Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ashes, Ashes . . .

Okay, so the Carnival blogging idea didn't exactly pan out. But in the Lenten spirit of reflection, I thought I'd take a moment to sift through the events I didn't get to blog and try to offer a moment or two worth keeping.

When last we saw the masqued crusaders, it was the wee hours of Saturday morning, and I was planning my costume. After a full four hours of recovery, we set about collecting the materials for our costume-making evening. The costume shop was relatively insane (they had reached maximum occupancy, and we had to wait for three satisfied, wig-carrying customers to leave before we could get in). Jefferson Variety, on the other hand, was oddly calm. Only a few Mom's Ball goers, faced with the options of costuming or nudity, had decided at the 11th hour to take the former option and were there perusing the silky fabrics, feathers, and beads for something suitable. Somehow Jefferson Variety managed to reopen despite being in a stretch of warehouses damaged not only by Katrina but by the late-season tornadoes that decided to join the KatRita dogpile on our good city. Amid the twisted wrecks of metal buildings, at the end of a barely passable street, there it stood, land of the stuff that makes a Mardi Gras Indian suit. A sign on the door read "Pardon our dust. We are remodeling (NOT BY CHOICE)."

Sunday, I drove to Baton Rouge where I met a dear friend and returned expat of the swampland, rearrived from NYC just the day before, and we headed to Churchpoint to view the Courir du Mardi Gras -- the country, cajun cousin of this urban madness. It was there that I tasted what may be the Holy Grail of all gumbos; the town's best cooks had been up since five o'clock cooking chicken and andouille for 1,000 (at least), and I can say without a doubt that I have never tasted better. Also going strong by the time we arrived were some of the best zydeco/cajun dancers I've seen. I had been there fifteen minutes at least before I noticed that the band was made of teenagers, so expertly did they play in every regional style -- wailing waltzes, bump-shuffle zydeco, straight-ahead two-step. And the dancers literally never missed a beat, never returning to their chairs for the entire set.

While the cooks and dancers warmed up the destination party, everyone else in the town seemed to be following along with the Courir itself. We arrived on the scene just in time to have a chicken land at our feet, immediately followed by twenty or more wild-eyed, drunken high school football players, all in motley and pointed hats, all slipping and diving along the muddy pasture, tumbling over each other in pursuit of this terrified bird. I had to step up on a flatbed float to avoid the crush, and city boy that I have become, I must admit I was a tad concerned. One of the younger boys belly flopped on the bird and came up with it tucked under one arm, stroking its head as though that could make up for the bodily harm inflicted, and beaming proudly. My friend had the video camera rolling, and I hope she caught it all: "So, is that the first chicken you've caught?" "Yes m'am." "Is this your first courir?" "No m'am. This is my . . . fifth." "How old are you?" "Fifteen." All the time stroking his catch and smiling beatifically.

Nor was that first chicken run the only scare of the day. At the heart of the Courir is the combustible combination of a full-day's drinking, a rough and tumble athletic competition, and an equestrian parade. By noon the horses had clearly had their fill and were understandably skittish about being mounted by the incoherent riders (occasionally two at a time). More than once a horse spooked just in front of us. And we did see one 20-year-old take a hard tumble from flatbed to asphalt, where he lay for a good three seconds before retrieving his 90-ounce tumbler of something and moving on. But miraculously I didn't see a single injury or fight the entire time we were there.

What I did notice was just how thoroughly this festival absorbed the entire community. The parade that accompanied the riders into town must have included forty flatbeds, and there were easily half-again as many people in the parade as there were watching it. At every stop along the route, where traditionally the riders would beg the ingredients of the gumbo to be made back in town, there were house parties and barbecues, sometimes with their own band. I've never been to the more famous Courir in Mamou (grand Mamou, as it's known) because it runs on Mardi Gras day, and I've never been willing to sacrifice that time in New Orleans. The story goes that the Capitaine of the Mamou Courir and the Capitaine from Church Point flipped a coin, and Church Point lost -- thus the Courir du Dimanche Gras. Another fact I hadn't known: at every stop, the riders sing the same song, a plea for the gumbo ingredients they're trying to collect (hence the tossed chickens). It's a song I had heard before in a number of versions, but I never knew why.

One final memory of the Courir: one of the floats stands out in my mind. On its front, three flags were waving: in the center was Old Glory; to the right, the state flag of Louisiana, and on the left, the stars and bars of the Confederacy. And blasting from its sound system? Hip hop. A more incongruous sight I'd be hard-pressed to come up with than a bunch of drunk country boys rapping along to hip-hop while waving the battle flag of the Confederacy. Baby steps, you know.

We ducked out of Church Point in time to make the drive back to New Orleans for the evening parades. Bacchus, one of the super krewes, was already scheduled to roll Sunday evening, and Endymion had been rescheduled from Saturday to follow it. (The official excuse was the threat of rain, but I have it on good authority that the deciding factor was that someone had forgotten to stock the floats with ice for the riders' drinks; believe what you will.) So, we were presented the unprecedented spectacle of two super krewes, with their giant, multi-story floats, rolling back to back. The crowds along St. Charles near Lee Circle seemed to me as thick as last year's, and the racial mix felt like New Orleans, too. The only real difference anyone seemed to notice was that people seemed to be unusually polite, a phenomenon I recall from the early weeks in New York after September 11, as well. Many of these folks were back in their city for the first time in months, and they were still treating each other gingerly. The riders were also apparently especially generous with the throws: even the 40-year-old men in the crowd seemed to be rolling in beads; I imagine the young girls and children needed wheelbarrows.

From the parade (this is still Sunday, mind you), we stopped by the Narcissy show at the Big Top. The crowd was too weary to muster sufficient punk-rock attitude, but we did manage to embrace the "all request night" game Jay likes to play (before each song, the audience chooses one from a pair of categories: e.g. "True Stories or Baldfaced Lies?" or "Country Songs about Punk Rock or Punk Songs about Country"). We even got to suggest some categories of our own and let Jay puzzle out the appropriate songs. By the way, if you haven't seen the Narcissy video for the Ostrich Song, check it out. We have filmmaker Charlie Brown to thank for this excellent absurdity.

From the Big Top (yes, it's still Sunday), we headed back downtown. We stopped in Mimi's, where Spike Lee happened to be milling about and, more importantly, Alexis was celebrating her birthday. We tossed back a couple few there, gathering up forces for the 3 a.m. start of the Bass Parade over at the R Bar.

But let's leave that for another post. I'm exhausted just writing this; I can't believe I made it through alive.

Bass Parade blogging and more TK (plus, if we're lucky, the Mrs. will provide some more photos.)