Mardis Gras New Orleans
Magda Knight had some cash floating around after quitting a job and had a choice: buy a new computer or go travelling? She wandered into a travel agent and found herself booking a single return ticket to New Orleans. It was only later that she realised she’d managed to book a flight during its most famous festival, Mardis Gras. This is her story.
I hunker down on the street in the real early morning light and pan my video camera 180 degrees. ‘This end of the street, the artists walk their poodles,’ I whisper, my voice sucked up by the humidity. ‘This end of the street, they’ve got guns in their pockets. The people, that is. Not the artists at the other end.’ This pseudo-documentary thing is a very sad thing to do but I am into the role of milkweed tourist, here, and prepared to do my bit.
It’s my first morning in New Orleans. I came down with a fever on the plane, get to some plantation-house style hotel, everyone’s out on the last day of Mardi Gras. All I know about this place is I’m going to love it (probably) but some parts are very dangerous, and being a tourist I don’t know my ass from my elbow.
Evening. New place. Got the sweats. I stick my rucksack under a bush and go to a small family sitting on their porch opposite, ask them what they think I should do. They tell me they’ve got no idea what the house opposite is (my hotel), or who owns it (a guy who later invites me to his home to see his mad mardis gras collection, he prides himself on knowing everyone. Maybe just not the poorer neighbours, huh?) The family goes on to say that black people don’t really bother with the parade, and all.
Eventually I get in the hotel – a staff worker wanders back in a drunken daze and lets me in , but seems unable to sort me out with a room key. I stick my rucksack in a kitchen cupboard – damn, this thing’s my best friend out here, and I keep sticking it in places like a stinking corpse – and head on out. At least now I can let myself in the kitchen. It’s like New Orleans is letting me in step by step.
Mardis Gras does it for me. With the application of drink my fever disappears. On a whim I tell some gay guys with purple sequin pants that I’m part of a BBC film crew and get lots of fun footage. Was this mean? F*ck it, it’s Mardis Gras. When they put their arses together, sequins on their pants spell out the name of their website. Showbiz.
The evening passes in a whirl of chat-up lines, dapper old gentlemen toasting me in the street, nakedness and revelry, all the colour and fizz of fireworks taken from the sky and spread out across a town. Get home, sleep in kitchen. Next morning, get keys.
I still have ten days in New Orleans and Mardis Gras is over. This is the bit I really came for. My favourite haunt is a jazz bar nearby with three walls, one being pulverised by nameless bastards. White russians, dancing with soldiers, get adopted by a seventh-generation local waitress who once lived in Liverpool and shacked up with a guy in winter because he had the only heater. That pisses me off, to see someone with so much energy go to great efforts to do something new but basically be exchanging her body for a warm room. I have this flash of her whole life stretching ahead of her. Best I can see for her is her becoming Courtney Love.
Asked along to a jazz funeral, a young trumpeteer, his friends expressing some serious grief, crawling on the ground like snakes. Get invited to a voodoo ritual by the local priestess but don’t go because it’s in a dangerous part of town, way out of my league, and I’m on holiday and, quite frankly, can’t hack it.
Get pleasurably kidnapped by peeps who own the local headshop (some folk I’d officially come to see). They’re all young with fierce hearts. They strap me onto a stool placed between the driver and passenger seat in their van, and drive off into yet another strange place, spraying folk with silly string spray. When we get to their house I can’t be arsed to live it large any more and chill with one of the girlfriends, singing along to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on TV. The only downside here is they send me into the corridor when I want to smoke a cigarette, and tell me they hope I feel just like a dirty crack whore.
In ten days I’ve met some wild ones and some slow, deep ones. I’ve chatted to shopkeepers and bullshit merchants and chess champions. It’s not me, particularly. It’s them. They like to talk, they take an interest. If someone came to my country, they might not have such a good time if they just walked in cold.
I like these people a lot. I like how they are.
Ten days is nothing at all. But it’s my time, and I could have spent it worse.
On my last morning, I wake up and have a cup of tea on the porch, the leaves all lush and wet, the air solid and quiet. There are a few people around, in the same frame of mind, so we take it easy. Goodbye. Time to go.