Cheeky Blakk at Mardi Gras
For those who've never been, this is how New Orleans during Mardi Gras works: You're at a friend's house decorating throws for a krewe, when a call comes in during your third glass of wine. A couple of texts and a bout of phone tag later-during which a place and a time and instructions to "bring gold face paint" are somehow conveyed-and you find yourself dressed as a Wild West gunslinger pushing the queen's float for a krewe that until a couple of years ago didn't exist.
But that's just how we roll.
The call came from Krewe Delusion, a shambolic new ensemble that follows Krewe du Vieux. "Vieux" is short for Vieux Carré, which refers to the French Quarter, where the krewe rolls. In contrast to the old-line krewes like Endymion, Bacchus, or Rex, Krewe du Vieux is one of the older and raunchier informal krewes around and signals, for many in New Orleans, the actual start to the Carnival season. Whereas Krewe du Vieux is fairly well-organized, Krewe Delusion, being slightly smaller and scrappier than the main event-with only a half-dozen or so floats and as many walking sub-krewes-found itself in need of volunteers.
As befits a DIY outfit, Delusion got off to a rocky start. One of its floats was too tall to exit the warehouse on Architect's Alley, where we gathered, and the float that yours truly was pushing lost its crossbar the moment we piloted onto the street. First came a sickening snap, followed by a moment's panic. But as soon as an emergency drill appeared, we restored the crossbar and then steered the float into position in the line and settled in for the show.
And what a show it was: Krewe du Vieux arrived and presented all the satire for which it is famous, excoriating the recently downsized Times-Picayune, locally vilified NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and the ever-popular Bobby Jindal, who was depicted tossing an elderly woman out of her wheelchair, headfirst. I was surprised not to see an effigy of former mayor Ray Nagin, whose federal indictment for corruption and bribery was breaking news only days before. But never fear: there's always next year.
Once Krewe du Vieux had finished, Krewe Delusion got the signal. I was part of the second float in the krewe, and we trundled, gold face paint gleaming, behind the leader (a cypress tree symbolizing Louisiana's wetlands), pulling the two queens of the krewe: local bounce stars Katey Red and Cheeky Blakk.
There comes a point in every New Orleanian's life when one goes from watching the parades to walking in them. Perhaps the most impressive thing about steering a Mardi Gras float is not the sense of precariousness, the fear that at any moment, maneuvering a half-ton of wood and papier-mâché, you're going to hit a bump in the road and careen uncontrollably into a crowd of drunken revelers. Nor is it the balancing act you have to master, guiding the float while fumbling in your bag for your beer (or whatever other substance gets you through the night). Rather, it's the people-the sheer volume of people strewn along the side of the route, for miles and miles on end, waving and shouting and clamoring for throws.
It's hard to overstress this: As a parade watcher, you see only the tiny slice of the street corner where you and your family stand. As a parade member, however, you see everybody's slice, with crowds three and four and six feet deep, for miles on end. Do some casual calculations as you walk by-average number of bodies per square block times number of blocks, rounded up for good measure-and it becomes apparent that tens of thousands of people can line a single street. In such a tumult you're fortunate if you can spot someone you know.
We on the queens' float had a constant source of entertainment as we walked-or rather, pushed. Queen Cheeky Blakk, a voluptuous woman dressed in a resplendent white wedding dress, held up a megaphone and provided a continual stream of bounce music, singing from her repertoire and inventing new chants on the spot. "Cheeky Cheeky Blakk, Cheeky Cheeky Blakk!" she would cry out, and the crowd would roar. Or: "I say Cheeky," she would sing, "You say Blakk! Cheeky! Blakk! Cheeky! Blakk!" With each new rendition the drunks sloshed more beer. Even the hipsters down from Bloomington got into it.
This ruckus carried on for several miles, the crowds hardly thinning. Once we had passed through the Quarter and returned to the Faubourg Marigny, where we started, however, signs that the krewe was starting to fray began to show. First, one of our float pushers, who'd said he was running off to find a bathroom, reappeared half an hour later drunker than when he left. Then, the unthinkable occurred: while we paused for a moment on Frenchmen Street, Queen Cheeky decided she had had enough of the parade and wanted to party with everyone on the street. Without warning, she asked one of her escorts to lift her down from the barge, and then she disappeared.
What do you do when the queen abdicates her throne? The royal cortege, stunned by her sudden departure (such a breach of protocol unimaginable), cast wildly about. Abandoning my post at the side of the float, I dashed off to find her, but despite her imposing figure I couldn't see her anywhere in the crowd. It was as though the mass had simply absorbed her and henceforth would emanate all of her radiant powers of bounce. This confusion was no small matter, for both queens were scheduled to perform later that night, and what would happen if one of the headliners didn't show up? Worst of all was that the parade-despite the abdication-was yet to finish, and as the lead float began to roll down the street again, we at the royal float wondered, Do we leave her behind?
Days later, I still don't know whether we made the right decision. Granted, the show had to go on, but from the perspective of the assembled, which is the greater attraction, the monarch or the pomp? This was the question I posed to Queen Katey, who sat on the other royal seat, as we headed down Royal Street. "Girl," she told me-and here it might be worth mentioning that neither she, nor I, am such-"I don't even know." Later, the floats safely docked at Architect's Alley, we emptied our bladders and refilled our glasses, drifted over to the bar where the concert would be held, got bored of waiting, and drifted even further, to the various parties that consumed our attention. On Mardi Gras nights, parties like these, usually a mixture of friends both established and unfamiliar, careen from bar to bar, house to house, and it's easy to be gently pulled into their vortex, wending from one to another to a third, not minding so much where they take you, or who you're going to meet. It's part of the spirit of Mardi Gras, of love for the unpredictable: in short, what this city, during this time of year, does best.
Laissez, in other words. Et vive la reine. Partout où est-elle.
By the way, Cheeky Blakk will be one of the performers at the Oxford American's SXSW day party on Thursday, March 14, in Austin.