In most parts of the country, March 19th has little importance other than being just short of the first day of spring. But in New Orleans, it is the feast day of the patron saint of the Sicilians, Saint Joseph. It has something to do with ending starvation with fava beans, but suffice it to say for the people who 100 years ago made the French Quarter “Little Sicily,” it is in the words of our Vice President “a big f**king deal.” And for reasons that have not been fully explained, Saint Joseph’s Day has resonated within the African-American community, as well.
The day began rather disjointedly. I left about the same time as the Los Islenos group, but the other two were still very much asleep. I thought I would see them around the French Market or Royal Street, but I didn’t have a chance to see them off. I did run into a few of the first group, but that too, is dependent on a rather crowded piece of acreage. It was a spectacular Saturday morning and I spent it walking, my ailing Achilles tendon notwithstanding. I walked the French Market, spent some time watching street performers and, in what is getting to be something of a test, looked for photographic angles that I have not seen before. And I went to the St. Joseph’s altar behind the cathedral to register my prayer intentions, to get my lucky fava bean, and to snag some wonderful Italian cookies for breakfast. Cafe du Monde was way too crowded.
After noon, I ventured over to Mena’s Palace at Chartres and Bienville, for my annual fried chicken and red beans and rice lunch. Chased by an ice cold Abita Amber, it did not disappoint. I then went to my car and drove over to the Hotel St. Pierre on Burgundy. Remarkably, I was able to check in and find a parking spot in their minuscule parking lot. I mean, it is the French Quarter. And that changed the trajectory of my day.
The Hotel St. Pierre is an old hotel and lacks many of the modern amenities of the colorless chains and therein lies its raffish charm. And after a week in group housing with 36 students, it has private and functioning bathroom facilities. And in all fairness, it has many other attributes, the primary one being its location — it is in the quieter, residential part of the French Quarter. And it is only two blocks from Treme.
After working in the Carrollton neighborhood, I had planned on venturing Uptown to see the Mardi Gras Indians as they venture out on St. Joseph’s Day. The Carrollton Hunters tribe reportedly gather near where we were working on Hickory Street and I had all intentions of driving out there. But, my parking situation and the proximity to Treme changed my plans. Once again, I as going to head out to experience St. Joseph’s Night with the downtown Indians.
I left about 4:00pm and headed over to the Backstreet Cultural Center, the epicenter of New Orleans parades, second lines, and Mardi Gras Indian culture. The presentation is somewhat amateurish, but it does it lovingly and with the most local knowledge available on the subject. The Indian suits on display are incredible, but static displays don’t do them justice. There was a woman from Arizona there, who was hell bent on seeing St. Joseph’s night on her own. And because it is Lent, I offered to accompany her to the suspected spot where the Indians gather. Oh Lord, why are you testing me me so?
She never stopped talking. And there are parts of her life’s story that are indelibly etched on my brain. I was so distracted that we overshot St. Bernard and I had the opportunity to watch her harass an antique merchant from whom she had no intention of buying anything. We were way ahead of schedule of nightfall, so I suggested we go to Sidney’s Bar on St. Bernard, which is owned by Kermit Ruffins. We went in, the only white faces within blocks, and she never stopped talking and opining about the music, peoples’ dress, etc. I ordered a Bud Light, in honor of the owner, and before I had taken a second sip, the man himself arrived to get “primed” for his second night at Rock and Bowl. I talked to him briefly, but we had Indians to see.
After walking a bit, we encountered some Indians and her cluenessness was evident from the start. She had an uncanny knack for getting in the way of every possible situation and I marveled at the fact that no one stood her up and said: “cut it out, lady.” We eventually became separated in the growing melee; I tried to find her, but to no avail.
On the whole, it was far different from last year. I suspect that the police were actively trying to keep the tribes from uniting on St. Bernard, Instead, they were in tight, poorly lit spaces. This limited their activities and viewing opportunities. And it seemed to increase the overall tension of participant and spectator alike. It is nevertheless a singular spectacle and the enormous full moon only added to the mystery of it all.
I gave one last look for my partner, but could find her no where. I cut over to Elysian Fields and walked down to Frenchmen. The Spotted Cat was wall to wall people, so I went over to d.b.a. And to complete my Treme night, John Boutte was playing his weekly gig. I saw him briefly a few year’s back and have never been a big fan, but he was great
live and his band was fabulous. A lot of energy, a hint of Sam Cooke, but with a style all his own. I think his sister was passing around the tip jar and she made a point of catching my eye and shooting me a big smile. I was a little puzzled until I realized that I was wearing an old WWOZ hat — she thought I was with the station. And then it hit me that several times during the day that locals had assumed I was from New Orleans. Now I know the secret of passing in New Orleans.
It was getting late, so I headed back to Burgundy Street and the Hotel St. Pierre. And I enjoyed a soft bed and sheets for the first time in over a week.