Enter Ash Wednesday

CA%20Mardi%20Gras%20014[1]A blogging friend celebrates Mardi Gras the Cajun way with La Danse de Mardi Gras, a song popular from the old days, a huge pot of gumbo, the ingredients gathered from local farmers, and fiddle playing no doubt. Sounds like about the perfect celebration. Her piece is worth a read.

As I read, I couldn’t help but remember my own experiences with Mardi Gras, one in New Orleans and the other in Tepoztlรกn Mexico. Those two were enough to last the rest of my life, but I must admit, les bons temps rouler in Cajun country sounds pretty tempting.

Mardi Gras began in New Orleans as early as the 1730s. A century later, it had processions of krews (as the groups are called who come together to create the floats), torchlight processions, carriages and horseback riders.

The horseback riders have remained, the carriages grown to enormous floating pleasure palaces with flinging plastic bead necklaces and candy. The best times, for the locals anyway, are the two weeks proceeding Fat Tuesday when smaller parades show off the handiwork of their krews, which also come with flung beads and candy. I remember those parades and the beads and one night of too many Cap’t Morgans with orange juice. That night, I ended up at the uptown Maple Leaf Bar reading poetry.

This year, New Orleans is expecting a million people. A million people packed into an area 13 blocks long and 6 blocks wide. I am not tempted.

I have no idea how many people packed the French Quarter during the Mardi Gras I lived in New Orleans. I wasn’t on the street, I was working, not however at my usual job of regular night time bartender at Molly’s at the Market on Decauter Street, it was too busy for a lone woman. The daytime bartender, Walter, and a friend of his worked the bar and I worked the floor. This was in 1982, so don’t let the below photo shock you.

Face and dress, 1982

A black taffeta dance-hall girl dress with red bow and ruffles. Yep. It still hangs in my back closet although I haven’t worn it in years. But that night, I folded dollar bills lengthwise and tucked the ends under the red ruffle above my bosom. By nights end, dollars ringed the front ruffles, some along my back, and both straps: singles, $5s, $10s. I even found two twenties when I returned home the next morning. I don’t remember much about that night except the packed bar, wending my way between tables, evading hands unless they were tucking in bills, and batting my eyelashes with one upraised finger if they tried to tuck too deep. The music and noise ended at midnight; the drinkers stayed, but even they began to drift away. By the time I left the bar, near 2 am, dark and quiet as only the French Quarter can be when it shuts down, no one was on the streets. Ash Wednesday had slipped in.

The second Mardi Gras was in Tepotzlan. Look it up in Google. They say there are more brujas and brujos (witches and warlocks) in the Tepotzlan area than anywhere else in Mexico. And since it’s Morelos, they say the ghost of Zapata still rides the mountain ridges. I lived there about seven months before moving into Mexico City. My friend and I had just found a house to rent, we’d been looking for a couple of weeks, staying with other friends, and it was perfect. A cool, old Spanish style house, shaded veranda, big garden, and two blocks from the center of town and the best Saturday market I’ve ever shopped.

Tepotzlan0001 (2)That’s me on the right, balanced on one foot, hands in pockets, long hair tied back.

During the week before Fat Tuesday, dancers danced for hours in the Plaza. The dance called brincas, the jump, the dancers Chinelos, dressed in long velvet robes, masks with conquistador faces. And they jumped–around and around and around in a circle on the plaza, they jumped and jumped, hours at a time, hours and hours, drums beating time. The dancing and drumming went on late into the night. Two blocks from the center of town could be noisy.

And then came Fat Tuesday. They jumped, the drums pounded, and to accompany it all, cohetes, four-foot long rockets shaped like giant bottle rockets exploded over the town. All day. In the evening. In the night. We grew restless. Only a couple of more hours until midnight, I assured my friend who had grown cranky. Only one more hour, I said at eleven as we lay across the bed, staring at the ceiling. They didn’t stop. The cohetes went on and on, exploding over the house, the town, our village; and the munedo shop across the street doing a brisk business with much shouting, laughter, and general drunken singing.

It will end soon, I kept saying. Well, not soon, but it did end. As the first traces of dawn slid over the sky, the cohetes went silent, the drunks went home, the village grew silent, as only an exhausted village can do, and we slept.

Thank God for Ash Wednesday.

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34 thoughts on “Enter Ash Wednesday

    1. Yeah. I have now lived in Kansas City longer than I have lived anywhere since I was born in San Francisco. The longest before this was on the Kansas farm, which I write about way too much and pump out the basement waaaaaaaaa too often, from the ages of 9 to 17. Most of my life I’ve moved about every three to five years, sometimes less. Now I have a willow tree which I planted at about 12 feet tall and now it nearly 40. IT astounds me to be in one place, happy, this long.

      1. You’ve now prompted me to write about our (husband wanted me to see the city) San Francisco trip, the only one I’ve made back to my birth city. We even found the house on Bertita Street where my family lived. And me, presumably.

  1. I loved it all — the dance hall girl, the Mexican celebration, the drums. But I especially liked this: “By the time I left the bar, near 2 am, dark and quiet as only the French Quarter can be when it shuts down, no one was on the streets. Ash Wednesday had slipped in.” It reminded me of a Christmas I spent in New York, and a walk home one night through the falling snow. There were so few people on the steets, and it was so quiet. There’s something magical about those times.

    The photo looks much older than 1982. It has an 1880s feel to it — a true dancehall aura. It’s a little mysterious, and you have a just-slightly “come hither” look. I hope you got to keep all those fives, tens and twenties!

    1. LOL. Yeah. I got to keep them. It’s part of what got me to New York the following summer!
      Walking in cities when no one else is, yeah, one of those magical things. One winter in New York, I guess the blizzard of 84, it snowed so much the only thing to do was to walk. But not nearly as much fun as an early morning walk in the spring through the French Quarter. Although the thing the visitors brochures never say is how BAD the Quarter smells after a night of reveling.
      Glad you like the photo. Thanks for the kudos. It’s one I like too…obviously. So many years of head/body shots! (Although all my body shots were dressed.)

  2. Janet, I’ve never ever been to the Mardi Gras and I suppose it maybe one of those things that remains undone for me … although I hope one day to visit New Orleans. But reading your post was just like being there, you brought it very much alive for me. As for Lent, it’s the season in the Church’s year that feels the most back to front to me, it seems like a double layer of sadness – the end of summer as well as the end of the liturgical year.

    1. Hi Jill. It took me a moment to wrap my head around “end of summer…” Because, of course, we’re limping through the end of winter. It always seems as if my blogging friends are right here….because of course you are. And I had just looked at your shot from Art Deco…. but still. Ah yes, down under and up there. We northerners say “down under.” What do you Southerners say about the up there? Funny the things we do with understanding the other side of the world.
      Thanks for your kind words. It always pleases me when writing brings something alive for me. I’m honored mine did for you. And if you get as far as New Orleans, you might as well come visit me, too!

      1. Funnily enough I don’t think we have a generic term for the northern hemisphere. We tend to use collective descriptions but according to the continent we’re referring to. About New Orleans – if I ever do get to that neck of the woods I’ll be sure to let you know. I’ve been to the source of the Mississippi twice, I’d love to visit the delta.

    1. Thank you Robyn. You’re very sweet to say so. Just remember this was 1982…more than thirty years ago. But it was fun to post. Most people don’t know much about my “dancehall girl” days when I was willing to be this — well, obvious!

    1. Now how, in all your travels, have you managed to miss Mardi Gras? Now that you have seen through my eyes, you have a trip ahead of you one day…New Orleans is pretty over the top; Mexico not so much. Brazil??? Yikes!! But worth the wander one of these days.
      Thanks for the kudos, Chica.

  3. I love this post! I could imagine what a celebration it was…both in New Orleans and in Mexico…Thank you for sharing these moments with us…and that photo! Wow, wow, you are a gorgeous lady, then AND now….
    And indeed, once Ash Wednesday rolls around, it’s amazing how things take a silent turn, compared to the night before…
    I wish Mardi Gras were celebrated more in NYC…it would be an amazing place to do so…Just too darn cold!
    All my very best to you!
    Lia

    1. Thanks so much Lia. You’re very sweet. It was fun posting that old photo. Cliff says I still look like that, but then he says the sweetest things too.
      It is interesting how life can slow down in Lent. In part, it’s the last of winter and celebrations are really really over, and the other part, at least if one follows Lent, things do slow down. I’m one of those weird people who like Lent. Only now I’m presiding at services instead of hungover…and isn’t life a grand adventure.

    1. Tulane. Nice school. You got to live in N.O. for several years then. I was only there one year, headed to New York that summer, but I do have fond memories of the city. Last year, Cliff and I took a trip back, the first time I’d been there since the early 80s. This time, I could afford to eat at Commanders Palace! That was not part of my life in the 80s. I guess Mardi Gras is really for the young. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Aah such good memories. Those were the days. And what a sweet comment from your husband.

    You were quite the looker back in 1982. I can imagine that you had to shake your finger at the fellows often on Mardi Gras night.

    Loved reading about your memories. Very interesting about the influence of Ash Wednesday.

    ~yvonne

    1. Thanks, Yvonne! Yeah, I did a lot of sliding away from hands those years. Now I just stand beside Cliff and smile pretty while he holds my hand….. how life changes….thankfully. I don’t work in bars anymore! LOL. Thankfully. I’m so glad I had the adventures and I’m so glad I don’t have to anymore.

  5. This is a comment from Janet’s husband, Cliff. She is as beautiful today as she was then.

    ME) Ahhhhh. You’re the sweetest bestest adventure in my life… and since I can’t post a comment to a post that has my photo (and yes, Cliff really did post above after he read it) I’m replying here. Which seems sort of odd, replying to my own post…..

  6. What great memories of your mardi gras experiences! I have never been to one, although I came close a couple of years ago in La Paz. My hubbie’s truck had broken down so we had to stay in La Ventana (45 minures away)…thank goodness! One of these days… And you were such the hottie in your dance hall girl dress ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Thanks, Vicky. I have had some adventures, that’s for sure. Not a whole lot of stability except for the last ten years, but a lot of adventures. What’s the strangest, however, is that I’ve now lived in one place, in one house (that’s what I get for buying a house!) longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my entire life – and yes, that’s from birth. I think I was born under a wandering star.

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