In New Orleans' Ninth Ward neighborhood there are no fraternity boys or all expenses-paid vacationers to be found. Nobody is throwing beads, and nobody is asking anybody else to "show their tits." Instead, Mardi Gras revelers are dancing to the beat of the Drum Buddy, taking in the eye candy of a surreal puppet show, and reliving what Mardi Gras was meant to be.
I scan the room through letter-boxed eyes, squinting to avoid the sting of briny sweat streaming from my hairline. Pastel Mylar squares filter haphazardly-aimed theater lights across the derelict parlor's wide expanse, catching patches of iridescent body paint and refracting a garish disco ball sparkle across the costumed crowd. The room is silent and tense as the aerialist, suspended precariously by a short length of heavy gauge wire, unfolds the sinews of her body and returns to the makeshift stage. The crowd explodes in a fit of stamping, clapping, firecracker-lighting approval as a dingy red velvet curtain falls. The interlude music chimes in at ear-splitting decibels and I squeeze my way to the door in search of fresh air.
Outside I light a cigarette and scan the block. Abandoned houses, vacant lots, broken glass, silence. 2 am The one remaining street light bathes the block in a sickly blue Halide glow. Bass thuds from the closed door behind me. In the distance, a siren emits a series of staccato squawks. Tires screech. The air is humid, sticky, and pungent with the blood smell of rusting iron creeping from the Mississippi.
There are at least twice as many people as usual in New Orleans this week. It's Mardi Gras. Hordes of sweaty fraternity boys swell the bars on Bourbon Street and inebriated masses of revelers stumble through the colonial French Quarter in an alcoholic rendition of "Night of the Living Dead." Buoyed precariously during the rest of the year by tourist trade and convention coffers, the week of Mardi Gras has come to represent New Orleans' single largest cash infusion. But Mardi Gras wasn't always a cash cow. In fact, it wasn't until the 1980s that the pre-Lenten celebration was purposefully marketed as a tourist event to international and corporate audiences. Soon, camera crews from Europe, Latin America, and Japan came to simulcast the celebration. By the late '80s, the mayor of New Orleans had organized a Mardi Gras Task Force to better control the festivities and the municipal government soon began to court would-be Mardi Gras tourists with year-round mini-parades and demonstrations. Here in New Orleans' Ninth Ward neighborhood, however, there are no fraternity boys or all expenses-paid vacationers to be found. Nobody is throwing beads, and nobody is asking anybody else to "show their tits." I scan the block again, stamp-out my cigarette, and slip back inside.
Miss Pussycat has just finished one of her surrealist puppet shows, emerging from the behind the tiny proscenium to a cacophony of howling approval in her signature outfit of white tights, feline-print leotard, plush tail, felt whiskers, and pointy cat ears. A portly hipster with a rock-a-billy haircut and a Rat Terrier begins an elaborate dog trick routine as Miss Pussycat rolls her puppet theater into the wings. Making my way toward the stage, a man in a navy blue business suit grabs my elbow and begins to talk at me hurriedly about "margin trading." He has almost completed his speech before I recognize him as the guy that sells pot out of the back of my favorite coffeehouse. He realizes that I've identified him and he slaps me on the back. I congratulate him on his costume.
Historically, Carnival was a celebration of social inversion when hierarchies and polarities of wealth, power, gender, and race were reversed and parodied. This served as a kind of medieval steam valve, allowing the plebeian masses to transgress the rigid social order for one week out of the year. The Carnival week leading up to Lent was a time of seemingly infinite possibility during which a chorus of varied and proscribed voices would arise to challenge the dominance of officialdom. Carnival was never an aggressive or militarized act of revolution, but rather the kind of "Revolution of Everyday Life" that would later fascinate the French situationists. Carnival's strategy was to turn the world on its head. Its weapon was laughter.
With the steady commercialization of the New Orleans' Mardi Gras over the last century, however, the spirit of multifarious inversion has been domesticated. Much thought has gone into limiting Carnival's spontaneity and channeling its playful, anarchic hubris. Not long before the 1992 Mardi Gras season, an economic impact study revealed Mardi Gras was a billion-dollar business for the city. This created even more impetus for the co-opting of Carnival's subversive behaviors into the most pedestrian and, more importantly, profitable: drinking, eating, and groping.
Here at the Spellcaster Lodge, however, far from the sloppy groping and vomit-filled gutters of the French Quarter, the primordial spirit of Carnival lives on. Proprietor/domestic partner/performer duo Miss Pussycat and Mr. Quintron encourage the kind of gleeful parody and inversion that once characterized the medieval Carnival. A professionally trained puppeteer, Miss Pussycat presents strange and wonderful puppet shows with impossibly left-field themes. Mr. Quintron is enjoying a bit of fame after his recent appearance on Jenny Jones, but he is perhaps most famous for inventing the Drum Buddy (patent #5,032,949), featured on several independent label record albums. (Watch the Drum Buddy Infomercial) This thrift shop Frankenstein of a drum machine shakes the bohemian congregation in the retrofitted basement of he and Miss Pussycat's ancient shotgun shack as a procession of post-modern vaudeville performers take to the stage. All in attendance are costumed in disguises that mock the kind of essential categories that we use to navigate the world: Gay or straight? Black or white? Corporate or slacker? This is the kind of ambiguity that characterizes Carnival at its best, and I revel in it as Mr. Quintron takes the stage, cranking the drum buddy to a maddening pitch and effecting a human whirlpool on the dance floor.
The crowd is in a peripatetic frenzy when the decrepit double doors of the hall crash open and the Ninth Ward Marching Band enters, outfitted in matching red and silver uniforms with kitty cat silhouettes and over-sized 9s emblazoned across their chests. Shooting confetti from plastic silver handguns, the band strikes up a motley collection of battered brass instruments and leads the crowd into the pock-marked streets of the Ninth Ward. Chanting, howling, and dancing to the thick syncopation of the marching band percussion, we undulate all the way to Café Brasil in the Faubourg Marigny, a tiny triangle of a neighborhood just outside of the French Quarter. The group disperses among the costumed cool kids already milling about the street, lounging across the hoods of vintage cars parked in front of the open-air bar. A girl with pink hair and a priest's collar juggles flaming torches. Four Hare Krishnas in three-piece suits roll by on unicycles.
It's 5 am and the first light of Ash Wednesday approaches. At dawn the New Orleans police will ceremoniously terminate the Mardi Gras festivities in the French Quarter, dispatching the hangers-on to greasy spoon diners and cramped hotel rooms to contemplate sins committed during the last hours before the lean season. But the po-po rarely makes it to this neighborhood. The Ninth Ward Marching Band begins to sputter like an old car engine -- tentatively at first, then reaching a loud and steady hum. A posse of gutter punks costumed as Fraternity brothers begins to gyrate wildly, bouncing off each other like atoms in a pot of boiling water while chanting mockingly, "Show your grits!" I recline on the hood of a 1962 Plymouth Fury and take it all in.
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