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21 January 2016

On Krewe du Vieux

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There is, for every curious soul, a balance to be struck between growing into a familiar place and adapting a new place. One cannot, after all, be both foreign and local simultaneously: the perspectives are different and so are the goals. This moment of reckoning comes at some point in every journey, a time when the curious must pick a side and ally themselves with where they are, or where they are going. For fifteen consecutive years I’ve chosen to grow into New Orleans. I’ve been digging through life in this city looking for understanding and trying to find my place in all this disparate, ebullient culture.

In many cities, the status of “local” has less to do with residency and relies instead on some connection between the resident and the place. Family history, a road named after an uncle, some place in the lore, real or imagined. It’s no different in New Orleans (though possibly more complicated). In New Orleans the locals are the ones who participate. Some play instruments, or ride in Mardi Gras krewes, others don hand sewn feather suits, grill along the neutral ground, or stand sweating in the heat of festival. And for God’s sake don’t even think about leaving out the people who work to produce everything awesome in the city: craftsmen, laborers, cooks, waitstaff, hotel maids, valets, bartenders. These people are definitely locals. But still, there are people who’ve lived in New Orleans all their lives and never contributed much more than taxes and attendance at the periphery of events. Here out of habit or corporate whim, they could be living their lives like this anywhere. But these people are very rare in New Orleans: this city knows how to run off the weak, so most of the people left have become inseparable from their home. These people have so closely tied their identities to the culture of the city that to remove them from New Orleans would be a detriment to not only them, but also to everyone they left behind within the flood walls.

I started my exploration of the city slowly, getting to know people, getting to know the territory. I learned the geography, the topology, the ethnography. I learned the stories of New Orleans both official and apocryphal, and I found that between the pages of history lay a rich tradition of independence and character. This weird indifference to history intrigued me, I wanted to know more about this New Orleans, so I set out to find it, and it was obvious very quickly that only way to find the real New Orleans is to participate. I hung out at little concerts and drank at bars. I feigned extroverted tendencies and made friends whenever I could. I always offered an interesting opinion, an open mind, and a helping hand. Eventually, I found my way to Krewe du Vieux’s den, and there I found where I belonged in New Orleans.

These kinds of things grow organically, krewes, especially the little ones, the ones that do it for fun, the ones that do it exactly because it takes months of their own time to produce. These krewes are built of people who crave an outlet for all manner of talents and tendencies. So the little krewes, the cheap ones, the ones that rely on participation more than dues to keep rolling, absorb this and that from people passing through and are every time changed. They just keep growing and changing. That’s the beauty of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras: it’s amorphous and fluid. You never know where things will end up.

Over its remarkably convoluted 30-year history, Krewe du Vieux (KDV) flowed and twisted into what it is today, which is, of course, still changing. As it exists now, the KDV is a loose band of 17 sub-krewes, each with their own culture, laws, and history of leaders, tyrants, and liberators. Since joining KDV, I’ve seen a variety of leaders and cultures in my own sub-krewe, and our membership has turned over several times. Though many members have been stalwart constants, there’s also a constantly changing tableaux of people who want to help contribute to New Orleans culture. People drift in all the time. Some like it and stay, and they become friends. These days, despite being a seasonal event, KDV is home to some of my best friends, favorite bartenders, admired wait-staff, cherished drinking buddies, and an assortment of remarkably smart people who can do things like program robots when they’re drunk (which, it turns out, can be really handy).

The Best Mardi Gras parade: Krewe du Vieux

That’s what we do after all: we drink and build Mardi Gras with our own two hands. It takes work and coordination. We spend a lot of time together, and the process eats up the weekends and weeknights for months. But have you ever been a part of something nobody is obligated to participate in? Think about that: very little in life is truly voluntary. We work because we need money, we shop because we need things, we attend church because we’ve been told it’s important. I don’t mean to say people do not enjoy these obligations, but an organization takes on a very different character when it is enabled by an entire corps of people who do this purely AND ONLY because this is what they want to do. This is their vision for themselves. This is the vision of New Orleans they want to see. Of course, assembling a large energetic, passionate group of creative people leads to some pretty complex dynamics, but just as there is honor among thieves, there’s usually understanding among the insane of KDV, and this is all because everyone there wants to be there.

But once you wrangle a bunch of enthusiastic people into a warehouse, how do you direct all that creative energy? Let’s be honest: the classic Mardi Gras krewes, the ones that occupy the recall slot of most people, customarily focus on things like Greek mythology, botany, Shakespeare, the pre-enlightenment concept of the cosmos in their parade themes, and that’s pretty boring and, really, too easy. There is, however, a different spirit to Mardi Gras. Any large cultural movement will inspire a rebellious undercurrent, and the residents of the city, from time to time, have used the lighthearted permissive atmosphere of Mardi Gras to make fairly rebellious statements. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is perhaps the best example of this tradition. Formed from African American mutual aid societies in 1916, this krewe originally paraded in blackface, wearing grass skirts. Their king wore a lard can crown and waved a banana stalk scepter. Though many of their traditions have changed over time, they still wear blackface, a reminder that this krewe was formed in opposition to injustice that, when considered rationally, was as absurd as a black man in blackface.

KDV is akin to a less noble, more unwholesome version of this. As a krewe that prides itself on bawdy satire, KDV was founded in protest of the sanitation of Mardi Gras. Every local knows that the costumes are Mardi Gras day pull no punches, few residents of the city bother with earnestness or sincerity for Mardi Gras, why should the parades? So KDV mocks its targets mercilessly and often obscenely. As a result, the krewe produces one of the more authentic interpretations of Mardi Gras: a messy, sarcastic bacchanal, a rush of laughter to cleanse the anger, just getting all that sin out the system. Just one last ecstatic moment.

If you live here long enough and have the long walks home that I do during Mardi Gras, it becomes clear that even satire is ecstatic by nature. There’s joy in satire because it embraces life, for life is absurd whether you like it or not, you might as well drink a beer and have a laugh. KDV is unlikely to ever be much more than another wild footnote in the history of New Orleans, but few people make anything other than criminal history during Mardi Gras. This celebration is not about history, it’s not about remembering anything, or looking any further forward than your next drink. Organizations like KDV aren’t built with history in mind: they work months to make history for a single night, then tear it down. The point is not to make a lasting impression but an instantaneous one, a connection among those watching, on the common ground of absurdity. Because it’s all so absurd, the world, the country, state and city, the culture, the economy. It’s all a joke, but so are these 17 different groups of malcontents. That’s the point.

To this day, I drive around town and see stickers we printed for the parade years ago stuck to bumpers and street signs. While there is little from “reputable” krewes on the streets year round, there’s plenty of stuff from scattered groups of sarcastic people, just looking for a laugh, some kind of relief. It turns out that satire a great way to make a connection, because almost everyone feels similarly about many things, but not everyone can articulate it, and few bother to openly admit to it. Through satire, KDV is able to reflect its audience in an exaggerated way and express things most don’t even think to say. And that’s who KDV is: you see our jokes slapped on the bathroom walls and 90% of the people who see them have no idea what they mean. It doesn’t matter, KDV is there nonetheless, reflecting other attitudes, shaping – in its own way – the feeling of what makes New Orleans special, suggesting that perhaps it’s not something dramatic but something pointless, something subversive stuck carelessly on a strangers rusted van, squeaking between the potholes on a narrow street.