Article

New Orleans Mardi Gras

FAT TUESDAY

Part One

I walked out into America, that land of sex and death, an American Virgin, ready to be impressed, distressed (undressed); not to be disappointed.
I left knowing that if death and sex are the most exciting things in life, then New Orleans and New York are the most exciting places I’ve ever been. When I came back, when I had lost my American virginity, people asked me: “What was it like ?” Being an American Virgin, I’m afraid I just found it incredible; frankly implausible. All of it.
America’s image, its movie and TV image, are imprinted on our consciousness so immovably before you get there that you see them in any case. Nothing surprises us anymore except the unreal obviousness, the obvious unreality of it all. This is the way travel narrows the mind. If all life’s clichés are true, then American clichés, being bigger, are just more true.
My first American voice said: “Welcome to Delta Airlines. In charge of your ship today we have Captain John Orange.” Your ship ? As I was undertaking five flights in ten days, I decided to be reassured. Capt. Orange – like a big friend of Capt Scarlet’s. Capt O bid us “Good afternoon” even though it was 11am. He said we’d be flying over Czechoslovakia. I considered getting off.
Our ‘Flight Lieutenants’ were Angie Dickinson’s children, like old Barbie Dolls. Old-fashioned clothes, strange Seventies hairdos, bad make-up. ‘Vacant’ signs sprang up in their eyes like decent hookers cursed by sincerity so sincere it seems fake. But it’s just America’s hideous idea of friendliness. Suspicious, cynical Brits hate real sincerity more than faked. It upsets and confuses them.
Flying towards Cincinnati (“Sinsnaddy”), homecoming Americans were given their daily sensation fix, a quick dose of disaster to make them feel at home. CNN reported the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy: “The prison lights dimmed as 2,000 volts passed through his body.”
I began to feel undone, stranded. I walked past a businessman who was saying, “I keep bumping into Doug over in Europe,” as if it was Sainsbury’s. We were landing. In the toilet mirrors I barely recognized myself. What is it about toilet mirrors in airplanes that make you look like Keith Richards’ sick, disfigured brother ? Yellow, tired, defeated. Grey dread on my face.
A Flight Lieutenant told me to have a nice stay, fluffing the immortal American line. Captain Orange, sounding like a night DJ or the narrator of those Saturday afternoon Disney films like The Incredible Journey, said, “So long folks”, in a way that made me want to campaign for Ronald Reagan. The world was safe. Nothing could go wrong: I was in America. I was in America. My heartbeat beat to be let out.

Welcome To America

My first sight of America was Atlanta, a silver chimera space city hovering on the horizon like a corporate vision of the Planet Of The Apes metropolis.
Atlanta Airport was like being in Logan’s Run. “Boarding 30 and high.” Electronic voices echoed down corridors, passageways, escalators, lifts. A 2001 robot’s voice bossed us around the mini rail. When a hapless Japanese tourist held the door for his partner, the machine’s panic and irritation was frightening. “You are blocking this train,” it ranted while setting off a sharp siren.
Atlanta, like Atlantis, was another world, as if even the atmosphere had changed. Fat, ungainly Americans were walking their suitcases. The front page of the Weekly World News proclaimed: THE PICTURE EVERY AMERICAN WANTS TO SEE: TED BUNDY’S DEAD BODY. “Electrode burns are visible on his shaved head.” The National Enquirer read: MALE BANDLEADER WAS REALLY A WOMAN. WIFE OF 18 YEARS NEVER KNEW. (“No matter what his sex, he was the best father a boy could have.”) Before we’d even gone through Customs we passed a collection stand with a banner that read: HELP U.S. FARMERS NOT RUSSIA: USE GORBACHEV AS FERTILIZER. Had war broken out during the flight ?
The first words I heard on American soil were (a deep, serious cowboy accent): “Jim-my Rambo please come to Gate Ten.” It said ‘ten’ (“Tay- hain”) as if it was deeply heroic.
Several strange people seemed to be late: Glenn Zarco, Gene Breedhacker, Drexel Kennedy Icklebeiger, Byron Goforth, Nat Zeno, Randy Boggs, Iggy Christiano. No one was normal in America that much was clear. Jackie Collins’s Orville Gooseberger no longer seemed implausible.
Captain Orange, Jimmy Rambo, Logan’s Run, I was hearing TV voices everywhere. The voices were JR, Mick Belker, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Ralph Malph, Angel from The Rockford Files, Mary-Ellen Walton, Ed Asner, Benson. America was like being inside the TV ! Everyone was speaking dialogue. Most of it was brilliant. On an airport phone a man was saying: “He kept his side of the bargain. We got our man.” The rest was awful (“I love you, honey”).
Being in America was like being in your own movie. It was that obvious. It was impossible to tell whether TV was reproducing reality or vice versa. How do Americans deal with it ? Perhaps they don’t. I felt strange. In the airport bar, on my first American TV screen, Wilma Flintstone was crying.

Looking for the Heartbreak Bar

In New Orleans (“N’Awlins”) the television voices are Foghorn Leghorn, Jimmy Carter, WC Fields, Diana Ross, Renko and Boss Hogg. The accents are divine, fine and funny – parody accents where words veer up, take off. ‘Tulane’ becomes ‘Tulaaaaane’.
The French Quarter looks like a film set, a Tennessee Williams stage set, all porches and parades, saloons and promenades. It makes everything seem still more unreal. The dialogue is exquisite. “It was simply, simply elegant,” some Southern Belle explains.
I am shown a local library, “owned, they say, by a movie star. I like to think it’s true.” It’s like having Truman Capote whispering in your ear.
The first thing I do in New Orleans is meet up with a bunch of friends known among Brighton’s drinking fraternity (for reasons of their own) as the Fatt Boys: rockabillies, intellectuals, science pioneers…
We were booked into a dead motel that, it transpires, offers hourly rates. Grey Fatt Boy faces greet me. New Orleans invented the cocktail and Hurricanes are going down like cups of tea. Sledgehammers to the temples would be a better idea.
In Working Girl, when Harrison Ford is left with two long cocktails, sinks one, looks at the other and, with sodden bemusement, sinks that one too, it’s obvious he’s seen Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras is the collision of a costume orgy, an Irish wake and the desire for utter oblivion, doing serious damage to serious drinkers. Last year’s Mardi Gras injected over $300m into the NO economy. About 95 percent must be from alcohol consumption.
You don’t ask, “What’s Mardi Gras like ?”
It’s like asking your grandparents, “What was the war like ?”
I’m not sure, but the remnants of my memory tell me that Mardi Gras is like everyone from Notting Hill, Rio, Venice and Disneyland colliding, getting wrecked, swallowing Ecstasy and inhaling laughing gas. Everyone partying like it’s 1999. All the time.
There are eleven days of Carnival, leading up to the savage, giddy climax of Mardi Gras (‘Fat Tuesday’). With fifty-three major street parades and many millions of visitors, even the tourism isn’t normal. The largest parade, Endymion, has thirty-eight floats, many of them double-decker. The likes of Dolly Parton, William Shatner, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope and Kirk Douglas have led parades. Louis Armstrong was Zulu King in 1949. This year it’s Billy Crystal.
Mostly, however, Mardi Gras is a savage haze of one bar after another. Brilliant bars hidden behind boarded-up windows, darkened doors. The moment we step out of the motel, there is the immediate, futile feeling of having to try and catch up. All the time. Perhaps getting paralytic is not dangerous. Perhaps it is the safest thing you could do. As long as we don’t meet anyone sober, we’ll be alright.
We’re looking for The Heartbreak Bar. Harsh live music is coming out of half the bars in Bourbon Street. Irish fiddles, Cajun banjos, blues guitar, jazz trombone, funky bass, country wail, gospel a cappella, tap-dance boys in the streets like Angel Heart. The sounds of Mardi Gras 1989 are The Supremes, Tone Loc’s ‘Wild Thing’ (“It’s hot man”), Anita Baker, early Stones, the Neville Brothers, ZZ Top (grind music). Robert Palmer’s ‘Simply Irresistible’ is everywhere: “Bob-by
Pal-mer, I do declare,” comes the cry. Jukeboxes play such esteemed gentlemen as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bunk Johnson, the Incomparable Jellyroll Morton.
There’s no sign of the creeps, freaks, pimps, chicks, hipsters, hustlers, hookers, losers, punks, bums, scum, dealers, crack heads, weirdoes and crazies that New York’s streets can boast. New Orleans’ is a happy, hysterical mayhem – an explosion of colour, dancing and debauchery.
A guy approaches us. He looks like Manson, but then all the real crazies do. (Do they have his poster on their wall or what ?) “I hate sunglasses,” he snarls. I take mine off. Without them I see that in fact he looks like Dennis Hopper’s meaner, crazier big brother. “You two look real alike. How do you do that ?” he says to me and my fellow Fatt Boy. He has a small hunting knife on his belt. “You want to come and drink some Puerto brandy ?” We decline. “Are you scared ?” I shake my head. “I want to shake your hands,” he says. “You’re a couple of assholes.”
Peace is to be found in the exquisite Napoleon House bar – built in 1791 and extended in 1821 after a plan to rescue Napoleon, but undecorated for decades. It plays only classical music.
From there, we move to a deserted bar that redefines ramshackle, complete with neon BULLSHIT sign and a band so drunk they are nodding off. Memphis singer Sherman Tank is already a Fatt Boys favourite. A sticker in the window says: PARADE ON IN. We do. The Mayfair, run by good ole girl Miss Gertie, is a rowdy place with pool tables and, for no obvious reason, a photo booth. High quality dialogue. A dusty-faced, spiky-chinned old- timer confides to one of us: “That boy’s a damn fine pool player. You know why ? He’s ma son an’ I taught him.”
We’re still looking for The Heartbreak Bar when we wander into a bar clearly frequented by pimps keeping an eye on their ladies outside. The band is doing Sly Stone cover versions. The dudes are practising their dialogue. Tripping over the clichés of being cool: “Hey brother, what’s happenin’ ?”, “Hey bro’ I can dig that.” A black guy says to his girl, “Open that door, bitch.” It’s a Miami Vice script reject.
The girls on the street form a sad parade of bruised souls, faces smeared with any bit of make-up they could lay their fists on. Colours don’t clash, they collide headlong, like they’ve taken a run-up. Imagine if you will, a hideous cross between Tammy Bakker and Barbara Cartland. One whore has a limp. Another has a funny eye: you can’t really tell who she is eyeing up.
I start to watch them. One thing about prostitutes – have you noticed ? – they have absolutely no idea about clothes, make-up, hairstyles or sex appeal. They also manage to look permanently shagged. Another thing about prostitutes is they offer conclusive, living (walking, talking) proof that the more sex you have, the worse you look. Chew on that. They look damaged. As we leave, a pair of sleek negresses, Monique and Maybelline, are draped around a man dressed as Superman, a tongue in each Super-ear.
The shoeshine boys on Bourbon Street whisper “Shoeshine ? Weed ? Y’all buyin’ rock ? Cocaine, my friend ? Take you through the night.”


Parade On In

It’s my first night in America. I’m nervous. The chill and sleet cut us in two. It’s time for a parade.
Walking through an area of dodgy shacks, I try to look unworthy of mugging. I start looking shifty and stoned, unbalanced and then plain crazy. People start avoiding me.
The parades by the Momus and Babylon krewes feature blazing flambeaux-carrying slaves, as if someone is about to be sacrificed. Like all processions, they are a rain of necklaces, trinkets, beakers, baubles, doubloons, frisbees, coasters and cups thrown from the floats, but above all handfuls of beads.
Each parade has special items – tambourines, roses, backscratchers, G-strings, mini-footballs, playing cards, combs, yo-yos, garters, keyrings, collectable necklaces and doubloons – but the manic pursuit of totally worthless beads has overtaken everyone. It’s raining beads, but competition is fierce. I begin snatching them from elderly citizens, young mothers, handicapped children… Genteel-looking old ladies stamp on my hand to pick them off the ground. People everywhere are covered in beads. Not since the days of ‘This Charming Man’ have I seen so many fucking beads.
The floats have gangs of Leigh Bowery-like creatures, surreal spacemen, swamp monsters, Moss Men. The bars are packed with people dressed as tollbooths, toothbrushes, bears, carrots, monks, Michael Jackson, Elvis, gorillas, Wonder Woman, Budweiser Lites; and many a man is dressed as Carmen Miranda (though they may not be dressed up for Mardi Gras).
Everyone is drunk, high, stupid on beer, bourbon and beads. A man resembling Grandpa Walton, decked in beads, beard and crocodile-skin boots, repeatedly tells us: “My parents were born in Cornwall, Do you know them ? Billy and Annie McLintock. Yessssssssir.”
There is a cowboy slumped in the corner, a bottle of champagne in each hand, pouring it all over his boots. A man with a Tannoy is saying “Come on in folks. We got what you want, when you want it ! Ten thousand in-div-id-ual cigarettes.”
A black tramp with a wooden leg asks me for a dime. A dime. Could that be real ? I can’t cope. Everything is gold, green, purple. Every now and then, some fratpack jock white trash cowboy screams “Yeeeeeehah.” Colours blur. My heart hurts. Delirious with beads, my eyes are shut.
The taxi, like all taxis in New Orleans, is a dream. Most are beat-up, roaring Chevvys, Cadillacs or Oldsmobiles, the engines rumbling like small planes taking off and music blaring out of them. Back seats to die for. They’re so cheap, by the end of the week, we tell them just to drive around. The drivers are, without exception, remarkable characters. My first American taxi driver gives every impression of having stolen the vehicle. Thin, huddled, young, black, clutching his coat, he is physically shaking. The big, old Caddy is freezing.
“Haven’t you at least got a radio ?” I ask him.
“Maaaan,” he looks at me blearily, sounding like one of the black caricatures in old Mickey Mouse cartoons. “I had one. But I blew de speakers up.”
Is this your car ?
“It’s the company’s (‘comneys’). I had one, a beauty. I kept crashin’ it.” This is reassuring. “In the end, I totalled the sucker.”
At the motel, two people are having American sex in the car park.

White Trash Cooking

I wake up in America and turn on the TV. Fittingly, my first American programme is Geraldo, the confrontational morning discussion show, hosted by the heroic Geraldo Rivera (distinctly reminiscent of Peter Wyngarde).
When I turn it on, Geraldo is saying, “You were married twenty-five years.” He reiterates gravely, “A quarter of a century. Then your husband was charged with open and gross, lewd and lascivious behaviour in a highway washroom… We’ll take a break and find out what happens in ‘When The Other Woman Is A Man’…”
I flick through the papers. The National Enquirer informs me that country singer Johnny Paycheck has been sent to jail. About 75 percent of the small ads advertise money: loans, grants, credit, C-A-S-H. Several are offering me Free Ministerial Credentials. “Legalise your right to the title ‘Reverend’.” The Reverend Jim Shelley. Worth thinking about.
The Weekly World News has a feature on ‘Unusual Ways to Use Your Microwave.’ These include shaving bars of soap to make liquid soap, heating up baby oil (suspicious) and “making your own dog biscuits.”
Something within me stirs. It is only when I see The Enquirer’s CHRIS EVERT’S INSIDE OUT CHOCOLATE BUNDT CAKE RECIPE that I know what it is.

I’m hungry. I had forgotten to eat.
My first American meal is a toss-up between Crawfish Creole, Catfish Gumbo and Cajun Shrimp Poor Boy sandwiches (“Po’ Boys”). They’re all so cheap I have all three.
Other Fatt Boys have found a book, White Trash Cooking (dedicated to one Betty Mae Swilley), which includes Swamp Rabbit and Squirrel Stew. They have also discovered that an American Mixed Salad can feed sixty-eight fully-grown Italians. There are terrifyingly huge portions of everything everywhere. When I ask if they have ice-cream, the waitress says, “All we got, hon’, is bread pud (‘brayd purd’).”
We discover that all dollar bills, from $1 to $100, look identical. Colour and size. Persistently I tip people $50 on a $10 meal. The waiters have no qualms anyway. “How much change do you want ?”, “Don’t forget to tip the cook. That’s my mother, man !”
One waiter takes all the change and tells us, “Mardi Gras ! It’s a rip- off, man.”
We admire their dialogue anyway. Once when I ask if they have wine, the barmaid says, “Sure we got wine (‘waaaahn’) honey. We got red, we got white (‘wide’)…”
Another barman looks at me, totally stunned and says “White coffee ? ? ? Are you serious ?” Airheads and assholes, amiable angels: Americans.
The discovery of the day is eating shucked oysters on the half-shell, shucked by hunky big shuckers, with tabasco and crackers. Not unlike pure cunnilingus, and at $3 a dozen cheaper, and – let me tell you – better, than paying Maybelline. After that, one thing is certain. It’s time for a drink.

PART TWO

The night before Mardi Gras and things are steadily deteriorating. At Pat O’Brien’s they pack up your litre-size Hurricane glasses while two fat tarts play the piano and a convention-sized patriotism explodes. Worse than New Year’s Eve. With them on stage is a Derek Guyler look alike playing the cymbal with thimbles. After several Hurricanes, I realise he’s playing The Troggs ‘Wild Thing’.
Women everywhere are behaving very loosely. “Ah’d lurrve to taiike you borrs hoehme wiv may. Ah’d have me a good ole tarm… This here’s ma husband…”
Her husband looks like a truckdriver. Rather, he looks like the truck driver’s truck. He’s looking straight ahead, bottle of beer hidden in his fist, saying nothing, doing nothing. A German photographer drunkenly asks me and a friend to model bathing costumes. Women’s bathing costumes. ‘I sink on you good they would look.” Drunkenly we agree.
From Pat O’Brien’s on to Preservation Hall (next door) and then Storyville Jazz Hall. The James Rivers Movement features Mr James Rivers on sax and bagpipes playing freeform versions of ‘Wandrin’ Star’ and ‘My Favourite Things’. A drunken farmer dances with a glass of whisky in his hand doing the splits and a type of limbo dancing, never spilling a drop.
A man with a badge reading SAME SHIT. DIFFERENT DAY says, “Goose ’em if you can.’ That’s my motto !” followed by the inevitable, “Yeeeeeeehah.”
A redneck in a furry Moss Man costume emerges from the toilet yelping in a Foghorn Leghorn accent, “I got so much shit on, I can’t find ma dick.” I have to leave. Quickly.
Back at the motel, there’s an advert on TV for a large furnishing company featuring the Chairman dressed – indeed positively upholstered – as a chair. The news ends with a report on Charles Manson’s parole appeal. “Manson has said, if released, he would pursue a violent World Revolution.” Great tactic !
The happy-ending item is about a man who changed his name to Aaron A. Aardvark in order to be first in the phone directory but had ended up 26th. Twenty-sixth. All this is true. For one strange and terrible moment, I suddenly sober up. I am the sanest man in America. It was not a good sign.

Fat Tuesday

Things have been quite straightforward until Fat Tuesday which appallingly, starts at 8.30am in the cold rain with the long-awaited Zulu Parade.
“The fifth coldest Mardi Gras in history,” says the television. “The earliest Mardi Gras this century.” Bad news.
A breakfast TV anchorman moans about the cold and the consequent lack of naked flesh on view. “Later we’ll be talking to a doctor who’ll be telling us how to layer for the cold.” A doctor will be telling us how to dress.
A lawyer’s ad for settlement cases (“Hey, accident victims !”) is followed by an item about a man playing his hands (“I keep ma instruments supple. I milk ten cows a day”) and that day’s Geraldo. Geraldo is brushing away a visibly invisible tear as a woman tells him about having her kidnapped baby returned to her. A hospital video shows her being led away, screaming, “There is a Jesus, there is a Jesus !” Geraldo turns to face us and, looking meaningfully into my eyes, says: “After the break, we’ll meet a couple whose baby hasn’t been returned.” It’s time to go.

Mardi Gras takes off somewhere between three in the afternoon and midnight. Your life, during these hours, is not your own. It is out of control. Psychotic, ravenous hunger for alcohol seems to have overtaken normally rational men and women. The suspicion that, as a tourist -American, European, Japanese, whatever – you can do strange and terrible things and emerge unscathed and still be the same person, as long as you are appallingly drunk, is sorely tested at Mardi Gras.
Down at the Zulu Parade, hardened homeboys are out in force, decked out in Troop tracksuits, Public Enemy caps, but a notable lack of daft jewellery, practically mugging the floats as Zulu men lobs bountiful supplies of the much-prized Zulu coconuts – even trading spears and bones for sweatshirts.
Two parades later, we adjourn to the Old Absinthe House bar on Bourbon and Bienville. A GO TO HELL ALABAMA neon sign hangs over the bar. When you leave a tip they honk a big old car horn. We pay huge tips just to hear them do it. With the tips we left, we could’ve bought the horn. We could’ve bought the Absinthe bar.
One of our party is sitting on a barstool, muttering and gesticulating to himself. After two days in N’Awlins, he who once was ‘Trevor’ has been called ‘Travis’ so often he’s started to call himself ‘Travis’.
When you buy a drink in the Absinthe bar you also get toilet tickets. Non-customers have to pay fifty cents. A lard-necked redneck arguing with the (black) doorman finally gives in and pays, commenting, “Fifty cents – ain’t nuttin’ to a white boy, goldmine to a nigger (‘golmiiihn ‘tuh niguh’).”
In front of a blazing fire, we watch the densely packed streets, making the occasional drunken foray into the heaving crowds. Costumes have, despite the cold, become still more hallucinogenic. The zenith, or nadir, is a man walking inside a six-foot-square, polystyrene fanny, with a gigantic pair of knickers stretched over utterly disgusting hair. Bourbon Street is his.
In the bar, men stare into their glasses and shake their heads, evidently considering abstinence a better option than seeing six-foot- square fannies walking down the street. Like a cartoon. America is a big cartoon.
“Goddammit. If I didn’t just see a huge pussy walkin’ down Bourbon Street.” “Ain’t right. No sir. No man should dress like that. Good God.”
By mid-afternoon, the balconies are thick with women prepared to undress for — you guessed it — beads. Notably pearls. Groups of ugly, inadequate farmers’ boys and businessmen gather at the official ‘Show Your Tits’ bars. Women are stripping off unheeded and, indeed, unnoticed. By 3pm the chant is “Show us your muff.” Sadly they do, setting a new standard. “Show us your dick” is next. It’s getting ugly. Short, fat American men are exposing themselves wherever I go. I feel confused and ill.
Down in the Gay Quarter of Bourbon Street, the crowded balcony at The Bourbon Pub is like a Village People convention. By evening the sight of various women’s breasts and men’s appendages had become so frequent as to get a little passé. Christian Revivalists liven things up, marching down Bourbon Street dragging huge wooden crosses, chanting, “Show us your bible.”
The tension and growing hysteria of such a sustained chaos comes to a head late afternoon in the oppressive Bourbon Street crowds when a huge farmer’s boy, his face red with frustrated anger, pulls out a gun and stands, feet apart, glaring, holding it in the air. People on the sidewalk carry on by, one muttering, “Guy there’s got a gun”, almost disinterestedly.
The Comus (‘revelers’) parade was the last, flambeaux blazing in the sleet. Next to me, a girl of about 14 unpacks a laughing gas bottle that souvenir shops sell at around fifty cents a hit. She breaks the seal, inhales and her shoulders jerk in violent convulsions for about fifteen seconds until she stops, bolt sober. I break the cap, take the hit, feel someone shaking my shoulders. I swallow sharp hiccups that somersault forward. I can feel my sense of control getting sucked away through the gas-scorch in my throat.

Fatt Boys Go Mad In New Orleans

At midnight an army of street-cleaners and cops clear the streets. Mardi Gras is suddenly over.
One of the Fatt Boys’ Wrecking Crew is – remarkably – past his personal best. He’s now sitting at the bar ordering whatever the man next to him at the bar does, copying their accents, black or white, homeboy or cowboy. This is a steady stream of beers and bourbon chasers, Sazeracs, Hurricanes, anything. Solid gone.
Serious trouble looms. Within an hour, this eminently quiet boy is ranting in a style reminiscent of WC Fields: “Gimme fifty cents, I’ll grease the cat’s arse. Gimme a dollar I’ll do something real kinky. I’ll shit in your handbag.” Extraordinary behaviour. No one bats an eyelid. He finishes the night, utterly paralytic, doing an approximation of the shoeshine shuffle at the crossroads of Bourbon and Royal, inviting the oncoming cars “Run me down, boy ! I got insurance boy ! Yes sir ! I’ve got insurance. Run me down.” He bounces off the bonnets of several cars before we drag him away. The last car’s bumper sticker reads: I’VE GOT SOMETHING MONEY CANT BUY – POVERTY.
The last one of our party has walked home, drunk, on his own. “A few people shouted at me, threw things at me. I just shouted back.” The sense of things has become broken. One of our party waves a full glass of bourbon at a smiling young lady walking home with a huge black man. It’s me. Suddenly we are back in the pimps’ bar. The band is playing a Curtis Mayfield song. The thoughts in my head are swimming in several litres of white wine and tequila (I don’t even like tequila). I can hear them splashing around.

“I Survived Mardi Gras”

I wake up on the floor, dressed, next to the bed, next to someone I don’t recognise. It’s the bedroom mirror. On the bed, the floor, in the bed, there are hundreds of strings of beads. I have a vague, dismal recollection of the night before, of a heartless, house proud whore whose stale endeavours reminded me, miserably, of those headlice inspections at school. (It was five minutes before I realised we’d started.)
I have survived Mardi Gras. Am I not the same person ?
In my pocket I find a sinners leaflet telling me my “fate is to spend eternity separated from God, the tormented guest of dishonour in Satan’s nightclub of horrors called Hell.”
I turn to the papers, as if for salvation: The New York Post headlines with CRACK QUEEN BUSTED. In The Weekly World News, Dear Dottie’s Help Page ends with ‘Confidential’: “Dear Susie in South Carolina: I don’t care what your boyfriend says, bigamy is illegal. Dear Bill in New York: He’s too rich for you. Dear Lance in Norfolk: At 42 you should be dressing yourself. Tell your mother to butt out.”
The editorial comment says: “Kid who castrated himself got what he deserved.” I ask myself if I’d had too many Hurricanes or not enough.
The Times-Picayune that day reports 1989’s Mardi Gras had seen 1,700 arrests, 200 on Fat Tuesday. The 1985 record was 51 more. During the day, locals tell me what a subdued Mardi Gras it had been, “what with the cold ‘n’ all”. In the streets there are beads in the gutters, on telephone wires, on trees. ‘Carnival’ means ‘Farewell to Flesh’. The bars are as quiet as the grave. The city is in mourning, nursing its hangover. Post-Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street is somewhere between tawdry tack and seedy sleaze.
Like any other day, half the city is taking late breakfast (cafe au lait with powdered beignets) at the Cafe Du Monde, opposite St Louis’, the city’s Cinderella Cathedral in Jackson Square. In a dead bar, a ragged solitary customer says to bouffanted Belle Lorraine:
“Lorraine (‘Leraayyyyne’), how ‘bout you’n’me havin’ a few drinks one night, sit around, and talk some bullshit.”
At least the dialogue hasn’t died. Lorraine just puts her hand on her hip and says, “Oh kiss ma ass, Jack.”
A friend drives me around in her car – takes me to the Thrift City second hand stores, the locals’ voodoo shops, Louis Armstrong Park, the crack houses indicated by a pair of sneakers over the telephone wires. An ex-Zulu Parade King is given a jazz funeral send-off. The Decatur Street market is selling alligator teeth, toes, sugarcane, snakeskin baseball caps and GOD IS CAJUN badges.
At dinner, my fortune cookie reads: DON’T LET YOUR CONFIDENCE GET THE BETTER OF YOU. Little bits of bad luck start ganging up on me. On the radio, the DJ plays a dedication to Gary in El Salvador: “Ole Gary got hisself posted to El-sail-va-daw. When they tol’ him he was goin’ to South America, Gary thought he was goin’ tuh Lou-eees-iana.” He laughs – “hic-hic-hic” – in a way I thought only happened in Deputy Dawg. America is a cartoon. It’s all true.

Television Thursday

On Thursday, nothing happens. Can you believe that ? I sleep, read the papers and watch TV. All day and all night. If you have a TV you have to use it. After the handgun, it’s America’s most addictive invention. It haunts you until you use it. But the more I watch the less sure I am as to whether I understand less or more about America. American television (like America) is unbelievable.
The day starts, of course, with Geraldo. The best Geraldo so far has been his interview with a man who had sexually abused people in prison before an audience comprised of his victims’ relatives. Today is “a batterers’ special”.
Before Geraldo, I’d watched breakfast presenter Garland Robinette talking to Donald Trump about the new Trump board game, a programme called Breakthroughs In Breast Cancer and a TV quiz where the host, introducing a mime act, had said, “For anyone who doesn’t know what a mime act is… ”
After the mime he said, “It’s great to have mimes. Without mimes, jugglers would be at the bottom of the showbiz ladder.”
The loser of the quiz had gone home with $18,528. The host apologised. I watch Wheel Of Fortune, and start to watch Donahue but every time we go for a break as a question is asked, we come back to the answer for a totally different question.
The most frequent daytime adverts are for Jock Itch Powder and hundreds of adverts for constipation products. “For the constipated woman who likes to date.” Clearly half of America is constipated. I think that should help, knowing that, but I can’t see how. I wonder if I have Jock Itch.
From the day’s viewing I understand at least one thing. With such a bombarding reinforcement of lifestyle, Americans cannot help the way they are. This is new to me. It’s not their fault. I begin to like them more.
The batterers’ special proves that the ultimate American question, the one Geraldo Rivera spends each programme building up to, is: How did it affect your sex life ?
‘An admitted batterer’ says, “I never beat her with a table leg, I just gave her an open slap.” We take a break. When we come back Geraldo is placing all sorts of doubts in the victim’s mind, as to whether she is ever going to be safe. It ends in tears and Geraldo asks her how it has affected her sex life. It is all purely prurient. No wonder, months before, someone broke Geraldo’s nose with a chair, live on air.
But if you judge a nation by its television, what does that say about America ? Not a lot. You cannot not watch things like Geraldo. We’d do the same. It is grippingly real, relevant. Someone is suffering and it is not you. Someone is suffering and is not me. That is the thought for the day. That’s all that counts.

Black Friday

Just as I’d begun to think the SUPPORT THE STATE TROOPS stickers and SOUTHERN WAR GAMES T-shirts were a tourist gambit, the local paper begins to report imminent victory for candidate David Duke in a New Orleans suburb election to the Louisiana legislature.
Duke (“Dook”) is an ex-Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the President of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, a 25,000-member organisation, founded to oppose the powerful coloured pressure group, the NAACP. With Parker’s Mississippi Burning still showing in local cinemas, Friday’s Picayune reports the “frighteningly articulate” white supremacist is so right-wing, and on such a roll, that Reagan himself has been phoning voters, campaigning against him.
Library pictures show Duke saluting a giant flaming KKK cross, and demonstrating in Nazi uniform, carrying a GAS THE CHICAGO 7 placard.
Fatt Boys had taken photographs of KKK crosses on hilltops outside the city. Now the morning news shows one Duke supporter, from Bucktown, saying, “I ain’t got nothin’ against niggers. I think everyone should have two of ’em.”
Duke is seen insisting, “There is a policy of racial discrimination taking place in this country… against white people.” Incredible.
By the end of the week, with 50.7 percent of the vote (8,500 votes), he had been elected. The thought for the day is that David Duke will be George Bush’s age in 2014.
After the news, at 9am, a hysterical, blubbering woman appears, next to a dramatic man with a plain wooden cross. An exorcist. Luckily for her the fear of God is stronger than the fear of Satan. The video of one of his meetings is disturbing enough to make me wish I had a Hurricane to hand.
The last taxi I take in New Orleans is driven by the mysterious fourth member of ZZ Top, a hairy hillbilly driving an awesomely big Oldsmobile.
“I like a big car,” he states, somewhat unnecessarily. “If I crash it, it can’t kill me.” This is reassuring. “I hate small cars. I crunch ’em up.”
In his opinion, “It sho’ wuz a cold-ass Mardi Gras (‘Mardy Grarr’). Real good bourbon weather. That beer don’t warm up your ass none.”
The last thing I do before I leave for New York is pick up presents from the voodoo shops. The day before, I’d seen the St Louis cemetery, a red cross and a solitary offering marking the anonymous grave of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. With tombs built above ground in high alleys, like avenues, because of the sea-level, graveyards are often patrolled for muggings. Like Central Park, these are graveyards designed for muggers, designed by someone who never grew out of playing Cowboys & Indians.
Graves are easily pilfered for voodoo. When I ask a specialist on Royal Street, who sells local voodoo pieces such as wax-stained skulls with crosses buried deep into them, what happens to grave robbers, he casually spits back: “They just put ’em in jail at night and hopefully kick the shit out of them.”
Other tourist-orientated shops sell you a doll, a candle and a pin inside a plain wooden box. All you need is the hair of your victim. No messing. I want the taxman to know I possess one.
I’m waiting to pay for some perfumes and a necklace in a local voodoo shop, standing next to a feline, feathered black hooker with lethal- looking, blood-red nails who is picking out candles and herbs. I get tired of waiting, I’m late. I put them in my pocket and leave. By 3am next morning, my hotel in New York is in flames.
My first night in New York. Saturday night, on 17th Street and Third, 3am and raining, the charming Hotel 17 is crackling and the hotel manager – casually – asks me what is happening. Flames, smoke, screams. “Oh, that’ll be a fire,” he says, strolling off. (Fires aside, I recommend the place.)
I end the night rescuing Americans. I’m frightened. God, I’m tired. I feel hounded, weak and, above all, doomed. New York finishes me off. Saving graces include: the limos cutting through the seas of yellow cabs like sharks; the view at night, especially The Chrysler Building – like a Klimt pop-up silver city showered in golden glitter; and a Puerto Rican drag bar on Eighth Avenue, where they search you on the way in and try to kiss you goodbye on the way out.
I fly home confused and exhausted, defeated by America, for the last drama. Midway – precisely – the plane drops, silently and smoothly but very swiftly. As it plunges, I turn my Walkman down to find ladies screaming and babies crying, useless stewardesses flapping about as the plane rocks in what I suddenly see is a howling, black gale. The night lights are trying to go out and the gasps rise again as the plane falls again and then holds, like God’s yo-yo, like he’s just been kidding, just showing off. Panic grows, I shut my eyes and turn the volume up.

ends

Thanks to the Brighton Fatt Boys and Billy Candis, manager of the Hotel 17, New York.