Dancing in the Street
Torches lit, Jason Christian takes us with him through the somber and ecstatic splendor of the Eris Parade, a less-than-legal Mardi Gras street celebration.
I walk in the dark toward the place they call The End of the World. I walk with three friends I don’t know that well yet, and follow silhouettes I assume are strangers. The name is appealing: The End of the World. It reminds me of the kind of nihilism I once admired when coupled, paradoxically, with utopianism. Because it’s my first Carnival season – three days before Fat Tuesday, which I’ve heard about all my life but never understood because I’m not from New Orleans and certainly not Catholic – I’m willing to embrace some nihilism on this chilly February night.
The collection of people assembling in the dark are known at this very moment as the Eris Krewe, and because I am here right now, I am part of the Eris Krewe too. Most Mardi Gras Krewes are exclusive and cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to join, if they will let you join at all. All you need to be part of Eris is to show up.
It is somewhere around five in the morning and I haven’t slept. I would venture to guess that none of us has slept more than what is obnoxiously called a “disco nap.” I am on molly, which is a novelty from years past. How long has it been? Nine, ten years? Maybe more? The water laps against the shore of the narrow peninsula where we gather. There is a canal on one side and the Mississippi on the other, and the Gulf is somewhere out there beyond. I see a cruise ship on the river, its lights shine on the water separating us from it. The light is foregrounded with dead, scrubby trees. I could get used to this city, this neighborhood, this uncommon spiritual release. I sometimes forget how to set aside my work and enjoy just existing for a while.
We are in the Bywater, the new frontier of chic gentrification in this city that has for centuries been pushed and pulled by social and ecological forces that I don’t quite understand, and if I did understand those complex histories, I couldn’t dream of explaining them thoroughly in this meager essay.
Every time I come to this part of Nola I have the sensation of finding a hidden, subtropical section of Brooklyn. I see bikes and hipsters and urban ruin. I see neighbors with quizzical expressions. They seem to be wondering to themselves, Am I next in line to be pushed out?
But this isn’t Brooklyn. The live oaks with Mardis Gras beads hanging from their branches aren’t the only clues indicating that fact. The chaos surrounding me could scarcely occur anywhere else but in New Orleans. This anarchic aura is a large draw for outsiders who wind up here: wandering youth, starving artists, street musicians, and other types who don’t quite fit into a corporate career mold. That is why I am here now, absorbing the beautiful chaos, letting it dissolve on my tongue and course through my veins.
The group of silhouettes of which I am a part is growing. I hear dogs yipping and tubas burping and some practice rolls on snare drums. The chorus of voices is getting louder, and I can already tell what is to come will be amazing.
I am chatting with my three friends, feeling the humid cold working through my clothes. A group of people has gathered apart from us down the edge of the berm we are standing on. I see flames lick the top of a stick in each person’s hand. Torches! These people are carrying torches!
The music begins and countless red flags are raised to the pre-dawn sky. I still can’t see well enough to make out what they say, though the sun is beginning to rise. This is our collective cue. We begin to march, slowly at first. The tubas and trombones lead us with such a heartbreakingly somber tune that I want to cry. It feels like a funeral procession, but it’s euphoric, as well. I wonder how these two moods can exist simultaneously.
As we move down the berm, which I think is some kind of levee, we round a rusty fence, cross the train tracks and move down Rampart Street. We pass shotgun houses and elegant Creole cottages, one after another, brightly painted in pastels and primary colors, each with real shutters over doors and windows, hand-carved ornamental corbels beneath eaves, turned quoins and spindles and spandrels, sculpted friezes, dentil mouldings, more Antebellum residential bling than one might imagine in such an industrial area. On a townhouse, three large wooden butterflies painted in vibrant colors hang from chains on the underside of the front porch, facing the street. I take a picture and upload it to Instagram.
I can now see that we are hundreds in number, probably a thousand or more, and that the message on those red flags is “Nurture the Resistance.” A shiver runs down my spine that I know isn’t just the cool air or drugs in my body. Not that it matters to any of us here, but we are creating what Victor Turner calls a “liminoid ritual,” not a “liminal phase,” like bar mitzvahs or quinceañeras, but rather a “play-separated-from-work” kind of ritual. It seems to me that everyone deserves to play.
Right before “unfriending” me last year, a former friend pejoratively called me an anthropologist, and the comment stung. I still wonder if he was right. Is this all I am these days: an observer of those around me, a collector of data, a tourist, and not a “real” participant in the cultures I used to love? That I still love. My intention here, and always, is to not fuck over the people I write about.
The word limen means “threshold” in Latin and is used by anthropologists to mark an in-between space or moment in time for any given culture. Liminal phases are rites of passage, but they are also bigger than that, at the level of groups. If I am between two phases, I am between dropout/anarchist subcultures and eternally frustrating and compromising academe. I chose to make this path I’m on and I’m okay with it.
I am reminded now of other liminal moments I’ve taken part in throughout the years – riots, street marches, generator shows, decadent parties – yet I am feeling right now that Eris Parade is the most important of them all. Eris exemplifies what all of those social theorists and anthropologists are getting at when they talk about people coming together and becoming something larger and more important than any one of them. This is Durkheim’s collective effervescence. This is limbic resonance, a rare species – in my view – of collective love.
I think of other torch-lit marches I’ve seen in my life. In Barcelona, more than ten years ago, the first demo I saw was lit by torches. Anarchists wound through the city center at night, scaring tourists with their fury and fire. On another occasion in Barcelona – three years later – we marched from the newly bricked-up squat my friends had been evicted from to the real estate company responsible for it. Someone locked the workers inside by placing a U-lock through the door handles, and a couple of others stood by with wheelbarrows full of bricks and grout. They bricked-up the doorway in a little carnivalesque performance, just to make a point. We scattered before the cops arrived and no one was arrested. I considered that day a small victory.
Marching through the streets of New Orleans confirms what I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen for a while: New Orleans is spiritually the closest city in the world to Barcelona, closer even than Madrid.
But I don’t want to think of Barcelona right now. I am here, living in the present, reveling in this scene, bowled over by the costumes I now see clearly in the early morning light. People are covered in swamp. Clothes are made of tree bark and leaves sewn together, adorned with Spanish moss, moss balls, dead flowers and bones. They wear enormous apple snail shells around their necks, dangling from earlobes, attached to sleeves, anywhere one could stick them on their body. A shell falls to the ground and my friend picks it up and hands it to me. The shell is nearly the size of my fist, and doused in glitter. I place it around my neck like a sacred amulet. My friend says they are invasive but I think that word describes humans much better than it does snails.
I feel like I’m in Medieval Europe right now, taking part in something forbidden. The euphoria of the commons. Pagan delight. And at the same time, I see how contemporary all of this is. I see a queering of appearances. I see boys kissing boys and girls kissing girls and the shunning of all known categories.
We round a corner and a string of train cars sits on tracks, engineless, a temptation to relive train riding days, or for the newly initiated, a chance to rehearse climbing on and off with little risk. People climb all the way to the top of grainers and dance wildly, jumping from one car to the next, while the crowd marches slowly onwards. The dancers come down when they’ve had their fill, and rejoin the group. I run into an old friend from Minneapolis and we talk. It’s no secret that New Orleans is a place to blow off steam and unexpectedly find familiar faces.
Neighbors step onto their front porches wearing robes, coffee cups in hand, smiling and cheering us on. No one is surprised or upset. New Orleans, they say, gets into your bones. You don’t live near the French Quarter if you hate parades. This parade is unsanctioned like the art sprayed on train cars and abandoned buildings we’ve just passed, and only city officials, business elites, and speculators seem to mind.
Eris, the eponymous Greek goddess of strife and discord, walks with us, golden apple in hand. I could easily find out through punk and anarchist networks how this all began: how they came up with the name, the ideas for “natural” costumes, the melancholy music, and so on, but I won’t. The mystery of this event is part of its appeal. From a quick Google search, I learn that the parade began in 2005, some months before Katrina. Arrests have been made in the past, and some participants have seen the occasion as more of a roving flash mob or riot than a Mardi Gras parade. Right now, though, there is no anger in the air. We know the cops are bastards and prefer to forget about that fact for a few hours, rather than taunt them into beating our heads in for sport. This is our time, not theirs, and we just want to have some fun.
I moved to Louisiana for grad school almost a year ago, in late July. It had only been a few weeks since the cops killed Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. I first came to the city to find an apartment, just hours before that murder. Driving back to Oklahoma City, I was enraged as I made my way alone through desolate small town after small town in the southeast of my home state, listening to the story unfold in brief and unclear bursts of information, reminded yet again that, although my life was going better than ever, most of the rest of the world was in constant distress. When, if ever, would there be justice?
Now, having spent nearly a year in Louisiana, it’s clear why this state is compared to a banana republic. Since before the notorious politician Huey Long transformed the state’s infrastructure in the 1930s and was assassinated for his trouble, Louisianans have mostly accepted that graft, murder, and corruption are just part of the landscape, like potholes in the streets, like those damn waving Confederate flags. You hear stories told among chuckles and shaking heads, that Governor Long called the warden at Angola and said he needed prisoners to come down to Baton Rouge to tear down the governor’s mansion so he could build a new one. “Did they legislature approve of this?” A pause. “They didn’t even know about it.” More laughter. You hear about the overseers on horseback guarding prisoners picking cotton on the same cotton fields formerly owned by slaveholders. Black men today doing the same things in the same places as they did in the nineteenth century.
Perceptive people in the South understand the contradictory politics around them. They comprehend the absurd violence of maintaining the appearance of friendliness while the culture whips down any perceived threat to it. Louisiana uses prison labor for just about everything, from polishing the floors at the state capitol to cleaning up after LSU football games. We smile as they work and they smile back. Smiles all around. A pretend harmony abounds.
Mardi Gras itself is a curious custom, embracing these contradictions and allowing participants to play with a social order that is deadly serious every other day of the year. “There can be little doubt that the main ideological content of Carnival is aristocratic,” writes anthropologist Munro Edmonson. People dress like kings and queens while the rabble begs for symbolic jewels. African Americans, of course, were not allowed to “roll” in Mardi Gras parades for years, and so “Black Mardi Gras” developed both as an alternative to and parody of “White Mardi Gras.” A parody of a parody. Witness the black folks wearing black face and grass skirts at Zulu Parade on Mardi Gras day. Re-appropriation and role reversals are part of the celebration.
At some point, years ago, some people must have asked, Why can’t the punks have a parade too?
It’s time to call it quits on the parade. We duck out and watch from the sidewalk as the horde advances toward the French Quarter. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the parade remains celebratory, and that no one gets cracked on the head with a baton and winds up beaten in jail. That, too, is another tradition among the nebulous coalition of artists and leftists and activists and bohemians and anarchists who stick their neck out and take risks: they draw out the ire of the police and the whole community suffers.
For now, though, the crowd remains in good spirits, and there are still no cops in sight. The people shuffling by seem no worse for the wear: just another New Orleans all-nighter. I see smeared makeup and hear raucous laughter of those with more stamina than me. This is another one of the good fights: the struggle to express ourselves however we see fit. My friend from Minneapolis waves goodbye. Will I see her again? Of course, I will. Maybe not in New Orleans, or in Minneapolis, but somewhere, sometime in the future.
We decide to head back to St. Claude, where my friends live in a double shotgun duplex, but first, we need to get some food, and luckily they know a breakfast place nearby. At the restaurant, we sit outside on the sidewalk and order heaping plates and a round of strong coffees. We run into someone they know and chat with her for a while in our haggard state, tired but satisfied. It is almost eleven in the morning. I am looking forward to food, and more so to sleep. Nurture the resistance, indeed.