Remembering Mardi Gras

mardigras

February 5, 1995 was a Sunday. I remember it well because it was the day I returned from Mardi Gras that year. I’d gone to Mardi Gras with my boyfriend at the time, Christian, who I’d met the week after New Years at a club in Memphis. Christian and I moved to Memphis together and shared a dorm room in July later that year. We broke up less than two months into the summer semester.

But what a trying time for a new relationship, going to Mardi Gras together after only being a couple for one month. To get us there, Christian talked one of his Memphis friends, Sean, a Wiccan, into going with us who then talked one of his straight girl friends into going. She agreed to let us take her car. The girl, whose name I can’t remember, got drunk in the back seat with Christian, who I’d already discovered was quite the drinker, on the long drive down Highway 55 that Friday before Fat Tuesday.

So Sean drove most of the way. I was in the passenger’s seat, and besides the obnoxious drunks in the back who eventually passed out from too much vodka, all I can remember about that long drive down the state of Mississippi is Suzanne Vega’s song, Tom’s Diner, playing on the radio.

We checked into our hotel and then decided to hit Bourbon Street. I was 19 years old then, so it’s funny to look back now and say that the bars there, like Bourbon Street Pub and Oz, were unlike any other bars I’d experienced, then and now. I had barely been out of the closet a year, so it was like an 8 year old going to Disney World for the first time. Unfortunately, Christian became separated from the group. After drinking too much and dancing not enough, Sean, the girl, and I returned to the hotel without him.

Christian called us from the Bourbon Pub early the next morning while we were still sleeping. He had no money for a cab and wanted me to come get him so he could come back to the hotel and sleep. I told him he’d have to wait. After several more hours of sleep and several phone calls from Christian, I got in a cab around noon. Sean and the girl wanted to sleep a bit more, but agreed to meet me at the Pub around 3ish. Because cab fare was so expensive, I put Christian in the cab and sent him to the hotel while I stayed on Bourbon Street.

At 19 being alone on the streets in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, even in broad daylight, was a bit scary. There was so much to see and so little time to take it all in before I had to meet up with my friends again. I didn’t go far from our meeting place, rambling in and out of a few gift shops. All I really remember from that time alone is two men approaching me right on the street and asking if I wanted to buy pot. I declined and quickly crossed the road.

When I returned to Bourbon Pub, Sean and the girl were already sitting there waiting for me. They’d actually come out early to enjoy the not-so-crowded streets, and even stopped at a place and had their faces painted. Because of the high price of everything, we decided to stay put and ducked into the Bourbon Pub to mingle with the growing crowd. Getting upstairs to the balconies was free at that time of the day, so we enjoyed drinking, dancing, and watching the bead tossing from above the streets.

The girl set her eyes on some guy down in the streets and ran downstairs into the street to pay him a kiss and collect her beads. Little did she know, they were now charging a $20 cover charge to come back upstairs. She didn’t want to pay that, so it was just me and Sean there because we weren’t ready to go downstairs yet. Eventually we got bored and decided to venture down to look for her and explore the neighboring bars. The girl was no where to be found.

I remember Sean and I holding hands to avoid getting lost in the growing crowd. At one point, we were walking up Bourbon Street in front of some straight clubs and the people were so packed out front that I actually felt myself being lifted up off the ground because people were smashed up against me so tightly. Everyone was crowding in front to get a look at something going on atop one of the balconies, but we were buried so deep in the crowd it was impossible to look up and see. Sean and I had had enough, and so we returned to the hotel to check on Christian, and we hoped the girl had found her way there too.

Christian was awake, hungry and sober, and ready to hit the streets again. The girl was not there. To save money on drinks, the three of us hit the hotel bar on the top floor and got sloppy drunk. Then, it was back to Bourbon Street. The details of that night are hazy in my memory, but I do remember us returning to the hotel that night and finding the girl already asleep in bed.

The events of Saturday are also pretty much a blur to me now. I can recall faces of people I met in the bars, only because of pictures I snapped with my camera. I can recall being in places, but don’t necessarily remember it being on that Saturday or not. Even the beads I collected that weekend are only proof to me that I was there. I do not know who or where they came from specifically.

I do remember the girl had picked up another local (a bi male prostitute) sometime on Saturday and he joined our caravan as we wandered the streets and clubs of the Big Easy. I don’t remember his name, but I can vividly remember what he looked like, the black pants he wore and the brown and black plaid shirt, his spikey hair, his oily skin. He stayed with us, long after the girl became lost in the streets again. He even returned to our hotel room with us, with intentions to rob us I was almost sure.

As we slept, Christian and I in one bed and Sean and the male prostitute in the other, the door to our hotel room creaked open in the middle of the night. I just knew it was the male prostitute sneaking out with our wallets but it was actually the girl attempting to sneak in and grab her things. She was going to leave without us! A huge argument broke out between her and Sean. Slaps were made! Things were thrown! I locked myself in the bathroom. Sean kicked the girl out.

Here I was locked in a New Orleans hotel bathroom with little money left, with a broke drunk boyfriend I’d known only a month, his Wiccan friend who’d have to pay to get us home, and a male prostitute we’d known less than 24 hours. We tried to get some sleep. A hotel employee knocked on the door to talk to Sean. Sean refused to let the girl back into the room. He did let her come in and get her things, but that was it. Unbeknownst to the girl, she left her car keys in the room.

Early that Sunday morning, Sean sat cross-legged in a chair and chanted. Christian and the prostitute smoke cigarettes and shared stories about their tattoos. The boy wanted a tattoo of comedy and tragedy masks on his chest, one mask on each pec surrounded by the words, “Laugh now. Cry later.” I had not given much thought to doing either. Instead, I sat quiet, just wanting to get back to Tennessee. We would go by train, which was the cheapest route but the longest. I called my Mom, then I called work and told them I wouldn’t be in that night. I somehow think we were stranded there another day. I honestly can’t remember if it was three days or four. There are still other hazy memories from that trip that I can’t place in order.

On his credit card, Sean bought four Amtrak train tickets for us and paid for the cab to get us to the station. When we left the hotel, the girl’s car was still sitting in the parking lot. Sean took the keys with him. I have no idea why the prostitute was going to come back to Memphis with us, but he did. Sean bought us dinner on the train. It was actually some of the best food I’d ever eaten. Two years later I’d take the train to New Orleans and back again with a friend, but this time it was not during Mardi Gras.

It was approaching midnight when the train pulled into downtown Memphis. Another cab got us back to the dorms where Sean lived. Christian and I drove back to my home in silence. We were too tired to talk, too exhausted to fight about it. I still lived at home with mom and hour and a half north of Memphis, but that’s another story. The prostitute ended up staying about a week with Sean, enjoying the city and “earning” the cost of his train ticket. When Christian and I broke up, I learned that during the first night of leaving him in the bars, he’d earned his alcohol in much the same way. That explained why his underwear was missing when I went to pick him up that morning.

Little did he know, I let someone kiss me on the dance floor upstairs in Bourbon Pub one night. He was a young guy with curly hair and little perfect teeth. I remember he said he was a character at Disney World, and there with a bunch of other friends who were all characters too. I felt bad about the kiss, quickly looking around to see if anyone, Sean perhaps, had seen what had happened. But no one had seen it. I snapped a picture of me with that guy. I think back on that kiss now, and I seriously doubt that guy remembers it, but I do. It was just a kiss, but it said, “it was okay.”

After I was living in Memphis on my own, long after the reckless affair with Christian had ended, I ran into Sean a couple of times on the dance floor. And I even ran into that girl who left us stranded once. She was dining in a restaurant with a boy— a brother or date perhaps— and a set of parents, maybe his or hers. When I got up to leave, we exchanged glances. I waved, a shy twiddle of the fingers, and she looked away. I’d often wondered how she got home. Above all else, I was glad to see she’d made it.

Like I said, two years later I returned to the Big Easy with a friend. We went for a four day weekend getaway in September, specifically at a time when absolutely nothing was going on down there. We wanted to enjoy a non-touristy side of New Orleans, away from the boob showing and bead tossing flare. We both read the same book on the long slow train ride so we could discuss it together. We sat in the viewing car. We dined on that wonderful train food I remembered having at the expense of Sean.

In New Orleans, we shared a room. We shopped. We got our fortunes told. We danced. We drank. She got laid. We shopped, danced, and drank some more. Then, we got back on the train and came home. It was a nice pleasurable and chaos-free weekend, unlike my Mardi Gras escapade. To this day, I still have a box full of beads from both of those trips, all mixed together like a bunch of memories. Unlike those plastic beads though, some of those memories are good and some bad. But not a single one of them are regrets.

The New Orleans I know from both of those trips is obviously much different now since Hurricane Katrina. I think of it sometimes and wonder just how much it’s changed. I know I’ve changed since then. Haven’t we all? I’m older now, and wiser, and only dream of the days of unplanned road trips of yesterday. Too much of my life has all been planned out since then, so maybe I’ll get back there one day. Back to New Orleans. Hell, even back to Memphis. I haven’t been there either in years. Back to the way things were seems so far away.

Unplanned.

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