the gras must go on
*Editor's note: This piece was sent in for publication, so it states things that regular blog readers will know. FYI.
Before I moved to New Orleans, I was leery of Mardi Gras. It seemed so trashy, the orgy of drunken frat boys gawking at sleazy girls. The gaudy floats being pawed at by crowds. The piles of plastic beads littering the streets. Not that I was a prude, by any means, but seeing so many people crowded together, stumbling and flashing right out in the street—in the daytime, no less—it just felt wrong. Being from Chicago, I had my indiscretions, but inside, and under the safe cover of night.
I’m certain that if I wasn’t living in New Orleans, I’d side with the Mardi Gras naysayers. For how can such a devastated city even think about throwing a party, let alone go into hock to do it? With so many of their neighbors stranded far from home, its residents must be heartless libertines to carry on with such disregard for the less fortunate. From afar, the racism is so explicit—rich Uptown whites spending thousands of dollars to parade while poor blacks from the East and the Lower Ninth have nowhere permanent to live. If I were still up north, I’d definitely be against the whole thing.
But I live here in New Orleans. I lived here for eight years before the storm, and I’m still here. How tempting it is to leave, to find a place where the houses aren’t scarred with Xs left by rescuers, where the streets aren’t piled with trash, where blocks of ghostly, abandoned houses stretch for miles. Even for those of us, like myself, who only suffered minor storm damage, we still can’t receive magazines in the mail or get a phone line or buy basic necessities after eight pm, even if we drive to the suburbs. Six months after the storm, and New Orleans is still separate from the United States of convenience and commerce.
So now when people suggest we forgo our Mardi Gras, I only chuckle to myself. To cancel Mardi Gras would be like outlawing hilarity or forbidding satire. It ain’t gonna happen. Even if the parades didn’t roll, the locals would, black and white alike. When you live here, you learn that Mardi Gras isn’t about beer and beads—although both are plentiful—but about alchemy. What else can turn an overweight lawyer into a dainty fairy? Or a mousy secretary into a raging diva? Or a bankrupt, ruined city into a sparkling play land?
No, we don’t have the money. But the money isn’t going to come from pouting. It’s not going to come from sitting around quietly and waiting for government handouts. It’s only going to come the way it’s always come—by our standing up tall and trumpeting our spirit to the world.
No one suggested that New Yorkers give up Christmas back in 2001, when their money for gifts could have gone to the families of the tragedy. And now, no one need suggest that we forfeit our chance to parade our feelings in the streets. Ask the members of the Krewe of Nemesis, who spent this past Sunday on floats rolling by the flooded and gutted houses of St. Bernard Parish. I doubt any krewe member lives in his home—as every house in this parish was affected by the storm—but they still returned to their city to parade, to promise each other that they haven’t been beaten. The rest of us here have an obligation to get out on Fat Tuesday and frolic with our neighbors.
So join us if you like, leave us if you like, but no one stops the dance. We’re frustrated with FEMA and wearing our blue tarps. We’re angry at all levels of politicians and carrying their heads on platters. We’re spray painting water lines on our costumes and dancing forward.