Photo: Shot from one of a million endless Mardi Gras parades, 2013.
It's Mardi Gras Tuesday. And I am not enjoying it! I have a nasty cold or flu exacerbated by a wrenched back. I think I got the cold because of the bad back--I had put an icepack down the back of my pants last week, it melted, and I went out in the cold with wet pants. Be that as it may, and miserable as I am, I reckon I am having about as much fun as I ever did on this bizarre holiday.
In 2013 I went for Mardi Gras to New Orleans--the Big Easy!--with my beloved friend Mary Petruska. We had an awful time then, too! Our joke was that I got hit by a car and she ended up in the hospital. Anyway, Mary's birthday was yesterday and I've been thinking about her. She died in 2016, still paying on the hospital bills from Mardi Gras. Waxing nostalgic, I eventually was unable to prevent myself from digging up some old photographs of that fateful trip, and the three-part account I wrote of it for the local rag. I offer them here as one of my periodic personal pieces, a special Mardi Gras Bob's Little Acre.
Again, it was in three parts so it is already long enough but I will make it yet longer by prefacing it with a "N'awlins" story I never got around to writing at the time--the only kind of fun one.
It was the actual day of Mardi Gras, Feb. 12--it fell on Mary's birthday that year--where I start the story below. She had kicked me out of her hospital room, forcing me to go out to the festival, but she couldn't force me to enjoy it! Alone, sober, depressed and wearing dirty jeans is no way to get into the spirit, and I didn't.
One New Orleans tradish I was determined to experience, though, was a shrimp poboy. I had always read about the Official New Orleans Sandwich and during the past unhappy couple of days hadn't had much to eat, and nothing good. So in a little cafe somewhere in the Quarter I stopped for a poboy and a beer.
The streets were already clogged with revelers but I had apparently beaten the lunch crowd. When I went in I not only found an empty table for one, I was also able to use the place's one bathroom without waiting.
As soon as I sat down, though, the place filled up. Soon there was not an empty seat in the house. My little table was across from the one bathroom, and the long line of people waiting for it--full of booze to dispose of though it was not properly noon yet--stretched past me to the door. The man standing in line beside my table was a big burly man in a long girly wig and ballet skirt. He reminded me of a neighbor of mine who always bossed me around. (Except for the ballet skirt.)
Meanwhile I got my poboy and had eaten enough of it to relegate it to The League of Disappointing Things. A lot of things you really look forward to in life end up in there! There was nothing wrong with the sandwich but I guess I had always thought there would be more to a shrimp poboy than just shrimp, a piece of French bread and a leaf of lettuce.
Anyway. Just as the girly wig man was adjacent to me in the line, two things happened at the very same time: (1) A waiter going into the kitchen door to my right dropped a trayful of bottles and glasses. The noise was deafening, and everybody in the restaurant turned to look. And (2) to my left, the person in the bathroom came out and closed the door behind him.
I was the only person to see no. 2, apparently--everybody else's head had swiveled to the broken glassware. So the next person in line just stood there in front of the empty but closed bathroom.
Of course I spoke up. "The bathroom is empty," I said. "The guy came out when you weren't looking." But the guy who was next in line didn't want to be pushy, and the burly guy in the ballet skirt boomed over me, "Nobody came out. I would have seen." He was just like my neighbor! Determined to discount what I said because I was, like, a girl! I argued a little but eventually shrugged and went primly back to my beer and my poboy. I wasn't the one who needed to go!
They all just stood there forever, shifting from foot to foot miserably, dying to pee, until people started complaining, "What are they doing in there?" and stuff like that. Then I finally said, "I told you, it's empty." And I forget whether I went to the door and opened it or whether the next person in line did, but then there was this really satisfying minute when the guy in the girly wig was publicly shamed and everybody was mad at him and I got to do the big I-told-you-so smirk.
I've always thought it was a perfect metaphor for my life as a small-time journalist. Nobody ever listens to me!
Robin and Mary’s Not-So-Excellent Mardi Gras Adventure, Part I (Featuring Pink Feathers, Perdition and One Sinister Frenchwoman)
I’ve been thinking about sin.
It’s mostly the timing. One Sunday, in the interest of journalism, I was pulling on my old purple dress to attend a Baptist church where women wearing pants was judged a sin and homosexuality right up there with murder and rape. An eye-blink later I was in New Orleans, where even the manliest men wore tutus or flippy little cheerleader skirts as they staggered through the French Quarter, drinking cheerfully.
And this was a religious observance, too.
Well, sort of. Mardi Gras is part of the Roman Catholic calendar, the mad “Fat Tuesday” celebration just before Lent. One of these days I’m going to look up the holiday’s history and how on earth it led to people dressing the way they do. I was unprepared for it, though my friend Mary and I had been told if we wanted pink feathers we had better bring them with us, because by Mardi Gras there wouldn’t be one pink feather left in New Orleans.
Pink feathers, my blue-jeaned butt! Pink feathers are the Mardi Gras equivalent of black dress and pearls. Yes, people wore feathers in their hair, or in their lurid blue or purple wigs (often topped with devil horns); but on the rest of their bodies they had on nothing even recognizable as clothing in Dade County.
One man wore a barrel, like in the cartoons to signify poverty. Other people were dressed as animals or types of food. A woman had added another pair of secondary sex characteristics to the ones she’d come by naturally, all four proudly displayed in skintight Spandex as she followed her adult beverage down Bourbon Street. And one man had costumed himself as a certain prized but usually unexhibited feature of the male anatomy, the whole effect intensely embarrassing but oddly reminiscent of U.S. Rep. Scott Desjarlais.
Enter your narrator, alone and peering myopically at a street map. I had asked a cop how to get to the French Quarter and he’d said: “Three blocks that way. You gone know.”
He was right, I did know, not just because of the quaint architecture but because of the reproductive organs reeling down the street swilling liquor. There were also plenty of people dressed as pirates and sorceresses and skeletons, and I remember thinking that New Orleans was sort of a Disney World for your drinker.
Me personally, I wore the usual blue jeans, spectacularly dirty by now. In planning the trip, I’d been worried about my lack of sartorial splendor, and Mary and I had bought pink feathers and even purple wigs. But by Mardi Gras proper, we’d been separated from our luggage for days, ever since I rode with Mary in the ambulance –
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even told you about the bicycles.
This, then, is the story of our Mardi Gras misadventure. I wanted to tell it here because people keep making knowing little comments like: “I imagine there was alcohol involved.” Ha! Like we ever got that far.
That had, of course, been the general idea. Neither of us had been to Mardi Gras before, but we’d heard stories and read exposés–music, drink, dancing in the street – and we wanted in.
Mary is an artist and I write, which means a double case of shallow pockets, and we never could have afforded the trip except that back in September we’d learned that if we booked far enough in advance, we could ride the Southern Crescent to New Orleans for $42. Plus Mary had a friend in New Orleans, a Frenchwoman, who invited us to stay at her apartment. A gracious offer, but the Frenchwoman (as in so many New Orleans stories!) was to be the instrument of our downfall.
Our hostess had grown up in Paris and moved to New York, two places where a car is more liability than asset. So she’d never learned to drive and she got around New Orleans entirely on bicycle. We hadn’t fully grasped that, nor the scope of the city.
The Frenchwoman had borrowed two bikes for Mary and me so we could tour the city with her. Both were large. I took the bigger because I’m a bit taller, but the other was still too large for Mary and she had trouble starting and stopping.
Are you beginning to sense doom yet? There had been portents even before!
(Photo: Mary, the driver and the Cajun.)
First, the train: The Crescent was canceled altogether for track work the first day we booked. Then, the day we rescheduled, our train killed a man walking on the tracks further north. There was an investigation, and the train was delayed for 18 hours. We despaired, but at the last minute Amtrak put us on “alternative transportation,” meaning: a bus.
We’d been looking forward to the train ride, but: a bus? I’ve always thought when I die and go to Hell they’ll send me there on a Greyhound. Still, we climbed aboard; then, on a desolate stretch of highway somewhere in Mississippi, the bus broke down.
In the end, a kindly Cajun in a rusty Ford pickup with barbed wire across the front grille stopped and fixed the bus. Still, the message was clear: Don’t go! Or at least: Drive.
(Photo: Elizabeth poses with the pickup. Not barbed wire in grille.
But we did go and we didn’t drive, so let us return now to that Saturday, our first day in the city immortalized by Tennessee Williams, where the streets have names like Desire and Gentility so that at one corner you can stand where Race meets Religion.
And where, in Part 2 of this epistle, Mary and I climb on our bicycles and follow the Frenchwoman to where Hope meets –
(To be continued …)
Robin And Mary’s Mardi Gras Misadventure: Part II
(We resume this narrative where Part I left off, with our hapless heroines following a subtly menacing Frenchwoman into New Orleans on oversized bicycles, amid signs and portents that made streets flowing with blood look like BALLOONS AND A FRUIT BASKET.)
Mary and I followed the Frenchwoman out into the Ninth Ward, which had been deep underwater during Hurricane Katrina. The houses were modest and some were missing altogether, along with churches and schools that had never been rebuilt. Still, the residue of that terrible flood gave the place a certain seaside ambience and from the standpoint of somebody riding a bicycle it was anyway flat.
And it was spring! It was early February but in New Orleans azaleas were blooming and lantana, and those Japanese magnolias that take a girl’s breath away. I circled back to admire them, always bringing up the rear.
Outside places are my chief joy but I am willing to admit I move across them with the ponderous sick inevitability of the Russian Army. I do eventually roll into Berlin, but perhaps others find me pokey. Mary would zoom past me like an SST, smirking, and the Frenchwoman said: “Myself, I ride 25 miles each day without fail.” And another time: “I love to eat and would be big as a house if it were not for my bicycle.” (This was at lunch, while I was cramming something in my mouth.)
We helped the Frenchwoman with her pet project, a “street library” for the Ninth Ward children. That day it was in a community garden. We read kid-books about gardening, then planted raised beds into which, despite our best efforts, the children sowed enough seeds for Kansas. “These are my friends from Chattanooga, Tennessee,” the Frenchwoman told them.
Mary corrected her that it was Dade County, Georgia, and the Frenchwoman said: “Whatever. Just keep ze children from killing each other with ze hoes.”
Mary and I enjoyed the children but were unaccustomed to their rampageous ways, and when they had dispersed I said, with feeling: “I understand beer is sold in New Orleans?”
The Frenchwoman replied: “But we will be late for ze parade!” So we rode on.
A word on cycling: There is a reason bicycle pants are padded in certain key areas. Neither Mary nor I had ridden a bicycle for so long in years and by midafternoon we had discovered that reason. But we rode on!
Things I remember from that long, long day are: the Mississippi River, the levee and the “wedding cake houses” built for riverboat captains. We visited an open-air market where I snuffled hopefully around for beer but found only handcrafted soap. We’d meet men and the Frenchwoman would introduce us – “These are my friends from Chattanooga, Tennessee” – later explaining confidentially: “One of my former lovers.”
A terrifying drawbridge separated us from the main part of town. I took a picture of Mary and the Frenchwoman watching it lower after letting a ship pass. When it was down again cars zipped across looking like the Scary Traffic scene in cartoons. We felt like bugs about to fly into the zapper and the Frenchwoman allowed us to push our bikes through an underpass, but she said coming back that night we must cross the bridge or risk murder.
Later, my husband said, “You were riding bicycles in traffic? At Mardi Gras? Where people are drunk? Without helmets?”
But I never thought about helmets, only: hats. Mary is an artist and dresses with a certain flair. The Frenchwoman was, well, French. In the bridge photograph, Mary wears a hat with a feather and the Frenchwoman a small flattish affair she’d chosen after discarding another, pronouncing: “Eet ees not me.” With my jeans and cotton BOPs (“big ole panties”), I was consumed with fashion angst.
We rode on.
Night fell as we watched the (endless!) parade. There were marching bands and Greek gods and people in malevolent masks throwing beads. It went by so slowly I felt it was the sidewalk moving instead, with me on it, and I realized I was dizzy with fatigue. Across the street a shop sign flashed POBOYS and BEER and I ached with longing.
But it was not to be! After the parade the Frenchwoman said: “This is a madhouse. I know a quiet Italian restaurant nearby.” So back to the bikes! And after that: “Ze jazz club opens at 10. It is just a few blocks.”
It was never “a few blocks.” It was miles. The Frenchwoman charged ever forward, sailing through red lights without pausing. I think it was the jazz club she was aiming for all night, that someone special was in the band. But what a scene from hell that was! Men in tutus, blowing cigar smoke at us. We rode on!
It had to end somewhere and it did. The Frenchwoman went through a green light on Chartres Street, then Mary, and I was bringing up the rear as usual when a car slammed into me.
There were brakes screeching and people screaming and I realized I was dead. Then I thought: OK, maybe crippled. Then I got up from the pavement without a scratch. So. Maybe I really am the Russian Army.
The Frenchwoman offered to call a taxi but I didn’t want to be any trouble: How would we get the bikes home? So we climbed back on. And not 10 minutes later, for no apparent reason – fatigue? saddle sores? – Mary went sailing in slo-mo off her bicycle and –
It was some kind of cosmic error, I expect, but our joke in the ensuing days was: “Robin got hit by a car and Mary’s in the hospital.”
Let’s leave the story there, the Frenchwoman alone with three bicycles – I don’t care, I hate those bicycles! – while Mary and I speed off in an ambulance to an ER, only to be greeted with the words:
“I imagine there was alcohol involved?”
(To be continued…)
Part 3: Denouement
Robin and Mary’s Mardi Gras MisAdventure: The Denouement
By Robin Ford Wallace
“I imagine alcohol was involved?”
That’s the first thing the bearded young doctor said to us when Mary was wheeled into the curtained-off treatment cubicle in the ER.
It struck us as an odd thing for a doctor to say; but later, after he had come back shaking his head grimly over Mary’s X-ray, we wondered if he wasn’t a doctor at all but someone who had escaped from a nearby asylum. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d whipped out a rifle and shot her. Whatever happened to, “You’re going to be just fine”?
However he delivered it, though, the message was clear: Mary had broken hell out of her leg. It would require enough pins for a bowling alley. Mary, who hadn’t been in a hospital since her tonsillectomy at 6, was here for a while.
So it began: People began arriving in the cubicle to ask: How old are you? How tall? How much do you weigh? Do you smoke? Apparently nobody wrote down the answers because the next person would ask the same questions.
At perhaps the 10th repetition, though, there was a surprise: The orthopedic surgeon noticed the age Mary gave didn’t match her year of birth. Her birthday this year fell on Mardi Gras; she knew that. But she’d been in denial about which one: This one had a zero at the end!
This orthopedic surgeon was a tiny, beautiful Asian-American woman, young and modern, but what she did next could have come out of an old Western, or the song where Lorne Greene saves the life of Ringo (“But a spark still burned so I used my knife”).
“This is going to hurt,” she said. “Now or later?”
Mary said to get it over with. The doctor put her little hands on Mary’s leg, reared back and –
Oh – my – God. Such screaming.
I slunk off to the waiting room. Mary was pumped full of dope but still in terrible pain. The doctor said she’d operate in the morning if it could be arranged.
It could not.
I am flopping around here trying to find words to tell you the reality of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It’s huge, overshadowing. Wherever you need to go, there’s a parade between you and it, sometimes two. I think sooner or later they’ll have to outlaw it, it’s just too dangerous. But people love it there and the nurses in the ward would call, “Happy Moddy Gras” as they went off shift, like we say, “Merry Christmas.”
Mary was prepped for surgery three times that first couple of days, Saturday night into Monday. But they never could get the surgeon and the equipment in the same room at the same time, and on Monday afternoon they gave up until after the holiday. So Mary just lay there until the surgery finally happened the ensuing Thursday, at $1200 a night. She didn’t have it, or health insurance.
I didn’t, either.
I spent Saturday night wondering if Hell was a waiting room. This one was full of Mardi Gras casualties, young revelers and old drunks and a middle-aged couple gorgeously dressed for a ball. Their names would be called and off they would walk or hobble to their final destination.
Nobody called mine! I hadn’t asked for medical attention, though as the night wore on it became clear I hadn’t emerged unscathed from being hit by a car after all. My right knee began to swell and throb as I shifted miserably in the hard plastic chair, and when I got up to check on Mary I dragged the leg like Igor. I just hadn’t wanted to be scathed! At ER prices, I couldn’t afford to be scathed! Anyway, all I wanted now was sleep.
Sunday afternoon, I got my wish, courtesy of two Chattanooga friends who had traveled to NOLA with us on the train-turned-bus, then gone their ways, planning to meet us later. One of these, Jeannie, had since mysteriously gained access to a car; the other, Elizabeth, to a house on Dauphine where she was dog-sitting. So they swooped in with the one to deliver me to the other.
I’d asked them to bring our luggage from the Frenchwoman’s place in the Ninth Ward. They had, and they’d also brought the Frenchwoman! So everyone paid respects to Mary, then off we four sped into the streets of New Orleans, Elizabeth Andretti-like behind the wheel. The Frenchwoman turned whiter and whiter, and finally leapt out at a stoplight and vomited into a trashcan.
It is true the Frenchwoman was unused to car travel. It is also true Elizabeth drives with a certain dash. As she does everything! I cannot mention her here without noting she is the source of the fashion angst that keeps cropping up in this narrative: She never goes to the grocery store without a feather boa, minimum.
On our way we stopped at a wonderful downtown grocery store, Rouse, a New Orleans institution. I mention this because of course all we foodies got separated as we gaped at the goodies, and when I checked out – after wandering bedazed for what seemed hours, so I was worried they’d left me – I took the wrong door and ended in a city street. Then I found the parking lot and realized I didn’t know what the car looked like! And then I realized I’d spent all the money I had on me, my wallet was in the car, and my cell phone had died!
Mary in the Ninth Ward, helping kids plant a raised bed. One of my (many!) regrets about that trip is never getting to see what came up there. The kids planted everything from daisies to corn.
I had almost given up, and commenced to keen, when Elizabeth mercifully emerged from the store and walked straight to the car – where the whole time the Frenchwoman had been sitting in the passenger seat! She was hunched over biliously from the car ride but still visibly and inexorably the Frenchwoman, like a beacon.
Anyway, we got to Elizabeth’s dog-sitting house and there I slept until Monday, when our friends returned me to the hospital. By then my every fifth word was AUGHHH as I stepped on the dog’s chew toys or tried to dress. So I was resigned to scathehood, and from the hospital I hitched a ride on the institution’s shuttle bus to an urgent-care clinic Mary’s nurses told me about, for an X-ray.
There I was examined by a peppery lady GP with the peculiar name “O’Bear.” Or so I thought until, two days later, having at last found a drugstore and succeeded in locating the prescription she’d given me at the same time, I saw her name typed out: Vicky Hebert, M.D. It’s French and pronounced “A. Bear,” and apparently it’s the New Orleans equivalent of Smith or Jones.
Dr. Hebert gave me joyous tidings: My knee wasn’t broken, just bruised. But when I asked how to get back to the hospital, the news was not so good: “You can’t.” There were not one but two intersecting parades today, Dr. Hebert told me, so neither taxis nor trolleys were running.
Thus I set off on foot – note singular! – Igoring it along beside one of the parades, and paced by a float carrying the usual Greek god, plus a clump of men dressed as chefs – hell, maybe they were chefs – throwing beads. It still hurt when I stepped wrong but I was so elated I wasn’t broken like poor Mary that I was walking on air, and I quoted Shakespeare cheerfully to myself about love’s light wings o’erperching walls 'n stuff.
But mostly I was thinking about: food. I hadn’t been able to interest Mary in takeout orders– she had to use a bedpan and said it all just turned into poop – but New Orleans is partly about eating out and I hadn’t had my crack at that part. I was torn between poboys – authenticity – and Vietnamese – proximity; there was a restaurant right beside the hospital.
But when I went in to check first with Mary, the nurses were just packing her up to be transferred to the big bleak charity hospital across town. They said I could ride in the ambulance with her, and since she would have a private room at the new place I would be allowed to sleep on a cot beside her.
This hospital, University, was in a bad section of town and when we got there the staff warned me not to venture outside at night. So I dined that evening from the vending machines in the basement, and subsequently I would eat the food off Mary’s plate that she wouldn’t touch on the poop principle. So much for the fabled cuisine of New Orleans!
At the first hospital, Touro, everything had been posh and carpeted and everyone was nice to us except one mean nurse with an ugly voice. At the second everything was bare and tiled and everyone was mean to us except one little sweetheart nurse who had dimples and called Mary Twinkletoes. She was the only one who could make Mary smile.
I slept on the cot until I had to leave town, not just because I had nowhere else to go – I mean, there was that – but also because I was worried that the big mean institution would kill Mary if I didn’t remain vigilant. Mary said, “Don’t be ridiculous, Robin; I really believe in socialism.”
But if it was socialist in décor, that hospital later sent Mary a bill as running-dog as anything I’ve ever seen! Mary said Touro was more reasonable about adjusting downward.
Anyway, that next period was our really miserable time. If I’d worried the nurses would neglect Mary, they did anyway come every four hours through the night to check her vitals; then the bright young residents rolled in with their stethoscopes and their new white coats at 6 a.m. It didn’t bother Mary because she was too miserable during the day to do anything but sleep or watch television; but for weeks after I got home I couldn’t sit down in my reading chair without passing out.
People kept putting paper bracelets on Mary every time she was transferred or prepped or sedated, until she had a collection on her wrist she had me photograph because she said it was as close as she would get to racking up Mardi Gras beads.
Mary was depressed. Well, that’s inadequate. It’s not wrong but it doesn’t cover the facts. Mary, who is usually hopeful and friendly and New-York tough, your veritable little Yankee sunbeam, was a small shrunken figure under the sheets with a whispery toneless voice, who wouldn’t turn off the TV.
And on Tuesday morning – Mardi Gras, and her 60th birthday – she tossed me out of the room so I could witness the holiday, and she could suffer alone.
I limped down Canal Street, incidentally getting socked in the left eye by two strands of beads thrown from the usual parade –
A word on parades: All that nonsense you hear about procuring Mardi Gras beads via a roguish display of the full frontals? My frontals aren’t that full and anyway I promise you they stayed primly within their sartorial confines, I was in no mood here, but I was dodging beads like shrapnel! At Mardi Gras you have to run faster than I do to come home beadless.
– and thus arrived at the French Quarter where we began this chronicle, and where I saw a T-shirt with the New Orleans motto: “Sin. Repent. Repeat."
Sin? Mary and I had only wanted to drink a little beer and watch the fun in the Quarter. Where’s the sin in that? But the Big Easy smacked us to the mat on day one while others stayed drunk in the street all week and took no harm. Really, we later speculated Mary might have landed more gracefully from that bicycle had she been a little more lubricated.
Anyway, what sense does it make I should be hit by a car and Mary should be the one with $100,000 of medical bills?
I think the message here is there’s no logic in destiny: No matter what the preachers say about sin and subsequent perdition, you can’t tell God what to do.
And you sure as hell can’t tell New Orleans!