Native Tongue
By Susianne Baptiste


"When you see the Mardi Gras,
Somebody'll tell you what's Carnival for."
-- Professor Longhair
The madness began on Twelfth Night, with the introduction of king cakes. Oblong, breadlike in consistency, sprinkled with colored sugars and only slightly sweet, they became staples of parties, snacks, and breakfasts until the fasting of Ash Wednesday. Mike Logan chewed on a large hunk of such a king cake as he sat on the wrought iron balcony, observing the activity in the narrow streets below. Already, the New Orleans Police were putting up barricades around the French Quarter. The early risers were evidently natives, on their way to claim a good spot for parade watching. While he disliked large crowds, he was curious to see how approximately 1,200 cops could contain a couple million Mardi Gras revelers. Billed as "the world's greatest free show," his only experience with such an event was New Year's Eve in Times Square.
There was no snobbery during carnival for the NOPD. If you wore the star-and-crescent, the commandment was Thou Shalt Work Mardi Gras. Only Homicide and Sex Crimes detectives were exempt. Odd, because most carnival revelers were too drunk to kill and/or molest anyone. Logan was content to merely observe the lunacy.
Simone, his girlfriend, was in her small pink kitchen, singing a string of nonsensical words with an Afro-Caribbean gospel enthusiasm. She shuffled to her own lazy rhythm as she poured cream, ice, and brandy into the blender. Infamous for the most relaxed liquor laws in the country, it seemed everyone in New Orleans carried plastic cups of booze, or "go-cups." For a modern city, it had the strangest customs, laws, and language.
It was like being in a foreign country with the wrong currency and phrasebook. Still and all, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. After suffering the indignity of a disciplinary demotion from detective to uniform back in New York, he was grateful to the NOPD for giving him a second chance. There were worse places to bide one's time before returning home.
He certainly had no intention of staying below sea level in this heat, humidity, and lunacy for any extended amount of time.
"Hey là-bas, cher." Simone poked her head onto the balcony. Her long hair sported cornrows, heavily beaded with the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. The hairdo was an integral part of her working wardrobe. Tonight she had to work a Vice detail on Bourbon Street. Although one of Logan's New York friends described Simone as "caucasianally challenged," it was scarcely noticeable in her native habitat. Everyone's culture sort of melted together here. "We got to get Uptown before they close the streets."
The day's first parade was Zulu, followed by the grandest parade, Rex. All carnival krewes had a mythological name and a theme for their parade each year. They flung beaded necklaces, doubloons, and other trinkets at the crowds. With the float riders, marching bands, and other constituents, some parades clocked as many as 3,000 participants. It was also entirely free and open to the public, staged at the expense of krewe members. Logan found such extravagance unimaginable.
While the rest of the country placed importance on more traditional holidays, the locals chose the religious holidays of Fat Tuesday, St. Joseph's Day, and All Saints' Day for primary celebration. The oddity, of course, being that each of these otherwise holy days became tempered with a hedonistic twist of gluttony. And a parade.
Chugging her cocktail as she drove through the decrepit neighborhood of Central City, Simone defined carnival etiquette.
"If a doubloon comes your way, stomp on it first. Don't worry about somebody's hands. Same thing with a coconut. If one flies by you, grab that sucker."
"Wait a second. We're talking fake coconuts, right?"
Her eyes were guileless. "No. Real ones. They're painted gold."
"Nobody in their right mind throws real coconuts into a crowd. That's assault."
"You wuss. You just don't get it. They're Zulu coconuts. Aside from Rex doubloons, they're the best throw at carnival." As if that meant anything. "If you can't catch one, you just duck. Duh."
Leaving her car at the nearby police station, they walked through the thickening crowds on oak-lined St. Charles Avenue. The Homicide commander, who lived nearby, invited "the family" to enjoy the parade from a comfortable vantage point. An alumna of Homicide for many years until her recent return to Vice, Simone qualified as a family member. Logan wasn't exactly sure what he qualified as, other than "non-native."
Carnival maskers, dressed as anything from beer cans to king cakes, were setting up their comfort zones at the curbs and the neutral ground. Adults sat in lawn chairs; their children perched on stepladders. Food and liquor stood beside radios blaring Mardi Gras songs. The tunes all had a lazy, jiving, infectious parade beat. Passersby responded with a rhythmic, shuffling dancelike walk. While the lyrics appeared to be childlike gibberish, natives called out a hearty rejoinder to songs like "Hey Pocky Away" and "Jockomo."
Simone danced herself as she walked and encouraged him to join her: "C'mon, sugar. You got to learn how to second line and have a good time." It was difficult to keep her attention, as she greeted a steady stream of cops, transvestites, and street characters with enthusiastic pats and an endless litany of "Whereyat, baby!"
The Homicide Commander, Lt. Dapineau, was an affable Cajun whose family was heavily prominent in the NOPD. His cousin, the District Commander in the French Quarter, was scheduled for an on-camera interview with the producers of Cops. The television crew would also film Simone and her Vice colleagues as they worked undercover in the crowds tonight. With that in mind, Logan failed to understand why they were all drinking so eagerly at 7 am. Again he wondered just what aspect of a native's life was not approached with food, liquor, and music.
Before the parade's scheduled start at 8:30, the wide, spacious street seethed with humanity. The crowd was relatively quiet, yet an electric current of anticipation hung in the crisp February air. Every now and then, someone would peek over a barricade or step into the avenue, looking for signs of the parade.
"It'll take all day to clear this street," Logan remarked to Simone, who craned her neck to look up St. Charles as well. "We'll never get back to the Quarter. Why didn't we just walk a couple blocks over to Canal Street and watch the parade from there?"
As her eyes widened, Simone's jaw dropped dramatically. "They's only about a thousand-million tourists on Canal Street. You can't watch no parade from there. It's too crowded."
"And this isn't?"
"Wait'll you see the Quarter tonight, Lucky Charms. You gonna wish you was in Times Square at New Year's."
"In uniform? I doubt it."
In the distance, a police siren shrilled, sounding as ominous as an air raid siren. On the heels of that, the pounding of drums. Joyous, the mob cheered. Behind the police cars and motorcycles, the captain of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club waved from a convertible. Mardi Gras Day had begun.
The parade's huge floats were a riot of color, brimming with papier maché, tinsel, and paint. Pulled by a tractor or rig, each was a tableau corresponding with the parade's theme. Masked and gloved, the riders remained anonymous until the ball that night. As they tossed their loot at the mob, a multitude of hands rose heavenward, as if to receive manna or a blessing. Bands from local schools underscored the scene. It was, thought Logan, the most extraordinary, indescribable spectacle he had ever witnessed.
"Coconuts!" someone shouted, as a few golden orbs whizzed through the air.
"Hold me up," Simone barked suddenly, and jumped on his back, nearly bowling him over.
"Goddammit, Simone! I can't hold you up."
Steadying herself with one hand on the float as the other clutched her go cup, she snipped, "Your ass hurts. I ain't that fat." She smiled at the masker. "Hey, brother."
"Well, hey baby."
"Can I get me a coconut for my ol' man here? He's from New York. This is his first carnival."
"I dunno. I don't like no Yankees. What's in ya go cup?"
"Brandy milk punch." As the rider shook his head, Simone showed her badge, which hung from a chain around her neck. "What else you need?"
Struggling beneath to hold her upright, Logan snapped, "Forget the frigging coconut!"
"I got a couple parkin' tickets."
Delving into her bra, Simone produced one of her cards, which she traded for a coconut. "Gimme a call, and we'll see what we can do." They thanked each other. She climbed down, proudly offering the golden coconut, which had a blackface painted on it. "Coconut."
Logan laughed, and gave her an impulsive hug. "I'll be damned." So that's how it works. What a crazy-assed place.
A chant of "hey-hey, Indians a-comin'!" rippled through the throng. The street sparkled with a troupe of black men garbed in Indian attire. Wildly elaborate, the costumes blazed with feathers of outrageously brilliant colors and intricate beadwork. Simone explained:
"Runaway slaves were helped by the Indians. After they was freed, they decided to honor the folks that helped them. You got lots of tribes, like the Wild Magnolias and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. They used to fight each other when they met. That's what most of them Mardi Gras songs is about, honey. All them outfits are made by hand. I love the Indians! Don't you?"
Ah, God. I'm never going to make it here.
Immediately after Zulu came the focal parade of the carnival season, Rex. As the most prestigious parade, with a most elite membership, its king hailed as the Monarch of Mirth. Rex began with a captain in a white cape and plumes, astride a white horse. Rex himself, clothed in white and gold, stood on a dais beneath a large makeshift crown. Young pages at each corner of the float cast golden royal doubloons to the crowd. Each time the float stopped, Rex raised a large, glimmering chalice and toasted his subjects.
All around Logan, many revelers raised their cups in return to their monarch and broke into song. The anthem of Mardi Gras was an absurdly silly 19th century love song, "If Ever I Cease to Love." It would be another ridiculous, drunken spectacle if not for the passion and sincerity in the delivery. The tears brimming in the eyes of the singers showed the depth of their pride and love for their home and traditions. As foolish as the song was, it was somehow infectious. Logan raised his bottle of Blackened Voodoo lager along with Simone: "May we all turn into cats and dogs, if ever I cease to love." Words to live by, indeed.
An enormous white papier maché bull, crowned in flowers, appeared. It was called the Boeuf Gras. It represented the last meat eaten before Lent. This was yet another carnival tradition steeped in the holiday's pagan roots. The Boeuf Gras received as much enthusiasm as Rex. Logan wasn't surprised. He had long suspected that beneath the veneer of a staunch Catholic lurked an enormous pagan beast.
Later that evening, Mike walked Simone to the French Quarter precinct where her undercover detail was based. They stopped for a moment on the way to view the breathtaking opulence of the annual transvestite beauty pageant. The narrow streets of the Quarter, scarcely wide enough to accommodate an automobile, were bursting with every aspect of humanity. A few souls, necks choked with their cache of beads, shimmied up lampposts to escape the crush. The entire spectacle both depressed and overwhelmed him.
"Don't go home like some ol' Baptist tourist," Simone admonished Logan. She and her female colleagues fitted themselves with a myriad of wires. "Walk around. Or get a go-cup and listen to me pick up perverts."
"I'll pass. I'd rather be in uniform than work Vice." Then, cynically, "I suppose you're going to wander over to Café Brasil and conga when you get done here?"
Simone lit a cigarette with an angry snap. "If you bothered to learn the rules, you'd know Carnival shuts down at midnight. Just watch how many go-cups you get. I want you and them cuffs awake to protect and serve me later," she finished in a gravelly whisper. "Iffya get stuck somewheres, just flash ya badge." She turned away, pretending to fiddle with a wire. "Unless you're too embarrassed." She turned to her fellow Vice detectives: "Allons chanter!"
Logan retreated wordlessly into the madness of the streets, reluctant to admit that she was right. He plowed through the mob until he reached the Clover Grill. As he sat staring out the greasy window, he wondered how the hell he had gotten himself so far away from home. The hell with it. Everyone else had a go-cup; he might as well make the best of it.
As the night grew, the congestion thickened. Thousands of people pushed into an area measuring approximately one square mile. The heat, stench, alcohol, and flaring tempers became intolerable. Logan had no idea of where he was, or how to get back to safety. Damn this crazy place. Who in their right mind would pay to go through this hassle? Since he couldn't see over the crowd, he imitated the revelers and got up on a signpost. It was the only way to figure out where the hell he was. It was also much more comfortable.
A mounted officer ambled through the crowd, accepting beads and warning drunks. "Hey cap!" he barked at Logan. "Get offa da post and go sleep it off."
Emulating Simone, he flashed the gold shield. "Hey, brother."
The cop's demeanor changed. "Aw, man." He nudged his horse closer. "Get on. Where you work at?" The officer, who happened to be one of his lieutenant's many cousins in blue, took him back to Simone's. His tone was not unsympathetic. "Yep, carnival is a lot to take in at first if you ain't seen it all ya life. As they say in the song, cap: 'Dat ain't no jungle movie. Dat's Mardi Gras'."
"It's freakin' insane." Logan climbed off the horse. "Thanks, man."
"Any time. Maybe you better stay in, detective."
Maybe I'd better.
Depressed, he pulled a beer from the icebox and took the telephone onto the balcony. He dialed his old friend and former captain, Don Cragen. As he sat outside in the balmy night air, Logan wondered how hard it was snowing back in New York.
"CNN is showing New Orleans now," his friend said into the receiver. "Jesus, Mike ... it looks like Calcutta."
Logan tried to laugh. "It's worse in person."
"How are you holding up?"
"Not too good, I guess. This place is hard to get used to, Don."
"You did what you felt you had to, Mike. I'm your friend, and I'm not judging you. But you had a lot of years in up here. If you could have waited awhile, maybe we could have gotten everything straightened out."
"And stayed on the beat in Staten Island while everyone on the job knew what a fuck-up I was? No, thanks. Even this place is better."
"How's Simone?"
"Picking up perverts undercover."
"She must be good at it. How else could she get you?" A laugh. "You're lucky to have her, you know."
Logan drained the beer. "Yeah. I know."
For a long while after his telephone call, Logan watched the crowds below. Annoyed with himself, he got up. These tourists were just a bunch of drunks. He damn well could and would deal with it.
He got a Hurricane in a go-cup and set off in search of Simone's undercover detail. He found her on a dark patch of Rue Iberville, sharing a cigarette with a pair of transvestite prostitutes. Working Vice was as putrid as Sex Crimes. How the hell did she do it? As he approached, she told the TVs to beat it, and favored him with her pick-up smile.
"Hey, baby," he purred. "I got a bottle of Night Train, a stick of butter, and some clean latex gloves. You on?"
Simone burst into hysterical laughter. When she caught her breath, she spoke for the benefit of the Cops crew who were filming her: "If ya'll put that in the show, I'll kick your ass."
Following her shift, they walked back through the Quarter together. The streets were eerie in their sudden, quiet darkness. Garbage trucks bulldozed the mountains of rubble before a street sweeper hosed down the pavement with disinfectant. The sickening, sweet smells of alcohol and refuse hung in the air.
"So ... after a year of planning, this is how it all ends, huh?" It was disheartening to see what the color and merriment had come to.
"Yep. The tourists will stagger into the hotel bar for a Ramos gin fizz in the morning to cure their hangovers. And us natives will be getting ashes on our foreheads."
"Ye shall know a native by his ashes, huh?"
"Don't be such a cynical asshole. It's Ash Wednesday. Show some fuckin' respect."
Although he hadn't participated in this sort of ritual since childhood, Logan stood with Simone patiently in the long line for ashes. Some of the faithful in the queue were still drunk. The morning was mild, blue, and filled with glorious sunshine. They were so far down Rampart Street that Logan could barely see the black spire of the church.
"The last time I waited in a line this long, it was for Clapton tickets," he remarked humorously.
She wagged a finger at him. "Clapton might be God, but he ain't gonna absolve you, sugar. I gotta do paperwork on them skels I popped. What're you doing today?"
"I thought I'd go by the French Market. It should be quiet."
Simone giggled. "Listen at you, 'go by.' I'll have you saying 'whereyat' in no time. Six more months, and nobody'll know you're from away."
But I will, he thought.
As New Orleans returned to normal, its tourist element slept. Logan got an aromatic cup of café au lait and some beignets at the Café du Monde. He walked up the concrete steps to the top of the levee, and sat on a bench. The mighty river stretched before him, filled with maritime traffic. He inhaled deeply as he closed his eyes against the brilliant sun. The city smelled of coffee and the earthy muddiness of the river. Behind him, the bells of St. Louis Cathedral chimed the hour. The Crescent City had welcomed him when no one else would. Maybe, thought Logan, he should return the favor.
The sweetness of the beignet melted on his tongue. His eyes swept the Old World beauty and wrought iron of Jackson Square.
There were, he reflected, worse places to spend his life.

end


whaddya think?