During Mardi Gras, the streets of the French Quarter froth with a Four Loko-, daiquiri- and Hurricane-fueled revelry. Purple, green and silver beads fly upwards towards balconies and fall earthbound into throngs of outstretched arms (and chests). Navigating to the nearest bar means confronting Madame Butterfly headdresses, stinky red mushroom caps, Baccagator superman outfits and death-mask bridesmaids.
The day after Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street retires its masks, its cacophony; and a gentler hum —closer to the New Orleans rivers — softly takes its place.
In Woldenberg Riverfront Park, a mother, grandmother, and child are dancing in a circular open-air gazebo, to a tune from a nearby steamboat. The mother is waltzing, her left foot tapping the time, an oversized leather handbag dangling from her left hand and a shopping bag tipping on her right. The 4-year-old follows his mom’s lead, but his movements are more jitterbug: he half-gallops, tracing wide, haphazard steps. The grandmother promenades — forward one, back two, her heels slowly pirouetting. For a few seconds, the child bends down to fix his shoelaces. He ties them furiously, as if he’s in a race and falling behind. Around the gazebo, tourists — some with dogs, some with babies, mostly couples — meander, and watch the threesome dance. After a couple of minutes, the song ends. The three dancers turn to the boat and applaud, then slowly walk down the gazebo steps.
The Woldenberg gazebo juts out along a curve in the shoreline park, a capstone arresting the coast’s easy curves. Most visitors walk around it, and either follow a footpath at the water’s edge or take a higher, grassy trail. Some walk through it: a short man with garish Nike shoes leaps up the steps, his white dog following. A family congregates to snap pictures. Late at night, mice scurry around trash-cans and skitter over the wood planks.
On the day after Mardi Gras, a pair of men camp in the gazebo. One of them, Darren, has a long, triangular beard, the top half white and the bottom half stained grey. His face is weathered, sooty; his hands are charcoal, stubby. His companion has no beard, but permanently windblown hair; unable to decide which way to part, it splays violently in both directions. Both of them wear tattered, overused jackets with black sneakers. Darren’s friend points to their shopping cart, filled with two sleeping bags, two pads, a trash bag containing their clothes, and 15 bead necklaces hung on hooks, shining purple and green. “Do you like our Mardi Gras float?” he asks. “We’ve got everything: the deck, the tower, our beads. Man, we gave away more than half of these beads.” Darren interrupts. “Saw lots of boobies. Lots of them.” He laughs — like he does after every comment he makes — but it is not harsh: more muffled, gentle, the edges sanded away. His companion continues. “We’ve crossed the U.S. three times and back. We’ve been everywhere: Key West, San Francisco, Texas, this great place in Salem, Oregon. You think there’s nothing in Oregon, but there are flowers everywhere, man. The valley is all green, except it rains all the time. You know those light salons they have with ultraviolet light? That’s where people in Salem go because they never see sun. They say you come to New Orleans to tan, and you go to Oregon to rust.”
The two men are former sailors, but refer to themselves now as jack-of-all-trades. They’ve been out of work for two years, so they’ve taken to travelling the country, supporting their sightseeing with odd jobs: landscaping, grocery bagging. While they don’t have much money — not enough to even live in a hotel — they do have principles: Amtrak, instead of Greyhound; under the stars, instead of inside a homeless shelter. “We don’t want to get mixed up in that crowd,” Darren’s companion says.
Tonight’s dinner is Triscuits. While Darren lights a cigarette, his friend opens the Triscuit bag, grabs a handful of crackers, and squirts on whipped cream. The foam ejects with a scream, almost as loud and jarring as the nearby steamboat whistles. The two drink from a plastic convenience store cup, and share swigs.
When the mice come out, the men leave. They carry their cart carefully down the steps, strap on their backpacks, and head towards City Park, where they’ve settled down the last few nights. With Mardi Gras over, they’re headed to Florida in the morning. They’re not looking for a permanent place to settle down. Not yet. “Don’t get me wrong,” Darren says. “We’re boatless, man, not homeless.”
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College.