Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Ghost of Mardi Gras

I traveled to New Orleans on January 6th. It was the first day of the Mardi Gras season, or so I was told. The trade show was a big success, the law professors were generous with their support as I gathered market research for my new job.

But outside of the Hilton the city stretched out its tired bones and begged for morsels like a stray dog, hungry and too weak to bark. Shops attended by their staff. Restaurants with clean linens. Hotels with freshly made beds. They all awaited us expectantly, but a group of visitors coming for a trade show is not salvation enough for New Orleans.

As I stepped up to pay at a souvenir shop on Bourbon Street, the shopkeeper interrupted my sale to ask the young man behind me, "you local?" When he said yes she said, "two bucks." One dollar for a large bottle of water and one dollar for a pack of cigarettes. He handed her the cash and left without another word. Then she rang up my purchase, the only other customer in the large and packed-with-silly-stuff souvenir store. Four small bottles of hot sauce with fun labels and a little ceramic box made in Mexico with a mardi gras mask painted on it. $41.00. I paid $10 per item for the local kid's $1.00 per item. It seemed about right. I gladly paid it.

The most painful sight during my trip was the place I avoided until I had no choice. I had walked around it every day, despite the 30 degree temperature. But on my last evening it was pouring rain and I had no umbrella, so I gathered my courage and took the shortcut through Harrah's Casino.

I did not know what to expect. I had not realized that there were casinos in New Orleans. It was shiny and glamourous outside and inside. As noisy as any casino in Vegas with flashing machines screaming for coins, glitzy music and practiced voices over the speaker announcing chances to play. Chances to win. In a large area of black jack there were two tables with players. In one expanse after another, a host of slot machines occupied a handful of scattered gamblers.

But the sight I had not known to dread walked straight toward me so that I could not avoid it. A middle aged man and a woman, maybe a couple but maybe not. Maybe a man and his mother. Maybe siblings. Maybe friends. They were so unkept and shaggy that I could not tell their age. Their clothes were dirty and torn and they shuffled with their backs bent in a humiliated way I cannot even describe without pain coursing through my soul. They carried a bucket between them, each a hand on its handle, and with vacuous eyes stared down the rows of slot machines for the one that would save them.

There is plenty of parking if you drive to New Orleans. The streets are open, empty, easy to walk across. There are many taxi cabs in New Orleans. They are parked on every street. Just knock on the window and get in if you need a ride.

Who visited New Orleans when her streets were full of rhythm and jazz, the aroma of French and cajun cuisine, and the pulse and thrill of her burlesque?

Where are they now?
I have only been there for business, myself, but it is the beginning of Mardi Gras, they say. Will you go?

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