Lundi Gras – the Fat Monday before Fat Tuesday -- dawns dry and perfectly blue, though dampened by official predictions of storms and fluctuating temperatures on the Big Day. I stop being a working stiff for the moment, however brief that was to be, and spend my time indoors, ignoring work and the cats, working on my costume. I consult by phone with other members of my marching krewe, the infamous Society of Sainte Anne. Who are surprised to find that I am still alive. There is a uniform exchange at the beginning of each conversation.
"Where ya been, boy?"
"Working at the University, editing a film at my studio in the Marigny."
"Good man. But the hell with TV an' school, ya know. It"s Carnival."
Then, without any corrective explanation, we discuss Carnival. Nothing else is really important, not this close to The Day.
Everyone is prepared for the worst. Rain and wind on Fat Tuesday spells doom for feathers and bare skin, two essential ingredients of any true aficionado's Carnival uniform. It is worrisome, but early Mardi Gras morning I stumble from a bed full of meteorologically-based bad dreams around midnight to look skyward off my bedroom balcony. Nothing but a few clouds. I go back to bed a happy man and sleep soundly until 5:30 a.m., when I rise to begin preparations for my day.
Start the coffee first. Then while it is brewing, I mix the pitcher of Bloody Marys, lacing it liberally with fresh ground horseradish purchased just the night before. Turn on the tube to local weather. Remain calm. Wait for the local radar. Just dotty storms on the map, through to Texas. At least until noon. We may be home free. I finally get up the nerve to look outside, and there are those blue skies peering through a veil of light fast-moving clouds.
The good weather feels like a sure sign of redemption, like all our sins have been forgiven. Procuring a good day for Carnival takes major communal prayer. So many people in the city work through most of the season, making their livings as mask or costume makers, float artists, ball tableau decorators, performers. The only day they reserve for themselves is Mardi Gras itself, and that 24-hour period is sacrosanct.
The concept, design, and fabrication of a local's Carnival costume is usually a matter for discussion as far back as the fall's (now late) Decadence Ball, though needless to say, I have been out of the loop. But advance planning is important, especially when one belongs to a marching krewe, where all the members must make an original costume each year. No one is allowed to march in the parade undisguised, (though nudity is encouraged) and originality is the most prized trait of any masque. The practice is in no way elitist, only requiring a commitment to the principals of good-natured debauch. Of fun. The spending of an inordinate amount of money is considered insulting to the open-hearted nature of the event, and in fact much of the challenge is to spend as little as possible while obtaining the largest possible effect.
Damn good thing for me this year. What with my months of house repair I am too broke to afford purchasing any major new materials. So, a few weeks back, I recycled black feathers (chicken, cocque, pheasant, and ostrich) from three old costumes, took welding wire, a few dozen plastic skeletons, two bags of plastic dog poop and a bag of plastic flies (courtesy of my brother Bob, who is also a Carnival addict), and packing box cardboard. Then, duct tape in hand, I began making a base layer. The skeletons in rows became scales of sorts sprouting in waves from the outfit's head. The feathers disguised the cardboard and became a shiny outer skin. Things took form, a theme emerged, and I had a costume.
I am to be "Dr. Detritus, Governmental Excrementalist." Plastic dog poop and all. The Doc's cards are to be headlined with his governmental motto: "I know some shit."
And then it is sunrise on Carnival morning, and everyone in the neighborhood is already awake as if they are to open Santa's presents. But instead, they are happily masking. It is the beginning of a truly magical day. The warm-up party, the Sainte Anne parade itself with brass bands in tow, the Brazilian drum krewes, the hundreds of naked bodies – it is all perfect.
Inspired, I think, by my stripper friend GiO's costume of a few years earlier, dozens of comely women, and men, show up wearing high heels, or Converse All-Stars, and a coat of paint. Elderly as I may be, I find the chroma-coated forms particularly dazzling, and contemplate cold showers before finishing the parade route.
But after a mid-afternoon bowl of venison gumbo back at home, I re-costume and return to the streets. I have in mind to visit a number of friends who are conducting tourist-viewing parties from their upper-floor balconies, and am also looking forward to showing off the costume in new venues. I carry some further necessary liquid fortification with me in a large plastic cup, imprinted with the commemorative insignia of the Krewe du Vieux, another early (three weeks prior to The Day) marching club with which I am affiliated.
My first destination, the 500 block of St. Louis Street, requires that I pass through Jackson Square, usually the habitat of jugglers and fire-eaters, face painters and palm readers, portrait artists and tuba players.
But I'd forgotten. All Hell has broken loose. This day the Square is again crowded with Christians.
It seems that in the last 10 years, a Baptist seminary in Dallas has taken on Mardi Gras in New Orleans as its primary missionary foray for the entire year. I suppose they intend to grab the sinners where they congregate. So, two busloads of misinformed, disoriented, self-righteous, and overwhelmingly obnoxious zealots show up each year the Saturday before Carnival. They rally on the outskirts of the Quarter, driving each other into religious frenzies, then march into the Vieux Carré dragging huge wooden crosses. The contemporary Burden of the Cross is facilitated by the addition of mechanical rollers to the artifacts' bottom legs.
The preachers carry multiple megaphones and pockets full of rechargeable batteries and miniature Bibles. They have over the last half-decade become the biggest litterers of Carnival, dropping thousands of leaflets on every street. Through the weekend they walk residential neighborhoods at all hours, chanting and preaching: "Fornicators! Drunkards! Sodomites! You're all going to burn in hell for what you do this day!" Subtlety is not their strong card. I imagine that there is nothing quite as pleasant as having your child awakened at 7 a.m. by the loud prospect of eternal damnation. With a Texas accent.
This year on Sunday they stand in front of the centuries-old St. Louis Cathedral with megaphones blaring during services, carrying a 10-foot-high banner that says "Catholics are doomed to Hell." Mass goes on as planned, and no one was sent to the nether regions. Others of their sort carry equally tall banners with lists of groups of people the carrier is sure will be doomed. One I see condemns "sports nuts" to hell. No Catholics and no sports nuts? I think Heaven will surely be devoid of any New Orleanians, if these people are right.
They are not.
They have come to the wrong place at the wrong time.
The "missionaries" are not welcome tourists on many fronts. The standard saying is that "they come to town with the Ten Commandments and a ten-dollar bill, and don't break either one."
As I cross in front of St. Louis Cathedral on Mardi Gras afternoon, I notice that their act has not changed much over these last years.
A very large – well over 6 feet tall – Jesus stands under a 12-foot cross, preaching to the masses through a wireless headset microphone. With one hand he balances his cruciform burden, and with the other he gestures vehemently to the assembled masses. Jesus is in character, long hair and beard, white robes, sandals, crown of thorns, fake blood and nail wounds. He is howling, his cowboy-accented words amplified through two large outdoor speakers imbedded, one in each arm, in the ends of the cross' horizontal bar. His amp is set at a blaringly loud volume, overwhelming every sound under the revered church's tower.
At this point he seems to be babbling in tongues, under some divine spell. He points at the sky and invokes some sort of forceful intervention into the festivities around him. There is a wild look in his eye. I suspect he might be looking for moneychangers in the temple.
Alas, he is. As I pass, he spots my outfit. The connection is immediately made. Governmental or no, Satan is close at hand. His eyes come alight even further. He runs toward me dragging his cross, grabs my favorite commemorative cup from my hands and holds it high above his head, still wailing in tongues, before he draws back and tosses it at the sky. Two of his henchmen – part of the Texas apostle contingent, I suspect – nod and voice their approval of both the banishment of the demon whiskey and the defeat of the feathered and poop-covered devil that undoubtedly has arisen that very morning from one of the above-ground graves that dot this corrupt and off-kilter city. Jesus has done his duty, and they are proud.
I am not quite so elated as the smiling Baptists.
But somehow I am calmed by the attack. From previous confrontation with creatures of this ilk, I know what my response must be. I am directed. I go to the bar of the Cafe Banquette and ask for their largest to-go cup, a 40-ounce plastic container, to be filled with ice water. When I explain its purpose, the bartender not only gives it to me for free, but buys me a drink, on the house. The day before, the uninvited preachers had called his wife a brazen harlot when, dropping him off for work, she had refused one of their leaflets.
I carry the water back into the Square, where I hear the ersatz Jesus now speaking in English, preaching love and truth and forgiveness. As the Fates would have it, his back is to me. I walk up alongside, and pour the icy water slowly over his head.
The result is instantaneous.
He yells: "Mo-ther-FUCK-er!" very loudly, and this invocation is carried with some force by his speaker system throughout the Square. There is a split second of silence before tittering and guffaws begin to rain down like so much happy confetti. JC spins, his right fist balled tightly and flying hard in a wide arc at my face. However, he is off-balance, what with holding his cross upright, and it takes very little effort for me to lean backwards out of harm's way, and slap the blessed savior firmly in the solar plexus.
He already has "Son of a..." out before his disciples jerk the microphone from his head. His electronics tangled in his crown of thorns, Jesus almost falls over with the force of his removal from the airwaves. This makes him even madder. His face is totally crimson now, his beatific eyes are veined and bursting from his head. It takes both of his biblical associates to restrain him. Love and forgiveness are forgotten in a cascade of righteous fury. The crowd that his act had held a few minutes earlier is now trying to become invisible, inching their way backwards, talking to each other, disguising any previous interest in salvation on the spot.
JC finally sees what had happened, forces his anger down, and shakes off his companions. He stands without help, though he is still trembling with violent emotion, and begins wringing ice water from his beard.
I back away, keeping an eye on him. The man seems so untrustworthy.
I get to the point where I have to turn, and do so, fully expecting to be attacked as soon as the man's wits regroup. Thankfully, they do not.
I am a dozen paces away when I hear the unamplified remark, aimed in my direction. Since I know the man is ultimately devoid of irony, I immediately feel he has given me an unconscious gift, when he says, quite loudly in my direction, these words: "Christ, what an asshole!"
[EPILOGUE: The New Orleans City Council, in direct reaction to both the religious protests at Southern Decadence and at Mardi Gras, has just enacted a law banning use of megaphones and loudspeakers within the confines of the French Quarter year-round. The new ordinance was in place on Jan. 19, but could not be strictly enforced this Carnival until decibel meters arrived. The devices, which will be on the streets within the next few weeks, will allow New Orleans police officers legal proof of the offenders' transgressions, and subject them to fines and physical banishment from the Quarter.]