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 Tepoztl├ín 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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