2001 Mardi Gras Tango Odd-Essay
The year was 1718, the occasion a one way cruise; the skipper was Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur de Iberville, his mate, brother Jean-Baptiste, Sieur of Bienville. The passengers included French and Canadian immigrants; whores, beggars, Indian slaves, thieves and cutthroats on leave from Parisian jails. The destination, a below sea level collection of swamps in a miserable steamy, sticky and suffocating heated bend of the Mississippi river. Starvation and deadly disease were a threat. Bienville pulled into the quay on May 7, unloaded the passengers, threw their belongings overboard and proclaimed: Welcome to the Crescent City, enjoy the Mardi Gras!
A couple of hundred years later, after being ruled by the French, the Spaniards, and finally purchased by the United States, the state of Louisiana has earned a reputation that some call European and others Third World. In particular, the city of New Orleans is recognized as the birthplace of jazz, its culinary variety and Mardi Gras.
It is said that the celebration of carnaval was imported from France as a ritual that begins on the twelfth day after Christmas and ends at midnight the day before Ash Wednesday. These dates are very familiar to Catholics although there is very little religious about Mardi Gras.
Some say that the Church gave up trying to fight the decadent pagan tonesof the celebrations by its faithful, and looked the other way while people went out indulging in food, drinks and other carnal excesses, so their bodies would be strong enough to endure the Lenten period of fasting and abstinence.
This is a city where the smell of crawfish boil turns more people on than Chanel #5, and where waitresses at the local sandwich shop tell customers that a “dressed” fried oyster po-boy is healthier than a Caesar salad. The major topics of conversation when you go out to eat are: restaurant meals you have had in the past, and restaurant meals you plan to have in the future. People don’t learn until high school that Mardi Gras is not a national holiday.
For visitors, New Orleans is Bourbon Street, and Mardi Gras a time for housewives and coeds to expose their breasts in exchange for plastic beads. It is actually the outsiders, who for fourteen days, fill the city coffers with a cool billion dollars, litter the streets with a tonnage of garbage and convert Bourbon Street into the greatest loitering place in America. Major Mardi Gras parades have long abandoned the French Quarter because the growing size of the floats and crowds began to pose a major fire hazard. However three walking parades “roll” through the streets of the Vieux Carre, and neighboring Fauburg Marigny and the Bywater.
The Krewe de Vieux and the Krewe of St. Ann are for humans. The Krewe of Barkus is for all the dogs of the city (the four legged variety) and parades exclusively in the French Quarter.
The super krewes and the big parades now roll through the streets of surrounding neighborhoods, continuing a tradition that began just before the Civil War, when a secret aristocratic society of well bred white supremacist founded the Mistick Krewe of Comus for the purpose of saving the spirit of Mardi Gras, which they felt had been condemned to extinction by the idle and feckless Creole of colonial and Catholic heritage.
The old line formula has not changed a lot: a host of black men lead the parade with propane gas tanks on their backs waving flambeaux; high school marching bands; masked horseback riders and police squad cars march in between tractor pulled floats overflowing with lights. They sport giant theme figures, from mythology to Star Trek, to political satire. They are manned by masked riders wearing elaborate customs and donning titles such as kings, queens, captains, pages, marshals and throwers.
The PURPLE Ball at the Bywater
For a first time participant, as a parade slowly rolls through streets lined with enraptured spectators, who seem capable of pushing little old ladies out of the way to catch Mardi Gras throws, one wonders if some will leave the parade with footprints on their hands. In reality, one quickly learns how to avoid catching beads with the nose, how to befriend fellow catchers, and how to go home with the booty of trinkets caught from the floats hanging around the neck.
Although the plastic beads from Taiwan, which have long replaced the original glass beads from Czechoslovakia, have no other value than that charged at the French Market or other stores along Royal and Bourbon Streets, the whole unjustifiable idea is to run beside the floats, waving hands, jumping up and down, yelling throw me something, mistah, and catching the colored beads before they hit the ground.
On Bourbon Street, after midnight and a couple of cocktails with names like hand grenades, hurricanes and goodies, young All American coeds bare their breasts in exchange for fake jewelry to the chants of go, go, go descending from the festooned balconies of the Vieux Carre. The lenses of video cameras propped high above heads and shoulders catch a glimpse of flesh.
During the ensuing months, late after midnight in the heartland of America, infomercials will peddle Mardi Gras’ Housewives and Coeds Gone Wild videos on TV with an assortment of revelers exposing their breasts. They will most certainly be followed by lunatic preachers who will inspire other freaks to come on down to New Orleans and second line their way into the parades waving flags with slogans that read Satan Rules and Jesus Judges.
Anticipating a dry season for tango dancing while everybody else was having fun, a meeting was called at a secret location somewhere in the Warehouse District on Tchoupitoulas St. for a purpose soon evident by the release of the following proclamation:
WHEREAS, Mardi Gras has cast its fun over our passionate tango nights and care usurped the place where a milonga is wont to hold its way. Now, therefore, do I deeply sympathizing with the general anxiety, deem it proper to join the Annual Festival in this goodly Crescent City and by this proclamation do command assemblage of the Krewe of the Mistickal Nights of the Tango. Given under my hand this, the 1st day of February, A.D. 2001. TANGUS.
Further, breaking all old line rules, the Krewe would not require a membership fee, would welcome people regardless of dancing style, gender, race or sexual preference, adopting the motto: Pro bono tango, be nice or leave.
And so it happened that the Krewe of the Mistickal Nights of the Tango was seen second lining at the Krewe de Vieux parade through the French Quarter on their way to the Planet Tango’s Mardi Gras Milonga at Pierre Maspero’s Restaurant. Further, masked and unmasked members of the Krewe continued their carnival celebration through the streets of New Orleans, some having been spotted at the Krewe of Barkus parade holding the leash of at least two of the eighteen hundred canines that joined that parade.
Two well known tangueros who own a self-described former flop house and bordello provided a first rate balcony party during one of the major parades. Petite tangueras with Ph.D. degrees were seen in the street shamelessly screaming
we need more beads! Soon they became unrecognizable under the weight of the tonnage of worthless and hard won baubles.
Six weeks of king cakes, Purple, Bunch and countless other balls, lots of street dancing, masking and bead collecting, finally came to an end at midnight on Fat Tuesday, as State trooper cruisers begun to clear Bourbon Street followed by the Krewe of the Sanitation Department.
Everybody has gone into fasting and abstinence to shed the extra pounds of king cake from their waistlines. There are only 50 weeks until Mardi Gras 2002 and the next meeting of the Krewe of the Mistickal Nights of the Tango.
Second line: An informal parade performing impromptu dances that follows the brass bands and floats.
Crawfish: One of the year’s four seasons. The rest are, Shrimp, Crab and King Cake.
Tchopitulas: A word New Orleanians can pronounce, but can’t spell.
Po-boy: A sandwich judged by the number of napkins used.