Two Thursdays before Mardi Gras, as often is the case at this season, the weather is blustery though clear, humid though chill. I am hurrying toward the French Quarter, late for a meeting with friends visiting from Manhattan, when I find my way impeded by a rickety Public Works barricade that has been commandeered from a nearby sewer repair and placed across Royal Street at the intersection of Frenchmen.
Behind the improvised traffic blockade, a crowd of some two hundred people happily mill and shout, unconcerned with the honks of disgruntled drivers, who must now detour through the cobblestones and potholes of the northern Faubourg Marigny in order to access the afternoon’s traditional Krewe parades. I remind myself that it is indeed Carnival, though early in the prime season. This is my first real foray into the current version of the madness.
There is much laughing and pointing. I cannot see past the numerous bodies of the perimeter revelers, who stand just outside the Frenchmen Brasserie, a public business formerly known as Rubyfruit Jungle. The Jungle in its day was a very butch gay women's bar which on outside banners always advertised its two major draws for every weekend: all‑night male drag shows and a high‑speed ATM machine.
There was even a tailor located nearby on St Claude Avenue who catered to the large cross-gender performers. Its name: He’s a Big Girl Now. Every time I passed the Jungle, though, I was always driven to speculate as to why boys dressed as girls seemed to appeal so greatly to girls who were primarily dressed as boys. And I wondered how that fitted with a simultaneous need for easily accessible cash.
Things are less creative on the corner now that the club has changed names and owners and patronage. And now that, instead of vivacious interpretive dance, it only features caricatures of the local cuisine, served indifferently to visitors who don’t know or much care about the food they eat or how it is served to them. The lost Jungle is still mourned and as a rule, unless sorely pressed by the need for a midnight dinner, neighborhood residents do not offer the Brasserie their custom.
But this particular day, when I finally push my way onto the back of the banquette, moving through the Carnival crowd while trying to continue on my way to this business appointment, I see the reason for the unannounced gathering of audience.
There in the street, two dozen women, most of them well-groomed and sober, and all of them well‑dressed and of majority age, lie on their backs. They are arranged neatly and compactly, shoulder‑to‑shoulder in the left gutter, their heads resting on the raised granite curb. Supine, their knees are raised and held slightly apart, hands at their sides. Most are giggling, and the reason is readily apparent. Nested firmly in each of their crotches is a taco shell filled with ground meat, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
The same number, 24, of young men kneel in the right gutter, hands behind their backs, each with his nose pointed toward the pelvis of his opposite partner. They are being instructed that nothing other than their mouths must be used to locate and consume the taco.
Older, late-twentyish men and women with notepads and an official demeanor walk back and forth inspecting the playing field, and often stop to bend over and push a drifting Mexican salsa schooner more perfectly into its thigh-bound anchorage.
The officials have whistles, and use them frequently at this point, presumably to preserve the professional air of the competition.
I am struck dumb.
First that this large a group of people could organize such an event in the midst of the Carnival chaos and immediately get so many willing and ready participants.
Secondly, that they could get so many people willing to indulge in this particular aesthetically-questionable “sport”.
And thirdly, that I did not know about it beforehand.
No camera. No documentation. My phone has zero battery left. Even worse, here finally is an example of true non-literary Infinite Jest -- and perilously limited taste -- happening in my town, and I hadn't heard a word about either its inception or execution. I recognize that these are definitely my kind of people, even if a decade or two or three, or more, my junior. I am heartbroken as only a person left behind by progress can be, but at the same time I am encouraged that I have stumbled onto another generation who carry the proper spark and gusto.
Here are men and women who understand the deeper implications of a pagan holiday.
A final whistle is blown, twenty-four sets of masculine knees wobble across the asphalt, and the clean‑shaven faces of America's future drop heavily into a femininely-confined, cornmeal-enclosed mixture of dairy products and minuscule mammal particles. Two dozen mouths begin making the most amazing noises, as they fall into fits of feverish consumption. The female members of the teams push their hips forward, trying to make their tacos more accessible. My god.
I become light‑headed.
I glance at my watch. I am late for my meeting.
I start rushing back toward Esplanade Avenue, then suddenly realize that I am running on my tiptoes, still hyped on the sheer audacity – and vast political incorrectness -- of the event I have just witnessed.
It is then that I realize that lateness is a concept only an old man carries to Mardi Gras. Mexican food can do that to a guy. I slow down.
Carne vale, indeed. “Goodbye to meat,” the season warns.
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