So you’re stuffed with pudding, pie, and a mind-boggling variety of chocolate and cherry treats sent cross-country in a padded cardboard box from your aging Aunt Martha. You’ve piled all your presents in a leaning-left pyramid under the also leaning tree, and you are lying, unmoving, on your favorite sofa, physically stuffed and utterly replete.
Your mind has also become fallow due to media input, your having yet again watched twenty-two black & white holiday movies, all produced from 1934-1956, in their entirety over the last three days.
You really don’t want to devote a millisecond of your remaining consciousness to ponder a persiflage usage of W.B. Yeats’ “rough beast, its hour come round at last”? Why should you?
But you really do need to move on. The fun is beginning again, in just twelve days and nights.
Image: Jim Gabour. All Rights Reserved
The feast of Epiphany, the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas, is celebrated annually on 6 January. This Twelfth Night celebration also concludes the pagan winter festival that started with Halloween and evokes the tenure of the Lord of Misrule. Oddly enough, to Catholics and Christians worldwide, the Night also marks the start of the Carnival season, which will itself climax and complete yet another cycle on Mardi Gras Day.
January 6, the twelfth night after Christmas, is of course the day when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn Savior.
In spite of the timing, Wise Men do not seem to be notably present here in this new, 21st century, season. In any aspect of our contemporary lives.
But I can personally testify that they were also not to be found in my first year as a free just-eighteen-year-old “adult” during the Carnival. Even then, though hardly spiritual, much less pious, I was infected with a weakness for religiously-inspired pagan celebration, to the core. And remembering the times, I find there a sort of innocent wisdom so pitifully lacking now.
What follows is not a reverent story, by any means. But a little gleeful stomach churning and non-PC gaiety may indeed help your post-Christmas digestion. So here we go, a New Orleans child’s tale.
* * *
The building that once housed the legendary La Casa de los Marinos is now a wide-open, single-room family burger joint, its food celebrated for some unknown reason by inexpensive European travel guides.
But in its heyday, “The House of Sailors” consisted of three dark, narrow and deep rooms. Most turistas never made it beyond the first. Each chamber was filled on its long eastern side by a thin zinc-topped bar backed by a wall of mirrors. The reflective surfaces opened the rooms up a bit and made them seem less claustrophobic. A patron entered from corner of Decatur & Toulouse and traveled by east-west hallway along the Decatur end of the building to the last room, the furthest from the entrance and the hide-out preferred by most locals and frequenters of the Quarter in those days.
The reasons were many. Most casual visitors were discouraged from going far from where they entered by the rough, unpredictable violence of the two sailor-filled front rooms. And the third was the literal “inner sanctum”, windowless and unreached by the light of the open door and shutters of the first bar, a haven of undisturbed 24-hour darkness preferred by New Orleans nightcrawlers, who often partied through the dawn and well toward the next sunset. The intrusion of the sun into such a place would have been unthinkable.
But the real reason the back room was treasured was its service outlet through a completely hidden back alley that ran through the middle of the block, parallel to Decatur street. Other than locals, very few people knew of its existence. If you hung at La Casa regularly, you only entered through the main entrance to survey the mayhem.
A few blocks away, but at the other end of the social universe, the famous Antoine’s Restaurant had a similar disguised private entrance for regulars. Anonymity and ease seemed a just reward for one’s custom in twentieth-century New Orleans.
Like any neighborhood bar with proximity to the docks, La Casa was even more insane at Carnival. As a reward for a particularly long time at sea, or just for a job well done, dozens of vessels timed their operations to insure their crews had shore leave during the prelude to Fat Tuesday.
The Saturday before the final Tuesday finish has always been particularly wild. The parades have become non-stop at that point, massively colorful during the day and lit by flambeau torch-bearers at night. The arrival of tourists and collegians on multiple night hotel packages becomes so huge as to transform the traditional date night into a wild, smiling, double-backed, beer-swilling Beast who will lose his room keys by 10pm and do the technicolor yawn before midnight.
This Saturday of Mardi Gras, the 2,000 crew members of the French aircraft carrier Jean d’Arc had, for the first time in its history, docked the vessel in New Orleans. Their main gangway dropped onto the foot of Iberville street, a scant five hundred feet from a bar that proclaimed itself to be the “House of Sailors”. It was only natural that by nightfall more than a few of those sailors made their way to the bar’s double French doors.
They were prepared for trouble, had been advised by their officers of neighborhoods and situations to avoid. To avoid confusion with merchant marines and members of other nations’ armed forces, and to help maintain their sense of decorum, the Jean d’Arc’s captain had required his crew to wear their finest naval dress. His logic was that even common seamen looked and acted regal in starched uniforms. Indeed it was the lowest ranks among the French sailors who had the most arresting and unique outfits, with colorful red and blue piping outlining the rectangular piece of cloth which covered the shoulders of the wide-sleeved blouse. Their matching bell-bottom pants were well in advance of the fashion. Making them stand out in the crowds even more were their headgear. Surmounted with spotless white berets, banded with a gold cloth, black-lettered Jean-d’Arc ribbon, the chapeau were topped with a two-inch bright red pom-pom which stood out like a beacon.
In trying to insure the safety and well-being of his crew, the French captain had sealed their fate.
Besides the consumption of vast amounts of inebriants, Mardi Gras centers on costuming. He had costumed his men well, and in doing so, put them at the level of the crowd. They were doomed to be bait even before they left their ship.
La Casa housed a rough crowd – many of whom were, to a great extent, energetic though non-directional young males enduring higher education primarily as a means to avoid a more lethal schooling within the US military draft. My own motives were not far apart.
I had already seen one of my roommates, a jockey by true profession, flunk out in his first semester and be taken within weeks by the US Marines. Six months later he was bemoaning the New-Orleans-like wet and muggy weather of Viet Nam, when a mortar round insured that weather would never again be a concern for him.
After finding that my own initial efforts at university were judged borderline by members of the draft board, I became a much more devoted student. So much so that the release of Carnival was a desperately needed diversion.
* * *
As I entered the back alley of La Casa that Saturday, I ran into two New Orleans natives who I knew well from my own dormitory floor. But Vic Panale & Conrad Morhoff were already coming out, and it was barely 9pm. This was not like them.
We had become friends quickly, especially bonding in our devotion to the Mardi Gras season. Conrad had told me that his family home’s ceilings were literally sagging from the weight of the Carnival beads in the attic. His mother hoarded them as if the plastic throws and aluminum coins were actually worth more than the penny a pound it cost to make them. He had informed his mother that he was not coming home from school on weekends after this Carnival until he was sure that the living room beams had been reinforced, and that he would not be suffocated some random night under the dropping weight of tens of thousands of Momus and Proteus doubloons.
Panale was Old World New Orleans, Italian, tough as nails, and unfazable. I was shortly to find out just how unfazable.
Both were graduates of one of the city’s many all-boy Catholic high schools. They were quintessential good bad boys, sinning and confessing and sinning and confessing in gleefully rapid sequence.
“Where you guys going?” were the first words out of my mouth as we came face to face in the narrow alley. I’m just getting here, and I was going to buy you a beer.”
“We’ll be right back,” said Vic. “I don’t want to miss you buyin a round for a change. It’s a serious party comin down inside and we’re gonna stay all night. Connie’s just takin me roun to the car for a second. Gotta clean up a little mess.” At this point Panale lifted his left hand, which I had not noticed was clamped to his side. There was a large and spreading red stain. Instantly I got woozy.
“Easy, man,” said Vic, supporting me with his right. “It’s nuttin. Guy thinks he got hisself a knife when it wudn’t nuttin a real gent would call a nail file. Won’t be pullin that again. I think I broke his arm. Maybe two places.”
Conrad guffawed. “Shouldn’t a wasted that last beer on his thick friggin head, though,” he said.
“Dat wuz a metaphysical error about which I find I now hold regrets,” said Panale sagely.
“But, Vic,” I started, pointing at his side. He grasped it with his palm and pushed down hard again. A small but wet wedge of blood pushed between his fingers.
“Nuttin compared to the loss of a full beer. Git me a Jax, willya. I got myself a first aid kit and a clean shirt in the car. Doctor Connie will patch it up for me and we’ll be back before the beer gets warm.” He looked at Morhoff. “Dis here doc takes French Quarters insurance. Even though he’s cheap, he promised he won’t hurt me.”
He laughed so loudly he gagged and had to cough. He cleared his throat, still smiling. And with that Panale turned, and he and Morhoff marched arm and arm through the wet alley toward the street.
I worked my way through the crowd at the back room bar to the Decatur end of the room, first buying three beers then precariously climbing with two of them in my coat pockets to sit atop a stack of cases of empty longneck beer bottles set in the front far corner. Some six feet above the floor mob I snuggled into a cardboard crevasse. I figured from up there I could see all the action and still be spotted by my two friends when they returned.
I took my first deep draught and sighed with the release of the last weeks of school pressure. I might just survive academically, and maybe, if the war was finally over before I graduated, I would survive well enough to enjoy a life beyond school.
Then I saw the first Jean d’ Arc sailors battling their way deep into the bar. Their determination to take on the worst the dive had to offer was undoubtedly bolstered by the ports they had already conquered. These were men who had trampled through the gardens of Marseilles and Sydney and Singapore. They had shoved a Gallic pie in the none-too-delicate faces of Hong Kong and Bombay and Beirut. These were fighting men who had been on the front lines, confronted many an unconquered and life-threatening chaos.
They had not confronted a crowd of drunken New Orleans Quarter rats on a Mardi Gras Saturday night.
The sailors were being a little overly aggressive, especially considering they had no idea of the ground rules. One of which was to act with a modicum of courtesy. Even in the middle of the worst drunk, your New Orleans drinker is usually polite, saying excuse me before he takes his first swing at you. The French had decided that the sheer weight of their military training, and the fairly sizable numbers with which they had entered the bar, would hold them well in any stead. As it was, La Casa was totally packed with people and, light-hearted as the evening was, no one was in the mood to be pushed around.
It started with the slightest of transgressions. A girl being pushed roughly from the rear, only to turn and see a fellow wearing a red pom-pom beret with a gold band. The same woman decides that as recompense for his rudeness she should have this Carnivalgoer’s hat. No one yet suspects that these are really sailors. They’re just a bunch of guys who went to the same army-navy store and dressed up all alike.
And those little hats are so cute.
The sailors are becoming more and more separated in the massive, pressing crowd. They are being swept off their feet with the surges toward and back from the bar. They are unsure of their footing. The first woman is carried away from the sailor whose hat she has taken before he can even lift an arm to try and grab it back. His arm, as a matter of fact is stuck in the upright position. He cannot move it.
Another hat disappears. The jukebox and conversations of the partyers are so loud that the shouts of the victims are totally inaudible. Then a shirt gets pulled at, and the real process starts. A sound vein of ripping fabric joins the jukebox and yelling and hollering.
From my high perch the faces of the sailors are like those of swimmers held above the surface of the water, desperate human faces whose bodies are being attacked from below by clothes sharks. There is surprise, then anger, then disbelief, and finally fear as their uniforms are pulled, then torn from their bodies. French faces drop below the surface of the crowd, then rise again, yelling and gasping. The sailors are pushed along, each separated by swarms of activity, grabbing and pulling hands, arms and legs flailing on the surface of the dense crowd, superfluous flesh carried along by the human current toward the back alleyway door.
From which they are spit from the room as the seeds from a watermelon are discarded by a farm boy, naked of all covering and protection. Except for rumpled white socks and military boots.
In less than ten minutes I saw almost a dozen sailors pushed nude into the exterior alleyway, where they huddled shaking and babbling in their native tongue until a sympathetic bartender called the American Naval Shore Patrol.
At just that moment my two friends Vic & Connie arrived at the streetside entrance to the alley to make their way into the rear room and claim their beers. I could see them for the last half of their walk. They didn’t even stop talking, much less look to the left or right at the twelve naked foreigners stamping their feet in the cold and speaking a brand of French very different from the Creole the two friends had heard all their lives. Probably just as well, with the amount of cursing of the American population in general as was undoubtedly being voiced by the sailors.
Vic looked as wry and dapper as always in his clean and starched white shirt, showing no evidence at all that less than fifteen minutes before he’d a nasty knife wound. He climbed up the beer cases to sit on one side of me, Connie on the other. I extracted both their beers from my shirt pockets and we did a short toast and a long pull to Carnival and the brewers of Jax.
The US Navy SPs finally arrived to remove their brothers-in-arms, if not in-dress, to the less stressful confines of the military paddy wagon before returning them, we found out later, to the carrier’s gangway and releasing the seamen to walk aboard the ship sans uníforme. La Casa de los Marinos was declared off-limits by the French navy from that day until almost two decades later when the rowdy bar was finally bought and transformed into the profitably tasteless burger and po-boy barn frequented by New Orleans on Ten Dollars a Day tourists.
That had not yet happened when Vic yelled into my ear over the rage of the La Casa crowd: “Anything happen while we were gone?”
* * *
And so, Twelfth Night, and the pagan season of frivolity, is once again upon us.
Now go get another slice of pie. Lent will be here soon enough.