The Crescent left Pennsylvania Station at 2:15 in the afternoon and bore south beneath a tin-roof sky. With my feet I cradled two gallons of water. It would be 30 hours to New Orleans, and an unholy pilgrimage.
A group of women in the middle of the car tried on masks and draped themselves in plastic beads. Two teenage girls sang loudly, unembarrassed, and thumbed the keypads of their phones. Men in football jerseys ate pork rinds. Skinny college kids with oversized glasses waited nervously for the next cigarette stop. Somewhere in the darkness between Charlotte and Greenville, a fight broke out. A woman and a man screamed at each other beside the handicap restroom. “Shut up,” she yelled, and in the fallen silence demanded, “Don’t you have anything to say?” Morning boarded the train in Birmingham with a woman dressed in a purple turban and a lime green kimono, her neck laden with beads, her face split by an unshakable smile.
In Tuscaloosa, the conductor cried, “All aboard!” and the train set off. Somehow he found himself still standing beside the tracks. He clawed at the accelerating locomotive. His heels ploughed furrows in the gravel.
“Stop the train!” a man shrieked from the door of the car.
“He’s left his shoes,” a woman murmured to her husband.
I put my palms over my ears and closed my eyes.
The train lurched, and came grudgingly to a halt. The teenagers burst into a fit of giggles as the conductor was pulled aboard. He straightened his jacket. “To your right you’ll see one of the largest man-made lakes in the country,” he announced. No one turned to the windows. “Can you see if his pants are ripped?” a woman asked, as she leaned over her companion for a better view.
In the afternoon, passengers crowded into the lounge car and lined up for liquor. I played hearts with two frat boys who called themselves Red and Straw, and a droopy-eyed limousine driver named Vaughn. Vaughn leaned over to show me his business card and spilled his drink across the table.
The city was a miracle of order and goodwill. The taxis drove; the parades paraded; we were endured.
“All I want for Mardi Gras is to be drunk the whole time,” he said.
“And to get laid,” added Straw.
“Aw, man, I don’t even care about that,” Vaughn replied. He sipped from his empty cup. “I hope I’m too drunk to get laid.”
Straw studied his hand, selected an ace of diamonds, and reconsidered. Outside, the sky held a mouthful of lightning.
The cards had been ruined, soaked in rum, when the train heaved itself at last into New Orleans. Disgorged pilgrims made for the taxis waiting to take them to Mardi Gras.
The city was, as one local put it, “upside down.” Barbeques and outhouses blocked the intersections; crossings were hampered by floats and marching bands. Plastic bags choked feet and ankles. Plastic beads tangled in the oaks. A man leaned from the window of a taxicab and vomited streams of neon purple.
Beneath the tourists, the city seemed to hold itself at an impenetrable distance.
I’d heard that Mardi Gras is the event that explains New Orleans, and it seemed to confirm that the city exists as a spectacle—like a film star past her prime, perhaps in rehab, New Orleans captures our attention with twinned images of excess and ruin. Since the oil spill two years ago, all of southern Louisiana appears marked by self-destruction.
On Bourbon Street, dancers in tighty-whities gyrated on a bar for a thin audience of men. The onlookers fidgeted, as if twisting around their fingers a too-tight wedding band. Part of New Orleans’ strangeness is its role as destination in the secret exoduses of the Bible Belt. The city offers a curtained stage, tolerating and shielding their exposures.
A middle-aged man in loose jeans and a collared shirt untangled himself from the shadows of the bar and approached a dancer. He was unsteady, maybe nervous, as he ran his hand up the dancer’s thigh. He slid a thin fold of bills down the front of the dancer’s underwear. He let his hand linger. It was a clear and crude violation of some protocol, but the dancer merely stepped back, and cast down a look of surprising patience.
Tolerance may be a simple requisite for a bar dancer, but it says something about Louisiana, too. New Orleans at Mardi Gras was indeed upside down, but the only thing wild about it, really, were the tourists. Beneath their unruliness the city was a miracle of order and goodwill. The taxis drove; the parades paraded; we were endured. Later, someone would come to clean the streets.
If Mardi Gras is about degradation, it’s also about spirit—the spirit that patches the city together in the wreckage that visitors leave behind. I don’t mean only tourists, but also incompetent officials and hungry developers in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath; the oil industry; and all of us who pay a symbolic visit to the coast of Louisiana at the gas pump. Once the Mississippi Delta might have concealed our messy desires, but lately the damages of our expeditions well up, and spill over.
If Mardi Gras is about exposure, it’s an exposure of the destructive consumption that marks America as a whole, not just Louisiana. But the other side of Mardi Gras is a masking. It is the city’s own withholding, a resistance to furtive hands.
“Down here, we can tell just by looking at you if your spirit is right,” a local musician told me a few days after Mardi Gras.
Our gaze is less accurate. In the region’s disasters—and in its celebrations—we recognize chaos and degradation, instead of the resilience and grace that rises to meet exploitation. We are not seeing through a window, but failing to recognize ourselves in the reflection on the glass.