Nothing But a Party
“You heading to the second line?” the stranger asks. He is standing in the middle of the street, where the dividing line would be if there was one, picking catfish from a Styrofoam box. “Just up there a few blocks. You can hear the music almost.”
I am on my way to the second line, but I don’t answer right away. I have just left New York, and am still following that city’s unspoken code—that any stranger who wants to chat is crazy, or soliciting money, or both.
I have to remind myself: this is New Orleans, where strangers make small talk and eye contact; where “All right” is a greeting; where “How are you?” is more than a greeting; where people are nice to each other for no reason.
“I am going to the second line, actually,” I say. “Are you?”
He spits out a bone. “I’ll walk with you a bit. Can’t go too far, though. Have to watch the museum.” I guess he means the Backstreet Cultural Museum, half a block behind us. As I passed by it I considered going in; but I couldn’t tell if it was a hidden treasure or a scam, some guy trying to charge me $8 to fondle his tchotchkes. (Later, when a New Orleanian suggests I visit that very museum, I ask her which she thinks it is. “Both,” she says, without a pause.)
He walks with me a bit. Asks me if I knew the woman.
He must mean the lady who died. “No. Did you?”
“Oh, sure. Everyone in the Treme knew her. You must not be from around here.”
I am not. I am visiting for a weekend. The wrong weekend, most people would say: the first weekend of Lent, four days after Mardi Gras. The streets are quiet. The French Quarter looks like a living room the morning after a house party: sticky sidewalks instead of sticky floorboards; plastic beads instead of plastic cups. The city feels diffident, not sure what it did last night and afraid to find out.
New Orleans is a deeply Catholic city. Before the storm, 40 percent of the city’s children went to Catholic schools; the city is still split into parishes. Even Ignatius Reilly, main character of A Confederacy of Dunces and the great literary anti-hero of New Orleans, was a grudging Catholic. Reilly disdained all modern institutions—capitalism, democracy, courtship, kinship, even New Orleans itself—but he never renounced the Church.
In a bona fide Sin City like Las Vegas, the hedonism buffet is open year-round. In New Orleans, though, the revelry runs in cycles of indulgence and guilt, delineated by the liturgical calendar. After all, Mardi Gras, that bacchanal of bacchanals, is a Catholic festival, and it ends with a hell of a whimper: forty days of fasting and repentance. This is New Orleans—the country’s biggest party followed by the universe’s biggest buzzkill.
The catfish docent and I part ways, and suddenly here comes the second line, and suddenly I’m swept up in it. Two white horses draw an ornate gharry carriage with the casket inside. The band marches in front, playing those sweet sad dirges everyone knows—”When the Saints Go Marching In,” “This Little Light of Mine”—and we go along with them, in equal scale weighing delight and dole.
Is a jazz funeral really a funeral or a party? Both, I say.
A lady near me wears a torn tank top and no shoes, a cigarette burning in each hand. The first time I look over she’s gyrating wildly, grinding her hips and shouting with primal, aggressive joy; the next moment she’s bent over a parked car, racked with sobs. She might be the sister of the deceased, blind with grief, or she might just be out of her mind.
“The second line is a bunch of guys who follow the parade. They’re not the members of the Lodge or the club. Anybody can be a second liner, whether they are raggedy or dressed up. They seemed to have more fun than anybody.” – Louis Armstrong
“Down here motherfuckers have the biggest fun of anybody. Motherfucker have a parade, start dancing at the drop of a hat. I understand you dance at funerals and shit? ‘Motherfucker dead, let’s dance his ass off.'” – Richard Pryor, to a crowd in New Orleans
“In this place, there is a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful ‘second line’—symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line.” – George W. Bush in New Orleans, September 15, 2005
“Yet, the popular view…that the second line is ‘nothing but a party’…a harmless pastime or a diversion for the poorest communities in a city that ‘loves a parade,’ is, says Helen Regis, one of the operations of black-face minstrelsy that hides the social and political significance of the parades…. In these circumstances then, Bush’s invoking of the second line parade as a strategy of forgetting does damage to an institution that is associated with remembering…. In this, perhaps, the President’s speech was simply part of a much broader strategy of forgetting about race in America, one too broad to be fully explored here.” – Simon Stow
The next day I wind through the French Quarter on a rented bike. It is Sunday, cold and overcast, and most of the shops are closed. Beads and trinkets litter the ground like bird droppings. They are everywhere: crammed between bricks in the walls, crushed to bits on top of manhole covers, strung up on trees and balconies. Rebecca, my friend and ad hoc bicycle tour guide, tells me most of the beads will hang from the trees all year.
Rebecca leads me through Jackson Square. Nobody is out but the buskers and caricaturists, chatting among themselves. At the far end of the square a church bell chimes an unsteady rhythm, twenty times, twenty-five times, thirty times—not announcing the time, just announcing its presence.
Is Jackson Square a bastion of a proud American subculture, or a sterile tourist attraction? Both, I say.
We leave the French Quarter and, within blocks, New Orleans is a post-industrial wasteland. Elevated train tracks; a narrow, potholed road; a levee—the levee; a long gray sky. And a horizon of huge, empty warehouses—profoundly empty, the way warehouses look in a grim recession in the aftermath of a crippling storm.
Rebecca knows that at least one of these warehouses is not empty. She knows someone who lives and works in one of them, a kind of piano whisperer. He finds pianos that were abandoned in the storm and tries to bring them back to life.
We ring the bell and he gives us a quick tour: the docking bay strewn with drumsticks and hammers and cables; the plywood partition behind which he eats and sleeps; the mural on the wall, a sort of Technicolor pyramid of the muses with twin portraits of Bach and Satchmo at the pinnacle.
“I’m working towards what I really want to do with the space,” he says, “which is have bands come in whenever they want, just word of mouth, and just get people in here drinking and dancing all night. This place is great for it—train tracks on one side, a few vacant lots on the other. No one to complain about the noise. Only problem with this place is this corrugated tin roof. In the summer? In the summer this place is hell. Just baking. I had a free jazz camp in here two summers ago for the kids, and I was like, ‘Am I doing a service here or torturing these poor kids?’ ”
“Both,” I say.
He mostly sells pianos for cheap, but during Lent he’s hoping to fix up at least five and give them away for free.
Everyone I meet in New Orleans is making a sacrifice for Lent. Rebecca is going vegan. Her friend Ronny is only eating out once a week. His friend is spending no more than five dollars a day. Another friend is not using disposable cups or containers. Another is on a cleanse, drinking nothing but hot water, lemon, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper.
Lent is more cultural than religious in this city. It’s just something everyone does, even though most of my friends here are Jewish, or atheists, or both. New Orleans is a Catholic city, not necessarily a God-fearing one.
As we leave the piano hangar for the street, we see a freight train rumble over the tracks: a caravan of Humvees and Jeeps and tanks, camo green and sand-beige.
“Oh, I think I heard about this,” Rebecca says. “I heard all those military police that came in after the storm, apparently they were staying until this Mardi Gras and they’re just leaving now. So that must be them. Or their equipment, anyway.”
“So there have been troops here the whole time?”
“I guess so.”
“You mean contractors? Blackwater and all those?”
“I think so, yeah. All I know is, don’t get pulled over around here.”
We bike out of the post-industrial wasteland and back into town. We pass a homeless man, sitting in front of his shopping cart and muttering to himself. When he looks up and sees me, he stops talking for a minute, raises and hand in greeting, and says, “All right.”
Rebecca stops at a corner store—BEER ICE LOTTO PO BOYS—and I watch the bikes while she buys a bottle of water. Two men stand against the side of the building smoking thin cigars. They are in their forties. They gossip about Lil Wayne’s latest antics—his new mixtape, his Katie Couric interview—as if he were a rambunctious young cousin or a neighborhood scamp.
“I’m gonna get me a beer from inside,” one of them says to the other. “You want one?”
“No, man, I’m not trying to drink right now.”
“Why not? What else do you have going on?”
“Man, it’s Sunday, man. I’ma go home and put my ass to bed.”
Andrew Marantz is a freelance nonfiction writer living in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in such publications as New York magazine, Slate, Heeb, and the New York Times. He blogs sporadically at Culture Medium and thinks the four most overrated things in life are bars, irony, Sonic Youth, and home fries.