Thursday, June 19, 2008

FLASHBACK SPECIAL SERIES: March 2003

The Koyaanisqatsi Chronicles

Chapter 2 - Mardi Gras in New Orleans

I stared out the window of the bus as I leaned my head back and sighed. The sun was setting over the horizon and the shadows were getting long and dark. It seemed that the encroaching twilight was an inspiration to everyone on the bus, young and old, poor and poorer, homeless, and those nearly homeless, to settle in and speak in hushed tones. Thank you, twilight, I needed peace. My nerves were frantic.

I was setting out to start over fresh, in a new city, with 1 suitcase and 1 carry-on bag filled with some basic clothes and limited personal possessions, $85 cash and not much else. No job, no family, no employment prospects and no home. I'd be staying on a mattress laid out on the floor of my friend Jay's home, and it would be an uncomfortable and temporary arrangement to be sure.

It had been just three years earlier that I drove the Ryder truck that Jay had rented (but couldn't drive since he lacked a license) to move him to New Orleans. During that trip, down this same highway, I-10, he had startled me by letting out a rather loud whoop of joy when we crossed the border from Florida into Alabama. He was ecstatic that he was finally out of Florida. He felt that everything that had gone wrong in his life in the past few years was attributed to his time in Florida. Now, watching as the bus passed by the "Welcome to Alabama" sign, I felt the same way. I was free! Uncertain about what lay ahead, but at least it would be away from the evil dominion of Florida.

Many long sleepless hours later, we arrived in New Orleans. The bus had left Orlando in the early evening and now it was nearly midnight of the next day. My fellow bus travelers were an interesting lot. Very different crowd compared to the airline travelers I was more familiar with. It seemed everyone had some hard luck story. There was one guy who was staying on the bus to it's final destination: San Diego. If the bus stayed "on schedule", he'd get there in about 3 more days! Man, no wonder only the desperate travel this way!

I called Jay during one of the stops a few hours earlier and let him know we were going to be a little late. We ended up being 2 hours late. Since it was arranged they would be waiting for me at the bus station I searched everywhere but couldn't find them. Soon I was one of the only people in the terminal. I figured they drove back home and would be waiting for me to call when I got in, but I didn't have anymore change with me for the pay phone and no counter or concession was open to break a dollar bill. So, within a few minutes of arrival in New Orleans, I had to "go native" and I begged for change. A cabbie at the cab stop took pity on me and gave me a couple of quarters. Here I was, in the middle of the night, at a gritty, rundown bus/train station, homeless and panhandling.

Finally, after calling them, Regan and Jay came to pick me up. Though I was dead tired and all I wanted to do was get to sleep, we drove first to this small shop in the Quarter so they could pick up some Po' Boys. I got the cheapest variety available, a French Fry Po' Boy (French fries smothered in brown gravy and stuffed into French bread...yum!)

After getting to the house, we ate our late night dinner and Jay showed me that he had set up a mattress with sheets up in the loft. The loft was this little tiny half room that was accessed by this rudimentary ladder. Once up there, you couldn't stand since you were among the rafters of the roof. It was open to the kitchen and "great room" below but Jay had given me extra sheets so I could rig up some make-shift "walls" for a bit of privacy. Hey, beggars can't be choosers, I was happy to have anything. And after that long bus ride, I just wanted to plop on that mattress and sleep forever.

Over the course of the next few days, I would come to relish sleep as a rare commodity. You see, I had arrived at a rather busy time, both for New Orleans and Jay. It was 4 days before Mardi Gras.

Being not from New Orleans, I didn't know that Mardi Gras encompassed much more than just the Tuesday before the start of Lent, it was a whole "season" of partying and festivities for weeks before the actual Fat Tuesday. And I had landed, broke and tired, smack dab at the height of the final frenzied weekend of Carnival.

There was no time during these days to look for a job. What's more, no job would want to do much hiring until Wednesday anyway. In New Orleans, everyone took their partying seriously, and not much else.

Over that long weekend we visited Jay and Regan's friends and family non-stop. It was kinda cool, but so other worldly. Shucking oysters at 3am with Jay's friends, blaring music, drinking it up from afternoon to the wee hours every night. I was stilled worried about my future and how I'd be able to get back on my feet. I wasn't in the mood for hedonistic pleasure seeking. Boy, was I in the wrong place and the wrong time. Right now, I was in the Bacchanalia capital of the world!

On Sunday, Jay and I went to help his friend Rick set up his floats for the Krewe of Mid-City parade, one of the longest running and most revered parades of the season. And I say "his" floats, 'cause, well, they were. Ricardo (Rick) was the designer of all the floats in the parade. For our assistance, Jay and I got to ride in the back of his pickup truck in the parade. We were right in front of the Marines marching band, so for the next few hours, we got blasted with the rousing horns and drums of the "Halls of Montezuma".

It all culminated to a head on Tuesday: Mardi Gras proper.

Jay was a member of the Ducks of Dixieland, a subset of the Krewe of Tucks which had it's own walking parade through the Quarter on Mardi Gras day. The group had it's gimmick in that every year, they were dressed up as ducks. And, each year, as ducks, they marched under a unified theme, usual a parody of some kind. This year, the theme was "Ducksasters!", a portmanteau of "ducks" and "disasters".

Each member came up with their costume depicting a famous historical disaster, as ducks, of course. Some choice costumes included one guy as a big hurricane-caused wave hitting the nearby city of Galveston in the year 1900. (Oh, don't you know I thought of the irony of this eerily prophetic theme a few years later in the wake of Katrina!)

Jay's aunt and uncle were the two halves of the Titanic. And Jay had created an elaborate bed with himself, as a duck, in the bed, eating a box of saltines. The joke: Crumbs in Bed...get it. What a disaster! Eh, it was original, gotta give him that. And the costume was truly well-crafted. He does have talent. It must run in the family though 'cause I thought his aunt and uncle had the best, most artistic costume. I wish I had pictures...

We had great fun that Mardi Gras, but deep down, I was anxious to get back to normal. I yearned for the grind of a day-to-day full time job since I wanted money and independence.

Fortunately, the day after Mardi Gras, I lucked out and found a good paying job and was hired right away.

But as the sobriety of the comparatively fun-less Lenten season now embraced my new roommates, they became bogged down by their own troubles.

And I was soon to become one of them.

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