler, and am rewarded by several well-placed throws that leave me outfitted with multicolored beads like a rolling Mr. T.
After the parades, my right rear wheelchair tire catches a shard of broken glass on the way back to the car, and goes completely flat. The gas stations I pass are closed or closing, in a repeat of last night’s lesson. Riding on my rim, I decide to soldier on rather than call it a night.
I head to Frenchmen Street, in the Faubourg-Marigny district, just outside the French Quarter. It is what all hip neighborhoods strive to be, or once were in their heyday. Ellis Marsalis (Branford and Wynton’s dad) has his club here, and there are many other funky bars and clubs playing literally all styles of music up and down the street. Jazz, of course, but you can also hear hip-hop, South American, electronica, country, klezmer, blues, or classical. There are many people riding bikes, and I’m hoping they might be able to help me fix the flat, or at least find somewhere that I can take care of it in the morning.
As it turns out, nobody is carrying a flat kit, but I decide to step into one of the smaller bars and I run into a couple of folks from yesterday’s Dreux parade. They tell me how special yesterday’s event was, how New Orleans has been changing over the years, and how the hurricane has affected the dynamics of the city. There has been an ongoing fight over gentrification, particularly in and around the French Quarter, which is now more or less solidly tourist territory, and as with any hipster paradise, the threat of big money’s blandifying influence looms large. (Especially in Katrina’s aftermath.) My Dreux friends also talk about how people from different backgrounds who formerly did not interact are now coming together — across lines of race, class and economic status. “The neutral ground got a lot bigger,” says one musician before heading off to join a drum circle.
They also tell me about Lundi Gras, which is of course “Fat Monday,” another big party celebrated on Frenchmen Street tomorrow night.
The only bike shop I find that is open on Fat Monday is across the street from the Maple Leaf, one of my favorite music venues in the city. I stop in for a quick visit and end up spending a couple of hours, and by the time I get back to Frenchmen Street, the more formal part of Lundi Gras is over. However, the crowd of costumers and musicians pours into the street, and everyone and everything is overflowing. A local housing rights activist points out how refreshing it is to see a pile of normal, domestic garbage instead of the renovation debris that is pervasive elsewhere.
My Dreux buddies introduce me to Coco Robicheaux, a local swamp blues practitioner and medicine man (you may recognize his name from the music of Dr. John, who mentions him in several songs. In fact, Coco’s voice sounds a lot like a cross between Tom Waits and Dr. John). “The spirit of New Orleans hasn’t changed a lick, it just got stronger,” he tells me. “When you think of somebody, they gonna call you on the phone. You mention somebody’s name, they gonna come strollin’ in…. It’s just soul bubblin’ up outta the ground.” He also tells me a long story about hitchhiking to his grandmother’s house after a serious back operation, involving a huge alligator, a mean sheriff, and an impromptu roadside concert for a bunch of free-range cows.
This place has a way of hitting me over the head with coincidences. What else to call it but magic, that when I get back in the car and head home, the WWOZ deejay plays the song “3:33 Blues” by Coco Robicheaux?
Fat Tuesday 2006
Most of the big parades start around mid-morning, but you must get out at the crack of dawn to secure a spot on the route if you want to see and catch anything. The only parade I really want to see is the Zulu Parade, which kicks off at about 7:00 am. This year is special because the parade is led by a group of Zulu dancers from Africa, for the first time in the krewe’s history.
I do not make it to the parade, but I learn that the second line, essentially the second stage of the parade, would be heading up to the headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the home of the Zulu Krewe, which coincidentally (again) is not far from where I am staying. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is the city’s largest African-American carnival organization, and I have heard varying reports about conflict within the organization, whether or not to even have the parade.
Because, as much as people like to point to the waterline as evidence that Katrina did not discriminate, and indeed the damage was not limited to majority-black or majority-poor neighborhoods, it is clear that those with fewer resources and options were more adversely affected and are having a harder time re-establishing themselves in the city. (It occurs to me that although I do my best to talk to as many different people as I can, my sample is somewhat skewed, because I won’t get the opinions of the many people who have not been able or are willing to return.) I go, expecting to see a different reaction to the whole concept of this year’s Mardi Gras.
Here, on North Broad Street, in the brilliant sunshine, families and neighbors have set up barbecues and picnic tables, and clearly the feeling of celebration in spite of adversity is as strong here as it is everywhere else. I am welcomed by a family who offer me a plate of jambalaya and barbecued chicken. We talk about the lackluster federal response. “I don’t need FEMA to do for me what I can do for myself. But I do want what is due to me, as a taxpaying citizen. How you gonna say you’re not going to rebuild New Orleans when you’re paying money to rebuild Iraq? And if you’re going to do that, do it behind our back. Don’t show us you’re doing it.”
But the overall message is one of strength, rebirth, and forward momentum. “Mardi Gras has been like therapy, given what we’ve all been through,” says one of the Zulu Club’s board members. “This is just the start of more to come,” said another.
Before Katrina, New Orleans was a majority black city, which is the source, via the funk anthem by Parliament, of the phrase “Chocolate City.” Mayor Ray Nagin inadvertently created a minor controversy when he said, at a gathering of black religious and other civic leaders, that God wanted New Orleans to remain a Chocolate City and at the end of the day, it would be. A lot of white people seemed to take great offense to this, as though the notion of “Chocolate City” was an all-black segregationist citadel.
People seem eager to explain the Mayor’s comment, not so much out of defensiveness as a need to clarify a misunderstanding. They also seem pretty practiced at answering the question. They repeat Nagin’s explanation, but seem to distance themselves at first. “I am a black man, you are a white man. Now, I can’t make it in this city without the white man. And this city isn’t going to work without black people. White folks can’t make it in New Orleans without black folks.” Although some might not agree, most whites I spoke to agreed that New Orleans’ identity and essence was and would remain black. That in order for New Orleans to be New Orleans, it has to be a Chocolate City.
From the Zulu club, I head to the Backstreet Museum in Treme (pronounced “Tre-MAY”), where the local radio station WWOZ is hosting a party. Everyone here is in costume, celebrating with an eye to the hardship they’ve endured and the work that still needs to be done. Here, it seems, is the essence of Mardi Gras: 85-year-old Uncle Lionel Baptiste, a local musician and raconteur, in tailcoat, a bowler hat and shades, dances with a young blonde woman to the song “Marie LaVeau.” There is something almost timeless about it, quintessentially New Orleanian in its joie de vivre.
This year’s Mardi Gras was like a city-wide barbecue, an open-air party in what is essentially a disaster zone that is also everyone’s home. Now, the party is over, and since I hadn’t been able to before, I take a ride out to see the hardest-hit areas of the city. In a way, I am reluctant to do so, because I am not a big fan of disaster tourism, having seen it in New York after September 11th.
I drive out to the Lower Ninth Ward and Chalmette, and it is what everyone has seen by now — complete and utter devastation. “Like a bomb went off” is the simplest way to describe it, but up close it is truly terrifying to see. Houses smashed, or slammed into telephone poles, dropped on top of cars, cars leaning against houses, boats on top of houses, roofs detached and lying in the street. More chilling, though, is that there are few debris piles or FEMA trailers indicating that a recovery or reconstruction is underway.
What pictures cannot convey is the vastness of the devastation. The emptiness and destruction go on for miles. This is a place that has been destroyed in part by an act of nature but also by human negligence. My sojourn into this no-man’s land comes a day after the release of the videotaped meeting of Bush and the Homeland Security team, disproving the president’s claim that “no one could have predicted the breach of the levees.” Driving through these deserted and utterly destroyed precincts, it occurs to me that a mushroom cloud wasn’t the smoking gun we should have been worried about.
But my outrage is overwhelmed by the abject fear that this landscape inspires — this is what nightmares are made of. I feel a need to escape to some semblance of normalcy, some comfort and some human contact. Unlike most of the former residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, I am fortunate enough to be able to drive back into town. “I had to come back for Mardi Gras” isn’t just an expression of hometown pride, or resolution. It’s about a profound need for something normal, something like home.
I find a coffee shop on Decatur St. in the French Quarter with Internet access, great coffee, small marble-topped tables and a classic old tiled floor. I strike up a conversation with a New Orleanian who has been living here for 40 years, who speaks of how this year’s carnival was special, how there were many native New Orleanians taking part (evidenced by the high percentage of costumed revelers), and how the spirit was very much alive. He, like many, was perplexed that anyone would even consider cancelling Mardi Gras. And, it turned out, before he moved to “the city that care forgot,” he grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, on the exact same block where I grew up in the 1970s. As I said, I have always been lucky in this town, and after what I have seen, I needed that little coincidence as much as New Orleans needed to give it to me.
There is a lot that needs to be done, of course. And New Orleans’ reconstruction and the return of many of its far-flung children will not be accomplished solely with good intentions or sentimental musings. It has become the front line on the war against gentrification, but there is a chance that it may be the first friendly-fire casualty in that war. Developers might be waiting out the residents who have not returned, or are struggling to keep the bulldozers at bay, preparing to unleash a privatized, Robert Moses-style level of devastation on the city, which seems all but abandoned by the government.
Mardi Gras 2006 may not have been what is needed to save New Orleans, which is still living through a serious crisis. But I found the true spirit, the soul of the place and the people, in abundant evidence, and I left with a great hope that it will survive.
(photos: brendan costello)
Brendan Costello is a senior editor and contributing writer to New York’s Lurch Magazine . His work also periodically appears in Smokebox and can be found in the Vault of Smoke.