I first noticed the ulcer on my tongue in City Park in New Orleans on the third weekend of Carnival. I was sitting down with friends to little paper bags full of beignets and powdered sugar, next to cups of chicory coffee mixed with milk, at an outpost of the famous Café du Monde. I noticed the powdered sugar irritating the right side of my tongue. Beignets are already a little bit awkward to eat, and I found myself going at them more and more askew, increasingly favoring the left side of my mouth (where many years ago I had a molar removed and never replaced), slowly working the dough into a mash soft enough to swallow. It wasn’t the most enjoyable experience of beignets, though the warm, creamy coffee provided some succor. I knew right away that a canker sore was coming, forming as a little polyp on a spot where my tongue met my teeth. By the next day, at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, I was avoiding the right side of my mouth completely, softening the fried okra and delicate red beans with copious amounts of iced tea. I was starting to talk with a lisp, and I was grateful that my friends were leaving that afternoon, not because I was eager to see them go, but because it meant I could sit silently and watch movies for the rest of the day, drinking little cups of whisky. When I woke up the next morning opening my jaw and pulling my tongue away from my teeth felt like ripping duct tape off of sutured-up sunburn. I teared up a little bit, hurrying to the bathroom to gargle some water. The sore was grayish-white and nearly a quarter inch across, alarmingly deep. Little bubbles of spit foamed in its concavity. I stared at it in the mirror while construction equipment―tractors and backhoes and such―passed by outside, softly quaking the house.
I quickly began a regimen of saline gargles, avoided sugar and salt dustings (up until then, I was delighting in coating everything in a Slap Ya’ Mama, a simple and delicious (if unfortunately named) cajun seasoning found widely throughout Louisiana), and began with a full-on Daffy Duck slur, trying to keep the canker sore completely outside my dental complex, which made for some amusing conversations with my wife. By evenings, my tongue was tired and strained from the altered biomechanics. Eating was so laborious I lost my appetite; kissing was painful and made me feel like a mutant; I was getting humidity headaches; anything carbonated (mostly, beer) stung sharply, as did anything acidic (mostly, wine). Whisky was the best relief, and I bathed my tongue in it, enjoying the numbing effects with a giddy I haven’t felt in what must be at least a decade. I had absurdly little time to convalesce, mere days before eleven of our friends would arrive in waves for Mardi Gras weekend. My wife and I took it easy, running errands and getting the house cleaned up; the weather shifted around restlessly and you could feel the city and its traffic in kinds of high-intensity intervals, a start-stop arrhythmia that felt anxious and unsure. I was irritable but mellow. I tried very hard not to move my tongue, for any reason whatsoever.
We spent 29 days in New Orleans, pretty much the entirety of the Carnival season. We had 15 different guests, went to 9 parades, saw (I estimate) 20 music shows (not counting street musicians or marching bands), drank 6 liters of whisky, 15 or so of wine, and caught around 80 pounds of beads. These aren’t necessarily impressive numbers (we also watched, easily, 30 hours of television), but I mention them to satisfy a weird desire to quantify our time in New Orleans. Because while we spent an entire month there, it was an artificial month. It was Mardi Gras, and we don’t have jobs, and our experience as longtime tourists ran messily against the complexities of the city, which were so present around us, so unhidden.
I want to say it right away: I think New Orleans is the most American city in America. True, New Orleans is pretty singular, quite unique, but many cities have their unique qualities (New York, as the center of the world, is also uniquely New Yorkish (though perhaps long in the process of losing that)). True, New Orleans is on a far-flung edge, the Gulf Coast, the Deep South. But it absorbs these regional qualities within an American way of being that is much larger than them. It unites the north and the south (in politics, sensibility, accent), the urban and rural (and suburban), the extravagant and the impoverished. Its roads are complete shit (and the remnants of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel remain in its skyline), but there’s fat, salt, and sugar in damn near everything. It has brand new parks and age-old sewage. It’s very segregated on one hand and yet famously integrated culturally. It bears the ineffable time stamp of a catastrophe (Hurricane Katrina) in a way few other cities do, and yet this time stamp powerfully exemplifies the contemporary catastrophes that have defined all of America in the past decades (9/11, the 2008 economic collapse, mass shootings, political upheavals). It’s artsy and fratty. It’s touristy and proudly local. It’s full of violence and love. Mardi Gras, its most famous indulgence, is predicated on abstinence. Its grand metaphor is jazz.
I say all of this casually, and as I’m wont to do in these writings, please take the caveat that I don’t mean to offer anything definitive―indeed this is the impression of an unrooted tourist doing little else for the city than spending money there. These thoughts are contextualized by my own baggage. Which is to say: New Orleans did far more for me than I could ever do for it. All of this complexity was, for me, a needed affirmation of a true reality in a time of bewilderingly hyperreality (this will remain a theme of these writings). This is true even of the masquerade of Mardi Gras, which I found remarkably devoid of mediatization, remarkably old school, as it were. It is alive and well and fully in the streets and real gatherings of real communities, buoyed by the efforts (and dollars) of thousands and thousands of people, numerous organizations (krewes and sub-krewes), and around two centuries of traditions. It persists unapologetically, and I say that because there is plenty about it at which to be aghast. Even forgoing the stupidities of Bourbon street, an outsider might notice the incredible excess of plastic in the parade throws (shout-out to the Arc of New Orleans, one of the only organizations with a bead recycling (combined with job rehabilitation) program―this was the final destination of most of our 80 pounds). Or one may pause in front of the masking, some of which has racist echoes, like the eerily klan-like masks found in many of the larger krewes or the signature black makeup―which many outsiders might construe as black-face―of The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (this is, by the way, one of the very best parades in all of Carnival, taking place the morning of Mardi Gras day). Yet the the complex of these moral confusions among all of the other (less troublesome) signs and motifs and fetishes of Mardi Gras amounted to a tremendous reassurance for me. Somewhat like our experience of the Everglades, Mardi Gras felt completely its own: tenacious, proud, bold, very, very alive. That I want to analyze it feels mostly useless.
Besides, we were there to party. And party we did. It was, in two words, absolutely amazing to have so many friends come join us. We stayed in Bayou St. John, a block off the Lafitte Greenway, which made for an easy walk through the Treme and into the French Quarter. We caught early parades like Krewe Bohème and Krewe du Vieux in the quarter with some of my oldest friends from childhood, feeling high and giddy afterward among the incredible (almost all homemade) costumes at an after-party at The Black Penny on Rampart. We saw some of the larger family parades (Carrollton and King Arthur) on a relaxed weekend in uptown with a poet-friend and old colleague following an extensive and what ended up being private tour of St. Louis No. 2 cemetery. We had a mega crush of guests for the Super-Krewe parade Endymion, before which my wife and I danced to Bruce Springsteen covers at their Samedi Gras street party and after which we hosted an impromptu party at our house in a sea of beads and blinking trinkets (our defacto niece was fully wound up). We triangulated the routes of Red Beans and Dead Beans to catch them nearly at their intersection, finding their goofy and brilliant designs (all made out of beans) a lovely alternative to the more gaudy (and again, insanely plastic-heavy) conventional parades.
And, impossibly, after weeks of parades and nights stumbling the quarter or Frenchman street or the Bywater, we woke up at 8am on Mardi Gras day, smeared some stale grocery store King Cake into our faces, packed whatever beers we had left, and made it to the sidewalk side of Zulu just blocks before its terminus at the Social Aid and Pleasure Club in the heart of the Treme. We were there for nearly six hours, screaming in adoration, dancing to fantastic marching bands, drinking warm tallboys of Highlife and snacking on anything that was available, many of us paying to use a nearby porta-potty. After the parade we walked through the massive street party on Claiborne under the I-10 overpass (also the gathering of many of the Second Line parades (it should be noted that before the highway was constructed in the 60s, this used to be a beautiful, live oak–lined street that defined the Treme, one of the most important black communities in America; to hear horn bands echoing against the concrete is to hear a kind of defiance, a tenacity). From there we headed down into the quarter, buying (surprisingly good) pizza on Bourbon street, then making our way to Marigny in search of what we remembered to be a relaxed and delightful bar (the Royal Street Inn), hoping for crowd-respite there but of course, in our uninformed tourism, finding instead the massive gathering of the Society of St. Anne walking parade, a true locals parade characterized by elaborate costumes of various themes (eighteenth century French court life remains a persistent one, via krewes such as The Merry Antoinettes; we were within fifty feet of a powdered wig for most of Mardi Gras night; and yes this is a pretty stark “white” contrast to the Zulu parade). From there we split up a bit, and a smaller group of us went club hopping on Frenchman street, in search of a good brass band, eventually finding it at the Blue Nile, where the Marigny Street Brass Band took the stage at 9pm.
Musically, for me, one of the best traditions of New Orleans music is the Second Line–style brass band: usually tuba/sousaphone, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, a snare player, and a bass drum and cymbal player, with maybe a guitarist or keyboardist, but not necessarily. It’s parading music as much as it is dancing music, and it has a mix of tresillo shuffle, swing, and funk that I find absolutely intoxicating. Talk to a New Orleanian and they might mention the Rebirth Brass Band as a fundamental group. I heard it everywhere on loudspeakers but seemed always to miss it in its live forms, save the occasional street ensemble or a distant, undefinable echo. I think, probably, I wasn’t staying up late enough most nights. But Mardi Gras I did, and it felt like my holy New Orleans grail to see such a good band, dance so freely, clutching my Zulu medallion beads to keep them from snapping free but also, of course, in a kind of communion, as best as I could be allowed. My tongue still hurt, but it only made sense―that organ of appetite and expression, overwhelmed by a city engaging both at the fullest.
More photos here: https://www.amazon.com/photos/shared/PCR1VNMrTKi17y7TlQ-OPg.5EcyHaGaVmX4sIVqgcmkIZ
―Sam Houston National Forest, March 02, 2020