Invitation To Ride


Here in Jackson last fall, Rebecca and I hosted friends of ours, a couple who were Katrina evacuees from New Orleans. Britt, a realtor, stayed with us for a week or so before returning to restart his real estate brokerage. Nan wound up temporarily moving her healthcare-related business and its dozen employees to Jackson. She lived out of our guest room for six weeks.

Since moving back to New Orleans on Nov. 1, they have been living in a small apartment, waiting for a contractor to repair the damage done when their Garden District home lost a substantial portion of its roof. This past week we went to visit them, and New Orleans, for the first time in the post-K era.

Our Crescent City trip was also our first time ever to participate fully in Mardi Gras. Nan had invited Rebecca to ride on her float in the "Muses" parade (the only all-female organization that parades at night) on Feb. 23.

Nan is the lieutenant of float no. 2, a giant bathtub filled with 20 purple-gowned bubble-bathing Muses. The giant bathtub, complete with showerhead and flying bubbles, will roll just behind the Muses' signature shoe, a 17-foot-tall stiletto pump, brilliantly lit with alternating fiber-optic colors.

The first thing we do when we arrive in New Orleans is stroll down Chartres Street to our favorite bar, the Napoleon House. The days and hours of service at the Nap House are still limited, but one of the longtime waiters serves us Pimm's Cups in the courtyard, and all seems familiar and hopeful.

By midday Thursday Rebecca and Nan head off for pre-parade preparations. Wandering the Quarter to check on some of my favorite bookstores, shops, galleries, bars and other haunts, I learn how popular the Muses have become since they first burst on the Mardi Gras scene a mere six years ago. Over and over again, when I mention my wife is riding with Muses, a server, clerk, or other local tells me, "Oh, the Muses parade, that's my favorite—and they have the best throws."

Around dusk Britt and I drive Uptown and pre-position ourselves on St. Charles Avenue. We link up with a group of Britt and Nan's New Orleans friends at a wonderful new restaurant, Vizard's on the Avenue. Its location allows us to drift back and forth between the bar and bathrooms inside and primo viewing spots out in the median, beside the streetcar rails, which have remained inactive since the storm. Between parades we have plenty of time to step back into Vizard's to feast on crab and oyster appetizers.

Outside there is a light cloud cover, occasional slight breezes, and no hint of rain despite earlier predictions of a 30 percent chance of showers. The balmy evening temperature will be perfect for parading. Neither the gowned Muses on the floats nor even the marching dancers cavorting on foot in pink bustiers and fishnet hose should feel any chill.

The locals tell me that the crowds at this spot are certainly less than they would have been pre-K, but that was expected, and no one there seems disappointed. Children flit about, scampering up and down strategically placed stepladders. Grandparents recline in pop-up chairs. Folks of all ages mill about, enjoying drinks and conversation, marveling to each other how good it feels to be here. Everyone shares a joyous sense of expectancy.

At last, between the live oaks far down the avenue, I spot the large bobbing illuminated globe that is lighting the Muses' way. Soon the Muses are among us in all their splendor.

The Muses' parade theme, secret till now, is "Muses Got Game!" a tribute to post-K resiliency. Their honored guests in 2006 are several First Responders, on behalf of those law enforcement and medical professionals who stood to their posts during the worst of the storm and through its horrific aftermath.

Soon the giant bathtub appears. Immediately I spot Rebecca in her expected spot, wearing a halo-sized life ring as a headdress, flinging beads and other trinkets with a practiced ease as if she'd been doing it all her life. I wave wildly to get her attention, but so is everyone else—so I bellow her name a few times, and that eventually works.

For the next hour or so the rest of the parade showers us with Muses paraphernalia, beads, doubloons and joy. The float designs are hilarious, the slogans and caricatures by turns scathing, ironic and poignant. Hardly any public figure connected with the disaster in New Orleans is spared: Mayor Nagin, Gov. Blanco, FEMA, Homeland Security, the Bush administration and the Levee Boards each take their lumps from at least one float. One of my favorites is the "Media Babble" float, featuring a Scrabble board design, spelling out words and phrases that have become familiar Katriniana to us all. Another is filled with Muses wearing Carmen Miranda-style headgear; only the fruit is rotten and covered with flies.

In between the floats we are treated to sights like a 10-foot-high lighthouse-shaped red Cone-of-Destruction, complete with bullhorn-enhanced wind noises, and 50 or so Vegas Elvises on mopeds trailing a cloud of fumes from partially combusted gasoline.

For the Muses afterparty, we reunite at the Contemporary Arts Center with Rebecca, Nan, a thousand other Muses, and about 1,500 more of their closest friends, all reveling and grooving to the sounds of P-Funk.

Late in the evening, I ask a gaily costumed, purple-wigged Muse I don't know whether she's had a good time today. A pause. She looks at me. "This is the first day in six months I wasn't sad," she tells me.

When we arrive at Stanley's for breakfast the next morning, Britt hands us the Times-Picayune Metro section. In the above-the-fold color photo, with the caption "Ringleader," I see my masked and costumed wife, front and center, flinging a strand of beads with perfect form to the waving crowds.

The Muse photographed next to her in the giant bathtub is a Continental Airlines agent who, for the first three weeks post-K, lived at her job 24/7, at Louis Armstrong International Airport, tending to the needs of the stranded and despairing masses there.

Later Friday, Britt drives me through portions of the flooded districts. For block upon block, from once-lively and eclectic residences in Lakeview and Mid-City, to country club mansions of Old Metairie, to cottages and bungalows near Tulane, girded by their stained waterlines, many ravaged by wind or fire damage in addition to the floodwaters, all stand vacant and quiet and sad.

We do not drive far enough to view the collapsing wrecks in the Ninth Ward, the ruins of New Orleans East.

It heartens me some to see repair and reconstruction crews working at a few scattered sites, and Britt points out the former location of an unspeakable 10-story debris pile in Lakeview that has been removed at last, but the overall scale of the remaining wastage appalls, overwhelms and numbs me.

"How many houses flooded and vacant in all, in the New Orleans metro?" I ask him.

"Somewhere around 200,000," he says.

As we bump along abandoned streets, I recall the final float in the Muses parade, a "ghost" float invoking Mnemosyne —Goddess of Memory, mother of the nine Muses, daughter of Heaven and Earth. In the wake of yesterday's sweet joy, it rolls past in silence, painted in simple black and white, hung with bead strands at the ready, lit with a hopeful incandescence, but eerily empty of riders.

Above the vacant space, emblazoned in wavy script is a coda to Muses Parade 2006:

We celebrate life.
We mourn the past.
We shall never forget.

So celebrate we do, even as we mourn. And as for forgetting—how could we? For all this now is our common memory, this confounding juxtaposition of Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, this inextricable linkage of celebration and loss that New Orleans has long evoked in all her heartbreaking grandeur—and reminds us how she always will.

Mark Wiggs is an attorney and writer who lives in Belhaven.


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