America, heed this advice. Should there come a time in your
life when you need relief from your burdens, head to New
Orleans. And if your woes happen to overwhelm you during
Carnival season, which spans the Feast of the Epiphany and
Ash Wednesday, so much the better. For if ever a metropolis
were made for escaping one’s troubles, New Orleans—or the
Crescent City or the Big Easy or whatever you want to call
it—is it. Especially during that bacchanalian interlude
that culminates in Mardi Gras, when the locals really put
the F in festive.
It is this
party attitude that explains why my begowned self is
currently appearing on live New Orleans television with not
only my fellow beauty queens Trixie Barnett and Shanelle
Walker at my side, but a cocktail as well. And not a faux
cocktail, either, but a full-fledged Hurricane, sporting two
types of rum, grenadine, various citrus juices, and a skewer
teetering under an explosion of fruit garnish. The
Hurricane is not New Orleans’ official cocktail—that would
be the Sazerac—but NOLA is the only city in the nation to
boast an official cocktail.
tells you something.
the sandy-haired male host of Live at 5, decked out
in a tuxedo in honor of tonight’s merrymaking, pivots toward
my BFFs and me. At this twilight hour we’re broadcasting
from an outdoor platform in the Garden District high above
famed St. Charles Avenue. The location affords a glorious
view of the subject of the evening’s special telecast: the
Carnival parade put on by the Mystic Krewe of Plutus.
Revelers are lining the avenue to enjoy not only the floats
but also the marching and jazz bands parading along with
them. It’s such a joyous ruckus I can barely hear the
orange security choppers buzzing overhead.
Last week I
had no idea what a “krewe” even was. But now I know it’s a
social club whose biggest whoop-de-do of the year is putting
on a Carnival parade. And from what I can tell, partying
beforehand, afterwards, and during.
I say, “how many parades do you have in New Orleans leading
up to Mardi Gras?” Which is, of course, French for Fat
Antoine preens with civic pride. “With more than a thousand
floats. And if you line up all the parade routes one after
the next, it adds up to three hundred miles.”
amazing.” It goes to show what a huge deal the parades are
that local TV covers them live for hours on end. Which
explains our presence. Guests like us can help fill all
those hours of programming. “I love how so many of the
krewe names come from mythology,” I go on. “Greek, Roman,
“The names are
so fun and magical!” Trixie giggles, her hazel eyes shining
and copper-colored hair very stylish with its new pixie
cut. “Cleopatra, Athena, Pygmalion, Morpheus—”
“And Nyx and
Endymion and Pontchartrain.” Shanelle is particularly
lovely tonight with her Afro held off her face by a sparkly
gold headband. Maybe she can pronounce that last krewe name
so easily because it’s also the name of a local lake and her
hometown of Biloxi is only a hundred miles away. So she
sort of grew up in these parts. Or maybe she’s just great
at pronunciation. After all, she is one of those rare peeps
able to whip off my surname: Przybyszewski.
Truth be told,
I haven’t deployed that four-syllable behemoth since my mom
got me into pageantry. I protested mightily when she began
trying to stoke rhinestone ambition deep in my soul, but
look where it’s gotten me. Now I’m beyond proud to wear the
Ms. America crown. Five months into my reign, it still
stuns me that Ohio’s Happy Pennington is the titleholder for
the nation’s leading pageant for married women.
hope I can keep the tiara atop my brunette head. My pageant
owner has been less than thrilled with me lately and the
state of my marriage is—how shall I put it? —precarious.
might be visiting from out of town,” Antoine says, “but
you’ve certainly embraced the Carnival spirit.”
I gesture to
our gowns. “Are you referring to these?” All three are
identical in style, with a rhinestone brooch securing the
sideswept waist and the soft jersey fabric dipping low and
sexy in the back. But in honor of Mardi Gras’ trademark
colors here in NOLA, Shanelle’s gown is purple, Trixie’s is
green, and mine is gold. “Am I right, Antoine, that this
trio of colors was selected way back in 1872?” I can’t
resist showing off my research at least a little.
“Yes, by our
first Rex, our first king of Carnival.”
justice,” Shanelle says.
faith,” Trixie adds.
“And gold for
power,” I finish off. The colors are everywhere this time
of year, decorating homes, people, pets, businesses, and of
course the floats rolling up and down the avenues. “And let
me add that we’re just thrilled to be honorary guests of the
Krewe of Harmonia this year.”
“It’s right up
our alley since we represent the Ms. America pageant,”
Trixie goes on. “After all, Harmonia is the Greek goddess
of harmony and concord, particularly in marriage.”
mention the irony that Harmonia was born after Aphrodite had
an adulterous affair with Ares. “We still have to finish
making our tiara throws for the parade,” I say instead.
“It’s so fun that we beauty queens get to decorate tiaras.”
The throws are
a highly entertaining element of the parades. The krewe
members playfully toss all manner of items out to the crowd
and everybody goes crazy trying to catch something. Strings
of beads are the most common throw, but it sure doesn’t stop
launches into more Mardi Gras lore and Trixie and Shanelle
get into peppering him with questions. I allow myself to
sit back and listen as if I were a viewer at home.
feels like the first time I’ve relaxed since the Krewe of
Harmonia invited us to New Orleans. The request for our
presence came in pretty late as these things go, and since
I’d never been here before I wanted to bone up on this US
city so unlike every other.
Shall I count
the ways in which New Orleans stands alone? Let us begin
with its French and Spanish roots and strong ties with
Africa and the Caribbean. Then we can move on to its
amazing architecture, extraordinary food and music, and
ongoing flirtation with the paranormal, from ghosts to
vampires to voodoo. I love how this city embraces pretty
much everything that diverges from the norm, which makes it
such a draw to creative types. And beyond all that, there’s
its phenomenal ability to come back from disasters that are
truly epic in scale, from outbreaks of yellow fever to
devastating fires, floods, and, yes, hurricanes. A lesser
city would’ve surrendered a few centuries ago. But not New
Orleans. Not only does it fight on, it does so with a
cocktail aloft and beads looped around its neck.
people say “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” That’s
French for “Let the good times roll!” So even though, or
maybe because, the city lies five feet below sea level and
faces a worsening threat from rising waters, and who knows
what else, its spirit remains unbowed.
Maybe. But how can you not love it?
voice breaks into my thoughts. “It’s almost here! The
float bearing the king of the Mystic Krewe of Plutus!”
I see it now
on the TV monitor set up across our platform. The float
that transports the krewe’s top royalty is the highlight of
any parade. “Antoine, how does the krewe select the king?”
they choose a local luminary. But every so often, like this
year, the selection is a nationally known celebrity who’s
also a native son.”
I know you
have to be a semi big shot just to be a member of an
old-line krewe like Plutus. Until the early nineties, you
had to hail from one of the “right” families, in other
words, “rich” and “white.” Eventually people got fed up
with all that and now the krewes must be more open. But
they still can be pretty secretive.
The mob below
is increasingly raucous as the king’s float nears our
platform. Who can blame them? Lots of these folks have
been camped out waiting for this moment for hours, even all
day. I have to giggle as I watch little kids throw back
their heads and blow their purple and green trumpets, adults
grab for beads as if their lives depended on scoring a
string or two, and everybody pretty close to delirious with
all the noise and fun.
his voice over the hubbub. “Can you guess why the
cornucopia of grain is associated with Plutus?”
“He’s the god
of wealth,” Trixie says, revealing that she did her
homework, too. Of course she’s never one to rest on her Ms.
Congeniality laurels. “And we all know that the cornucopia
symbolizes the abundant blessings of wealth.”
who’s super, super blessed? The man the Krewe of Plutus
chose as this year’s king. I’m guessing everybody (but me)
is really stoked because, as Antoine said, this guy is a
native and a big-name celebrity all rolled into
one. Yes, the man of the hour is none other than famous
actor and local boy Dennis Garrity.
that I cannot hide a certain snarkiness toward Mr. Garrity.
Ever since his reality show had the nerve to come on the air
directly, and I mean directly against the show hosted
by one Mario Suave, he has annoyed me. Especially since his
show is beating Mario’s in the ratings. Don’t ask me how a
show called Who Among Us? could prevail over a show
called America’s Scariest Ghost Stories. The premise
isn’t even believable, in my opinion. It profiles people
who embrace the vampire lifestyle. I mean, really. Who
I get so upset
when I think about it. I cannot help but remember last
month in New York, when among other highly revealing
confessions Mario admitted to me that he was worried about
his show’s ratings. He feared the network might move the
show to another night, which could prove its death knell.
I am well
aware that I shouldn’t be getting all het up about this.
After all, when I got home from Manhattan I forced myself
into Mario Rehab, a treatment program for those of us
addicted to all things Mario Suave. (In my case I had to
get off a dangerous path—one that could even have ruined my
marriage.) Even though I concocted the Mario Rehab rules
myself, the regimen is severe. No social media: no liking,
no following, no snapping, no pinning, no nothing. No
surfing the web for news updates. I’ve asked Trixie and
Shanelle to avoid mentioning his name. I don’t even allow
myself to watch Mario’s show anymore, which makes me feel
especially bad because what if Nielsen is monitoring my
set? I could unwittingly be helping to torpedo Mario’s
ratings, which would truly be tragic.
Anyway, in the
aftermath of this purge, I have no clue what’s up with
Mario. He could be anywhere, doing anything, and I wouldn’t
know it. I do not allow myself to think about him, although
as you can tell I’m not very good at that. This last minute
I’ve been pondering him so intently that Shanelle just had
to pinch my thigh to get my attention. I swing my head left
to find her dark eyes boring into mine.
to know if you’ve dined at Le Comte yet,” she says.
to!” I lie, smiling brightly in Antoine’s direction. “If
we can snag a reservation. Since Dennis Garrity is king of
the Krewe of Plutus this year, his restaurant is the hottest
place in town.”
“I’ll pull a
few strings for you ladies.” Antoine winks. “And you can
all have a Vampire’s Punch on me.”
Le Comte is a
French restaurant with a vampire theme. Fictional and
supposedly real bloodsuckers are what made Dennis Garrity
famous, so I suppose the concept makes sense. Anyway, for
Mario’s sake I hate to support the restaurant.
thought of Mario again.
I force myself
to shove him and his Latin sexiness out of my mind.
Actually it’s not that hard, since I can’t help but get
swept up in the crowd’s jubilation as the king’s float
nears. A close-up shot appears on the monitor, and now that
it’s pitch dark out the float looks extremely dramatic all
“This float is
a real classic,” Antoine says with admiration. “Decades
old. Clearly it was built to last. The chassis isn’t as
big as we see nowadays with new floats, but still I find it
I must agree.
The float has only one level, dominated by a gold throne
upon which Dennis Garrity has planted his middle-aged butt.
But behind the throne is an attention-getting tableau.
golden statues depict a toga-clad Plutus with a laurel
wreath atop his head distributing gold coins to similarly
attired mortals, men and women, young and old. Some look
virtuous but some appear downright malevolent, leering at
Plutus even as he gifts them with riches.
understand what’s going on in that tableau,” Trixie says.
Antoine has a
ready answer. “Mythology has it that Zeus blinded Plutus so
he would distribute wealth indiscriminately, to those who
don’t deserve it as well as to those who do.”
like something Zeus would do,” Shanelle says. “I’m more an
Achilles fan, especially when played by Brad Pitt in the
laughs, I imagine Pitt instead of Garrity atop this float.
After all, he may not be a native, but he’s tried to help
NOLA in all sorts of ways. And he’s far better eye candy
than Garrity, who’s let himself go in recent years. I
suppose he’s allowed to enjoy his own cuisine at Le Comte,
but couldn’t he at least have dyed the gray in his mussed
brown hair for his stint as king?
I know I’m not
being fair. I just don’t like the guy.
strikingly dressed, in a white toga with black and gold
embroidery at the hem and gathered waist. He’s also
sporting a gold crown, leather wrist cuffs, and gladiator
sandals, but what really catches the eye is the outsized
medallion hanging from a chain around his neck.
“Tell us about
that medallion, Antoine,” I say.
famous,” he says, his tone reverent. The cameraman shooting
the float, who’s hearing us through an earpiece, zooms in
for a close-up. “The only person ever allowed to wear the
medallion,” Antoine goes on, “is the king of the Krewe of
Plutus, on parade night. It’s centuries old and comes from
Greece itself. Of course the medallion is real gold.
You’ll note that it’s circular with nine small gold loops
around the perimeter and an oval in the center made of blue
returns to a wider shot and I realize the float is close
enough to our platform that we can see it clearly. We twist
away from the monitor to watch it approach.
alone atop the float, and as we’ve seen other kings and
queens do, he lifts a flute of champagne toward the cheering
onlookers held at bay by waist-high barricades. At that
moment, sparkler fireworks in brilliant gold shoot up from
all four corners of the float, creating a spectacular
effect. The crowd shrieks in exhilaration, which I’d do,
too, if I weren’t wearing a mic.
Trixie, Shanelle, and I repeat, mimicking Garrity by raising
our Hurricanes in the air.
had some popular kings in its day, but few to rival Dennis
Garrity.” Antoine practically has to shout to be heard over
the crowd. “And boy, I’ve always loved the sparklers on
this float, from when I was a kid. I remember—”
I don’t catch
the rest of Antoine’s remarks, even though he’s sitting
right next to me, for in that instant a ball of fire erupts
from the float and a thunderous boom rents the air. I swear
that a second later I feel a wave of heat slap my face.
“Oh my Lord,
what was that?” Trixie cries from Antoine’s other side.
heart and I are pretty sure what that was, but I don’t want
to even say the words. I grab for Shanelle, whose hand
latches on tight.
Now the crowd
isn’t roaring. It’s screaming, the sort of frenzied
high-pitched screams that come from shock and fear.
all too clear what happened here. An explosion happened
here. And it seemed to be centered right on the float
carrying Dennis Garrity. I throw a frantic glance at
Shanelle, who looks petrified. I bet she’s thinking what I
am: that might not have been the only explosion. More might
follow. When these horrible things occur, they often come
in twos or even threes. And here we are, so close, and down
below us are all those other innocent people, even closer.
remain calm,” Antoine exhorts. But I hear the barely
concealed panic in his voice. I feel dread coming in waves
from the people on the avenue, where pandemonium reigns.
I struggle to
find my voice. It’s so hard to grasp, how in one second
everything can turn from joy to terror. “There’s so much
smoke!” I don’t know how I manage to spit out the words,
since the air is now so choked that it’s hard to speak.
“What can you make out, Antoine? I can’t really see much of
I lean forward
and squint in the direction of the float, my eyes tearing
from the smoke. But now that it’s dissipating a bit, I
almost wish it weren’t. For in the ashy blackness left by
that dreadful burst of flame, I find only emptiness in the
place where Dennis Garrity used to be.