Inez says Bourbon in French (BOR-bon) while flirting with Lanette from Poplarville. “LAAAnettE, pass me a clOve, s’il vous plait.” Lanette laconically slithers one out of a white and blue cigarette box and shakes it onto Inez’s hand. “OUAI. Merci,” Inez cries in rapt glee, using the word “yes” as a sign of joy rather than positive affirmation. Lanette is smeared with cakey doughy make-up and her teeth shine with the brightness of adult braces; she’s a dishwasher at a corner hotel restaurant on Dumaine and Royal. Inez wears a grey t-shirt and jeans, her hair cropped, her face round like a kewpie doll. I had never met them before; they’re my friend’s Tony’s friends but they had graciously given me a ride from the corner of Magazine and Elenore to the Quarter. Standing at the corner, watching the défilé of cars, I felt like a street prostitute, early in the morning -- the people perched in their cars eyed me up and down, everyone, as they rode passed, following the chartered Magazine, that follows the chartered Mississippi. The mind-forged manacles I hear.
I am dressed blandly, but I figure I complement the colors with my bright yellow collared shirt adorned with Endymion and Bacchus beads and a blue blazer, looking bohemian in performance but nothing compared to Bianca Del Rio, the hostess on stage -- she wears a whole new set of eyes to look pretty and a Raggedy-Ann hair-do two shades of orange to the left. She only has three jokes in her repertoire: ‘Dam that levee with a tampon, hon’; ‘Bitch, you need to get off this stage’; or jokes that were only funny because she peppered them with, ‘fuck, whore, and mother fucker’.
The crowd is full this year. It is hilarious to see the mix of people on the street filing pass centre stage. I see an octogenarian and his octogenarian wife decorated with sequins and grinning from ear to ear. A couple from MinneSNOWta cupping their mouths in fake horror at the debauched language push through the crowd and out of sight. A Dallas football player with a Yin-Yang symbol on his abdomen grabs my ass and tells me he loves Bianca. A mealy, shirtless dude is pawing the concrete floor for fallen dollars; he claims to be a priest.
Jason, a Tulane architecture student (with a Roman-style haircut) told me about his plans to rebuild Tremé, a rotted out neighborhood plunged in depths of floodwater. There were two Adonises in greeney vines who kissed one another on the cheek every time a joke cracked on stage, holding tight to each other’s buttocks. One was younger than the other; the older like a handsome middle-aged spirit, an Oberon with his Puckish fairy in tow -- a sight to behold. One of my favorites. They looked like a Pierre and Gilles photograph. Tony took a photograph of them with his cell phone.
Lanette flames a cigarette with the quick light of a match on the back of a red pub matchbox. The balcony above us is filled with spectators and Larry, the compulsive liar in our group, claims to know the most beautiful of them all. He points to a River Phoenix god and grins. Waving. He is Capote-esque in his flair and deceit. A large, reddened scar, adorns his right cheek and I am afraid of him. He is my best friend Tony’s boyfriend. Larry, dressed in a boa lifts his beer to the Olympian skies. The sky cover is azure blue and pimpled with one-dimensional wisps of smoke. That night, in my dreams, I dream in black and white, over-stimulated from reality’s rainbow of color. Tony thrusts his canteen with gin and tonic in my face, “Drink it, you’ll need it.”
During Mardi Grass, I think of Judith Butler and Divine. Pink Flamingoes. Whew. Gender Trouble. Is that a boy or a girl in front of me? I don’t know. Although I had dressed up as a Georgia floozy once for kicks, I had never before been so unsure of sex! Are we really imposed with post-Freudian categories of sex, inscribed on our bodies? Is all this a show or is this true identity? I am getting really sick, quick, of the stupid post-structuralist categories and take another swig of a gin and tonic. Looking for something to interpret without being mired in Queer Theory, I stare at a cute boy, my mind all tabula rasa and the images infiltrate my brain unmitigated by my insane hermeneutics. Unanamuo is right, “Consciousness is a disease!” (Or is it Nietzsche?). Note to self: never think of literary criticism when you are dranking and smoking in the French Quarter on Mardi Gras, I say to myself. “I’m not drunk! I’m just dranking!!” goes the old jazz tune.
In France on Mardi Gras, Inez tells me, in her village not far from Lourdes, they wear masques and profess their love or hate to those they would never confess in the flesh. A boy kisses a girl hidden beneath a masque he would never dream of meeting during Ordinary Time. Mardi Gras is a time to be someone else, to wear a façade for the evening. Social class collapses and the streets glisten with artificial egalitarian glory. The queers, dykes, jeeves, proletariats, monks, nuns, whores, bosses, boys, nerds, punks, skaters, preps, WASPS, bible thumpers, republicans, and democrats converge on our city in harmony -- for a while. Utopia, indeed. Mardi Gras is a weird version of Passover. You get rid of all the old leaven by consuming king cake and Abita Beer. You act out your repressed desires and try something different.
At the end of the party, on Ash Wednesday, the faithful crash at the end of this blitz and drag their tired bodies into church to be smeared with cendres mortes du souvenir. We all become one body in need of salvation on Mardi Gras. Vincent, also from France, tells me, though, he isn’t getting ashes on Wednesday. "Maybe next week," he says. His red and yellow costume looks a little faded and I ask him who he is supposed to be for Mardi Gras. “This is not a costume, mon ami. I wanted to dress up but couldn’t decide what to wear.” A shirtless bear passes us by with a placard that read, “God Loves Gays. After all, why did he make so many of us?” The drag queens were thinning out and people were being forced down the street like an insane parody of the entrance into Inferno: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here"
Camouflage underwear, usually not my type, but from all the boys dancing on the bar, I choose stripper #1 to tuck a five-dollar bill underneath the slip of his pants, shortened — staring up, like a kid awing a parent, my mouth drops open and I motion him to squat down to my level, “what are the rules?” I ask and he replies, “Whenever I want you to.” The place is dirty and dark, the only visible lights illuminate the trash and ATM receipts on the floor. The music is too loud for intimate conversation. Raw energy invades the place. A threesome in one corner. Two high school boys in another corner dancing. A drag queen who looks like Lucy Rubble smokes a cigarette by the stairwell. A drunken kid appears by my side and gives me an orange-tinged drink; he is so drunk that he falls toward me and I have to hold him up. I walk him outside to the light and prop him up against the concrete wall of the bar; he is a tan boy about sixteen years of age. I can’t help but be paternal, and say, “Aren’t you too young to be drinking?” He mumbles something as if I have said something horrible and casts his eyes to the ground. Two women come by who claim to be his mom and aunt; “He’s a little worldly for his age and we are trying to help him out.” Oh my god, I think. The poor thing. I have no fucking clue to what they mean by “trying to help him out” but I become maternal and stray my wrist against his cheek and tell him to behave. I am stunned at how soft his skin is; the women help him along the Mardi Gras streets of New Orleans and he disappears into the din.
When I go back into the bar, stripper #1 is about to go back to work. I put my arms around his shoulder and tell him he doesn’t have to do anything for me. “You’re just beautiful. I just want to tell you that." “That’s the nicest thing somebody has told me today. Thanks.” I imagine him coming back to my hotel room but the fantasy vanishes as quickly as it comes and I feel depressed. Stripper #1 climbs back on the bar and winks at me. All he needs is a can of Pepsi and he could be an advertisement in Advocate.
Tony calls me on my cell phone, upset. Bianca Del Rio has just confessed to him that his boyfriend is a compulsive liar and that she can’t stand him. “You deserve better than that bitch,” she told him. Bianca is very talented and has become nominally famous with a fashion designer in New York. Her photograph on a poster in the bar has her looking up into heaven, her eyelashes longer than a #2 pencil. Tony has vacated Larry’s hotel room and we exit the French Quarter quicker than Bonnie Clyde out of a Kansas bank. I am still really sad about Stripper #1. I can’t keep my mind off him and half pay attention to Tony’s break-up story. “It’s over with him. I can’t stand to be lied to. He told me he loved me. Now I am never going to believe it when someone says they love me. You know? And I haven’t even seen my mom in days. Because of Larry. He buys me all kinds of shit as if that’ll make up for all the lies he has been spreading. It’s over.”
We walk underneath a sign spread out between the streets, “The Mayor of New Orleans supports GLBT issues. Go to glbtnola.com for more information. When I get home I check out the site.
On St. Ann and Bourbon
I am an educator and a writer. I was born in Louisiana and I now live in the Big Apple. My heart beats to the rhythm of "Ain't No Place to Pee on Mardi Gras Day". My style is of the hot sauce variety. I love philosophy sprinkles and a hot cup of café au lait.