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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.
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?
Excerpt from “Sittin’ Bayou Makes Me Hot!” (TAO Publishers, $35.00)
“Sittin’ Bayou Makes Me Hot!” is a compilation of recipes and stories from Ragin’ Cajun, a small restaurant in Belmar, New Jersey since 1992.
I was twenty years old when I went to St. Thomas. I bought a one-way ticket and cried when Christopher left me at the gate. I didn’t know anyone down there but I was listening to that song by I can’t remember his name but there’s a line that goes: “We walked along St. Thomas beaches every night…” I thought that would be romantic so I decided to go.
My father once told me that if I ever find myself in a strange place to go find a bartender. Order a drink of course, but bartenders know all the scoop. So I do just that and within 2 hours I found a job, a place to live and helped create the now famous frozen drink called The Bushwacker.
I started working at a pretty fancy steak house right on a lagoon. There were no windows anywhere on the island, everything is wide open. I loved it because I could see the stars, smell the flowers and hear the tree frogs serenading the breeze. It was balmy yet cool and I was in love with the world.
Did I say tree frog?
That reminds me. Oh yeah. That night. A nice elderly couple came in. They order a piña colada and a strawberry daiquiri as most tourist do when they get to the island.
With umbrellas of course.
In tall, very tall hurricane glasses.
Balancing the very tall very sticky sugary frozen libations, I approach the table only in time to witness the most brilliant-colored tree frog fly through the air and land right in my lady’s hair — white hair, probably just came from the beauty parlor so she would look nice on the plane.
DON’T SQUISH HIM!
She’s screaming and squishing the poor guy who’s trying desperately to shimmy his way through her fingers. She jumps up hysterically with arms flailing. Her husband jumps up knocking my tray up into the air and down comes
cocolopez pineapplefreeze strawberrydaquiri alloverme ohdeargod I’mamess.
That might have been my first week at work. I didn’t get into trouble even though the people didn’t stay for dinner.
A few weeks later I’m waiting on a party of ten. Husband at one end, wife at the other. Friends in between. They all order appetizers and steaks and drinks and they’re all laughing it up having a grand ole time.
We clear the appetizer plates and I start bringing out the entrees. The last plate was something like a 32 oz sirloin or some disgusting amount of cooked cow.
I put it down in front of the man who’s telling a story.
Before I place the platter, I noticed the bug.
Now there are cockroaches and then there are the cockroaches of the Caribbean. These guys seem to interact more brazenly with human folk much more than their American brethren. They also enjoy a plethora of eats and many disgustingly slimy places to live.
This guy was a brute.
The fat-daddy of cockroaches.
He was so big I didn’t know why nobody else noticed him.
I didn’t know what to do so I quickly put the plate down on top of him.
And slid from the table with stealth speed.
I go into the kitchen and tell everyone. We all look through the kitchen door window, watching our poor unsuspecting man carve away and chew chew chew, and take a sip, and munch a potato and carve and chew and sop up the extra juices with the last of the bread.
Time to clear the table. I tell the bus kids but they refuse.
Come on guys! What am I suppose to do?
I ask the manager. Can l just leave the plate on the table until he leaves?
“No way,” he tells me. “Go clear the plate.”
I stomp my foot in a bit of a tantrum.
No, a full tantrum. I thought of quitting. Just walk right out of here. I’ll find another job. I’ll go back to Virginia.
No, I just got here.
I don’t quit.
I clear the table starting from the far end. When I get to my man, I’m sweating. My heart like a cartoon is leaping from my chest. I think I may pass out. Maybe I should just start flopping around on the floor right next to the guy and he would be distracted. One of my colleagues ever so kind will remove the plate, the culprit will scurry and I would be off the hook.
No accomplices here.
See if I buy you a drink after work.
My coworkers laugh at me.
Back to plan A. I walk over as sweet as I can be. I look my dude directly in the eyes. I figure if I engage him in conversation I can simply slide the plate off the table. The Bug will drop to the floor and scoot away undetected.
Well it didn’t go down that way no matter how pure my intention.
“How was everything,” I ask in the sweetest I love my grandpa voice I can muster.
“Fine, fine, everything was great.”
“Great,” I say. “Look at you finishing 32 oz of meat and all your veggies too.”
Look eye, Trace.
Do not look downomigod.
That SOB ran around the side of the plate and is cruising across the table! Don’t lose eye contact! Oh no! Peripheral vision betray me not! Of course I look. Look eye!
Too late. He saw.
“What was that?” he asks.
“What? What was what?”
“That” he points as the bug disappears down the side of the white table cloth.
“Oh, just a bug.”
“Just a bug? Just a bug? Was that just a bug under my plate this whole time?”
“Yes.” Sniff. Shift. My eyes begin to burn, the tears well up like water on a dam spilling nothing over the side. Yes! I think I might just pass out now. Everyone in the restaurant is now focused on the scene.
“How did it get there?” I shrug. I’m terrified. Paralyzed with fear.
“You knew that BUG was there the whole time and you did nothing?”
I can’t respond.
“I’m lucky he didn’t carry my steak away with him!”
That’s it. I can’t contain the flood. The tears drop bigger than boulders. I cry full of lament “I didn’t know what to do.” I can’t breath. I turn and run through the bar and out the door.
After being coaxed back in, I return to the table to offer desserts. Evidently the guy was super cool and his friends all thought is was extremely funny, particularly his wife, so he wasn’t too upset about it.
I ask if anyone would like some dessert.
His wife grins.
“Do you have grasshopper pie?”