Category Archives: New Orleans

Mardi Gras: why did I bother?

It’s just another Tuesday in most of the United States. Most high school basketball teams in Kansas are in action tonight, although Russell High is not one of them. Norton is back on the court tonight vs. Hoxie, and I’m making the 120-mile trek to see Peggy. It means a late night, but I don’t have much work to get done tomorrow morning, so it won’t really put me behind.

In south Louisiana and the Gulf Coast all the way to the Florida panhandle, it is Mardi Gras, the day where people dress in silly costumes and celebrate the last day before Lent, the 40-day period where Christians are supposed to repent for their sins and make sacrifices. It also means no meat tomorrow, nor for the next eight Fridays. It used to be Catholics had to abastain from meat EVERY Friday, but starting in 1967, meat was supposedly okay on most Fridays, especially in the United States and Canada. Some more traditionalist countries still require abstience from meat every Friday, including Ireland and Great Britain.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is two big attractions in the same city.

One is the French Quarter, where hundreds of thousands of strangers from across the world rub elbows–and many more body parts–getting drunk and having a good time. Pretty much anything goes in the Quater during Carnvial, except complete nudity, sexual acts, and violent crime. The police know they’re not going to get anywhere by arresting every woman who flashes her bare breasts, becuase they would make enough arrests to fill every jail in Louisiana, not just New Orleans. I have never understood why women would show their breasts for plastic beads which cost four cents per pair at the Mardi Gras supply store.

The other main attraction are the parades, where the laws apply and are strictly enforce. Don’t try flashing on St. Charles Avenue; if you do, you’ll have free accomodations in the New Orleans lockup. Parades are supposed to be family friendly, with ornate floats decorated around a central theme, marching bands and other groups which are common sights to those who have been to the pagents more than a few times.

I went to many parades during my formative years. Now that I’ve been gone from Louisiana for 12 1/2 years, I look back and wonder what the fuss was all about.

There used to be several parades in St. Bernard Parish (county), the suburban area east of New Orleans where I grew up. I marched in a few of those parades when I was with the Arabi Park Middle School band in the sixth and seventh grades. The worst was marching in one on a Tuesday night, not getting home until after midnight, then having to go to school in the morning. There were also a couple of parades where the temperatures were below freezing, and that was pure misery. In warmer weather, the band uniforms were tortuously hot. I’m glad I got out of marching band in high school, because I would have hated to have to sit in the bleachers at football games in those hot things.

My parents, brother and I used to go to all of the parades in St. Bernard. There was a parade on Mardi Gras, the Krewe of Arabi, named after the westernmost community in the parish, the one where I grew up. Every Fat Tuesday, the four of us would park in an open lot at the corner of Judge Perez Drive and Rowley Boulevard, and we could wait in the car until the parade passed by. When the parade was ready to come by, we walked to the median (called the neutral ground in New Orleans0 and watched the floats and bands passed. We always ate Popeye’s fried chicken, fitting since the first Popeye’s opened in 1972 at the corner of Judge Perez and Rowley.

The last Krewe of Arabi parade was in 1987. In 1988, we started going to the Krewe of Argus parade in Metairie, the largest community in Jefferson Parish, west of the city. Finally, in 1991, we went to the big kahuna, the Krewe of Rex, who is known in the city as the King of Carnival.

My parents were not keen on us going to parades in New Orleans proper. There was much crime on the parade routes, especially at night, and they had seen it first hand in their early days of marriage. We went to Mid-City from 1986 through ’91, but that was a daytime parade in an area of the city which was nowhere near as dangerous as some areas of St. Charles.

We went to the Krewe of Ednymion, one of the so-called “Super Krewes”, for three years in the early 1990s. The first two years, we stood on Canal Street in the same place we held for Mid-City, then shifted to Orleans Avenue near the start of the parade in 1992. In 1993, my dad and I alone went to Poydras and St. Charles to see Endymion, but we left before the first float arrived.

In 1994, Endymion was the first parade I went to alone. I saw a few of my adult friends at a tavern near the start of the parade route, and that is where I had my first taste of alchol, not counting communion wine.

Ray Maher had the bartender at the Parkway Tavern slip bourbon into my Coca-Cola. I tasted something funny right away, and I immediately washed it out. Ray and the older guys hooted and hollered about that one and reminded me of it for the next 11 years. I am grinning about it right now, but 24 years ago, it had me a little concerned.

Ray and several of my adult friends in New Orleans are members of the Krewe of Thoth, which has the longest route of any Mardi Gras parade.

Thoth starts much farther west than most parades that roll along St. Charles Avenue. It starts at the corner of Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-i-TOO-las) and State Streets by the Missisippi River and goes north on Henry Clay to Magazine, and then to Napoleon, where it follows the route taken by Bacchus and most other Uptown parades (not Rex, which starts at the corner of South Claiborne and Napoleon to head south towards St. Charles). The Thoth route takes in numerous hostpitals for people with special needs, and Children’s Hospital, one of the nation’s elite pediatric faciltiies.

I atteneded Thoth in ’92 and ’93 with my dad, then ’94 alone. The good thing about Thoth’s starting potnt was there was plenty of parking at the Audubon Zoo, which was not that far of a walk to Henry Clay Avenue. In those days, the parade started at the corner of Henry Clay and Magazine and headed south towards Tchoupitoulas, so I would go down Henry Clay and see eveyrone I knew before the parade started.

Every time I was at Thoth, I was bombarded with beads, doubloons and cups. There was a scramble among other parade goers for the trinkets. Looking back, I should have let them have most of it.

The 1994 Thoth parade is the last one I ever attended. Two days later, Mardi Gras came and went with me sitting at home. By Mardi Gras 1995, my life was in total turmoil, and I was seriously considering the end. I had a terrible go of it at LSU that year, and I wondered if life was worth living. However, most of it was self-inflicted.

If I ever returned to New Orleans, Thoth would be the ONLY parade I would consider attending. And even then, it would be only 50/50.

Bacchus and Endymion, the parades which feature celebrity guests, are too big for my taste. I can only remmeber John Goodman and Chicago appearing in Endymion one year. I can’t tell you who was there in the other years. This year, Rod Stewart rode in Endymion with former Saints player Steve Gleason and current player Alvin Kamara. J.K. Simmons was King of Bacchus.

Sorry, I don’t need to see celebrities in person to feel my life has meaning. I got my fill in July 1992 when I happened to see Bill Clinton and Al Gore jogging in downtown St. Louis during their campaign.

During the rest of my years in Louisiana, I often had sporting events to keep my mind away from Mardi Gras, whether it be LSU baseball games or high school events. When Mardi Gras fell late in the calendar (late February or early March), it happened to be on a day when the Louisiana High School Athletic Association scheduled basketball playoff games. The LHSAA would grant south Louisiana schools the option to play the game Monday or Wednesday of that week, but in north Louisiana, the games went on as scheduled, and many south Louisiana schools had to give up Mardi Gras to drive four to five hours for a game, then make the long return trip. Fortunately, the players and coaches could sleep in because there was no school on Ash Wednesday.

Sadly, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, traditionally the last parade of Mardi Gras, has not held a parade since 1991, due to a boneheaded ordinance by the late Dorothy Mae Taylor, who insisted all krewes must prove to the city that they do not discriminate based upon race or religious orientation.

Comus and two-other old-line krewes, Momus and Proteus, quit parading, although Proteus returned in 2000 after a seven-year hiatus.

Most of Comus’ members–all male, all white, all Protestant–are also members of the Pickwick Club, one of the world’s most exclusive private clubs. How exclusive? Drew Brees can’t get in after winning a Super Bowl, simply because he’s a native of Texas. Warren Buffett? Nope. Bill Gates? Nope. Donald Trump? Nada.

Rex’s members are members of the secretive Boston Club. Until the ordinance, Rex was also all WASP, but now the krewe admits blacks, Catholics and Jewish men. The original ordinance would have forced krewes who wanted to parade to be coed, but that was removed to allow the all-male and all-female krewes, which are most, to parade as long as their racial barriers came down.

Not that I care. I wouldn’t want to waste my time and money with it anyway.

Zulu has been rolling for over two hours now, and Rex for over an hour. Yippee. It’s just another day for me.

Mardi  Gras 1973: wrong time, wrong place

March 6 is a potential date for Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras always depends on the date of Easter, which is a moveable feast on the Roman Catholic Church calendar, unlike Christmas. 

Mardi Gras hasn’t occurred on March 6 since 1984. I remember going to the parades in St. Bernard Parish with my parents and younger brother at the corner of Judge Perez Drive and Rowley Boulevard, a little over a mile from our house. Stacie Dauterive (Seube) and her family were only four blocks from that location, so they could walk. Stacie, Jeff and their children live at 905 Badger Drive now. 

Prior to 1984, the previous time Mardi Gras fell on March 6 was 1973. If there ever was a year where Mardi Gras felt inappropriate, other than in the wake of Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina, or during hte middle of World Wars, it had to be 1973. 

Mardi Gras 1973 marked the first time parades were not allowed to travel the streets of the French Quarter. The streets of the Quarter are very narrow, and the floats were a hazard should there be a fire or other emergency. 

Instead of the big parades going into the Quarter, they were diverted south on Poydras Street to the Rivergate Convention Center, or south on Canal  Street to North Rampart, where the parades would disband at the Municipal Auditorium. The Superdome was under construction at tha time, and the Morial Convention Center was still years away. 

Following Super Bowl VI on January 16, 1972, it seemed one grim episode after the other followed. 

New Orleans icon Mahalia Jackson, widely regarded as the queen of Gospel music, died only a few days after Super Bowl VI. Although she lived the final years of her life in Chicago, she always considered New Orleans home, and in fact, made an impromptu visit to the very first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970 at Congo Square. 

Speaking of JazzFest, it moved to the Fairgrounds horse racing track in 1972, and it has remained there ever since. 

The Saints regressed in 1972, going from 4-8-2 to 2-11-1. Archie Manning took every snap during his second season after alternating with Edd Hargett as a rookie. Coach J.D. Roberts completed his second full season after taking over midway through the 1970 campaign. He would be fired after four exhibition games in 1973. New Orleans earned the No. 2 overall draft pick for its pitifulness, but traded it to Baltimore for mediocre defensive lineman Billy Newsome. The Colts accepted the gift and turned into Bert Jones, the All-America quaterback from LSU who took Baltimore to three AFC East division titles in 1975, 1976  and 1977. 

The real catastrophies began Nov. 29, 1972. All of them can be traced to a Kansas native who turned from quiet boy to hate monger during a stint in the Navy. 

The first was a fire at the Rault Center, a high rise building on Loyola Aveneue in the city’s Central Business District. Numerous people were trapped in a private club and a hair salon on the 15th floor. Several climbed to the roof and were rescued by helicopter, but tragically, five women were faced with a horrific choice: get burned to death or jump to death. All of the women chose the latter. Four died instantly. A fifth somehow survived. A man also died of burns.

There were no sprinklers in the high rise buidling, since the city of New Orleans did not require them. Also, the New Orleans Fire Department lacked rescue equipemnt for buildings that tall. 

Arson was suspected in the Rault Center fire. Nobody was charged, but less than two months later, the primary culprit emerged, a culprit who would cause the city much more suffering. 

Less than one hour before the arrival of 1973, 23-year old Mark James Robert Essex, who was born and raised in Emporia, opened fire on the Orleans Parish Prison. He was seeking to kill as many cops (“pigs) as possible, and felt a shift change at the prison would be the perfect opportunity. 

Essex’s first victim was 19-year old police cadet Alfred Harrell, who took a bullet in the heart. He was dead before an ambulance could arrive. 

The irony was Harrell was black. Essex was looking to kill whites (“honkies”), feeling they had conspired to keep him down. 

Essex wounded Lt. Horace Perez at the prison before moving to warehouse on the opposite side of Interstate 10 from the prison. There, he ambushed two officers, shooting Edwin Hosli, who would die of his wounds March 5. 

Essex went into hiding for the next week before emerging the morning of January 7, 1973. He began the day by shooting grocery store owner Joe Perniciaro, feeling Perniciaro had gone to the police and ratted Essex out. Next Essex carjacked Marvin Albert, a black Vietnam War veteran, as he sat in his car. Essex told Albert “I”m only killing honkies today, but I will kill you, too.”

Essex drove Albert’s stolen car to the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge at 330 Loyola Aveneue, across the street from the Rault Center. There, he went on a killing spree, murdering a couple from Virginia on a belated honeymoon; the hotel’s assitant general manager and general manager; and three police offers, including Deputy Superintendent Louis Sirgo. 

Following the Sirgo murder, Essex hid in a cubicle on the roof and fired down at the street. Hundreds of blacks had massed across Loyola near City Hall, and they cheered “Right On!” every time Essex fired his .44 Ruger Deerslayer carbine. 

It took a Marine helicopter flown by Lt. Col. Chuck PItman to root out Essex. From the helicopter, three officers shot and killed Essex. 

Later that week, the owner of the Rault Center, Joseph Rault, told the media he believed Essex was in the building Nov. 29, the day of the fire. It made sense that Essex would burn out the Rault Center, in order to prevent the police from using it as a nest to pick him off at the Howard Johnson’s. 

Following Mardi Gras, there was still more bad times to come in the Big Easy.

The Misssissippi River was in complete flood by early May. The Old River Control Structure north of Vidalia was in imminent danger of failure, which would have changed the course of the Misssissippi right then and there. Instead of meandering past Baton Rouge and New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico, Old Man River would have flowed down the path of the Atchafayla River, exiting into the Gulf at Morgan City. New Orleans would have been left high and dry with a massive salt water intrusion into its drinking supply. 

It took repairs to the ORCS and the opening of the Morganza Spillway near New Roads to prevent catastrophe. Morgan City was inundated and angry, but Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana’s two largest cities, had to be spared, or the state’s economy might have collapsed immediately.

The came June 24. 

That Sunday night, an arsonist started an inferno at The Upstairs lounge, a noted hangout for homosexuals. Thirty-two people perished in the city’s worst hate crime. Nobody was ever charged. 

It would get better in New Orleans. But the events of 1972 and 1973 were a dark stain, one which I didn’t witness, but I’ve heard more than enough about.