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tearing the rag off the bush again
New Orleans: A Drowning Theme PDF E-mail

They don't hire just anyone to paint Mardi Gras floats. Until this year. I applied the past two seasons, but these jobs have always been coveted (where else might our Fine Arts educations have actual value?), the den bosses historically picky. This year, the difference was made, for me, by Katrina. Because some artists never returned to finish their in-progress floats, and because the disaster held up float painting for two months, our den’s new ‘desperation crew’ consists of the music booker for a temporarily-closed Frenchmen Street nightclub, a Jackson Square painter short on tourists, and a graffiti artist once written about in The Times-Picayune. And after my thrilling first day on the job, blocking-in giant stars with white latex so that a more proven talent could come behind and paint in colorful details, my desperate Den Boss led me to a two-story float wrapped in naked white canvas: "Do it to it," he commanded, foregoing the usual three-year apprenticeship to give me a part in New Orleans’ first post-apocalyptic Mardi Gras. A part in history! Just a 38-second bit part -- the average time each float is seen by parade-goers -- but an honor nonetheless.

Mardi Gras dens are gray warehouses in gray areas. But their insides, secretly cramped full of each krewe's entire parade, make Wonka's factory look subtle. Five float-painting companies handle the city’s thirty to forty krewes, and most weren't halfway finished on the day the levees broke. Since not much can’t be easily fixed on a canvas-covered plywood carriage bolted to a metal boat trailer wired with Christmas lights, most of the dens continue their march toward Mardi Gras. But the truncated parade schedule of this year’s skeleton Carnival has angered the many excluded krewes, whose half-finished dens now sit abandoned, their ripped-open roofs showing patches of electric green, yellow and orange; giant jester heads jut out, still grinning amid the ruins of our city.

Our den was comprehensively flooded; Lake Ponchatrian’s thick “shit stripe,” so beautiful in its way, is encrusted four-and-half-feet up the side of all our floats. The small color sketch I was given to follow showed a vague underwater motif -- under dirty water – and it felt like sacrilege, covering the "shit stripe," especially with a fake flood. But I was giddy with the privilege of making up the float’s jokes! Jokes I will not specify, but that include: refrigerators, blue tarps, crawfish, FEMA trailers, MREs (shrimp jambalaya), plasma screen TVs, dead catfish (with "CAT 3" stitched on their athletic jerseys), hypodermic needles, a can of Tony Chacere's, a bottle of Paxil, and a sign reading `Bienvenidos a Neuva Orleans'. I don't believe that is giving too much away; many of this year's parades will surely share a drowning theme.

I spent all of that second workday grinding down a giant stalk of charcoal, struggling to draw a 12-foot figure across the biggest canvas of my life. Unlike more modern floats, our den’s have no natural steps built into their hulls. So though I hate ladders, it was my duty to climb a 10-footer, while carrying another 10-footer, which I erected on the float’s second-floor and climbed to the top, to draw the Superdome. Crowded between so many other in-progress floats, I couldn’t really back off to tell if everything was proportionate. But, "At this point in the game,” my Den Boss advised, “fast is more important than perfect."

When I’d finished the drawing, the more experienced artisans judged it, "O.K. But it's way too detailed. You're gonna be painting it till Lundi Gras." The Big Boss happened to stop by though, and he loved it -- though he would not approve my drawing of a brow-furrowed catfish watching Bush on TV, thinking “Fishy…” When The Big Boss left, my Den Boss reminded me, "It’s supposed to be satirical, but the rich folks who put on these parades don't go so hard on Bush." And I also remembered seeing, at another more expensive den, a float satirizing The Media's distortion of our tragedy, with devil-horned caricatures of Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton, and no one else.

On day three I was barely taught to use, and quickly fell in love with, the industrial spray-paint gun. Spraying-in my murky background, it really broke my heart to watch the floodline disappear -- especially after the Den Boss stopped by to explain that each float's shit stripe was supposed to be its focal point. Had I looked around the cramped warehouse, I might have noticed how the floodlines cleverly played into every other composition. Now there was no way to clean off my mistake without also scouring off the sacred stripe, and ripping the thin, flood-damaged canvas. I'd ruined my float, right off.

"And it's the first float of the parade too," my Den Boss sighed, touching his eyebrows with both hands.

* * *
While others at the den hustle and curse, trying to make their time worth the $500 contract, I realize this might be my only float, ever, so I concentrate, accepting the widdling down of my hourly wage to the single digits. The novice’s first float feels more like an art project than work. And even $6.50-an-hour – what I’m down to by day five -- is a tolerable wage for art. Even for art that’s viewed a mere 38 seconds before it’s shoved back into the den still littered with half-full beer cans and piss buckets and, three months later, re-painted for next year.

This three-month layoff is a gripe for the artists, who feel they could be using the time to clean up the cans and buckets, instead of the traditional practice of miserably rushing everything the last three months before Mardi Gras. Still it’s a better job than most. At most jobs, I think constantly of being at home, accomplishing something more important. But at the den I’m more content than I have been since the flood, laboring undistracted among thousands of paint-filled plastic Mardi Gras cups all morning and afternoon, until the Red Cross lunch truck winds through the disaster area. Henceforth unseen Mexican men in paper masks emerge from the surrounding soggy houses to line up for small, wet hamburger steak, or small dry chicken breasts on white bread -- food meant only to keep you alive, unlike the Army’s MRE's, with their miniature Tabasco bottles, surprising shrimp jambalaya, and basic notion of food as pleasure. Red Cross has, however, rekindled my love of canned vegetables. And I enjoy standing outside the truck, trying to conjure enough Spanish to joke with our new neighbors about la comida terrible.

Then it's back to work. With no real end in sight, I wait for my fatigue to intersect with a satisfying pausing point, then clean up to motor home through dead, powerless neighborhoods. Claims that the gentrified French Quarter feels like Paris have always rolled my eyes, but riding my new, FEMA-subsidized motor scooter to and from the den is indeed like a tour through post-war someplace. With so few cute girls in New Orleans now, I not only go days without looking in the mirror to notice I haven't shaved or showered, but for once in my New Orleans life I bypass the Bywater’s many bars on my way home. Even on Twelfth Night – the official celebratory beginning of Mardi Gras season -- I barely, quickly ate dinner, then fell into bed in the same colorfully ruined clothing as last night, and the night previous. And every night on my way to sleep, my inner eyelids explode with simple, primary colored shapes, all outlined in black, as if painted to be seen from 40-feet away.

* * *

There are still valleys, however. Co-workers have begun to clash, making the wintertime den even colder. So working alone through this weekend felt good. I felt good about the quality and abundance of my work. I imagined that I was almost done! Until on Monday morning my mellow Den Boss sighed sincerely, “I feel bad making you go back and do this work over, but…” With these words, I was brought down below minimum wage. “It’s my fault,” he mumbled, touching his eyebrows. “It’s just so chaotic right now that I haven’t had time to stand here and teach you and…” he trailed off.

“No, no, no,” I tried to stop his thoughts. “Don’t worry. No problem. Just tell me what to do.” Having been given this honor so early, I had indeed expected some hard lessons, some lumps. “I’ll do it over, I don’t mind at all, really.” His eyes beneath his hand stared into my mess of a float. I was sure I would be fired. Or at best, demoted back to blocking-in stars. In the end he mumbled some new color suggestions, while walking away to deal with the rest of Mardi Gras.

I left work early, before sunset, because I can. I rode home through the dead zone, depressed. Depressed about the den being so cold while I’m making a waiter’s wage without tips. Depressed because I’m not a talented float painter – how can this two-dimensional, childish shit be so goddamned hard? I went to art school! Depressed about not being asked, like every single one of my friends, to be in the Ninth Ward Marching Band this year, despite that I’m one of probably only a dozen musicians still actually living in The Nine. Why am I still living here? I wondered, and thought for the first time about moving away.

Until, at one of Canal Street’s few stoplights, a black man pulled up beside me, framed in the open window of a white utility truck. At first I turned away, because I, like many white bohemian types, overvalue black people’s opinions, especially on issues of style, and black men have been laughing at my new cherry red motor scooter. After five years of surviving New Orleans on a bike, I compulsively bought this fey little scooter with my FEMA money, figuring now was a safer time to ride, while New Orleans was a ghostown where, sans electricity, every car must stop, one at a time, for many, many stop-signs.

But at this rare Canal Street light, in turning away I noticed, "The streetcars are back!" Only five people on board including the driver, but I was so happy I turned to my black neighbor: “Hey! Something normal!”

“Yeah, yeah!” he smiled. “Today they first day back. They free too. All busses and public transportation, all free.” His eyes panned my red scooter -- or my paint-splattered clothes: “You workin?” he asked. Twice lately, random trucks have pulled up to ask if I needed $12/hr work painting, gutting houses, or hanging drywall. But this guy asked like he just hoped I was doing OK.

“I’m painting Mardi Gras floats!” I shouted.

"All right!" he chuckled, sounding like God bless you. And I decided not to move away.

* * *

Jackie’s done painting her giant flaming cardboard skulls. Ryan just started but is already halfway through constructing a giant toilet. And today my Den Boss even stopped by and said to me, finally, "Lookin good! Almost done, eh?"

“I suppose. If you say so.” And suddenly it did look just about done, my float. It looked good! Unless he’s just saying that, I worried, setting me up to start another one? I can't imagine drawing and painting a whole new float. I think I only had one in me. Until maybe next year.

But my Den Boss still needed someone to saw a Giant Fluer de Lis out of wood, paint it gold and mount it atop my float. So, not wanting another artist’s fingerprints on my work, I accepted the additional $35 contract for this “cutout,” which I created from scratch in two hours – I was getting good at painting again, finally! Between the return of my flow and the Den Boss’s story of how the graffiti artist had, in the middle of his latest float, pointed to his own chin and declared, “This is the face of someone giving up!” I had to inquire how much money was left on the guy’s contract.

“$300,” my boss said. “And the background’s already done. The top is already done. Poorly, but… He was an OK guy, and I guess he was good at spray-painting walls. But he just couldn’t paint floats. Not like you…”

And with that I accepted the contract, feeling like Mardi Gras needs me.
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