Monday, February 27, 2006

Memories of Mardi Gras

By Steve White

My favorite memory of Carnival is stumbling out of Tipitina’s on Lundi Gras 1989 around 5 AM in the morning. Bleary eyed and exhausted, we were nonetheless walking on air, filled with the true spirit of the holiday yet to come. Dr. John in full Mardi Gras regalia, including a towering feather crown, started playing just before midnight on Sunday. In rare form, the good doctor laid down his own funky gumbo groove for more than four hours, filling that illustrious house of music with the ephemeral essence of New Orleans. The Night Tripper was channeling all the piano professors and hoodoo men who came before him, right there in the club named in honor of the patron saint of Big Easy boogie woogie – Professor Longhair. The last set finished with a 30-minute rendition of Earl King’s timeless Carnival classic “Big Chief.” In tow that night were some newfound friends from upstate New York. I wonder to this day if they realized that they were in the presence of the supernatural.

Growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we had our own Mardi Gras celebrations including masque balls and parades. My parents took me to my first New Orleans’ Carnival when I was about 12 years old. I can still remember the images of bacchanalia in the French Quarter from that maiden voyage. I was hooked. But my first un-chaperoned Mardi Gras was 20 years ago when I rode the bus from Gulfport, Miss., to the New Orleans Greyhound station at the foot of Poydras to meet my fellow St. Stanislaus juniors on a chilly February weekend in 1986. Our crew included my boarding school roommates John King and Charles Oliver, along with their friend David “Toto” Drennin. In what I should have recognized as a precursor to many future Carnival seasons, a shifty looking guy on the bus offered to sell me some of modern pharmacology’s finest treats to help complete the party. I passed, but not because I wasn’t already seeking the kind of full flight from reality that Mardi Gras generously offers to locals and visitors alike.

Sporting a Navy issue pea coat and a sense of limitless possibility, I hit the streets of Uptown with my school pals, catching parades whose names I wouldn’t remember until years later, meeting all kinds of interesting “city kids,” drinking beer from krewe-themed plastic cups on streets with names like Constantinople, Delachaise and Toledano, and ultimately finishing each night by slipping into Uptown college bars packed with Tulane and Loyola students -- a preview of life to come.

Mardi Gras Day 1986: We woke up late and missed the infamous Zulu parade, which I had first glimpsed along Canal Street four years earlier when they still threw their coconuts and spears from the only African American krewe’s floats. Instead, we started out the day with a traditional Budweiser breakfast before heading out on foot to catch Rex (the King of Carnival) and meet up with more friends along the Garden District parade route. Somewhere near Louisiana Avenue we stopped to use the facilities and found our way to a crumbling and abandoned mansion just steps away from the crowds. After taking care of business, we explored its formerly grand and now dilapidated rooms, climbing the rickety staircase all the way to the third floor where a group of ominous-looking older guys were engaging in some illicit herbal activity and looking threateningly in our direction. Coming down the back steps, we spied a gaggle of college age girls utilizing the estate’s equally decrepit slave quarters as their own outdoor ladies room. Bathrooms are hard to come by on Mardi Gras day! Years later, I went searching for that house, unsure of its exact location, and, after several passes through the neighborhood, finally pinpointed the corner lot where it would have been. Amazingly, there stood a new version of the house and slave quarters, fully restored to their former glory. Only in New Orleans, eh?

Amidst a veritable sea of revelers of all ages ranging from wild college kids to families with barbecues on the St. Charles neutral ground to flamboyant queens in outlandish costumes, we made our way to Seventh Street where dozens of fellow Rock-A-Chaws (a sandspur was our Stanislaus mascot if you can believe it) were settling in for a long day of partying. Two seasons later, in my freshman year at Loyola, I ran into then-Stanislaus senior Sandy Sarpy manning a parked station wagon loaded down with Popeye’s chicken dinners. He was giving them out to just about every celebrant who passed through the intersection of Prytania and Seventh on their way to the parade. Another 15 years passed before the meaning of that moment hit me. Perusing a book on the history of Carnival in the Wilmette, Illinois library, I recognized a very young Sandy standing in an early 1980s era picture with his regal looking family members including grandfather Leon Sarpy who once served as king of Rex, one of the older Carnival organizations that today reigns over the annual pre-Lenten season.

The last stop of the day, at least in my memory of that momentous Mardi Gras, was a party of high school seniors at the corner of St. Charles and Second Street. There they were, the hot shots of the Stanislaus upper class dorm including one particular guy dressed as a catholic school girl. He was a diminutive but muscle bound live wire who used to strut up the residence hallway announcing in his best mock-YAT accent, “Yeah, you right, bro!” Years later this same fellow would make news twice, first by saving a bankrupt independent movie house Uptown and then kidnapping and killing his police office girlfriend in that same theater in the late 1990s before turning the gun on himself.

As dusk approached on that Mardi Gras day in 1986, my first glimpse of the Comus parade came into view. Following efforts by city leaders to integrate the old-line secret society krewes in the early 1990s, Comus no longer parades, its members content to celebrate the season with their very private masque ball. Illuminated by hand-held flambeau torches, the parade made its way up the avenue, rocking back forth on their 19th century wagons. My already overwhelmed senses were brought to a crescendo with this last burst of riotous sights and sounds. Comus was a vision to behold, its floats decorated elegantly in hand designed paper mache (as opposed to the more obvious fiberglass of today’s superkrewes), giving visual exposition to their annual take on a classical theme, all in good tongue-in-cheek fun.

Then it was all over. Except that it wasn’t. That day has stayed with me for two decades, drawing me to New Orleans a year and a half later for college at Loyola and helping plant the seed of a lifelong passion for New Orleans, Mardi Gras and everything that makes that city a place like no other.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Forgotten Place

By Steve White

Who speaks for the Gulf Coast and New Orleans? They do, of course, but why aren’t the rest of us listening?

People everywhere go about their daily lives of work, school, shopping, little league practice, etc., while hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans are struggling to put their own lives back together. Some are stuck thousands of miles from home waiting for when they can return; others are worse off, making do in the wreckage of their former homes with a bucket for a bathroom or sleeping in tents and eking out an existence on food stamps and welfare while holding down a job as a public school teacher.

It has been nearly six months since Katrina made landfall. Where is the outrage, and where is the outreach – as a nation? Don’t get me wrong, thousands of individual volunteers (many part of faith-based mission groups) have come out of the woodwork to give of their time, money and labor to help people who are total strangers. I saw it with my own eyes, and recorded it here in an earlier post. But these efforts, while valiant and worthy, are like offering a Band-Aid to someone who has lost a limb. What is it going to take to get our nation’s leaders to bring the full power of our government to bear on a problem that is solvable by, as they say, throwing money its way. The cure to cancer or Middle East peace may remain elusive goals with no clear answers, but rebuilding the Gulf Coast and restoring the protective wetlands can be done with the tools we already have at hand.

“New York Times” columnist Frank Rich put it best recently in a radio interview when asked how citizens of this country can begin to demand more integrity from the system. Like the movie “Network,” we need to start communicating a simple but powerful message to our elected officials -- that we are Mad As Hell And Aren’t Going To Take It Anymore!

If you can believe it, there are still more than 2,000 people who are unaccounted for in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. How many of those lost people are bodies still buried in the wreckage of the houses that were destroyed, especially in hard hit areas like the Lower Ninth Ward? Those are all people who have fallen and been left behind by the rest of us. Meanwhile, FEMA is stopping hotel payments for 12,000 families, government run tent cities are set to close, there aren’t enough trailers, many people aren’t in a position to even use a trailer because they can’t connect it local utilities for many reasons, and nobody has any answers as to where any of these people will go.

“When you go to New Orleans, when you go to Waveland, Miss., the winds are still blowing; the disaster is still with us,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper told Oprah Winfrey last week during a special edition of the latter’s daytime show. “We are judged as a nation by how we take care of our citizens and we need to take a hard look at that…It’s all still there, the debris, the bodies. And we can all help.”

He’s right!

“Even when we try to put a smile on our face, we remember people who are still missing,” New Orleans City Council member Oliver Thomas told CNN correspondent John King during the same Oprah segment. Thomas turned around several days later and made headlines across the country by saying the only people welcome back to New Orleans were those willing to work, not so-called “soap opera watchers.” That sure sounds like code for the largely white voters who remain in the city. It also plays directly into the notion that New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents must somehow prove their worthiness to be made whole. That’s bunk.

Prior to the great flood of 1927, Americans had very little expectation of help from the federal government following natural disasters. But Herbert Hoover, along with other community-minded leaders in the South, changed all that, realizing that the plight of the country’s working class was essential to the health of the economy. (Read John Barry’s “Rising Tide” for more on this pivotal moment in history.) It wasn’t even a question of morality or compassion; leaders realized that helping victims of that great flood was the right thing to do for the country’s overriding interests. Have we lost sight of that in the intervening 78 years?

The Gulf Coast and New Orleans are breathtakingly beautiful and, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the most interesting places on the entire planet. It’s a region with a strong sense of place, where families stake their claim and stay rooted for generations. “This is home…the only home we’ve known,” said the matriarch of the Taylor family, whose image appeared on the cover of Time Magazine being rescued from the roof of their engulfed SUV in Bay St. Louis, Miss., at the height of the storm surge. Many fellow storm victims echo this connection when interviewed about their desire to return to these storm prone locales.

In Pass Christian, Miss., only one public school remains open, or even intact, Delisle Elementary. Eighty percent of the students and faculty there are still living in trailers, and proud teachers are forced to accept welfare and food stamps to feed their families. Reporter Lisa Ling interviewed one of these teachers during the recent episode of Oprah, asking her: “You are a citizen of the most powerful country in the world. Do you feel like it?”

“No,” the teacher responded, without rancor. “I think of all the money we have spent on wars; we need to help ourselves, now.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Carnival Time

By Steve White

I came into my office this morning, whistling that most infectious of tunes to any New Orleanian past or present: Al Johnson singing his almost eerie signature tune “Carnival Time.” Think about it for a minute, and you can hear it too: ”Oh well, it’s carnival time, everybody’s havin’ fun!” I know that my internal Mardi Gras clock has started ticking when that campy song comes to my lips, no matter where I am living. It happens every year, but this year it’s no surprise. There’s been a lot in the national media over the past week about the kick-off of Carnival in storm battered New Orleans. Then, just today a friend sent some pictures of the parade scene over this past weekend that show mighty sparse crowds along St. Charles Ave. It’s a melancholy Mardi Gras for sure. Yet it’s also a chance for New Orleans residents and people everywhere who care about the city to re-focus attention on the continuing needs there. Local columnist, educator and humorist Liz Scott, aka Modine Gunch, said it best in her Times Picayune opinion column last week, calling for locals and Carnival revelers to fly their American flags proudly, and upside down, to remind the rest of the nation of a simple but important message: “We need help,” Scott concluded her op ed piece. And they do! Check out Scott's article in its entirety at

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Required Reading

By Steve White

“Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast”
By Mike Tidwell

“Holding Back The Sea: The Struggle on the Gulf Coast to Save America”
By Christopher Hallowell

“Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America”
By John Barry

What a difference 36 years can make!

Hurricane Camille, which made landfall on Aug. 17, 1969 (just a month after my own birth), had long been the benchmark by which the Gulf Coast region had defined the so-called worst-case scenario. Homes and buildings that survived Camille were assumed to be impervious to hurricane force winds and waters, especially considering that gusts of more than 200 miles an hour were reportedly measured atop my high school alma mater, St. Stanislaus College in Bay St. Louis, Miss, during that storm. So why did Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane at landfall, wreak so much more havoc than the Category 5 Camille?

Likewise in New Orleans, Hurricane Betsy in 1965 punched holes in the levees along the industrial canal and flooded parts of the city (ironically in some of the same areas hard hit by Katrina). But the devastation didn’t approach Katrina levels, and New Orleans bounced back in weeks as opposed to the months or years it is likely to take in the aftermath of last year’s post-hurricane flooding.

The reasons for the disparity are many including the sheer size of the storm, the power and height of Katrina’s wave surge, lower barometric pressure levels, making landfall at high tide, global warming and the resulting active hurricane season and the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain levees properly along the 17th Street and London Avenue Canals in New Orleans (possibly because soil data may have been improperly recorded, according to reports on

The overriding issues are the loss of wetlands in southeast Louisiana, where hundreds of miles of marsh has turned to open water, and the erosion of barrier islands off the coastlines of both states. These land masses protect the metro New Orleans area and the coastal towns in Mississippi. “Every 2.7 miles of marsh grass absorbs a foot of a hurricane’s surge,” explained author Mike Tidwell is his 2001 book “Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast.” “For New Orleans alone, hemmed in by levees and already an average of eight feet below sea level, the apron of wetlands between it and the closest Gulf shore was, cumulatively, about 50 miles a century ago. Today that distance is perhaps 20 miles and shrinking fast.”

So why are the wetlands disappearing? Again, environmentalists point to a number of reasons including warmer temperatures, which have raised the level of the globe’s oceans, some say as a result of global warming. That may be part of the problem, but the main issue at hand is simple: the entire Louisiana wetlands were formed as a result of sedimentary deposit from the Mississippi River over literally thousands and thousands of years of flooding. Man finally tamed the wild river following the great flood of 1927, bringing to an end this natural land creation process. Plus, the land on the other side of the levees continued the natural process of settling (i.e. sinking). The land is falling; Gulf water is rising. Thus the wetlands begin to disappear at a rapid pace, producing a wide array of negative fallout including the steady loss of land, the demise of a Cajun culture that thrived by living off the fertile bayous of southern Louisiana and the disappearance of a much needed buffer zone when destructive hurricanes roar into the Gulf of Mexico headed for Louisiana and Mississippi.

The three books I have listed above including Tidwell’s “Bayou Farewell,” a literary travelogue that examines the issue from many angles; Christopher Hallowell’s “Holding Back the Sea: The Struggle on the Gulf Coast To Save America,” taking a slightly more wonkish approach to the same material; and, lastly, John Barry’s landmark history on the 1927 flood, “Rising Tide,” that explains the drive by federal agencies to finally subdue the dangerous river behind a levee system, are all crucial to understanding the problems and solutions. These books set the stage and spell out what this all means in painful and frightening detail.

I am ashamed to say that it took a storm like Katrina to wake me up to these issues, despite the fact that I grew up along the Mississippi Coast and lived in the New Orleans area for more than a decade. I may be a day late and a few environmentally conscious brain cells too short, but it’s not necessarily too late.

Plans have long been on the table ( to build a massive river diversion near Donaldsonville, La., thereby managing a man-made split in the mighty Mississippi and creating a second river delta. The result: the creation of new land that within a short period of time can begin to rebuild the wetlands, save many endangered species and a unique way of life in Acadia, and ultimately restore crucial marshland to blunt the effects of Katrina-like storms in the future.

Let’s hope the pain, suffering and loss of Katrina will prompt action on the part of this country’s leaders. It’s not as if we don’t have the money (approximately $14 billion); so far what we have lacked is the political will to stem land loss averaging more than 25 miles of coastline, each year!

Friday, February 03, 2006

New Orleans Soul At Stake

By Steve White

Why is New Orleans so beloved by those who have lived, or even visited, there? Because it’s a place with an old and elegant soul! An article in today’s Washington Post covers some of the same ground this blogger touched on earlier this week about the fate not only of New Orleans as a place where people live and do business, but also as a safe haven for its own unique brand of American culture – whether that be funky music, spicy Creole food or folk patterns like Carnival and second lines and St. Joseph’s Day that have infused locals’ lives with meaning and myth for generations. “Even as the city's riverfront high ground -- now dubbed the ‘Isle of Denial’ by one scholar -- gamely revives, miles of culturally vibrant neighborhoods that once smelled of simmering red beans and hosted funky second-line parades lie dark and empty, their futures in doubt,” observes Post writer Manuel Roig-Franzia. “Their worry is that the curious and crazy that developed naturally here over time will be replaced by an artificial version of what once was, that a desperate attempt to resurrect New Orleans will turn it into a sanitized, charmless, soulless city.” The full article is a good read and well worth your time. To read the full piece, go to