Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cameras and Indians

"There's no such thing as civilization. The word just means the art of living in cities."
-- Roger Zelazny

Think Western movie meets Las Vegas meets National Geographic meets New Orleans. At least that's what I thought on St. Joseph's Day, walking around LaSalle Street in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. In this version, the Indians are black, and saddled with costumes weighing easily 100 pounds, sewn by the models, and costing $10,000 or more to construct. It is one of the handful of days a year they will don their garb. In a few days the masterpieces will be hanging in closets while the Indians prepare another one to be worn the year after. Carrying on for at least a century, legend has it that the Mardi Gras Indian tradition commemorates the relationship between Native Americans who gave asylum to black slaves fleeing their owners.

Today the Mardi Gras Indians strike a pose with not an ounce of reservation. They have spent a year making their regalia and don it with pride for all the world to see. Recently the subject of New York Times articles, some tribes have hired lawyers who register patents on costume designs.

Frequently the Indians are residents of Central City, and at one time came out of the Magnolia/CJ Peete Public Housing Project, which was one of the most dangerous, high-crime public housing projects. At one time it enjoyed the highest murder rate in a city which enjoyed one of the highest murder rates in the country.

Today, the Magnolia/CJ Peete Project is the site of Harmony Oaks Apartments, a private development of mixed-income units, a third of which are homes to former public housing residents, a third which house low-income earners, and a third of which house those paying market rate rent. Throughout its development Harmony Oaks faced a battalion of criticism, having displaced impoverished public housing residents, arming them with only Section 8 rental vouchers in a city with few landlords who actually accepted the voucher for rent. And, for many low-income residents, the private rental market rarely provided an improved quality of life.

Harmony Oaks was controversial not only for its development process but also for the market rate style of architecture and amenities, using billions of federal dollars for a project supposedly dedicated to serving the poor. Since the development rose from the ashes, many have been astounded by the plummeting of the violent crime rate, and many are skeptical at how long this will last.

Adjacent to Harmony Oaks is A.L. Davis Park. Formerly known as Shakespeare Park, it has served primarily the residents of the public housing project and neighboring community for decades. As a result, AL Davis has seen not only generations of teenagers playing football and basketball, but also its fair share of drug-related murders.

On St. Joseph's Day, it is perfectly warm, sticky of course, and I am standing in the thick of it, sandwiched between two tribes, the chiefs of whom are duking it out in mock altercation, where once real knife fights occurred. Feathers are flying, as are bull horns mounted on staffs. Behind the chiefs, the sun is setting, and the silhouettes of a graveyard next to them is in relief.

I am surrounded mostly by African-Americans, and a handful of Caucasians with cameras. I also have a camera in one hand, and in the other hand is a beer. I walk from one corner to the other, watching this free show/block party filled with colorful feathers, beads, drums and acting. I feel as if I am in another country, not my own.

The next day I return to the neighborhood for the Super Sunday celebration, also hosted by the Mardi Gras Indians. I am stunned. Where St. Joseph's Day was a mellow, fairly Central City-local experience, on this Super Sunday, there are hundreds of Caucasians, comparable to the number of African-Americans present.

Central City is a neighborhood with which I am familiar, working for a non-profit housing developer that has targeted a subsection of the area for blight reduction and redevelopment. And, in six months of passing through the neighborhood, I have never seen this many white people in all of Central City like I am seeing on this Super Sunday. I am bewildered by their presence. Attracting home owners to and investment of any color in Central City is a struggle--so much so, it is why I have a job. Yet, on this day, white spectators are in herds, many of whom are taking photographs of streets and people with whom they likely will never interface for the rest of the year. All of a sudden, I am sheepish about the camera in the palm of my own hand, and pack it away in my bag.

I moved to New Orleans not even a year ago. For me, to live in a new place is a matter of linguistics. Discovering the nooks and crannies of a city is like learning to think in a different language, forcing me at once not only to eradicate preconceived notions but also to take on new ideas. To understand a place is also to understand a culture, and it is an experience I enjoy.

But it takes me time, and it takes effort, to get to that point where I stop feeling like an outsider looking in. I have in the past taken up professions that enabled me to feel useful in society, which has often meant working with individuals from historically disenfranchised demographics. But that experience most of the time was an isolating one. When I was a public defender, I found it difficult to connect to my clients, men in jumpsuits locked behind unbreakable double glass panes. My other jobs were even more disconnecting, with only some remediation after the most ardent of efforts.

A few days later I return to the same park. It is sprinkled with teenagers running around, and a swarm of young men playing basketball. Mothers are with toddlers. None of them are white. There is no drug dealing, and it is serene here, though just around the corner on another block, the slinging goes on. With a beer in my hand, I am sitting on the stoop of a traditional New Orleans shotgun house that the organization I work for has targeted for redevelopment. I know none of the people I am watching and acknowledge to myself that at this very moment, again, I am on the outside looking in.

But the sun is setting as I walk to my car, which reminds me that this too shall pass. It is a process I believe I can get through. I know, that because I want to, one day I will speak New Orleans and I will know Central City.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mardi Gras

[Mardi Gras] is a thing that could hardly exist in the practical North....For the soul of it is the romantic, not the funny and the grotesque. Take away the romantic mysteries, the kings and knights and big-sounding titles, and Mardi Gras would die, down there in the South.

- Mark Twain

It was more than an entire week before Mardi Gras proper yet there I was on St. Charles, standing next to some friends and strangers, ducking for dear life from the plastic beads being hurled at us from passing floats like baseballs. My friend is pelted in the tooth. Fool.

Contrary to popular belief, the first American Mardi Gras took place in Mobile, Alabama, in 1702, the day after the French explorer Bienville left New Orleans. It was born of a Catholic tradition of celebration and excess in preparation for the period of Lenten sacrifice prior to Easter. But it was in New Orleans that the tradition--at least the gluttonous component of it--took root like a weed. Secret societies called Krewes were formed shortly after and by the mid-1700's public processions were held during which bulls' heads on wheels were pushed forth on Mardi Gras Day. Celebrations were still relatively private, however, and French aristocracy would host balls for the elite.

By the 1800's the fun leaked out to the masses and events were announced in the papers. Parades, floats, and throws began, hosted by the Krewes. In 1872, a Russian duke visited New Orleans and was dubbed its king for Mardi Gras. The Rex chose to don green, purple, and gold, symbolizing faith, justice, and power, respectively. He threw doubloons into the crowd from his throne-like float.

The tradition lives on today, but instead of gold coins, the Krewes on the floats chuck tin doubloons, colorful beads, and other sundry trinkets. The mysterious kings and Krewes comprise one of New Orleans most elite sub-cultures, raising tens of thousands of dollars not only for floats, beadthrows, and costumes, but on some occasion for charity as well. (This year the all-woman Krewe of Muses donated tens of thousands of dollars to charity.) The tri-color tradition of the duke also continues and king cakes donning all three colors, hiding miniature baby dolls inside, are sold by the dozens.

Not being a huge fan of large crowds or swarms of intoxicated people who may or may not be baring their breasts for trinkets made in China, I was prepared to be repulsed by Mardi Gras. But as a new resident, being a shut-in for the whole thing seemed unacceptable.

Two weeks prior to actual Mardi Gras, bleachers in yellow, green and purple began springing up everywhere on major streets. Random passersby would wear shimmery green clothes. King cakes flooded the marketplace. Goofy jester hats rose from the dead. Frankly, I was afraid. Very afraid.

Little did I know that by Thursday of the big weekend, I'd be deep, deep into the Mardi Gras Koolaid.

Perhaps it began with the giant floats rolling down Napoleon on a Tuesday night, following me home from the gym. I stopped my bike for a minute to watch and stood next to a man in a suit walking his dog. The dog, the suit, and I walked away 15 minutes later, dozens of strands of pink beads hurled from the floats, now dangling around our necks.

Or maybe it was riding my bike to work on St. Charles on Wednesday morning, past the hundreds of campers out on the streetcar tracks, setting up shop on the grassy island in the dead center of traffic, equipped with barbecue grills, camping chairs, and even their own porta-potties perched on the bed of their trucks, staking their real estate for parade-gawking. They sip beer and daiquiris with a certain joie de vivre, as if they were sitting on a beach in a tropical island.

Or maybe it's the town's weird obsession with king cake, flamboyant with its brightly colored green, purple, and gold sprinkles, its cloying sweetness guaranteed to send you into a diabetic shock.

Or maybe it was that brunch, when the owner of the bar next door popped out of nowhere wearing a clown-wig and yelling, "It's carnival b****es, it's carnival!" while throwing a squishy football at the patrons of his neighbor's restaurant.

On Thursday it was the all-female Krewe de Muses parade, and by then I was sold. Floats as tall as buildings, in the shape of illuminated bubble baths, sparkly shoes, and on them, go-go dancers, women in blue sparkly wigs, the works. In addition to traditional beads the ladies hand out glittery high-heeled shoes and glowing plastic jewelry.

On the night of the Muses, the world felt romantic, exotic, and exciting. Judgment lapsed. Holding a half-full bottle of beer in my hand, I take a stuffed froggy and place it on the hood of a moving police car escorting the floats. I dangle mardi gras beads on its side view mirror. The cop inside smiles.

On the night of the Muses, it seemed there was magic in the air. Or maybe it was just the beer and the glitter. Somehow, towards the end of the night, I find myself lip-locked with a young stranger, handsome like a cartoon character with broad shoulders and large pecs. It seemed like the decent thing to do after he proposed marriage using a light-up plastic ring hurled at us by the ladies of the Krewe. (I was sober when I found out days later that he was working on his PhD in music composition at Duke.)

Eventually I skip away from the stranger and my back to my own krewe of four or five friends. We retire to the house of Clancy, a new acquaintance. He lives not far from my own place, but worlds closer to the parade route uptown and has a working toilet. Clancy's digs serve as home base for the entire weekend, where we make cocktails before jaunting down to catch the daytime parades. It's where we grill up a couple pork chops before night fall. It's where we return to after a lovely sunny afternoon of more giant floats and beads, during which we converse with old time New Orleanians with their childrens' wrestling team, who are eager to share their wisdom and their beer with newbies like us. And by Sunday, I have galvanized my friendship with Clancy.

On Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras, my office is closed, as is every office in the city. But by then my krewe and I have all peaked. At one point, I find myself spraying a piece of dry toast with pam, layering it crudely with a piece of cheese, and pressing it hard into a skillet like clay, in hopes of expediting the melting of the cheese. It was then that I realized how intense of a bender Mardi Gras truly is.

I'm not typically a heavy drinker. And, in any given town in which I'm living and working, I'm not a heavy relaxer. But for a very long week, New Orleans told the world it was closed for business, and threw an enormous party for the universe. The town transforms into a country of its very own, as if dusted with a little magic, that kind of magic that breaks curses, that transforms acquaintances into friends, and that lets a little romance sneak into the life of a true cynic.

On Mardi Gras Day I finally make it onto Frenchman Street in the Marigny near the French Quarter, where I perch in the mellow and elegant Cafe Rose Nicaud with Clancy and the handsome new stranger in my Mardi Gras life I've reconnected with on the street just minutes earlier. We all are fully amused, watching through the front window the massive swarm of hipsters bedecked in some of the most amazing and often indecent costumes I have ever laid eyes on. By now my bender has ended but Mardi Gras has not, and I have long exhausted my ability to drink another sip of light beer as the festivities and revelry continue around me. I end the day walking away from it all, resting my head in the arms of the stranger.

The Wednesday after, life begins again. I am one of the few in town who is back at work, busy as ever, playing catch up using rather dim wits. The dust has settled and I am left with fond memories, new friends, and, well, we'll see about the rest. I believe I have injured the rotator cuff of my bead-catching arm, and I am going through parade withdrawals.

It's a good thing they're tossing cabbages from the Pre-St. Patrick Day parades three days later...