Sunday morning saw me biking to a lovely house on Henry Clay Avenue in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. It was the house of the parents of a Princeton friend (the same from the previous night at the Columns). The Krewe of Thoth, scheduled to start sometime between 11 and 12, lined up on Henry Clay Avenue, and every year the family had “open house” with well-baked king cake and coffee on that morning. Folks dribbled in until it was time to go down to the parade on Magazine Street.
I spent a lot of time talking with the elders, all of whom were sophisticated members of the world’s upper class. One was a doctor who had been to most of the Middle Eastern countries and worked on his Arabic as a hobby. Another discussed a book he had recently read a review of about different religions which he felt might be useful to my novel (alas, amidst all the impressions of the past few days the title and even the exact subject of the book is no longer with me). An elegant older woman from Holland offered me help with my garden. Another similarly elegant woman had grown up on Dockery Farms, one of the wellsprings of the Mississippi Delta Blues. As the parade rolled, though, I sensed the elders wanting to talk with their old friends, and I headed down Magazine to rejoin my peers. They were at a party at a friend’s place, where the emphasis was on conversation rather than the parade. My favorite new person was a “restoration architect” from Mobile named Steve who worked for the City of New Orleans preserving and adapting the French Quarter – a real zeitgeist indicator, as this kind of job did not exist fifty years ago. I found his philosophy entirely compelling – preserving neighborhoods not buildings, and legislating exteriors not interiors. My sense was that this work was intellectually sound and guided by good principles – and not slipping into madness like some of the Classical Music “period performance” people.
The feel of everything was loose and lovely. I was surrounded by my contemporaries, in a way I rarely feel I am – young, educated people tinkering with the significance of their lives. When looking for my friend I walked into neighboring houses (I thought she had gone into one of them) and instead found complete strangers who did not know who she was, but also were having parties, and did not mind my presence in the least (behind one door I found a couple making out, and though they didn’t seem to mind me being there either I quickly left). I spent some time sitting in the bed of a pickup truck to catch some of the parade with an engineer and a beautiful but really pitiably jaded teacher (a fate I refuse to subject myself to). I caught a football tossed from a float.
Later my crew reunited and headed to two more parties, which bridged the noon and evening parades. The people were exciting to be around – again, contemporaries and peers, multiracial, excited about Obama and in love with New Orleans – and in a little group of them I headed for the evening parade, Bacchus. Alas, I got a bit stuck with the jaded teacher, and after a taste of good conversation the parade satisfied less. But this too is a part of the whole experience – the drifting in and out of enchantment. I lapsed from enjoyment to mere watching. Two girls I had met at Muses – including the one who had spoken at the Democratic Convention – indicated they would catch Bacchus at a bar downtown. I headed there, but could not find them.
So I decided to follow Bacchus to its debouchement. I figured this might be symbolic, and in a way it was. The parade goes right to the end as it began. It comes to a place at the Convention Center where the sidewalks are narrow and easily closed off, and the floats slide between gates and away from the crowd. No great finish – the parade merely goes offstage doing its thing until the end. The riders don’t throw with any greater abandon, because they throw as much as possible for the whole length of the parade, and if anything are more tired at the close.
From there I walked to the French Quarter, which was interesting as well. It is almost impossible to maintain one’s enchantment there, where, as I have said, things are being sold. The crowd is mostly desperate and unhappy, in a way which I think would be measurable. I’m certain that the Bourbon Street crowd moves more, and more quickly, than other crowds, because everyone is hunting, desperately, for “where it’s at.” It feels like being a bee in a beehive.
Two things struck me as different from the last time I had seen Mardi Gras. First of all, there were a lot more Christian preachers there. There were some six years ago as well, but this year they were at every intersection on Bourbon Street, with signs like “TRUST JESUS” and “ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL.” Some were preaching into a megaphone, while others just stood there. Secondly, there was quite a bit less nudity, I thought – perhaps it was not late enough into the night – but I felt there were more men and more observers (like myself, I suppose) and fewer exhibitionists. Perhaps there is a link between these two changes. It may also be the fact that nowadays, when women expose their breasts there are a lot of cameras in the audience, and this may have a chilling effect. But this is pure speculation. The weather was mild and rainless, so that was not the issue. This may be a good development. The only pleasure that can possibly come from that entire activity is the fact that it is taboo.
Having had another full day – I had been in crowds for fourteen hours, and had met dozens of new people – I hopped on my bike for the long ride home, straining to look for drunk drivers and giant potholes in the darkness. In this city, every day you make it home safely you count as a kind of triumph.