A couple friends of mine, Bill, Chuck and I drove up to Mardi Gras together. We took turns driving and sleeping in the most uncomfortable car ever made.
New Orleans, or at least the Vieux Carre was beautiful. It was strange to me though, to me to see people asleep on the sidewalk or on stone steps, drunk and oblivious to people walking around them. They could be dead and no one bothered about them. The Spanish moss and the above ground cemetery was appropriately gothic.
Down by the waterfront there was a tourist cruise ship flying the flag from the Soviet Union. That red field with the hammer and sickle seemed incongruous in the midst of all the decadence, but maybe not. There was a Navy cruiser docked there too, which was giving tours.
We spoke with an old black woman sitting in her little fenced in yard facing the square. She wouldn’t believe a bunch of white kids were sleeping in the car. While we were talking, a kid came by on a mission. He had a brief chat with her that seemed laden with subtext about “getting her stuff from the store”. It was loaded with code words and odd emphasis like when parents are discussing Christmas plans and start spelling certain words when the kids come in. The urgency of it and the guarded language suggested she needed something other than the latest issue of National Geographic.
We ate in restaurants attended by sinister waiters. Everyone was frantically, desperately having fun but no one seemed to be looking at what was really going on. A million people cannot party without a whole infrastructure of non-partiers making it all possible. I never thought Disneyland just happened. Someone maintains that illusion at considerable trouble. This wasn’t just a gigantic party, there was money to be made.
The night of the big parade was surely crazy. All along the main thoroughfare people jammed between the hotels and into the street. A female cop demonstrated her skill with a baton up side some drunk’s head. She didn’t think he was showing her appropriate respect.
I wanted to see New Orleans as it really was, not how it dressed up for the tourists.
I made my way back into the Vieux Carre to take pictures of the colonial buildings illuminated only by streetlights. It was eerie to see the square so deserted when a few blocks away there were millions of people all watching the big diversion. It was so quiet for such a busy season. Was everyone at the parade?
I took my photos using only ambient light and then became aware that I was being watched. There were two or three men, dressed as mimes, (white face and striped shirts, really!) peeking from behind trees and around corners, pretending they didn’t want to be seen. One would call out, getting my attention, and then another would whistle from another location. They were hiding but being obvious about it. It didn’t make sense. I tried to ignore them. What next, a fifty dollar bill at the end of a fishing line for me to chase?
A man in a suit approached me as if he just wanted to pass the time. He was dressed as if he were just out for an evening walk. He asked me if I was a cop. “No, I’m not a cop. I’m just a tourist.”
“You must be a cop. Look at you. You’re not in costume. You can’t be a tourist or you would be watching the parade”
I said I was a photographer and wanted to capture the beautiful city when there weren’t crowds around.
“No. I think you are a cop” It finally dawned on me that he didn’t care if I was a cop. He wanted me gone. My photo session was over.
“So you think I would like the parade better?” He nodded. “The parade that is over that way a few blocks?” He nodded again. I thanked him for re-directing me and made my way back to the throng.
I was unnerved by the implied violence of the conversation. What if I hadn’t “gotten” the point?
I realized that everyone but me knew not to leave the parade. The crowd was the only safe location. I was in the biggest tourist trap this side of Disneyland. Why would I suspect it was not safe to walk around alone? I had peeked behind the curtain and glimpsed how it all worked. I wanted to capture New Orleans ‘in the wild’ but hadn’t gotten permission from the head baboon.
I remembered in school I was always the ‘new kid’ and had discovered that kids always thought I was either the drug dealer or the cop. I was neither. Their definition of me was determined by their own orientation. If I wasn’t with them I must be against them.
The rest of the trip was spent in a fog of confusion. I was exhausted and there are only so many gaudy beaded necklaces one can catch. New Orleans came to represent the epitome of the emptiest place. It was the most malignant, corrupt and decadent place I’d ever been.
What a great party town!