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  • I’ve never written this story down before, for fear of losing its magic.

    It was the Sunday night before Mardi Gras, maybe 2002, maybe 2003. All that matters was that it was the city before the storm, a New Orleans whose beautiful and often dark secrets were still hidden from the wider world. I had met up with my closest friends at Ernie K. Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge for a costume party. Everyone looked good: I was dressed up like a handyman, my 6’4” boyfriend was in drag, my friend Jelly’s costume was “washed up disco queen”. The costume party was nothing special so we decided to go around the corner to a little bar that my friend GK referred to as The Sudan, even though the four-leaf clover sign read The Lucky Charm.

    We walked in to the dimly lit bar and squeezed into a booth. It was my favorite kind of New Orleans bar: a watering hole for Black New Orleanians who were “grown and sexy”. It was free of the pretension of white bars and the social jockeying of youth. Our costumed crew of eight doubled the number of people inside, and as we drank our High Lifes my friend Abram put some money in the juke box. Soon songs were coming on, drowning out the ringing of the video poker machine, and everyone started to dance.

    Somewhere halfway through Abram’s set of songs, two men came in. They’d just left their last Mardi Gras Indian practice before the big day. They had spent the last several hours dancing, singing, sewing their suit, preparing themselves for the day of battle just around the corner. As they entered, they brought into the bar the energy of the Indians: proud, wild, spontaneous, ready to represent for their neighborhood, their ancestors.

    Then something amazing happened. Rebirth Brass Band’s Cassanova came on, one of the greatest brass band songs of all time. When this song comes on, everyone throws down. It is a musical gauntlet.

    I ain’t much your Cassanova.
    Me and Romeo ain’t never been friends.
    Can’t you see how much I want to fuck you.
    I wanna sing it to you time and time again.

    Everyone stopped dancing like someone was watching and started to move like they had God in their feet. Or maybe their crotch. Sweat, smoke, stale beer and desire filled the dark dance floor. Cassanova is a song about lust, a declaration of yearning, a song that dares you not to feel alive. The refrain is:

    Take em off, take your motherfucking drawers off.

    Soon the men who had just come in were doing just that, taking their clothes off as they danced, until they were both completely naked. The danced most of the seven minute song without any clothes. They danced with the ladies, with the ladies dressed as men, and they danced with each other, with a spirit of challenge and improvisation. There is a moment frozen in time from this brief seven minutes of perfection when I looked around the room and saw the absurdity and magic of what was happening. The defiant revelry of a city trapped in the pain of inequity, the thrill of transgression, the momentary, honest meeting of two worlds.

    Then the music ended. We all stood in stunned silence for a moment until one of the Indians said, “Why we the only ones naked in here. Y’all heard the song, too, huh?” And then they put their clothes on and walked out the door, into the darkness of the night outside.

    I told this story many times after Katrina, because it is one of my favorite memories from my life in this city. In telling it in the months after the storm, I realized how much backstory this story needs: a description of the tradition of Mardi Gras Indians, an overview of the Bacchanalian revelry that leads up to Mardi Gras day. These are the cultural veins that pump blood through our city’s heart, and in the dark and fearful months after the storm telling the story felt like administering CPR to my old, beloved town. It was a way to try to resuscitate its memory.

    Next week we will once again remember the day our city filled with water, and give thanks that we are here. We will also remember that we are not all here, and that, in a certain way, the city has died and been born anew. For this death we mourn, for this life, we celebrate.
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