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Mardi Gras 2006 / Gentilly: Party at Ground Zero

April 12, 2006

Before arriving in New Orleans, I heard about the Krewe of Dreux, whose home base is in a neighborhood near UNO called Gentilly. This area, along with the Lakeview district, was flooded with roughly twelve feet of water after the breach of the 17th Street levee. The debris piles are larger here, and the water line is so high that for a moment it looks like ordinary sun damage, or maybe the shadow of a telephone line. On some houses it is hard to see because it is above roof level.

The Krewe of Dreux’s ethos and aesthetic could be pegged somewhere between a Grateful Dead show, a renaissance festival and a biker wedding, maybe an Easter parade on acid. This year, they are rolling on the Saturday before Mardi Gras.

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The ragtag prankster procession ventures out into the street, through the devastated neighborhood. There are people who have come to watch the parade; others sit on lawn chairs next to their FEMA trailer, or are in town to work on rebuilding their homes. Many come out to cheer the Krewe of Dreux, some in white HazMat jumpsuits that are the unofficial uniform of reconstruction. The parade has grown to around 200 people, with a drum circle and the king and queen in full regal attire and carrying the krewe’s standard at the front. A traditional New Orleans brass band brings up the rear, replete with a marshal in top hat and tails, dancing with a woman decked out in black cape, tiara, and carrying an ornate parasol. The costumes are funky, ranging from yellow togas that seem like Hare Krishna garb to harlequin tunics and jester caps. Many are humorously topical, HazMat suits with day-glo orange vests, festooned with garlands of fake marijuana leaves, and at least two made from blue plastic tarp material: one, that looks like a burka, and the other a miniskirt and halter top. Everything is beautifully haphazard, simultaneously traditional and improvised.

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The parade returns to the bar where we first gathered just as a heavy downpour begins. A band plays raucous blues inside, and people huddle under a tent or crowd into the bar. This was the local watering hole, and like everywhere else in Gentilly it was flooded out. The interior is gutted, and the bar itself is a makeshift counter of raw plywood. Toasts are made, the crowd cheers, people write welcome home graffiti on the blank sheetrock walls. More than one person is moved to tears. It’s a family reunion, a homecoming, and a bacchanal. It’s Mardi Gras in Gentilly.

After dark, I return to my friends’ home, in the Mid-City neighborhood. Their electricity and plumbing work, unlike much of the city. By the time I take a shower and change, it has gotten late, and I am hungry. Although I know that there are restaurants open in the French Quarter, I figure I’d be better off getting something quick and uncomplicated at a convenience store or fast food joint. After three gas station food marts close just as we arrive, and a packed Speedy Burger drive-thru grinds to a dead stop, I learn that there is no food, gas, or other supplies to be had anywhere in the city outside the quarter after ten pm. Store owners do not have enough staff to stay open for normal hours, and when a place closes, it’s as though they are keeping looters away.

Less than half of the city’s population has returned, and the crowd in town for Mardi Gras is much smaller than usual. What if there were more people in town? Would there be food riots in New Orleans, six months after Katrina? I can control my hyperbolic imagination, but I go to bed with a lingering sense of the city’s emptiness, a communal, anonymous loneliness. New Orleans is haunted in a very different way than it used to be.

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