Punctual, the silver compact hatchback rolls along the departures lane at the U.S. Airways terminal at the New Orleans airport, Aunt Sally at the wheel. This will be my introduction to the New Jersey native who migrated to this Mississippi delta city to meet men during World War II. No blood relation to me, she is the maternal aunt of my friends, brother and sister team, Jay and Stephanie Carleton, with whom I have traveled to celebrate Mardi Gras, 2003.
We hoist our luggage into the hatch compartment and whisk away onto the interstate for the short trip to the suburb of Metairie just northwest of the city. The terrain is flat, so it makes me consider how we may actually be below sea level. Aunt Sally is tall and angular and loves to wear big jewelry, especially long earrings which complement her silvery, short-cut hairstyle. Usually dressed in long skirts and turtle-neck sweater tops to hide wrinkly skin on her neck, after 82 years and two deceased husbands, she is still on the lookout for a man.
Aunt Sally is anything but reserved, so I am immediately comfortable in her presence. The shrill harshness of her raspy, deep voice commands attention. The three of us chuckle at Aunt Sally’s impatient chirping at motorists driving too slowly on the beltway, “Get movin’. Don’t ya know I’m Irish?!” She motors the little hatchback along like a sports car as we are approaching Sally’s favorite time of day—late afternoon cocktail hour. We pull into the driveway of a charming one-story brick colonial ranch with black shutters. The ‘No War in Iraq’ sign on a front window and the ‘Eracism’ bumper sticker on her car boldly advertise her world view.
Our hostess ushers us into her home and shows us our appointed lodging places. The interior of this custom built, cozy home screams “Americana” with patriotic blue wainscoting halfway up the walls of the living room and dining area and braided rugs in burgundies and blues placed with care over the glossy hardwood floors.
Jay directs my attention on a bedroom wall to a huge poster of the film Pale Rider, autographed by Clint Eastwood. Cousin Jack, one of Aunt Sally’s two sons, who lives downtown, has done some sporadic acting gigs over the years and was cast in that movie as one of the corrupt deputies of the villainous marshal who all face Mr. Eastwood in a finale shootout. Poor Cousin Jack took it right in the middle of the forehead as Eastwood mowed them all down, one by one. I look forward to meeting Cousin Jack for the first time when we rendezvous at his house tomorrow for the Mardi Gras parade.
Following cocktail hour where Aunt Sally demonstrates how to make a real Old Fashioned, always shaken and served in a tumbler, our delightful hostess has surprised us with a Friday dinner of homemade turtle soup. Trying not to think too much about my boyhood pets, Frankie and Bozo, I enjoy the savory seafood bisque with chopped veggies and sweet strips of reptile meat. For some reason Aunt Sally wants to call me ‘Steve,’ so after we laugh about that, I suggest we could compromise with the handle ‘Steve-Dave.’ She loves the idea, and I am delighted to become ‘Steve-Dave’ for the remainder of our visit.
Before we retire for the night Aunt Sally makes plans for the morning. She announces that we will start the day with a sausage and egg biscuit from her favorite Burger King.
Saturday morning the four of us hop into the hatchback, Aunt Sally still cloaked in her pink terry cloth robe and slippers, ‘Steve-Dave’ behind the wheel. She navigates us to Burger King a few blocks away. Because Sally is not presentable for public viewing, Jay and I venture inside to pick up her favorite sausage and egg biscuits. The four breakfast runners return to her kitchen to enjoy the breakfast treats, making plans for the days that will follow . . .
Aunt Sally enjoys cocktail hour.
Today we make our first visit to Cousin Jack’s house in town, which will be a great place to rendezvous as it is only about a six-block hike from there to the main parade route. Cousin Jack lives with a lovable, well-trained Rottweiler named Zula. From the front screen door a long narrow hallway, furnished with only a large black futon which serves as Zula’s bed, leads to the heart and soul of this house—the giant great room with open kitchen and family room area with French doors opening to a wide back porch and decent size yard for a city dwelling. Jack is casually dressed today in jeans, T-shirt, and ball cap, but Mardi Gras Monday will be a whole different story. I learn that Jack works construction to pay the bills these days and that the acting gigs are mainly in his past.
Aunt Sally’s other son, Peter, and his wife, Anita, and extended family are also visiting from Atlanta. Our group forms a parade of its own as we march the six blocks from Jack’s to the parade route. Alcoholic beverages in open containers are permissible and prevalent. I notice high chairs on stilts at various points along the parade boulevard so that adults can hoist up their young ones for a better view.
I stop to purchase some Mardi Gras earrings as a souvenir gift for my mom. One needs a basket or fishnet to catch all the mementoes tossed off the colorful floats crafted by social aid organizations with names like Orpheus, Rex, and Zulu. Flying beaded necklaces, whistles, plastic toys and drink cups are snatched out of the air by quick hands lusting for more and more Mardi Gras treasures. The Cajun air is pleasantly warmish — like April — in late February. This is the biggest and best street party I have ever seen . . .
Stephanie, Dave, and Zula in Cousin Jack’s kitchen before parade.
On Sunday morning Aunt Sally promises to take us to mass at what she calls the “Jesus Center.” This Charismatic Catholic retreat center, officially known as The Center for Jesus Our Lord, is located on N. Rampart Street in the French Quarter. Even worship is a party in N’awlins. Congregants freely call out their praises or prayerful intentions at will throughout the course of the mass. It is festive, alive, and a little unnerving, all at the same time. At the conclusion of mass we visit the Center’s gift shop and linger for coffee and pastries in the social room . . .
Monday, the last full day of America’s biggest party, will be special with Mardi Gras cuisine at Cousin Jack’s and more parade adventures. But first we leave Metairie for downtown by 11 a.m. with ‘Steve-Dave’ back at the wheel—our version of ‘Driving Miss Sally.’ Aunt Sally directs us past her favorite casino, and we park somewhere near the French Quarter. After shopping for celebratory headgear, it is time to take the plunge into Pat O’Brien’s to sample those famous hurricanes.
The syrupy hurricanes slide down our gullets easily as we listen to the comic musician who makes music and jokes about all the cities represented by patrons in the Monday afternoon audience. After downing a couple hurricanes, Jay, Stef, and I all take turns modeling Aunt Sally’s sparkling, beaded “Cleopatran” headdress. By 2 o’clock it is time to stagger out of O’Brien’s to the light of day. The sunlight is overpowering. My legs feel oddly detached from my torso, which oozes along the sidewalk trying to sync with my wayward appendages. I gladly relinquish the driver’s seat to Aunt Sally, and we make our way to Cousin Jack’s . . .
Jay, Sally, Dave, & Stef at Pat O’Brien’s.
The scene at Jack’s place is vibrant. What does it matter that I don’t know every person here? What a sight it is—Cousin Jack, costumed in bright gold tutu with high-top work boots, stirring the jambalaya in a huge stock pot in the open kitchen of his N’awlins party house. Coarsely bearded with a full head of resilient black hair at 50+ years of age, Jack nurtures the party cuisine into its final simmers as he banters with the guests around him. The noisy crowd of revelers is basking in the atmosphere.
I watch Zula, stretched out under the rustic wooden coffee table in the great room, and try to savor every ounce of this once-in-a-lifetime happening. Way more macho than his present attire would suggest, Jack chastises his mother, in Cajun drawl, for talking ‘baby talk’ to Zula, “Ma, I tol’ you not to talk that baby talk to Zula; she’s a beast.” In a few moments, Zula slowly gets up on all fours and trots her plump, swishy “heiny” out the back door to the porch. The animal lover in me follows her there. I sit down to stroke her silky smooth coat, trusting that she will not chew me to pieces.
After 15 minutes of solitude with Zula, I am aroused by Aunt Sally’s shrill command, “Steve-Dave, get in here! You’re gonna miss some real N’awlins jambalaya!” Oddly as I enter, I see boxes of Kentucky Fried Chicken that someone apparently brought in to be certain that there would be enough victuals for the hungry crowd. We all line up for the Mardi Gras buffet. All side dishes lead to that spicy stew, swimming with Andouille sausage and succulent shrimp, still bubbling in the restaurant-sized stock pot.
Unfortunately, a driving rainstorm has moved in for the last night of Mardi Gras parades. Too inclement for Aunt Sally’s eighty-two-year-old bones, she drives home to the warmth of her bungalow. The rest of us brave the six-block trek to the parade route. The floats are just as impressive tonight and the enthusiasm equal, but the wind-blown early spring rain is bone chilling. After about 45 minutes Jay and I decide to make our way back to shelter at Jack’s and camp in for the next couple hours with the welcoming Rottweiler.
By 10:30 pm our quiet solitude is interrupted by the return of Cousin Jack and his army of soggy Mardi Gras soldiers. When Stef, trailing behind the others, appears in the hallway, our mouths drop open. Thoroughly drenched, from neck to hips she is encased in a straightjacket of dripping beads. Adorned in her tri-colored suit of armor, this woman is our soaking wet, live Gambina doll. It takes a half hour to remove all the beads from Stephanie’s drenched body, bag them, and towel dry her enough so that we can climb into Aunt Sally’s waiting car to whisk us back to Metairie for the night . . .
Ash Wednesday morning finds us at the famous Café Du Monde sipping dark java and munching those delightful powdery-sweet beignets. Music from a soprano saxophone-playing street musician bounces through the open-air café. Having purchased a couple of CD’s for the road, we are already dreaming of Mardi Gras parties we may celebrate back home to relive the magic of these moments.
Aunt Sally and Stephanie attend a packed St. Louis Cathedral for 11:00 a.m. mass while Jay and I opt to soak up some warm delta sun in Jackson Square. Shortly after noon, we watch the parishioners flooding out of the cathedral. When we see the blackened smudges on the foreheads of Stef and Aunt Sally, we know that Mardi Gras is over and our late afternoon flight back to Pittsburgh awaits . . .
I believe that the three of us will be forever grateful to Aunt Sally and Cousin Jack—my “adopted relatives”—for treating us to an authentic and unforgettable, homespun Mardi Gras. I also believe that one can never completely leave New Orleans nor the love of Mardi Gras behind. We carry remnants with us—the beads, headgear, Gambina dolls, and feathered masks, but mostly indelible images of America’s earthiest, most sensual city and the characters who live there.