Mardi Gras Flame

Fear and fesitivity in New Orleans

Fatima Shaik

The neigh­bor­hood where my cousins raised their chil­dren still looks like a ghost town, and every­one I know can count on their fin­gers two hand­fuls of peo­ple they know who have died since Kat­ri­na. But dur­ing this sec­ond Mar­di Gras since the storm, the sur­vivors are vis­i­ble and they are hold­ing on to their cul­ture with the tenac­i­ty of pit bulls, with (and most­ly with­out) gov­ern­ment assistance. 

We are all walking warriors now, a friend of mine commented. Hammering warriors, red-tape fighting warriors, mouse catching and sanity maintaining warriors abound

Pontchar­train Park, Gen­til­ly and the 7th Ward are not the most dev­as­tat­ed areas of New Orleans. (The Indus­tri­al Canal did not rush through their homes on the day after the hur­ri­cane with the force of a tsuna­mi.) But they are areas that took any­where from two feet to more than 10 feet of water. And still, some peo­ple are com­ing back here, deter­mined to regain some sem­blance of the lives they lived earlier. 

They are, in small ways, recon­nect­ing. They linger for con­ver­sa­tion in the home improve­ment and gro­cery stores. They strike up talk with strangers, quick­ly as they always did, but with more pas­sion. White-haired women stand at the check­outs and dis­cuss the chal­lenges of car­ry­ing pack­ages, which at an ear­li­er time might have been han­dled by a rel­a­tive or a neighbor. 

Peo­ple meet in church, where all the water­logged pews have been replaced by fold­ing chairs. They stretch for about thir­ty rows back and ten across at Cor­pus Christi on the Sun­day before Mar­di Gras. At least half of the chairs are filled, and some peo­ple stand to tes­ti­fy and clap along when the choir sings Who came to my res­cue? Nobody but you Lord.” Even the priest men­tions his plumber in a ser­mon called Love thy Ene­mies.” Every­one knows he’s only half-joking. 

Peo­ple have come back to the streets, dark with­out their usu­al lit porch­es and bright front rooms where fam­i­lies spent evenings togeth­er. They have applied to the gov­ern­ment pro­grams like Road Home, but are stalled by the need for doc­u­men­ta­tion and con­found­ed by reg­u­la­tions that ask them to raise their hous­es to flood safe lev­els – hous­es that were built on cement slabs. Whether the costs out­weigh the ben­e­fits remains a big question.

So many hous­es from the out­side still bear the Xs of inspec­tors look­ing for the drowned and those over­come by one of the any num­ber of now-famil­iar ways to die in smol­der­ing heat. We note these hous­es on a dri­ve through the neigh­bor­hood as the places where peo­ple we know used to live and occa­sion­al­ly died. We mark them with the same deep res­o­nance and mixed feel­ings as we remem­bered the past of the restau­rants that re-opened after Civ­il Rights, as places that only served whites. 

The racial war still per­me­ates all of New Orleans like the morn­ing fog. There is a dank and latent dis­trust with pre­dictable col­li­sions. Mur­ders that could have been avoid­ed by more care­ful upbring­ing, and more fair edu­ca­tion and eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, occur fre­quent­ly. Vic­tims are plen­ty. But none of this has stopped any­one from dri­ving home.

At the car­ni­val ball, the sim­ple one that I went to with a friend where every­one brings food to share, we see cos­tumes brought out of the clos­ets that sur­vived, or bought sec­ond­hand from the thrift store. There are home­made pharaohs and floozies, a near­ly 70-year-old pimp with a clock around his neck and a youth­ful Marie Antoinette with a white pow­dered wig. 

Peo­ple are reunit­ed momen­tar­i­ly to dance with friends who had to move out of town. They enjoy the com­pa­ny of their chil­dren, who have been sac­ri­ficed to oth­er cities, and bet­ter schools. On Sun­day, there is a par­ty of a group of women who march in a car­ni­val club called the Walk­ing Warriors. 

We are all walk­ing war­riors now, a friend of mine commented. 

Ham­mer­ing war­riors, red-tape-fight­ing war­riors, mouse-catch­ing and san­i­ty-main­tain­ing war­riors abound. 

Peo­ple crowd the parades in unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly cold weath­er, eight- to ten- deep in some places. Fam­i­lies and friends have come home to at least set up pic­nic tables on the neu­tral grounds and watch floats glide by. Every­one is swept up in the mes­mer­iz­ing glit­ter, as ancient and prim­i­tive as star­ing into a campfire. 

This may be our only source of heat for a long time. 

Fati­ma Shaik is the author of five books set in Louisiana and a for­mer reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Her most recent book is the short sto­ry col­lec­tion What Went Miss­ing and What Got Found (August 2015), a love let­ter to the enter­tain­ing, unpre­dictable and flawed char­ac­ters who pop­u­lat­ed New Orleans before Hur­ri­cane Katrina.
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