Friday, April 15, 2011

Mardi Gras and the Day After

Unique in its history and culture, New Orleans has no rivals. And Mardi Gras? Well, there's nothing quite like it. One year, long before Katrina, Spring Break at Purdue University coincided with the Big Easy's party so we decided to check it out. Fifteen students and I, a campus minister, made the trip. I had taken another group to New Orleans on a work project the year before. We missed Mardi Gras then because our Spring Break was over before the festivities began. We worked on the Rampart Street Community Center so, when the folks there heard we were going to make the party this year, they invited us to stay at the Center. Since the center is on the edge of the French Quarter—we gladly accepted the invitation.
     We arrived on Saturday in time to see some of the parades and enjoy festivities before the big blowout Tuesday—Fat Tuesday—the last chance to party before Ash Wednesday.
The weather was warm, the people friendly, and the floats were fantastic. I didn't understand about all the U-Haul vans and trailers that were being parked along Canal Street. We would find out about that later.
     The word on the streets was that this year there would be 10,000 street people added to the guest list. They came en masse. And they brought their drugs with them. Not everyone on Bourbon Street Tuesday was on drugs or drunk that night but the sober ones seemed to be the minority. Mounted police maneuvered slowly through a crowd that was packed together like anchovies in a can. What struck me was the contrast between the uninhibited mass of revelers and the calm control of the police and their mounts as they negotiated the street. I saw one guy put his cigar out in the rump of a policeman's horse and neither the horse nor the policeman moved. That tolerance would end a few hours later.
      Our group was not there to party. We had signed up to work with the Mardi Gras Drug Coalition. Our job was to get help for those for whom drugs and alcohol had put them out of control. We were busy but remarkably there was little overt violence. The party went full blast right up until midnight. And then it stopped abruptly. At midnight mechanical street sweepers and mounted police lined up at one end of Bourbon Street. A whistle blew. The party was over. Police patience had come to an end. That's when we learned the purpose of the U-Hauls.
     Anyone left on the street who had no acceptable reason for being there, was marched, drug, or carried into the vans and trailers and carted off to a temporary compound that had been created in another part of town. Bourbon Street shut down. New Orleans went to sleep.
     Ash Wednesday dawned in silence. Our group sat at the Cafe DuMond drinking chicory coffee and eating beignets and talking about the week. The floats, the food, and the jazz were great. Too bad that the drunks and druggies missed the beauty and the joy of it. Regardless of that, however, the party was now over. Lent had arrived—time for self-denial, repentence, and identification with the hurting and the hopeless.
Of course, I can't speak for everyone who came to Mardi Gras but I can say that, without exception, our little group of Purdue volunteers took the season seriously. As we paused to confess our sin, we also made a commitment to celebrate the goodness of creation and to work for peace and justice for all of God's children.
     We finished our beignets, said farewell to the city that care forgot, and headed back to Purdue.
It was hard for even the drivers to stay awake on the way home, but we made it safe and sound and, I use the word advisedly, sober.
     That was forty years ago. I have the recipe for beignets but I've lost contact with the students. I wonder where they are today and what, if any, effect that experience had in their lives. I would like to think it made a difference to them. It certainly did for me.

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