I Hate Mardi Gras -Part II

Highlights of first semester 1989 include the fifteenth anniversary season of the "Saturday Night Live" sketch comedy show, showcasing the hilarious "Wayne's World" characters, Wayne and Garth. These misfit suburban teenagers clearly resonated with our "Party on!" generation. Fifteen years seemed so long at the time, especially for us seventeen and eighteen year olds. The prospect that such a large amount of time had passed, made even us feel aged. The twelfth floor Monroe Hall girls and I, huddling around Natalie's five inch black and white T.V., had fun during the premiere reminiscing about watching John Belushi at slumber parties on Saturday nights as kids, following the Aaron Spelling classic "Fantasy Island."

The San Francisco earthquake was kind of scary, as Lisa's roommate, Natalie, already an intense young woman, adamantly vocal in regard to having to make lemonade out of the lemons from her life, was from San Francisco, and cried her eyes out in near hysteria, as the phone lines were out, and she could not get in touch with her grandmother. That December, the U.S. invaded Noriega's Panama, causing one of the South American aristocrats from the boys side of our floor to warn: "Jshu don't mess with Panama. Dey fuggin' kill you, man. Dey got bazookas and shit."

Most importantly, the Berlin wall, that giant symbol of repression, tyranny, communism, and many a television movie of the week, fell; and the world did start to feel slightly less paranoid, as if the imminent threat of nuclear war that us eighties kids grew up with, was finally dissipating, and a more relaxed, laid back, free-love period was sprouting. Although we were already living in the college "bubble," the cold war was quickly forgotten. The materialistic eighties of writers Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney came to an end. Musicians were inspired; strumming guitars and penning songs that would shortly be coined the "Alternative." Tapestries, LL Bean flannel shirts, ripped jeans and long hair would slowly be making a comeback. As the US economy began to falter, people were getting back to basics. Goodbye "Poison" perfume, hello Patchouli. Young and old began to take a collective deep breath for the first time in a long while.

By second semester freshman year in college, survival of the fittest sets in, and the halls are a little thinner than they were back in August. GPAs fall. Scholarships, along with parental patience and brain cells, simply dissolve. Anti-depressant prescriptions increase. Dorm room doubles become singles, and there is a little less of a wait to style your hair in the mirror of the communal bathroom. By January of 1990, I still hadn't fallen head over heels in love with Tulane, mostly because I hardly went out at night nor participated in any of the fun, socializing events that were, to the point of ridiculousness, always available. No excuse is a bad excuse to have a party in New Orleans, or so I would learn.

Floor seven and a half from the Charlie Kaufman written film "Being John Malkovich" says a lot about my state of mind away at college. Strange, uncomfortable, hard to get to, and stuck between two perfectly normal universes(or floors). Max Fischer, from Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" is dearest to my heart. Like Max, I also created grandiose personal histories and barely survived an elite private school. I would have killed for an ending just like "Rushmore." Finally making peace with myself, my life; having others love me back, as my art brings a bizarre mix of family and friends together to dance joyously to the closing credits. I spent a lot of time, throughout college, sadly day dreaming like Scarlet Johanssen's character, and, I'll say it, Bill Murray's too, in Sofia Coppola's film "Lost in Translation." So incredibly lonely, aimless, and hoping to meet that other person who wordlessly understands and accepts. Half of me was this totally concrete, grounded, solid person, and the other half was just floating up in the Aquarian air, with an unclear, sometimes shameful; fuzzy history, future, and identity.

I did not rush a sorority, nor dated, although I would have liked to. I rarely left campus except to walk up to South Carrolton to buy cheese fries at O'Henrys on the streetcar line. When it came to the city of New Orleans, I had barely scratched the surface. On the upside, I became a reader for "fun." Since I could charge nearly thousands of dollars worth of luxury leather goods, work out clothes, alcohol and cigarettes on campus with my trusty Tulane i.d., I began to buy books from the UC store - the first of which was Ernest Hemingway's "A Movable Feast." I read it in a single day in the smoker's corner at the end of our dorm hall. The story of which, only compounds how I feel now, looking back, nearly twenty years past, knowing deep down in my soul, that living in New Orleans as a young person turned out to be the best gift, I did not expect.

My Mom sweetly sent a bottle of champagne for my eighteenth birthday, that January 1990, which I drank by myself, crying(a chronic problem), in my friend Grace's newly minted single, a short respite from my cultish roommate. Grace put the two twin beds together to make one big bed. She asked me to go out to a party with her with pals from the Sailing Club, but I politely refused; too much on my mind, turning eighteen and all. Grace's former roommate, Mary, was nearly six feet tall and only around one hundred and ten pounds when soaking wet; with long, thick, choppy, reddish brown hair. She entered Tulane via ROTC which was hard to believe, as she was so feminine, bone thin and almost frail. She looked as if she could fracture easily. On the contrary, Mary drank like a fish, smoked like a chimney, swore like a sailor and ate like a horse. She was taking Russian to supplement her ROTC experience and her language tapes were titled "Making Progress in Russian." Mary had a large sense of humor and every time she spoke in her nasally Russian voice I would crack up, even snort a few times.

Mary's mother and step father were Mormons who worked for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. Mary had been having an affair with a significantly shorter, thirty-something, non-Mormon, engineer at the oil company compound she called home. Due to its inherent isolationist nature; black market alcohol, unable to drive American women being hit on by Arab men in Bentley's, conservative politics, and wife swapping; the compound "culture" fascinated me tremendously. Tales of Saudi Arabia compound life were more riveting than an episode of the nighttime soap opera "Knots Landing." Apparently Mary's affair had been made public knowledge, even she admitted her beau's love letters quoting Pink Floyd's "Wish you were here" were cheezy, and she was shipped back home to face a Mormon tribunal, or something like that. As a result, Mary's departure left Grace with a most coveted, double dorm room all to herself.

Winter in New Orleans is quite mild and still sunny which I did like a lot, coming from Edith Wharton's "Ethan Frome" like Chicago snow, darkness and icy freeze. Two of my closest friends were flying in to spend my first Mardi Gras here in New Orleans with me. I was hoping it would be a good one and that nothing too disastrous would befall us. For some lucky reason, my roommate left town the week of Mardi Gras - a vacation week at Tulane that year - so I could accommodate my guests. The first guest was my best friend from Chicago, still in high school, Anne; and the second, our older, best guy friend at the time, who was living at, but secretly not attending, a small, private, liberal arts college in New York. His name was Reilly, and with his Tevye beard he still wore from his iconic role in "Fiddler on the Roof" in high school, looked at least thirty. Reilly was the ultimate performer, a descendant of theater people, and I thought he would truly appreciate the large performance of Mardi Gras we were about to take part in.

Anne and Reilly were the perfect guests for my first Mardi Gras as both were down to earth, self-deprecating, and always up for something new or fun. You would not call either one a prude when it came to drinking or nudity, so we were alright there. A misguided "Last Tango in Paris"/"Midnight Cowboy" double feature rental over Christmas break with Anne only compounded this point. I hardly knew my way around New Orleans once outside the Tulane campus grounds, so this first Mardi Gras would be my tamest, but still an adventure.

Obviously the first thing young guests notice in regard to their visit to New Orleans is the drinking age. In 1990, that drinking age was only 18. Even though Anne was still seventeen, no one actually carded anywhere in the city except strip clubs, and even if you did get carded, any i.d., even of someone of age of a different sex, would do to get you past the bouncer. I had heard the reason for all of the extreme number of potholes in New Orleans was due to the fact that the federal government would not appropriate funds for street paving there until the drinking age was raised. Either that or the potholes were used as a deterrent for drinking and driving as riding over those holes was painful and almost always guaranteed hitting your head on the ceiling of your car and/or a flat tire. The side streets were so filled with these concave gravel pits, it appeared as if we were living in a war zone and that numerous grenades had been set off throughout the city. I wondered why there were so many SUVs on campus.

The closest places to start drinking, other than "The Rat" bar located in a dark basement below the school cafeteria, were two local bars off of Broadway. The first was called "The Boot" and often had live music and townie girls trying to hit on college guys. The second, one block away from the other, was called "The Metro" and had two levels, outdoor seating, and a most amusing, pool table. Eighty five percent of my first Mardi Gras was spent at these two establishments, but perhaps for having a first Mardi Gras, that is good thing.

When Reilly first arrived all I heard coming out of his mouth was "Bourbon Street, Party, Beads, Bourbon Street, Party." He was extremely pumped up. For Anne, it was her first time visiting a college campus and I think she was soaking in the lifestyle - dorm rooms, cafeteria, quads. Our dormitory hall was jammed with lots of strange guests that weekend. I made sure to keep the door locked.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mardi Gras, a giant succession of Greek God and Goddess themed parades roll through St. Charles Avenue down to the French Quarter every night and day for around ten to fourteen days through Fat Tuesday, the day prior to Ash Wednesday. Supposedly all the sinning that takes place during Mardi Gras will be forgiven on Ash Wednesday, or so you hope. Shirt tops are raised, beads are thrown, mayhem ensues.

Being the freshman loser that I was, I took Reilly and Anne to my always reliable "O'Henry's" tavern and restaurant for cheese fries, as I had very little to offer in terms of New Orleans culinary delicacies. We did make it down to Canal Street for one night of parades which, although I was fearful of violence, ultimately paid off, with all of the exhilarating people, lights, music and energy that enveloped us newbies. It truly was unlike anything I had ever seen. We kept our tops on this year, but were more than satisfied with the loot of "throws" we caught from the slow moving parade floats. My pals especially loved that you could legally drink outside in New Orleans as long as it was in a plastic "to go" cup. In fact, I think that is like the number one souvenir for youthful visitors - the branded plastic Mardi
Gras cups you take back to your home town once the giant party is finally over.

Never in a million years could I have predicted that Reilly and I would become the two biggest pool sharks on Tulane's campus, running the table at Metro for an unprecedented seventy-two hour period. We did not have to pay for a single drink or ounce of food that entire weekend, and only stopped playing at dawn Mardi Gras day due to pure exhaustion.

When I was eight or nine years old, my father asked me if I wanted to be the #1 female pool player in the world and I politely said "No, thank you." Although I had watched hour upon hour of Pops playing pool he had never actually given me a lesson. My brother on the other hand was an accomplished pool player and started going to the pool halls with my Dad to play at night at around age ten or eleven and could have easily become a world champion. So, I had no formal pool training, I mean, seriously, the only thing my Dad every taught me was how to properly hold a cue and that was it. When questioned about the use of "English" or "Banking" I would return a quizzical look. Even though my father was a one-pocket and bank pool champion of the world, I was just a below average bar pool player, or so I thought.

Compounding the fact that I had no formal training playing pool, I had also somehow managed to lose my eyeglasses and could hardly see a few feet in front of me, even before the mass drinking occurred. I even tried to LOSE a game, just so I could get off of my feet and sit awhile as the constant Mardi Gras music in the jukebox was starting to attack my nerves a little bit. Reilly was having the time of his life, maybe second only to his two standing ovations at the curtain call at "Fiddler" three long years past. He loved to compliment - but really patronize - our competitors, and say things like "You were robbed, man." As the son of actors, he really oozed genuine empathy for the sad sacks we took down that weekend. He would then give them this disappointed look, a big handshake or hug goodbye once they lost. "You'll get us next time" he'd offer as a condolence, acting like a Rick Rubin bearded, Zen sage of the pool universe.

Reilly was always bouncing up and down, smiling and singing, chain smoking. It appeared as if he were on amphetamines, but he was really just buzzing with happiness and pride for his game. It would be one of these events that would go down in history, like the giant fish that gets away, that only Anne and I would witness, but that he probably had wished his "boys" were there to see him accomplish. Reilly would choose the most difficult contortionist positions to take a shot from just to prove he could. I would even close my eyes taking a shot on the eight ball and make it. With dawn approaching, Reilly, happy that we had just won our team another round of beers and an order of potato skins, gave me high five and proclaimed me his "hero." The bartenders were even buying us drinks. Okay, perhaps we did have an advantage, as all of our opponents were a little more wasted than we were, and possibly on hallucinogens, but, who cares? We were Superstars, running the table all weekend long, in New Orleans, during Mardi Gras no less; a weekend we three would never forget.

Anne just barely packed her suitcase in enough time to make it to the airport. Running late for her flight, she begged the cabbie to put a rush on it. Decked out in beads and Tom Cruise "Risky Business" Ray Ban sunglasses, this sun burned, pony tail wearing cabbie, with an empty Daquiris container in the front seat, just laughed at us amateurs: "Its Fat Tuesday morning in New Orleans, honey. There's no getting anywhere quickly today!"

Lesson one that I learned during Mardi Gras this first year was - DON'T look in the mirror during Mardi Gras - EV-ER. Even if you are able to remember to wash your hands after taking a leak, do not look up after rinsing with soap. That image will burn a hole in your soul. Better to stay in denial.

The second lesson I learned is that alcohol only numbs the pain for so long. A week after Mardi Gras, my right foot began to swell so bad that I could not even walk on it. This propelled my first visit to the handy Tulane Health Center. This place was like the FAO Schwartz for pill poppers. Menstrual cramps? Here's a sixty day prescription for Vicadin. Headaches you say? Here is some Demerol. Anxiety? Here is some Valium. If you walked out of there WITHOUT some narcotic, something must have really been wrong with you.

So, I show up to the clinic only to find out that I have a serious infection as I have had a piece of glass in my foot for sometime. Those canvas Unisa sandals I was wearing had a giant hole on the bottom, a probable result from all my awkward dance moves to Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Stance" at The Boot bar earlier in the semester. Somehow during my Metro pool run, I must have stepped on some glass unknowingly.

A mere seven days ago I was innocently singing along to the Meters' "Fire on the Bayou," banking the nine ball into the side pocket. Now a nurse is rolling my limp body into an operating room; my sore, swollen, and gangrene foot having to be cut open and disinfected. I lay there, looking up at the ceiling, acknowledging that even though I played it safe, staying on campus nearly the whole time, Mardi Gras WAS dangerous, and I was happy to have made it out that first year alive. In the back back of my mind, I imagined my short lived popularity once I hobbled back to the dorm, with the new container of pain pills, guaranteed to be in my possession.

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