IN SOME PLACES, IT’S JUST ANOTHER TUESDAY
Today, my wife was one of the unlucky people who actually have to work on Mardi Gras. So my son and I took in the parade in Covington, with its decorated trucks and worn-out floats that were handed down from a third-rate parade of years gone by. The small-town festivities are a far cry from the parades on St. Charles Avenue I have known my whole life. But low key can be good sometimes.
This afternoon, we took Captain Percival (that most noble of Cairn Terriers) to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where people gathered in the informal Mardi Gras celebrations that are as much a part of the day as the parades or the craziness in the French Quarter. Yes, low-key can be good sometimes.
Last night ⎯ Lundi Gras as it’s called around here ⎯ was our real carnival. We drove into New Orleans to catch a couple of the better parades of the season: the old-line Proteus with its beautiful wooden-wheeled floats and the newer “superkrewe” of Orpheus, a star-studded extravaganza with giant floats and the best bands.
Driving into town, we passed through neighborhoods that were hit hard by the storm and the subsequent flood. The water line was still visible on many buildings that were no longer usable or habitable. Spray-painted on the outside of nearly every structure were the signs left behind by the search-and-rescue squads from the National Guard. The symbol they painted on each building consists of a large “X” with information painted into each quadrant, including the date the building was checked out and the unit that was there. On one quadrant of the “X” is entered a digit: the number of dead found inside. Most of the buildings we passed were marked with zeroes, but we saw the occasional “1” and one house with a “5.”
Passing through the devastation, I had to ask myself the same question that so many people have asked: why is New Orleans actually staging Mardi Gras at all this year? Then we got to The Avenue (as we know it locally), and only then did it make sense. The combination of the floats, the bands, the flambeaux, the beads, and the crowds made it impossible not to get lost in another world for just a brief time. It’s a world where hurricanes don’t exist and where autism truly is just a difference and not a daily struggle.
Yes, that world faded somewhat as we drove home through the rubble. But I was comforted by the knowledge that New Orleans is still New Orleans. Mardi Gras is not something we do; it’s who we are.
The fleur-de-lis has been the symbol of New Orleans ever since there was a New Orleans. It now graces various logos and flags noting our region’s determination to rebuild. More than one outlander has noted the similarities in outlines between the fleur-de-lis and a hand with one finger raised in “salute.” Those wags say it symbolizes our telling the world to go to Hell while we go our own unique way. That’s not quite right.
The fleur-de-lis is the representation of a flower. It’s our way of giving you a gift as we invite you to spend some time with us as we shout out in unison: “Laissez les bon temps roulez. Enjoy the way we are different from you.”
Contrary to what some seem to think about me, I am not frightened by differences in people. I celebrate diversity. But different is not always better.
Life in New Orleans is not all crawfish and beads. We had problems with crime and poverty before Katrina. Traditionally, our governments have been as corrupt as any in the United States, and we’ve been too lazy or ignorant to do anything about it all. And now, we wonder if a lack of vision on the part of our leaders will prevent this area from rebuilding. Sometimes being different is good, and sometimes it’s just plain dysfunctional.
Today the difference is good.
Sometime in the next week, I’m going to pick up the conversation where we left off. But not today: today is Mardi Gras.