Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mardi Gras is a Legal Holiday in Louisiana

Store Sign in Downtown Eunice

Outside of Louisiana, it’s hard to grasp what Mardi Gras means, in-state.  For me, as a child from another place, Mardi Gras just meant a pancake dinner in a church fellowship hall.  A few dollars for a few pancakes swirled over with synthetic syrup.  Then busily, we went about Lent, repentant. 

I imagined, then, that in New Orleans, people paraded on Mardi Gras day but would have never guessed that the Fat Tuesday festivities were actually the culmination of weeks of parades.  And that all day, every day parading began the weekend before Mardi Gras.  Or that everyone, from kindergarteners to university students had several days off from school.  Or that people decorated their houses with beads and wreaths and colored lights.  Or that Mardi Gras was actually a legal holiday on the scale of Christmas or Thanksgiving.

I was reminded of all of this during last week’s episode of Treme, set during Mardi Gras season.  As friends and I ohhed and ahhed over the king cake that one New York transplant received from a friend in New Orleans, Helana (who makes an excellent King Cake, herself) said, “You know, the rest of the country is probably really confused by this entire episode.”

Which seemed possible, though it summed up a lot, and I appreciated that David Simon hadn’t explained everything—just let you glimpse and guess: the neon green, gold, and purple gooey goodness of king cake, the grandeur of the Mardi Gras Indians, the lengths people go to for trophy throws, like Zulu’s coconuts or Muses’ shoes, the way Bourbon Street shuts down at the stroke of midnight like a dirty version of Cinderella, and how there’s an entirely different tradition in the country, in towns like Basile, Iota, Eunice, and Mamou.

Mamou is where I spent last Mardi Gras day, with my friend Leah and her father, Dan Willis. 

I think we should do the country Mardi Gras this year, she’d said, and I responded a little non-commitally, much like the DJ on the show.  

The Courir de Mardi Gras . . . I loved the idea of following a caravan of men dressed in hand-sewn costumes riding on horseback from house to house as they begged for the ingredients of a communal gumbo to be cooked at the end of the day when the riders galloped back into town, but it seemed to raise an obvious problem, one also evoked on the show: being in Mamou on Mardi Gras meant not being in New Orleans.

It’s worth it, she said simply.  The DJ on the show wasn’t convinced to go, but I was. 

Lundi Gras 2011: Dan, Leah, and I arrive in Grand Mamou in time for an outdoor dance near the famed Fred’s Lounge.  

First, we sampled barbeque sandwiches and boudin and crawfish nachos. 

Boudin: Pork Sausage with Rice Inside

“I think we should taste everything,” Dan said.

“Your Dad makes an excellent point,” I seconded.

So, we food-stand hopped.

Then we scrawled something a little rowdy in the guest book for the time capsule.  Something some member of the historical society probably whited out later.

Finally, we wandered into the field of hundreds of locals bobbing to the zydeco beats of a live band blaring out over the trampled grass.

Leah’s father pulled us into a huddle in the middle of the swaying dancers, some of whom had balanced cans of beer on their heads as they moved to the music, and spoke real low:

 Look, girls.  Our job is to liven these people up.  We bring the fun wherever we go, got it? We bring the fun.  He said it like the future depended on it.  Like we had better not mess this up, damnit.

So, we each took one of his hands, looped through each others’ limbs as we spun and leapt and rolled into his arms then unfurled like party streamers, weaving together then untangling against the starry sky in Big Mamou. 

Girls, I think our work is done here, he said after half an hour. . . . But those people over there look a little bored. C’mon.  

We moved through another patch of dancers.   And another.  Shimmied.  Shaked.  Got jovial.  Got joyous.   Brought the fun until he declared our work done.

My Dad’s ready to party, Leah had warned me when she picked me up.  Hope you can keep up.

The next morning, we woke up before six and made our way to the site of the prior night’s gathering, wondering if some people had never left.  Men having Bud Light for breakfast danced on horses and sung the Mardi Gras song until it was time to gather for a secret meeting, (which I envisioned as a slightly larger version of our huddle) before meandering down the highway.

Pre-Ride Meeting, Right Before the Door Closed

 Granted, with the horses and hoods, the preponderance of white men and the closed discussions, it can briefly feel like you stumbled into a group of Klansmen.  But the tradition dates back to the medieval fĂȘte de la quĂ©mande, when rural communities pooled their resources in the harshest period of winter.  The hoods or capuchons, mock the elaborate hairstyles of women nobility and the garb of religious figures like the pope.  It’s actually illegal to wear a hooded costume or head covering in Louisiana except for on the expected occasions and for religious purposes, seemingly because of the association of facial coverings with Klan activities. 

In the Morning, Pre-Courir

At each house on the route, the capitaine, the only uncostumed member of the caravan, spoke to the owner and asked for permission to approach.  Neighbors contributed ingredients . . . rice, vegetables, chickens . . . the latter gets tossed into the air while twenty or so men scramble through the mud to catch them. Then, everyone sings the Mardi Gras song and dances for a few minutes before moving to the next house.

Post-Chicken Chase

Throughout the day, Dan received a steady stream of phone calls from work.  He’d listen for a few minutes, punctuate the pauses with “Mmm-hmm.” and “I see,” then say, abruptly, “Well, Mardi Gras is a legal holiday in Louisiana.”

I loved the way he said it.  Definitively.  As if he were sternly informing his client that they might both be flirting with misdemeanor charges for discussing work in such untimely circumstances.  As if they both had better hang up immediately in case the line was tapped and someone heard them talking shop when they ought to be bringing the fun.

 Then he’d laugh and say, I can’t even tell you where I am right now.  All I know is I’m riding down this dusty road in the outskirts of Mamou in a line of about 25 cars watching a bunch of coonasses chase chickens. 

Coonass is a word originally used as a slur against Cajuns that has been affectionately appropriated by many Cajuns, themselves.  Several of my students claim to use it fairly regularly in their families; others categorically don’t use it.  Like any reworked word, what’s signified depends on who’s saying it and how.  Here, it was used with great affection and identification.

We didn’t stay for the gumbo.  We wanted to catch the return of the riders in Eunice, a nearby town that allows women and children to participate in the courir.  Our work in Mamou was done.

And that’s how I remember Dan Willis.  In his leather jacket in a field in Grand Mamou.  Surveying the scene after he’d dizzied us with his dance moves.  All of us laughing as he congratulated us on a job well done.  Trusting that the fun would stay right where we’d put it even after we'd left. 

Boots and Saddles