It would be hyperbole to say that Mardi Gras is a sanctioned riot.
With three million people dancing in the streets generating over a billion dollars in local revenues, “Fat Tuesday” in New Orleans, Louisiana has been declared “The Greatest Free Show in America.”
My first experience in “N’awlins” happened to be Mardi Gras. I was walking down the street with a “go cup” filled with some sort of libation. At first, I was a bit out of sorts, sashaying down the avenue, drinking a cocktail. I watched cops lounge on the hoods of their squad cars, laughing at the mayhem going on around them.
Only when there were a few flashing girls and bare-hiney men did they get up to issue warnings.
I was astounded by the heathens bouncing about like banshees, diving to the pavement for a tin coin called a “dubloon.”
I witnessed an old lady wrestle a construction worker for a set of beads that couldn’t cost more than fifty cents.
All in good fun.
My knowledge of Mardi Gras was influenced by MTV and “Girls Gone Wild” videos. I had no idea what it all meant and frankly no desire to shake what little I have in the chest department for plastic beads.
I was fortunate my hosts were born and raised in Metarie, so I wasn’t in the midst of all the drunken debauchery.
They made sure I saw Mardi Gras the right way. Like a local.
They knew all the prime spots. They took me to the best parades. Everyone was dressed up as a character. A lot of thought went into their costumes. Holly pulled two huge boxes out of her attic and told me to pick who I wanted to be for the day. Because she grew up in Metarie, she knew someone on every float. Holly told her friends I was dressed as a scarecrow and asked them to throw good beads my way.
She wanted me to get the full experience. I didn’t understand.
I squinched my eyes in confusion.
Right in the kisser with a huge bundle of beads.
I ended up negotiating with a five year old. And lost.
“Hey,” I whined. “Those are mine.”
He grabbed the beads out from under me.
“Snooze you lose, lady,” as he ran off with my bootie.
By the third parade, I had on a helmet and spikes pushing the little punks aside.
“Mine!” I cried, as I shoved my boon into my sack.
Most people think Mardi Gras is the one day celebration. It’s actually an extension of Carnival which translates “farewell to the flesh.” Carnival starts January 6. The Feast of the Epiphany, otherwise known as Twelfth Night. It ends two weeks later on “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday.
Ironically, this pagan bacchanalia invites the juxtaposition of that which is sacred on one end, and wicked on the other. The Roman Catholic celebration of the appearance of baby Jesus and the arrival of the Magi share the stage with the satirical antics and hedonism brought over from the pagan traditions. This last minute carnality is deemed a necessary period of merrymaking and overindulgence before the abstinence of Lent. It is an accepted forum for sexual expression and political lampooning stemming from Greek and Roman traditions dating as far back as the 5th Century.
There is a certain mystique that lies beneath the surface of all the festivities and buffoonery, music and merrymaking. Because of its ancient ritualistic origin, Mardi Gras marks the celebration of rebirth that comes with Spring, a full sense of fertility and life the pagans so reveled. The awesome masks, satin covered horses and the ever present tribal drum beats stir the pot for fun and celebration.
“Throw me something Mister” is the mantra and the motto is “Let Pleasure Rule” and “Let the Good Times Roll.”
I hid behind my scarecrow mask with cocktail in hand. I felt like a local that day, a bag full of beads and coveted treasure. A smile on my face that seared happiness into my soul.
The party was over.
Till next year.
I’ve been through hurricanes before, and like many people, I didn’t buy into the “Frankenstorm” hype. It wasn’t until I saw the ticker from NOAA at the bottom of my TV screen that I got nervous. NOAA people aren’t smiling into the camera as they talk tragedy. These people are scientists. They know what they’re talking about and they didn’t say Superstorm Sandy was coming to the East Coast–they named our towns specifically.
At approximately 3 pm on Sunday October 28, the ocean met the lake, the inlet breeched. The storm still had a few hours before landfall.
A house crashed into the Mantoloking Bridge.
The power went out. People hunkered down. The Jersey Shore was dark and silent but for the wind howling along the coastline.
Cliff drove up Highway 35 those first few days. He works for the power company.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know.” The man doesn’t cry, but he was shaken up pretty bad.
For three weeks they worked 18 hour shifts, coming home to eat and shower. Over 2 million people were without power. An elderly couple approached his truck asking about the status in their neighborhood.
He couldn’t give them an answer because there were so many trees down and they had to wait until the tree guys came to remove them.
“Trace, she was shivering and there was nothing I could do.”
I thought about that poor old woman huddled with blankets next to her husband trying to stay warm. I nearly cried when I heard the pilot on our hot water heater kick on and thanked God we have a gas stove.
Brian and Chris were at 10th Ave Burrito cooking for First Responders and anyone else who needed a hot meal. I couldn’t get to the restaurant because Highway 35 was flooded.
On Tuesday, I pulled into the driveway of my restaurant, anticipating the worst. I was lucky.
I called Borough Hall and asked what they needed.
“Coffee cups for the volunteers,” Tabitha said. “And Tracie?”
“Whatever you got.”
I wasn’t prepared for this. People stood in the cold rain charging their phones on 2×4’s set up with electrical jacks.
Those first days I drove from Toms River to Belmar, cooked, served, and prayed. The power wasn’t going to be restored anytime soon, so Mayor Matt Doherty set a curfew.
I stood in my kitchen and cried.
Too dark, too lonely. So cold.
The gas rations kept me from coming back to Belmar, so I went to the Silverton firehouse where 29 of their guys lost their homes in the Brick fires. They brought their families to the firehouse and went out to rescue more people.
Their wives worked around the clock feeding the hungry, the exhausted.
An EMT from Delaware put her backpack next to a cot and walked into the kitchen. “What can I do to help?” she asked.
In unison, we told her to go get some sleep.
A part of our world was ending. What could we do? Embrace one another and convince each other everything would be all right?
I watched the tired firefighters clamber on a truck. They hadn’t eaten since their last call.
A little boy stood in the doorway of the kitchen. He asked his Grandma what he could do to help. His grandmother dried her hands and pulled him close.
I handed him a basket of bread. “Why don’t you put this on the big table next to the plates?”
He smiled, happy to have something to do.
Grandma said “thank you” to me and a minute later, he was back.
We laughed, tears in our eyes.
No matter what happens in this country, we’ll survive because people are willing to pitch in. A woman lost her home. She chopped onions to disguise her tears. She’d reserve them for later when everyone else was safe. We pulled together the best part of ourselves and threw it into the pot.
On my way home, I stopped at the Elks in Toms River to have a beer. A truck arrived from Virginia. They needed volunteers. It was the night of the snowstorm.
I put a few chickens in a pot of water and peeled potatoes. Nancy chopped vegetables while Sue opened cans of tomatoes. People came in from the cold and we served Brunswick stew. It wasn’t much, but it tasted good.
An old woman took my hands in hers and thanked me. “Did you make the soup?” she asked.
She lost her house and was sleeping at her daughter’s house. They had come for extra sleeping bags and blankets. I handed her a lantern and a new pair of gloves.
“Yes ma’am. I did.”
“That’s the best bowl of soup I ever had,” she said.
When I cry, it’s not tears of sadness but of joy. Yes, it was a sad time. But we made it. We’ll always make it. We took the best parts of ourselves and gave them to others. Like in the fable Stone Soup. It takes a community for a feast.
I saw it firsthand.
We all did what we could, and it worked.
Recipe for Brunswick Stew
1 3 lb fryer chicken (leftover chicken can be added to store bought chicken broth)
1 medium onion
2 cups diced potatoes
1 large can crushed tomatoes
2 cans corn drained
1 package frozen baby lima beans
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. marjoram
1 tsp. cumin
Clean whole chicken and put in a large stock pot with water enough to cover chicken (about a quart). Boil gently for about one hour or until chicken is cooked through and the meat falls off the bone. Strain, reserving liquid. When chicken is cool enough, pick the meat off the bones and put in pot with stock. Add the rest of the ingredients and stew for about 20 minutes. Serve hot with crusty French bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.
I’ve been gone a while. It took us two days to pack up the Budget truck for the North Carolina Seafood Festival in Morehead City, North Carolina. We packed 350 pounds of alligator sausage, 200 pounds of shrimp, stuff to make jambalaya and lobster macaroni and cheese. We had over a thousand crab mozzarella croquettes and the makings for lobster cakes. We had lobster bisque and seafood gumbo.
I barely ate all weekend. In fact I think I lost about four pounds. It’s hard work, these festivals.
Surrounded by food, and spilling shrimp juice on my legs, I didn’t feel like eating.
We got home late last night and went to bed right away. This morning I woke up with the dog in my face. She’s a little (no, a lot) pissed off we left her for so long. I gave her a shin bone from the freezer that “Uncle Steve” brought over he being a butcher and all. Belle loves Uncle Steve so I put the “babysitter” on the deck and tried to fall back to sleep.
Cliff left for work at 6 am. God Bless him. We’re both incredibly exhausted and psyched we didn’t fight. You see, he has his way of doing things and then there’s my way. Hmmm. Figure it out because I know you all have experienced what I won’t mention here.
My stomach is growling and I know there’s nothing to eat because we’ve been gone since Tuesday.
I open the refrigerator anyway.
I open the freezer. More Uncle Steves wrapped in brown butcher paper. A couple of pot pies. One ice cream sandwich.
Something long wrapped in aluminum foil.
A bag of Sabrett’s and burger patties leftover from the softball party.
I open the pantry and see cans of chicken broth, pork and beans and some Stove Top Stuffing (don’t say a word, cuz I know what you’re thinking. I don’t have to do everything from scratch).
A few cans of black olives.
Beans, pasta, tomatoes,
A box of Uncle Ben’s rice.
Nothing to eat. I look at the dog through the sliding glass door. She sure is enjoying that meaty bone. I don’t feel like getting out of my pajamas to go to the store. I have clothes in the laundry that smell like Seafood Festival.
If you’ve never worked a seafood festival, you wouldn’t understand.
Trust me, you don’t want to.
Beans, pasta, tomatoes. Chicken broth.
Chicken broth and ditalini. Simple. No onions. No celery. No carrots.
I can’t even have a bowl of Captain Crunch because there’s no milk.
I put on a pot of water and open a can of chicken broth.
I look in the pantry again.
I open a can of tomatoes.
And a can of white beans.
I add some spice.
That long thing in the freezer wrapped in foil? The other half of garlic bread I made two weeks ago.
On goes the oven.
The bread is crunchy and I’m on my second bowl of cheating pasta fagioli.
If you ever find yourself without something to eat, look in your pantry. I’m sure you’ll find something truly delicious in there if you look hard enough. This should also influence your next trip to the grocery store. The beans were 79 cents. The can of tomatoes on sale for 59 cents. The broth was two for a dollar. Pasta on sale 4 for 5 bucks.
I didn’t share, but I could have.
Pantry Pasta Fagioli (pasta and bean soup)
2 cans chicken broth
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
1 can white beans, rinsed and drained
¼ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. oregano
1 beef bouillon cube
½ tsp. chopped garlic
Pinch herbs de Provence
¼ lb ditalini pasta
Cook pasta according to package. Rinse in cold water and set aside. Bring the rest of the ingredients to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add pasta and simmer for 10 more minutes, longer if you like your soup thick. I like mine brothy. And I add more black pepper after.
We’re going to be all right because there’s a hero in all of us. We are the protagonist of our own story.
Then there are those who go beyond the call of duty and that’s what real heroes are made of. No one knows when to run into a burning building.
But people do it. All the time.
Some more than others but who knows when it will be your turn to save the day.
You probably do it without even noticing. A passing smile, letting someone go in front of you at an intersection. Helping someone with a grocery bag. Packing your child’s lunch bag.
When tragedy strikes it’s more evident who is willing to sacrifice their lives.
Soldiers do it every day.
For our freedom. For our lives.
Be a better person. Wake up every morning and look in the mirror. We are all heroes.
Many tragedies have befallen our beautiful country.
We’re going to be okay no matter what happens.
We’ll survive because people are willing to pitch in to make it easier for the less fortunate.
I’ve seen it firsthand.
It’s who we are. It’s what makes us Americans.
It isn’t about what happened to our country September 11, 2001. It’s what happens every day in our country. We all need to be accountable for our lives, enriching those we encounter every day. Let September 11 be a reminder of who we are and how we play our part as heroes.
Wake up every morning, look in the mirror. Who do you see?
They’re too caught up in Candy Crush and their stupid Farmville.
It’s all about Facebook and posting pictures of themselves driving in their cars.
They check how many Likes they’re getting on Instagram instead of talking to the person they’re having lunch with.
Who’s posting a picture of her plate of French fries.
People walk into the middle of the road oblivious to oncoming traffic. They don’t wait for the light to change. They don’t use crosswalks.
A man stepped off the curb from behind a bush right in front of me. He was looking down at his phone.
“Pedestrians have the right of way!” He said.
I should have told him only creepy dudes sit in the bushes and jump out at girls in cars.
I’m sure I would have won that case.
When a waitress serves you at a restaurant, she thinks about how much you’ll leave for a tip rather than how much she could make if she’d put forth a little effort instead of slapping the food down and rushing back to her phone to see if anyone texted her in the past four minutes.
I’d love to say:
“The only person you’re important to right now sweetheart is me because I just ate a jalapeno and I need another beer. I can see you don’t give a shit, but in reality, your boyfriend is sliding his hand up your best friend’s thigh and neither one of them care that you’ve been texting all night.”
Most people I encounter don’t give a hoot about their jobs. I’ll call customer service and no one seems to know what his or her company does. I asked the cashier at Foodtown, “Do I get the Rug Doctor from you or do I go to the customer service counter?” She didn’t blink. She stared at me as if time had stopped. I said, “Can you find out?”
She shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes at me.
Then she picked up her phone.
I wanted to smack the thing out of her hand but glanced at her nametag instead.
“Jackie,” I said, “I’m so sorry to have bothered you. You have a nice day,” and went to see the manager.
The general attitude of the workforce is that they make just as much money as their co-workers. There’s no reason to do anymore than they have to.
How about taking pride in what you do?
In this world, promotions are given based on seniority as opposed to ability, loyalty, and hard work.
I sat the bench on my high school basketball team until I learned to shoot the ball from the top of the key.
Nowadays, everyone plays and everyone gets a trophy.
I can’t tell you how many hours I spent practicing from the free-throw line until I got it right. I ran harder and faster to make sure I made the team.
I wanted to start so I ran even faster and longer every day.
People are disengaged, and not held accountable for what they do. Kids aren’t praised for what they do well because another kid might feel bad.
I can’t believe they don’t teach cursive in school anymore! How are they going to read a wedding invitation?
Calligraphy use to be an art form done by hand by an artist, not by changing the font on your computer! I write faster in cursive than I can type.
Even though THANK YOU is printed on the guest check, when I see
I feel better about the restaurant, better about the service and better about my day.
I think people feel a little bit better whether they notice or not.
People need to put their phones down. Nobody is that important. Nobody really needs to talk to you while you’re in line at the grocery store.
When you go out to dinner with your besties, no one should have a phone in their hands.
When you work for a company and you don’t know the answer to a question asked by a customer, find out. The more you know about your job, the better you look. The better you look the better you feel. The world will be a better place.
If you put your phone down and do your job, you’ll make more dollars than you have sense.
It’s been a month since my weekend at Borderlands Press Writer’s Bootcamp. I’ve just now had the time to look at the critiques from my fellow grunts. Sixteen of us submitted 35 pages of a manuscript to be ripped apart by our peers and three instructors.
Every critique had the same message scrawled in the margins:
Passive voice. Point of View. Passive voice.
I used “was” 385 times in 35 pages.
I should give up on this writing thing.
I was a writer until. . .
You know about the “Be” verbs?
They ARE boring!
They sit idle with nothing going on. You know them:
am, are, is, was, were, been, being, and be.
I am therefore I am.
You are what?
I am a bear. I am fuzzy.
To Be or Not to Be? Unless you’re Shakespeare, don’t bother.
The story sludges. It takes too long to get anywhere.
The reader moves on to something more rousing.
Michael Bailey is a counter of words. He informed us of the frequency we used a single word in our submissions.
“I recognize patterns,” he told us.
I pray my pattern is not passive. But there it was. In plain view.
In the right hand corner of Microsoft Word on the Home tool bar, you’ll see a set of binoculars next to the word “Find.”
I typed in “was” and hit the “Highlight All” button.
All writers want to paint a picture with words, but a florescent pink highlight mosaic on the page is not what I had in mind.
Here is a paragraph I submitted from my working novel “The Family Tree.”
There are 10 “wassies” in one small blurb!
I climbed the stairs into the attic. It was filled with steamer trunks, a sofa and a small bed. It was musty and I found it hard to breathe. I opened a window and looked for the door to the widow’s walk.
The bathroom was small with a claw foot tub, a toilet and a sink.
Underneath the ladder to the widow’s walk there was a tiny door. I tried to open it. The door was jammed and I looked around to find something to pry it open.
I listened to Margaret shuffling around down stairs.
A piece of flooring was busted and I lifted the board.
Something caught my eye. It was a tin box covered with dust. I turned it over in my hands. I had one of these when I was little. The book was there as I expected it would be.
Not to mention the other weak verbs for which I’m embarrassed to reprint. It’s terrible.
Boring. Tedious. Wearisome. Dull.
Like cobwebs that sit in the corner.
So I reworked it hoping to eliminate all the was-es.
This is what I came up with. From 10 to 0 in one fall swoop of a bat’s wing (to get you in the mood).
Hannah climbed the attic stairs. A door, with locks and double bolts on both sides, hung across the threshold, wrenched from its hinges.
Steamer trunks lined the walls. A small bed sat isolated beneath the rafters casting an eerie silhouette across the floor.
A claw foot tub, a toilet and a sink hid behind a moth-worn curtain in the corner.
The heaviness of the air and the reek of decay tightened Hannah’s chest.
She pried open the lone window.
The floor creaked, the attic moaned with relief, able to breathe again.
Hannah found a tiny door underneath a ladder and jiggled the handle. The door wouldn’t budge, the wood swollen with years of stifling humidity. Dust motes swarmed in a beam of sunlight.
What ghosts lurk beneath these rafters? Who slept in this bed? Old houses have secrets to reveal. What dark mysteries hide within its haunted mind?
As if the attic heard her questions, a glint of light shone through a niche in the wall by the window seat. She shook a panel from the wall and pulled out a tin box. She turned it over in her hands, brushed off the dust and released the latch. The cracked leather proved its antiquity, its tiny lock broken.
Hannah glanced at the door. She thought she heard Margaret shuffling around on the floor below.
She drew in a deep breath, and with hammering guilt, opened the book.
I also changed from the first person to third because if the narrator is telling the story about something that happened to her, the reader knows it couldn’t have been that bad because she lived to tell her story. Not much tension there. Not as creepy.
What if we don’t know what’s going to happen to Hannah in that attic; what secrets she might unearth; whose diary did she find and what will it reveal about its author?
It’s still not perfect, but certainly better than it was!
Which paragraph would entice you to turn the page?