Monday morning, I spent a little time in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana … the heart of “Cajun Country” … to find some of the French influence. A friend on Facebook recommended that I get breakfast at “Chez Amis,” but the place was closed on Mondays. So I went to Chez Jacqueline, where I got some scrambled eggs with crawfish etoufee. It was there I met Michael, a man in his fifties, who speaks Cajun French. He’s the first person I’ve met who speaks it because his grandparents taught him … and believe me, it’s not the same language.
Interestingly, the waitress at Chez Jacqueline is a French woman from Paris, so I ordered my breakfast in our language … asking for “oeufs brouillés” (scrambled eggs.) Michael then asked me what I had just ordered because he didn’t understand what I had said. He explained the Cajuns don’t have a French word for “scrambled,” so for them it’s “oeufs escrambled.” He also said the Cajuns don’t know the French word for “airplane” (which is “avion”), so they simply use the word “airplane.” It really is a bastardized language of garbled French and English.I told Michael I was in a hurry to get back to New Orleans; the folks I was staying with had a lunchtime barbecue planned. So he advised me to take two stops: (a) visit McGee’s Landing, a beautiful lake right by the Interstate before leaving; and (b) go to this Cajun meat shop in town and buy some boudin and cracklin. Boudin is sausages, and cracklin is some kind of Cajun pork rinds that are good snack foods. I bought a good order, and figured this would be my “housewarming” gift for the BBQ in New Orleans I was going to.
What did I learn about Cajun Country? Even though they have a lot of signs in French, most people don’t speak the language. And those who do really speak it in such a garbled way that you can’t understand it. When Michael left the restaurant, the French waitress said “a toute a l’heure” (a French farewell greeting that Parisians say, and I’m very accustomed to.) Michael didn’t understand what she had just said. So he said “voo-vwa ploo tar” (which I guess means “vous voire plus tard”), the Cajun French equivalent for “a toute a l’heure.”
I get on the Interstate, and pop in “Ma Petite Femme” by Lee Benoit — the Cajun band that performed the prior night at Mulate’s, where I bought the CD. The music is traditional Cajun, with most of the songs using French lyrics but sung in a way that I can’t understand. To preserve Cajun culture, a lot of young folks in the area are in a band … but the reality is most of them don’t speak French. So the songs sound cool, but come off as gibberish. Traffic is going by smoothly, but I do want to get to New Orleans in good time … so when the Cajun music is over, I pop in the Beatles CD (“1″) with all their hits, and I harmonize with the Beatles all the way to New Orleans.I arrive in Algiers Point, a charming neighborhood on the West Bank of New Orleans … where Andrew and Cameron live. Andrew is an old friend of my San Francisco friend Matthew Kimmins; when I didn’t have a place to stay in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Matthew made the arrangements. Andrew and Cameron are delightful artists, and they live in a gorgeous house full of artwork … and their guests at the BBQ are quite pleased to find me bringing boudin and cracklin, straight from Cajun Country.
After the barbecue, we walk a few blocks to the ferry terminal … to take a quick, 15-minute free boat ride across the Mississippi River into Downtown New Orleans. Tonight is Lundi Gras, and there are lots of parades and parties going on … just like there have been, for days on end …
A little word right now on the Mardi Gras festivities. I was raised Catholic, so I understand the basic premise behind the celebration. Lent starts on Wednesday, so Mardi Gras is a chance for folks to frolic and revel and indulge in the streets before they have to spend the next 40 days sacrificing. But I always presumed it was all one parade and party on Tuesday … I had no idea that the festivities really last for weeks, with different parades and parties going on each night. We stand on St. Charles Street, and watch the Proteus and Orpheus parades.
Another word on Mardi Gras … Before coming here, I knew people throw beads at each other. What I wasn’t aware of was these “krewes” … secret societies of rich people who dress in masks, march in the parade floats, and throw beads to people. Many of their costumes look a little too much like the Ku Klux Klan, and there’s a reason for that. For centuries, these krewes were the Southern white aristocracy … and Mardi Gras was a time to throw gifts to the masses on parade routes. It wasn’t until the 1980′s that New Orleans demanded these krewes not to discriminate in membership in order to participate in the parade. And it has been a highly controversial subject.With the parade over, we head back to Algiers Point at Andrew and Cameron’s … to dress up for the night’s festivities. Andrew designs costumes, and he lends me a lizard-like costume with a dinosaur tail. Our first stop is Mimi’s, a popular bar in the Marigny which I had gone to with Eli the other night … when we get there, I witness one of the most beautiful and wonderful moments of New Orleans. A large crew of bohemian hipsters have an impromptu parade down the street and into the bar, complete with a marching band. San Francisco’s Mission District has a bohemian scene, but … it costs too much to live there. New Orleans has a thriving community of starving artists, because the rents are cheap. I watch as the band breaks down into traditional New Orleans jazz.
After a couple hours at Mimi’s, we head out of the Marigny and into the French Quarter … but most of the area is full of tacky tourist shops. Cameron knows which places in the French Quarter to go to, and we spend the next few hours “bar-hopping” to the most incredible areas. At one bar, a group of punk hipsters are singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” and a few start literally standing on the bar belting out the tunes. The bartenders just encourage them, singing happily along. A couple songs later, I get moved to join them and climb on top of the bar. But the bartenders won’t let me … my dinosaur tail is wagging around, and might knock down a few drinks.By now it is very very late on Monday night … and the French Quarter is starting to die down. I’d like to get to bed reasonably soon, as I don’t want to miss a parade tomorrow morning called Zulu, the only major Mardi Gras parade whose krewe has an African-American majority. But it’s already past 4:00 a.m., and we need to cross the river. Andrew had stayed at home to be with their one-year-old child, so Cameron calls him to come pick us up. We finally get back home at 5:30 a.m., and the Zulu parade starts at 8:00 a.m. I go to sleep, expecting to wake up around 9:00 a.m.
Now it’s the morning of Mardi Gras … I’m so tired from the night before, that I don’t actually leave the house until Noon. I grab breakfast/lunch at a place near the ferry terminal, where a patron decides to buy drinks for everyone in the bar because it’s Mardi Gras. It’s really an incredible holiday, where we let the good times roll. I get on the Ferry and arrive Downtown, only to learn that I’ve missed the Zulu Parade. But the last major Mardi Gras parade (“Rex”) is heading down Canal Street as I get there … By my count, this is my fifth Mardi Gras parade since being on this trip … one in Mobile, and four in New Orleans. The trick is to yell at the float, and ask for some beads.I call my friend Austin, who lives in New Orleans … and we’ve been planning to meet up soon. No response, so I start roaming through the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is packed, and to be honest it’s way too intense and crowded. When there’s a critical mass of people, the garbage on the street just gets gross. You can’t use the bathroom anywhere, without going to a bar … and to use the bathroom, they require you to buy a drink … So I walk an extra block down to Royal Street, where the scene is a little more sedate and folks have colorful costumes. I yell at people standing in the balconies, asking them to throw down their beads … it’s just like this, for hours on end on Fat Tuesday.
Now I head to Jackson Square, on the banks of the Mississippi … where Andrew works today as a caricature street artist. I find him, and he tells me business has been a little slow today (for Mardi Gras.) I ask what else is going on for Mardi Gras, and he tells me I should stick around the French Quarter until Midnight … when the cops come in with the water trucks, and the festivities officially end. I agree to sit down for a while to do a caricature, and as Andrew draws me people stop and watch. By the time he’s done, he has picked up a new customer …Now it’s 5:00 p.m., and my feet are killing me. It’s then that I get a phone call from Austin. He says he just got out of a five-hour nap, after going to the Zulu parade this morning … where everyone got very drunk. He’s coming into the French Quarter, and I suggest we go bar-hopping that night. I meet Austin, his brother and his girlfriend’s cousin at a little dive bar just off Bourbon Street. It’s now about 8:30 p.m., and Mardi Gras will end in less than four hours.
I’m now walking down Bourbon Street with three straight men, and they want to go to a strip club. The first place has a cover charge of $25, but we find another one for $10. I never though, as a gay man, that I would be spending part of Mardi Gras at a club with scantily clad women. I joke about it with them, and they agree to return the favor later on by hitting the gay bars … where there are go-go boys. The night wears on, and Bourbon Street is packed. We elbow our way up the street … yelling at folks in the balcony for beads, as we eventually make our way to the “gay” part of the French Quarter. At midnight, the cops arrive and break down the party … the street is now riddled with garbage. That’s why in New Orleans, Ash Wednesday is called “Trash Wednesday.”
It’s now 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. I got home last night at 2:00 a.m., and woke up around 10. My stay in New Orleans has come to an end, and Mardi Gras is now over … This city really knows how to party, and I’ve been heartened to see its thriving bohemian culture. But I’m angry about what’s happened since Katrina, and how the very poor residents really don’t have much to hope for in the near future. As the Cajun French would say, my message as I leave New Orleans is: “vous voire plus tard.”