Monday, February 15, 2010

Mardi Gras 1976

Recently we've gone on a Facebook bender, belatedly (we're a late adopter, adapter, whatever), and primarily to reconnect with people we haven't seen, or not so much, in 20, 30, even 35 (!) years (as opposed to people we haven't seen in 5, 10 years––we always figure we'll run across them at Wal-Mart, or Whole Foods, or a Metro stop). We're naturally wary of anything as mind-habituating as Facebook, and very shortly we may be seeking out a 12-step program to cure us of this new enthusiasm, our latest in a long line of attention-deflecting addictions. The Facebooking, as we were warned it would, sent us stumbling down Memory Lane and into our "archives," a sturdy hatbox we've lugged with us for 30+ years and into which we've stuffed old photos, letters, unserved arrest warrants and such, and where we came upon the photo accompanying these words.

It shows a street scene during Mardi Gras, 1976, captured in the Hub City by our pal R-b, an avocational photographer who grew his own at home---that is, shot and "developed" his photos with chemicals and trays an so forth in makeshift closet-darkrooms. (How ... old-fashioned.) About 10 years ago we were visiting R-b at his southwest Houston home and remarked on how much we dug the photo, and he asked---or, to be accurate, demanded––that we take it off his hands and never return it. We said, "Sure,"* because this picture speaks to us on many different levels and draws forth a wealth of associations--most all of them blue-sky happy, in their way.

We're not 100-percent positive of the photo's vintage, but the movie advertised on the marquee was released in 1976, according to various authoritative Internet sources (and starred Elliot Gould and Diane Keaton––we never saw it and don't even wanna know what it's about). It's obviously from some time in the '70s, as you can tell from the gent in the foreground with the shades and form-fitting denim and the extremely boss hat (all of which he may have purchased down the street at an establishment called Right On Fashions, which last we looked was still extant, with a somewhat updated and hip-hop-ized selection of couture). It was for-sure taken at Mardi Gras––R-b confirmed this for us––and froze a typical instance of street-dragging on Shrove Tuesday, possibly between parades (there was the big "white" one in the a.m. and a "black" one at 1 p.m.). The street is Jefferson and the theater likewise was the Jefferson. (For recently arrived immigrants or students who failed their 8th grade U.S. history TAKS exam, this "Jefferson" was un presidente de Los Estados Unidos who swung the steal of the century [19th] when he "purchased" a broad swath of the North American continent, then called "Louisiana," at a fire-sale price from this dude Napoleon, who was kinda like the mack-daddy or whatever you call it these days of this country called France, which is in Europe, thus doubling the size of los Estados Unidos and priming future generations of Yankee Traders to [thank God] steal most of the rest of the continent from Mexico.)

The movie title, of course, speaks to us across the years of the fleetingness, the ephemerality, of time and desire. The theater is long-gone, razed at least two decades back. It was where, we believe, our father took us to see The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance--why, we have no idea, as it was the only time we remember him taking us to a picture show, although he took us lots of other places. Some years later, right out front there, we had a non-Mardi Gras Epiphany or revelation of sorts, after our mother had dropped us and some other goofballs off to catch a Saturday afternoon matinee of an Elvis movie (which one we can't recall––they were pretty much all the same after Kid Creole, and all good). While standing in line we noticed something we had never noticed before, although it may have been there all along, right in front of us, and that was the presence of a second line of youngsters at a smallish ticket window off to the side. The kids in the other line, we noticed, were all directed by the manager up the side stairs to the balcony. We took our seat, unwisely, on the floor just in front of the balcony's edge, and sometime during the movie a shower of popcorn and ice rained down on first-floor customers, causing considerable commotion as the ushers hoofed it upstairs to police the antisocial behavior. Although at the time we did not enjoy that uncomfortable, sticky sensation, if we ever meet a black man or woman our age who was in the balcony that day to watch Elvis we'll ask them if they threw ice or popcorn on us, and if he or she says "No" we'll ask "Why not?"

But mostly this picture makes us think of Mardi Gras, and all the great fun we had, from the time we were a little kid until late adolescence and early adulthood, running wild and free and mostly unsupervised with boon companions through the downtown streets of the Hub City. How we discovered those hidden spots--like the bleak, urine-stained pedestrian passageway that ran alongside the underpass beneath the train tracks, and still may--and how we found you could traverse a good portion of the downtown by going roof-to-roof atop the adjacent storefronts. How blue the sky looked, and how there seemed to be no boundary between that blue sky and our mind, on the Mardi Gras Day when we experienced a bit of heightened consciousness and stood staring upward, transfixed, right there on Jefferson Street. How at 11 or 12 we threw up after gorging our self on junk at the street carnival that was always staked at the foot of Jefferson, and how we subsequently spent what seemed like two long, queasy hours searching for a usable pay phone so we could could call our parents to come and get us. How, going back to when we were 5 or 6, before we were running wild and free, we were forced to costume-up in a "Confederate general's" uniform--with epaulets!--that our Granny, bless her, had lovingly sewn for us. And much later on, how we'd unhesitatingly hook up with––in the dated sense of the term, meaning hang out with--people we didn't know and would never see again after that Tuesday.

We learned some other stuff at Mardi Gras, too, like what Hemingway (or we think it was Hemingway) meant when he said that one of the educational advantages of growing up in a small town is that you come to realize why the man with the big cigar has the big cigar. In our case, it was realizing why the man on the float in the crown, robe and fake beard was on the float, while we were down on the street with the jostling throngs waving our hands and begging him to toss us some plastic junque.

And it was, truly, all good.

We don't know anybody in the picture, but we know everybody ... the little fellow with his dad, walking purposefully off to the right ... the pig-tailed girl in the back, turning to look down at something on the street, maybe something she stepped on, or in ... the little girl in the foreground, gazing up pleadingly at her father, with the look of distress, maybe ... her father in the boss hat, waking tall and proud with his shoulders back and the pretty-good-lookin' woman with the popcorn at his side ... Everybody happy, or sad, or happy-sad ... stunned, expectant, searching, hungry ... dragging the street ... throw me something, mister ... in the moment we call "now" that's always passing.

*Dialogue guaranteed verbatim.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the sweet memories, Mr. Slampo. A mighty fine essay.

And thanks for uploading that photo in a large-size version, which reveals valuable details that remind us (well, they remind me at least) to be mindful of the eternal now that you limn so nicely.

I notice, for instance, that the kid in shorts at the far right has a whistle or kazoo or something in his mouth and what looks to me like a big peace-sign amulet hanging on a chain around his neck. I don't remember ever seeing that combination of cultural artifacts before, but then it's very possible that I did and just wasn't paying attention.

Slampo said...

Good eye, Anon. The whistle and the amulet were most likely impromptu touches, part of the lad's accumulated bounty tossed from parade floats. They nicely complement the cut-off Madras (?) shorts and U.S. Keds. (This information will be of great importance to the future writer of the dissertation "Post-War Trends in Stuff Thrown from Mardi Gras Floats in Louisiana, 1946-2000.")

The Fishing Musician said...

So is The Hub City Nola? I didn't have any Mardi Gras memories from my childhood, mine came later in life.

But the picture is very cool. I remember the flared jeans. And seeing cool hats like the one the cool cat has on.

Nice essay.

Slampo said...

Nah, El, it's the Hub City of Lafayette Parish, just south of I-10. Mardi Gras there was/is a big deal--for some years they gave us 2, maybe 3 days off from school (prepare, party, recover)--but it was a lot smaller and more kid- and family-friendly than NOLA ... which I guess is why parents were cool with dumping their kids off for the parades.

The original Hub City, I believe, was Athens, not the one in Georgia, and of course in the U.S. it was/is Boston. I guess someone in Lafayette once had pretensions along those lines, thus "Hub City Cleaners" and "Hub City Diner" and "Hub City Car Wash," etc.