Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Escape to NOLA: My First Mardi Gras

MY FIRST TIME ON AMTRAK was more or less painless. I'd done some train travel from NY to Connecticut before, but nothing like this. Nothing like 30 hours across cityscapes, woods and open pastures en route from the heart of Manhattan to New Orleans, Louisiana. To most, the very idea of being train-bound for more than a couple hours is the stuff of nightmares (my friends are still questioning my sanity for doing it), but to me, it was a well-deserved dose of uninterrupted serenity. Observance. A clear mind. Engagement of all the senses. I hear the tinkering of loose gears and panels of the overhead luggage compartments. The crinkling of an aluminum snack bag giving way to a hungry set of hands. The blaring of the vessel's horns piercing the quiet of midnight and dispensing itself across the outskirts of Virginia. The stale and loaded coughs of the woman in the next row with the overly active polyphonic ringtone. Her voice is husky and weary with age. "I'm trying to get some sleep, but you guys won't let me," she groans into the phone after what feels like her 15th incoming call of the day.


I take a bite of the second half of my cold-ish Subway sandwich and a swig of the smoothie I prepared before I left my house nearly nine hours ago. As I dine by myself (my two travel mates are asleep now), I can hear the shuffling of feet down the aisle on the way to the restroom, then back to their seats. And soon the sleepy silence of the night coupled with the scattered fluorescent white glow of entertainment devices -- phones, iPads, laptops, kindles -- trying their best to amuse the night owls and folks unable to slip into their second nap time. 

I wake up early enough to see everyone else wake up. Groggy, lining up to the restroom to brush their teeth, staring out the windows idly. The woman in front of me has on blue footie pajamas and was rolling up a joint in plain sight yesterday. She and her two excited (and shoeless) comrades speak in the sort of slanted banter that makes me want to travel more. And farther. I can see a burgundy passport resting on the other woman's lap. England, I believe. Her boyfriend nearly stumbled over backwards when we passed the Lincoln Memorial riding out of D.C., eyes wide, grin wider as he took in the sight of the statues glowing in majesty. I barely looked over. I'd seen it before. D.C. was my backyard for four years and I barely cared about the monuments. But to see this foreigner get starry-eyed just to pass stiff presidents at 90 mph… I want that. I want that kind of appreciation for new sights that are old to everyone else. I want for my navy blue passport to be the oddball of the bunch. Instead, I lean back in this American train, stare at folded lawn chairs in the middle of woody American backyards and fields of American cows chowing down on grass. I recline the cushy seat as far back as it can go and stretch my legs, allowing my body to rock with the cradle-like motion of the train, letting my mind drift to non-American places as I wait for us to pull up hours later alongside the Mercedes Benz SuperDome. My time will come, but for now, this trip will do. 




ON OUR WAY TO THE FIRST of many ventures to Bourbon Street, things got random. I learned just how approachable I appear to the non-black eye. As we board a transfer shuttle at Napoleon Avenue to take us the rest of the way to the French Quarter, a thirty-something (maybe?) year old white man spots the "I Love Howard University" pin attached to my denim jacket and sees it as the perfect entryway into conversation. "Oh, I know that school!" he told me proudly. "That's in D.C., the one that's predominantly African-American." His voice straightened and sobered on "African-American" as if I were a school teacher giving him a pop quiz. I nodded. "Didn't Rand Paul speak there?" Jolly, drunk and political conspiracist white man spent the next 30 minutes praising Paul for bravely speaking in front of an audience with such largely and strongly opposing viewpoints from him, how the political system needs to be scrapped and revamped, and of course President Obama, who he affectionately referred to as "that guy" or "Obushma." 


As he rambled on about the anti-American "fuckers" trying to ruin our lives, I struggled to avoid giving him the dismissive nod and smile. I didn't want him to think I agreed with all of his leftist political jargon. To be fair, he wasn't all bad. He was friendly and assumed we were well-versed enough to keep up with all his facts and figures and gave us consolation prizes for lending an ear to his eon-long Kanye rant. My friend Desire chose the light up necklace blinking around his neck and I chose the silver set of beads with stars and moons that read "Morpheus." That randomness totally set the tone for a wild week. 



I'M ON A TROLLEY rolling steadily down St. Charles Avenue. The continuous row of towering oak trees arch over the path like guardian angels. Mansions belonging to camps and krewes smile back at us as we pass. Tranquility outside, pleasant pandemonium inside. Purple, gold and green tutus, striped shirts, socks, beads and any other possible piece of Mardi Gras-themed paraphernalia imaginable fills the car. A guy in a Pinocchio getup with a Fleur-de-lis shaved into the side of his head, with a girl dressed as a hamburger hanging onto his waist, asks me if he's making it into my journal, since he sees my pen going to work. I tell him he is, and he helps me craft his narrative. "There is a guy in German folk dance getup," he says to me, "and he looks like he's uncomfortable hanging onto the car straps like this, but he's not. He's simply enjoying life." I jot this all down. He looks at my hair. My rope-like twists are tossed and tousled into a high bun. He smiles in admiration. "He was going to wear his hair up like that this morning," he adds jokingly, "but he didn't have the time."



We're chugging along past Audobon Park. A little boy no more than two years old is sandwiched between his parents and leaning out the window trying to admire all the nature outside. The parents pull him back in gently. 


"Hey, it's my friend's birthday!," someone beside Mega-Pinocchio exclaims to the contained crowd. "Can we all sing to him?" On the count of three, the entire trolley sang loudly to "Alex." We wonder if it's really his birthday. "It is now," someone says. A man in suspenders, Pepto Bismol pink stockings, sparkly briefs, false lashes and nothing else squeezes through the crowded car to get off, beer in-hand. "He wins," a commentator declares aloud to no one in particular once the pretty man is safely on the sidewalk. I chuckle to myself and keep writing. It was the calmest my stay in the Big Easy would be. 



OVER THE COURSE OF SIX DAYS (drink in hand each one), I'd been entertained by drunk hipsters and musicians during the final few hours of the train ride in, danced in a parade down Oak Street, made friends that I felt like I knew way longer than a few hours, run into old friends and schoolmates in different spots of the city, and ditched my clean diet to brunch, lunch and dine on enough carbs and seafood to make me worry about my body's mercury levels.






I'd bought a cannibus lollipop (relax, I did research, there's actually nothing in them), gone to a cookout with Solange, sang "Independent Women" at karaoke, got over my fear of gambling and won my first $10 in Harrah's Casino (well, $5 actually, since my friend Camille and I split our winnings), played a frightful game of jumbo Jenga with building blocks and grabbed at beads and dollar bills tossed from gridiron balconies in exchange for a tit show (I showed no tits). 








Unfortunately, we missed the Zulu parade, but only because it happened at 8am and it was rainy, cold, and we all felt colds coming on. But other than that, everything was perfect.



THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE AFTERMATH. A spectrum of metallic painted beads hung from streetcar live wires and exhausted trees like strange fruit. The air was brisk, unlike the 75 degree weekend, clean and for once didn't smell like Hand Grenades, Hurricanes and draft beer. The thick trash carpet that upholstered the wide streets had been stripped from the ground. On our last night, we headed straight from a Bourbon street diner to our hotel just to grab our bags then straight to the airport. As we unloaded the suitcases from my new friend's station wagon (thanks for the ride!) and made our way past the curb-side check-in, just like the inhabitants of my second favorite city had done at the start of Ash Wednesday, I snapped back into reality. My first Mardi Gras -- the holiday instantly associated with escapism, the YOLO ideology, hedonist indulgence and just a damn good time -- was officially over.



This is the first long-read entry in my travel series. For more pictures, check out my website.

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