“Whereya from?” asks an intense-looking complete stranger sitting next to me in O’Hare airport as we experience quite possibly the only thing we will ever have in common: a weather delay.
I dread being asked this question by a complete stranger, because my response, if truthful and factual, will be complex, and complete strangers who are quick to ask this question, cold, do not have time for complexity. “Well,” I begin, “we live in New Orleans—”
“Ah!” He gives me a got-you-pegged-now look, which, however, fades. “Soooo,” he says. Now he’s giving me a look that might be taken to convey his growing suspicion that maybe he hasn’t got me pegged, because if I am from New Orleans, then why am I not dressed as a Harlequin, and at any rate I may well be lying because people who are crazy enough to say they are from New Orleans are apt to say any damn thing.
“Right there on Bourbon Street?”
“Not on Bourbon Street, no.”
“But a native New Orleanian. I’ll be darned.”
“Not native, no.”
“But a full-time—”
“No, we spend half the year in Massachusetts.”
“Boston! I’ll be darned. You must know the Comerfords.”
“No, western Massachusetts. A little town—”
“You don’t have that Bahston accent. Pahk the cah—”
“No, I grew up in Georgia.”
“Yet you say live in New Orleans.”
“This time of year.”
“Oh. So.” Here it comes; he is hip to this about me: “As a New Orleans resident, you will be getting as far out of town as possible, this time of year. During Mardi Gras, I mean.”
“The orgies, the mindless nudity, mass vomiting, frenzied dancing with men in gold pants…”
“No. No, my wife and I—”
“For sure you’ll be getting your lady wife out of town, away from people dressed as animals, animals dressed as people, people disguised as what do you call them, praylines? People wearing inflated pants to whose rear end an inflated bulldog is attached by the teeth. All that sordid—”
“No, she likes it.”
“Where is she from?”
“Ohio, and—never mind. She doesn’t like sordid. She likes Mardi Gras.”
“I don’t catch your meaning.”
“Mardi Gras, for the most part, by far, is not sordid.”
“Excuse me, but if the flashing of bare female breasts in exchange for tawdry strings of plastic beads—thrown, from drunken balconies—is not sordid, then what is?”
“But that’s not Mardi Gras.”
“What do you mean? I have myself—that is, friends of mine have—seen that very thing happen!”
“From what town, I mean.”
“The beads, my friend, are Mardi Gras. The flashing, and the demanding of it, is Poughkeepsie,” I was about to say.
But I bit my tongue. I never told that man what Mardi Gras can be to us locals—okay, part-time locals. But part-time because I have spent enough summertime in New Orleans to know that if there is anything on this so-far-still-green Earth that I want to afford, it is to be somewhere other than New Orleans in August.
Enough! To be defensive is not New Orleans, and for sure not Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, I would have told that man, is two weeks of parades unconnected to Bourbon Street, through neighborhoods, attended by families. Families pleading, to be sure, for baubles to be thrown. But flashing? No. And, in the parades we find flambeau bearers; and floats in the shape of, for instance, a thirty-foot-high stiletto-heel shoe; and lots of high-school marching bands. You could probably see more bare titties per capita on a given night in the streets of Poughkeepsie.
Mardi Gras day is of course special. I might have told how the missus and I try to plan our day to catch sight of some elaborately homemade-costumed Mardi Gras Indians ritually confronting each other; and a pork-chop sandwich; and also the sweetly loopy St. Anne parade when it hits Canal Street just as—ideally—the absurdly majestic Rex parade arrives from the other direction; and also to catch, with luck, coconuts from the Krewe of Zulu.
Then we meet a bunch of creatively lively but unprepossessing friends for dinner at a location already too jam-packed on Mardi Gras night for me to tell you where.
But how did that guy in the airport know I was planning to mask, as we say, in inflated pants with bulldog attached?