I Hate Mardi Gras - Part I

Thirteen harrowing hours strapped to the side of a World War II cargo plane in 1958, enroute to Germany, permanently sidelined my father from any future flights. The Cadillac idea was also quickly shot down as my father had narcoleptic tendencies(he swore the genius Thomas Edison napped frequently) which required many rest stops. A twelve hour drive could quickly turn into twenty-four. Since the "City of New Orleans" train only took eighteen hours, we hedged our bets and bought two Amtrack sleepers. It was August 1989 and my parents were taking their first born daughter, their "princess", their "Bull," who was "born thirty," to report to freshman year of college at Tulane University in New Orleans.

A future chef, my kid brother made us these amazing meals for the train ride. Giant Italian submarines, on the good bread, with cold cuts from Conti Di Savoia Deli on Taylor Street with home made giardinere and a brown paper bag he wrote "chips" on. We had one roomette and one bedroom. I was initially supposed to share the bedroom with my Mother, but forced my divorced parents to give me the roomette. I was starting to freak out a little about the prospect of leaving home for the next couple of months and I needed to wrap my head around it. I was missing my girlfriends from home who were still in high school SO much, but took comfort in the fact that I now had many friends who had gone away to college, even flourished, so I deep down knew I would be okay.

My Dad was like a kid in a candy store when he got on the train. He just loved the adventure of travel, especially a train ride, just like his old man, the Jazz drummer O.B. He loved all the "do-dads" you could find on the train like the miniature soaps and even the table that you folded in and out of the wall to place your coffee cup on. Anything that was not strapped down would be coming home with us. "Whats this we got here?" he'd coyly ask and I'd be like "Thats the Attendant button, Dad, to call the Attendant if you need something. See, it says right there: ATTENDANT." Although we were stuffed from the subs, he swore the dining car meals were pretty good and we made a reservation for dinner late that night. The train left Chicago at eight pm and would arrive to New Orleans around one o'clock or so. My Dad had two new spy-thriller paperbacks in his hands that I knew he would be finished with by dawn. When we met our sleeping car porter, a four foot eleven black octogenarian male, with a ten thousand dollar wrist watch, I thought I would not be able to ever get my father off the train once we arrived in New Orleans. It was like his father, O.B., had risen from the dead and found a home in this sweet, ultra-proficient, GI-like porter, another "road man" who had seen everything a man needs to see on this train and in this country for sixty some years. My Dad brown nosed this black porter so badly, he would have bagged him up and taken him home in his suitcase if he could. I was like "Enough, already," "Let the poor man do his job!"

Yes, my Dad enjoyed the comfort of the sleeper car and being waited on hand and foot, especially the free coffee and cookies by the stairwell. But in all honesty, he would have been much happier in the bottom coach car, playing pinochle or craps with the porters, speaking in his
southern black man dialect, getting a good scoop on any games or "joints" he should check out once he got to Louisiana. His repetitive use of the words "coon ass" was a little grating at times, but I just smiled in response. At least one person was excited about this trip.

After an enormous platter of steak and mashed potatoes, hot fudge sundae and my father having laid out at least a hundred dollars in cash tips, I locked the door of my roomette. The porter had taken the lower bunk down for me and had turned down the bed. It reminded me of at best a cot and it was completely at horizontal level with the train window. I kept my clothes on - in case of an emergency - of course I would be the first off the train and be able to last for hours in the dark forest I imagined. I turned the lights off and turned on my auto reverse cassette tape playing Walkman which allowed me to listen to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" for at least six hours non-stop. I laid my face and body against the cool window and squinted as I tried to make out the objects hiding in the dark that we quickly passed by.

I cried a lot that night. I did not know what to expect going away to college, and I started to miss my parents already, even though they were well fed and happy sleeping just a few feet away from me in the bedroom next door. My whole life flashed before my eyes - first day of kindergarten at St. Clements, when the principal, an ex-nun, and two other teachers had to hold me back from my mother, as I was so hysterical and crying watching her walk away from me, down the long basement hall from the classroom, gray pipes hanging from the low ceiling, truly leaving me alone for the very first time. I remembered my now divorced Dad coming to watch my basketball games in middle school, one of only two girls on an all-boys team, him being the gaudiest, loudest parent in the bunch and falling asleep, as per usual, in intervals, in the fold up chair on the sideline. The kids would all be huddled by the coach discussing our zone defense and I could hear him yelling "How fucking LONG this game is." I remembered my grade school graduation at the little church in the Seminary at DePaul, and the high school graduation in the Parker auditorium when I wore sparkly white Keds gym shoes with my dress. I remembered all the times I forced my kid brother to let me sleep on his bedroom floor as I had terrible, vivid nightmares on a regular basis. I would miss all of the nearly fatal battery bombs and booby traps he would leave for me throughout our apartment(the bow and arrow that met my forehead when I opened his door being the most potentially life-threatening). I remembered it all, especially how proud they told me I made them and how I wanted to continue to make them. The flashing lights outside the window and the high speed jerking eventually lulled my swollen with tears face and seventeen year old virgin body to sleep. It was as if I was looking out into the magical Carlos Castaneda light filled horizon of my dreams.

When we arrived at the train station, late of course, the first things I noticed about the town was the unbearable humidity and the smell of raw sewage. We took a cab to the Hyatt hotel nearby on Poydras Street and set out to get a good meal. Oysters were our first priority. Poppy, my maternal grandfather, was a commercial fisherman in Florida and my Mom grew up on fresh oysters. She had taught me about the rule of only eating them in "R" months. We took a chance as it was the final days of August. My parents had always let me try all of the "adult" foods and therefore, clams, oysters and especially escargot were my favorites. I would try almost anything. I would order duck with cherry sauce at the "Bakery" restaurant on Lincoln Avenue and frog legs at the "Half Shell" restaurant on Diversey back in Chicago. We took a short cab ride to Bourbon street and went into what my Dad would later refer to as a "stiff" joint - i.e. a high priced tourist trap, but we all agreed the food was delicious regardless. That was one recurring theme throughout my years in New Orleans - whether it be a neighborhood grocery store making three dollar po-boys, the upscale Commander's Palace, or a beer stand on Bourbon Street slinging red beans - it is extremely rare to not get a tasty meal in this town.

The first day that we woke up, we took our rented Mustang convertible down the scenic St. Charles Avenue past all of the beautiful homes to the Tulane University Uptown campus. I showed up to twelfth floor of Monroe with my Laura Ashley purple comforter and shower caddy, feeling like all the other kids were so much more comfortable being there, like they had been living here for years already. We took the elevator up to the top of the building. It was a coed dorm and boy's rooms were to the left and girls to the right. The "RA" or "Residential Advisor" I met was a Pillsbury dough girl looking blond woman with a Boston accent who I witnessed first hand grabbing a girl's gold Rolex still on her wrist in the elevator and putting it in her mouth and biting down to decipher if it was a fake or not. I was utterly disgusted with this woman's bravado. The fact that it had been MY fake gold Rolex given to me by my dear father had nothing to do with the fact that I kept this RA at a safe distance for the rest of the school year and never wore the thing again. Damn you, luxury goods that fall off of a truck!

I had already spoken to my new roommate over the phone that summer. We had both filled out a personality questionaire and some computer, or some puppet master with a sense of humor, put the two of us together. We were both academics who wanted to study political science, but after that, the similarities ended. She did not drink, and had not even kissed a boy as far as I knew. I had at least made out - once - four years before. She was a straight A student(as was I that first year) and extremely hardworking. She would wake up every morning at five am to begin her work study at the Reilly Center athletic building. I don't think she went out - even once- to a party or to have a drink or bite to eat the entire year. She was a scholarship student-I was not-yet-and she dreamed of going to Georgetown - a dream realized her sophomore year - the Poli Sci major's wet dream.

So my freshman year roommate would not be the type to drag me out of the room to explore a new city, hit every bar, every fraternity party, an adventurer. I am a follower, not a leader, so I kind of missed out there. I was lucky in as much as there were no strange boys sleeping in our dorm room or vomit ever on the floor, but it was kind of almost too boring, as I did need someone to help get me "into" college life. There were a few telling points about my roommate I do remember, and feel free to make your own conclusions: a. she had multiple stuffed animals on her bed b. her favorite cd was the soundtrack to David Mamet's film "About Last Night" which she played with a frequency that would make even a Soviet Gulag warden shudder and c. the most important - she came from a family of industrial spies.

Oh, I have no problem with businesses trying to recoup lost revenue, and I imagine it hurts the smaller ones more than the corporate giants like a Gap. What I do have a problem with, unfortunately, is a "Rat." "Always keep your mouth shut and never rat on your friends" is kind of the theme of the Scorsese movie "Good Fellas," but this had long been my families' credo. I grew up learning that you are not supposed to "rat" on anyone, your family especially. I am one quarter Sicilian, and loyalty is everything, especially when you don't have all that much money. "Blood is thicker than water" is frequently emphasized. The vetting that takes place of strangers coming into our family is legendary, making me question the accuracy of both the Republican and Democratic parties. I have hundreds of relatives on my father's Italian side and weddings always take place in grand halls with wall to wall people. "I don't know nothing about nothing" is a familiar refrain. "What really happened back in the parking lot in the fall of nineteen forty nine?" a cousin might get teased. "I have no idea what you are talking about".

Our loyalty - i.e. not "ratting" - comes ingrained as our family patriarch -my great-great-grandfather was the victim of a rat. In the second half of the nineteenth century, to be a Mafia Don, which he was - had more of a Robin Hood aura to it- as Dons existed to help provide food, shelter and justice for the small villages as the landowners and police had little sympathy for the drama or politics of the peasantry. The Sicilian mafia filled a need- bandits in the beginning- albeit a glorified one.

So, the landowner-controlled police bring my great-great grandfather in, as he was tricked by his nephew who ratted on him and took a cash reward and ran off to America. Rather than be dragged through the streets from the back of a horse and tortured, my great-great-grandfather hung himself in his cell. His son, my great-grandfather, devastated by the loss of his father and motivated to avenge his death, soon made his way through Ellis Island, changing his name, and fulfilling the vendetta against his cousin, the "rat."

My great-grandfather liked Chicago and settled there in the late eighteen eighties. He bought himself a house and provided well for his children. He was a quiet man, a "working stiff" and did not want any drama or politics here in his new life in America. He thought that chapter in his life to be officially closed. When a member of the "Black Hand" showed up to his wooden house saying "it would be a shame if your house burned down" my GGF told the man he would just be a minute to get the "insurance" money from his house. Instead he came out with a big stick and beat the man on his porch, threatening him if he ever came back.

As the story goes, "special" meetings had to take place as my GGF had assaulted a lackey extortionist for the "Black Hand," the first Sicilian mafia here in the States. But once they identified who my GGF was -a son of a Don in Sicily - they apologized and let my GGF be for some time. Because his father was a Don in the old country - which held some prestige - and also because the son of a Don might pose a potential threat for local power in the future - the "Black Hand" took my GGF out for a night of dinner and drinks to persuade my GGF to join the "Black Hand"- or else. The three Mafia members walked under the viaduct with my GGF, and after he refused their request, tried to kill him. My GGF was badly hurt, but ended up killing one of the assailants, with the other two "hit men" running away. My GGF did have to go to jail for a short time, but because it was self-defense, he got released quickly.

My GGF couldn't eat or sleep while in jail. A pal tipped him off where one of his conspirators was now hiding, and shortly after my GGF's release, he left home, again, for a vendetta. He was only gone a short time and when he came home, he was able to eat and sleep again and all was well with the family unit. Over a card game a year or so later, one of the guys bragged how their friend, the last assailant, had made a new life for himself out West. Again, my GGF could not eat nor sleep knowing this traitor was out there, having tried to kill him. So my GGF just disappears one day, this time for a few months, leaving his family all alone, to avenge the last person living who had made an attempt on his life. He returned home, was able to eat, sleep and raise his family, and never made a peep, or a mysterious trip, again.

So, I guess my point is that I never felt completely comfortable around my freshman year roommate nor trusted her. I couldn't get over the fact that she would pretend to befriend the staff of some clothing store, only to betray them later, by "ratting," even if they were guilty. If this girl would go so far as to assume a different identity simply to nab a teenager stealing a thirty dollar sweater, what on earth would she have in store for my family of hustlers, degenerate gamblers and at least one murderer(that I know of)? So, I did what I do best, I kept my mouth shut. Forward, my father would only be known as a "small business man."

My final drop off in front of the dorms was a hard one. My Mom had already returned to Chicago and my father drove me back to the Monroe Hall dorm to officially "leave" me at college. It was not like that first drop off at St. Clements, back in Kindergarten, as this time, my Dad was the one crying and I held back my tears in a giant lump in my throat. There we were in the convertible, with the top off and air conditioning on, sweating through another set of clothes since we had arrived in this town. Pops hands me one thousand dollars cash in small bills and a plastic "Hyatt" laundry bag filled with mini ketchups, a half eaten filet mignion and enough salt and pepper packets to last me the next four years. He assures me these will come in handy sometime. He reminds me that when you are starving, everything tastes better. He tells me to have fun, and that he loves me, and to be sure to hide my toothbrush and my razors. Ah, the paranoid Sicilian at his finest, I thought to myself. I had a bit of a walk from the parking lot up to the dorm. It was only when I reached the front doors, that I turned around and saw my Pops still sitting in the car sweating, and wave to me a last goodbye.

Since I figured out, off the bat, that my freshman year roommate and I would not be hanging out all that much, I began my search for some new friends. The first friend I made was with a cute Jewish New Yorker across the hall. I liked her familiar look- especially her Elsa Peretti Tiffany Heart Necklace. She was looking to bum a cigarette and was also very loud, so you couldn't miss her when she walked down the hall. Jena was an Aquarian like me, innocent, a romantic, and also like me, the first to go away to college. She grew up in the suburbs but was well aware of city life, and I could relate my Chicago city stories to her New York city stories. It was a keen match. Her father grew up in Brooklyn surrounded by Italians, and had that old timer, too cool for words voice with Rat Pack lingo thrown in, just like my Dad. Her Mom grew up in Queens so her parents were without airs, self-made, with street smarts, and the most engaging couple I had ever met. Sharing a cup of coffee with them in New City or out to dinner, was like watching an elaborate Broadway show. And yet, they were also great listeners. People fascinated them. They were so welcoming of all kinds, just like their daughter, that I loved to hear all about their New York - just loved it. And since many of my best pals growing up were Jewish, I felt incredibly comfortable around Jena, as if we had been friends in another time even. This was not too far fetched as she was a believer in mysticism, past lives, and a frequent dialer of psychic hotlines. With Jena I learned that all acceptance in society was relative. There was always a higher level people aspired to. I thought she had it all - two Mercedes, and a house with a pool in the suburbs; but it "wasn't Park Avenue," she joked, but not really. I should have loved our Lincoln Park apartment, even with the broken down furniture, but it wasn't a house in the Gold Coast. I owe Jena a lot for giving me some perspective, showing me how another up-and-coming family was doing it on the East Coast, and how silly we both were to compare ourselves to anyone else, as our parents adored us, and we felt comfortable to talk about almost anything with them, so we truly had it made.

Jena and I were both merely social smokers in high school, never buying our own cigarettes, but then all of a sudden, that freshman year, lonely, nervous, and with the ability to charge cartons of cigarettes on our student i.d. at the "Bruff Stuff" campus store; the freedom to smoke in our dorm room and the library, regular smokers we became. As Jena was busy rushing a sorority, this is how I branched out and made more friends. One day that first week, a bunch of the girls on the floor, seemed to all meet up in the carpeted corner at the end of the hall. Everyone was nervous, introducing themselves, noting where they came from, afraid of being judged; hearing their two-minute life story aloud for the very first time. Some of us pulled out cigarettes and since I chose a non-smoking roommate I spent a lot of time down in the smokers corner of the hall. Somehow, not surprisingly, the subject of Mardi Gras came up.

I remember reading the Princeton Review guidebook to colleges and under "Tulane University" one of the pluses was that you get to experience Mardi Gras four times(note - this if you were able to actually graduate in four years). I had seen coverage of Mardi Gras on the news once or twice so I had some idea that it coincided with the beginning of Lent. From pictures you could see there were parades and parties. The Princeton Review had a picture of a "krewe" with a extremely large, some may say frightening, giant jester head atop a float with thousands of revelers waving their hands in submission. I was never one for dressing up at Halloween or for clowns- used to cry at the circus with my father - but I had to imagine this big city party was probably loads of fun. Right?

"You can't even say the words Mardi Gras to my best friend from home" the seen it all, done it all, savvy as she was pretty, Lisa, the New Haven, Connecticut local began. "Mardi Gras is fucking crazy, man. People get killed" she warns, lighting up her Camel Light and taking a long drag. At first I thought it was an off the cuff joke, but I could see the anxiety in her face. She then proceeds to tell me how her friend drove down to Mardi Gras for a once in a lifetime experience to go to the country's "Biggest party" and ends up getting run over by a streetcar. It was hard enough knowing that New Orleans and Washington D.C. were currently neck and neck in a battle for our country's murder capital, and now I had to worry about Mardi Gras. And I would have to endure it "Four times" according to the guidebook. My Dad had prepared me for every hustle in New Orleans, and I chuckled to myself as every day that first month of freshman year, coeds would come home to tell their story of how they were swindled one way or another in the French Quarter. Some by the "Shell" game or by being asked "Bet I can tell where you got your shoes?" "Where?" the mark asks "On your feet!" the hustler answers. I carried my money in three different places in case I got mugged, held my keys between my knuckles to stab a perpetrator in self-defense. Would I make it through Mardi Gras?

A month into school I still did not have any regular, close friends. I buried myself in my studies, writing letters home and making sure I achieved the freshman fifteen. My first big exam was in Political Science, a class taught by a rather well noted, middle aged professor. I took the test one early afternoon and was convinced I had done poorly. I ran out of the building, Gibson Hall, which is directly behind the big illuminated "Tulane University" stone sign on St. Charles Avenue. I cross the street over to Audubon Park, home to the most beautiful old Oaks and Weeping Willows. It is probably the largest area of shade in the whole entire town. I sat on an old bench, watching the streetcar go by, to begin an identity crisis. Ok, I told myself, if I am not the "smart" girl, then what girl am I? I could not be the rich girl, nor the pretty girl, nor the hippie girl, nor the druggie girl, nor the anorexic girl, nor the slutty girl, so what was left? I figured every girl had a stereotype, an i.d., and if I was not a good student, I was really unsure of who I was. Everyone has their "thing," and I thought school was my "thing." I was looking at a terrifying trifecta - or so I thought - unpopular with the boys, not really rich AND a poor student? I was stumped.

I stopped crying, slung my black leather backpack I bought at Loris Shoes before leaving Chicago, took a deep breath and walked a few blocks to the local college bar, on the corner of Oak Street and Broadway, called The Boot. It was around one or two in the afternoon and the bar was open, of course. I went to the adjacent Boot "Store" to buy a fresh pack of cigarettes from the short, freaky and bald man better known as the Boot "Troll." I took the secret passage way into the bar and went straight up to the bartender, a Harry Connick Jr. dead ringer, dressed in Levis, shit kickers and a t-shirt. He says "How ya doing?" in that super-friendly, New Orleans speak. "A pitcher of Rum and Coke" I answer and he looks at me and says, "Sure, Darlin'" And then he makes it for me. Here I am, seventeen years old at two o'clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday, ordering and being served a PITCHER of Rum and Coke no more than thirty feet from campus. No hesitation, no nothing, he just serves me the damn thing. Gotta love this town, I thought to myself.

So I take my pitcher, plastic cup and fresh pack of smokes and settle down into a booth by the french doors opening out into the sidewalk, facing the Newcomb chapel. I proceed to put pen to paper in my trusty, yet completely annoying, journal, spending a good forty-five minutes feeling sorry for myself, crying softly, smoking like a fiend and emptying the pitcher. I guess you can tell I wasn't used to ordering cocktails for myself yet. I had grown up making rum and cokes at a girlfriend's house, while their parents were out, in high school. In fact, my fake i.d. had the name "Alexis B. Ryan" on it. The "B" initial stood for Bacardi rum and the Ryan for Jake Ryan, dreamy teen heartthrob from the John Hughes film "Sixteen Candles." The pitchers had to do with all of the pitchers of margaritas we would order at La Canasta Mexican restaurant in Chicago. I was just so used to drinking in large quantities, I guess.

So I am making my way back to the dorms, having to cross the entire campus in daylight, unable to walk in a straight line and "blind" drunk from the powerful New Orleans sun. I am sweating up a storm and hiccuping. A very unflattering, "victim" record plays in my head, but my feet know I just have a little bit longer to go to make it back to my bed to pass out. I finally make it to the entry way of the dorms and enter the elevator at the same time as Derrick, a very tall, black Christian from New York, who happens to live on my same floor. He laughs at me a little and asks what's going on and I mumble something like "I'm failing out of school." I proceed to lean against the elevator wall, sliding all the way down to the extremely filthy floor, until I am completely on my back, looking up at the light, head spinning like a tornado. Once we hit the top, the twelfth floor of Monroe Hall, Derrick keeps the elevator door open and yells "Need some help here."

A few seconds pass and in comes Eddie, aka "The Beef" from our floor who was in love with Lisa from New Haven and the two of them carry me - reeking of B.O., too much Yves Saint Laurent "Paris" perfume, Finesse shampoo, alcohol and cigarettes. Derrick takes my arms and Beef takes my legs, as if I were a steer heading to the butcher, giggling, to the right, onto the girls side of the dorm. Let me remind you - this is three o'clock on a Tuesday, hardly one month into freshman year of college. People are staring at me and I am still mumbling to myself that I am a failure. I make it to my bed and a bright and smiling face - Lisa's- shows up to see how I am doing. I tell her what happened and she tells me I'm crazy "Aren't you the girl who does her homework two weeks in advance?" she asks. "Well, yes" I admit, head about to explode. "I'm sure you did just fine," she tells me "I'm sure I'm failing French" she comforts me further. Lisa and a few other girls continue to check up on me, and I seem to have finally found my new best girlfriends. Talk about making an entrance. At least now they all knew my name. People asked me about that day for weeks after, and introduced themselves to me. I had broken through, no longer looking too snobby or too prude, which I may have been coming off as. I was just another freshman in college; insecure, stupid, and half way out of my mind.

Popular Posts