Yesterday, I changed planes in D.C. and got on a flight to Portland, Maine and came back to reality, winter, work, grownup life, home. My flight, which took place during the Super Bowl, was almost empty. Far down below the little jet, the Eastern seaboard was alternately spangled and dark. That whole weekend was a surreal, dreamy debauchathon, a fitting sendoff into the afterlife for Michael with a surge of early Mardi Gras parade frenzy. I came home wet-brained, with the shakes, looking forward to a bit of a detox.
Jami picked me up at the airport on Thursday and drove me to her house in mid-city. She gave me her bed and took the couch, and laid in excellent provisions for me – wine, potato chips, cheese, fruit, and chocolate. The night I arrived, she took me out for oysters, uptown, to Pascal’s Manale. We stood at the little zinc bar and talked to the world’s greatest oyster shucker, or so he bills himself, T., a handsome, smiling guy with a lusty gap between his front teeth who doesn’t much care for oysters, himself. But these were possibly the best ones I had ever had. Jami and I ate a dozen each, along with some red wine, and then we were sated and aglow and ready for the rest of the night.
The next afternoon, two dozen or so of Michael’s friends walked in a procession from Vaughn’s in the Bywater along the levee to the river while an accordion-trumpet-guitar trio played “I’ll Fly Away.” We waited by the train tracks for a slow-moving freight train to go by. The band kept playing even though it was drowned out by the screech of metal heaving itself along. Up on the levee, on a promontory by the river, we stood in a big circle and passed Michael’s urn of ashes around from hand to hand, then five of his closest friends sent a little raft out into the water with a lighted candle on it, bobbing away over the waves. Michael’s old friend Mac, who had organized the funeral, scattered the contents of the urn into the river, and then they all rubbed ashes onto each other’s foreheads.
We straggled back to an all-night party at Vaughn’s with a second line sometime in the wee hours over to Bj’s. Bands played all night. There was a lot of good food, spaghetti and meatballs, grilled steak, cole slaw, vegetables, potato salad. I stood talking to my ex-husband, drinking Cuba Libres for some reason, watching the musicians play, eating, and remembering Michael, all our trips to New Orleans to see him through the years, his record store, his shotgun shack in the Bywater, and his famous record collection. We stayed up many nights with him listening to one record after another, everything kickass and varied and wide-ranging, from Arvo Part to “Conference of the Birds” to old R&B. Right after he married his first wife, we four went on a weeklong bender, from Brooklyn to Philly to Atlantic City and back again. We flew down for his second wedding, a picnic on Lake Pontchartrain. We visited him after Katrina and saw the sad wreck of the old house he’d just bought in the lower 9th.
We called him our Katrina orphan. He came to live with us in Brooklyn for a month or two after his house flooded. Jon sent him money to rent a car and drive up with his dog, Bucky, a big, aggressive, untrained, smelly animal with a blunt wet snout who got into the garbage, terrorized Dingo, and ate anything that wasn’t nailed down. Michael never had any money — when we were together, we took care of him. Sometimes we resented this, sometimes not, but there was never any question in our minds about it. He lived with us several times over the years, for weeks or even months at a time. He was a bad influence on us. Whenever he was around, we found ourselves slipping into decadence and sloth. He didn’t eat much food; he chain-smoked, and he was never without a glass of straight Bushmill’s or a beer, from early in the day until late.
He was slyly contrarian and opinionated. He drawled and chuckled and mocked. He wore a baseball hat and slouchy, comfy clothes, and he never moved fast. We often played a cutthroat all-night dice-throwing game called Pinche — the sun generally came up while we were still playing. One year, the three of us plus our friend Scott played at the Trenton Avant-Garde festival, outside in a small amphitheater. We sounded awful, couldn’t hear ourselves or one another, couldn’t come close to getting the life and fizz of our rehearsals. A homeless woman came up and howled along, gyrating. She was the best thing about our performance.
Michael’s funeral was wild and sexy and sad and unrestrained and talkative and warm; he would certainly have loved it. Maybe his ghost loved it. I hope so.
The next day, on our way to Canal Street, Jami and I watched monarch butterflies mating, flapping their wings, drinking flower nectar. Jami had orchestrated the whole day in advance. All I had to do was tag along. We took the streetcar to the Quarter and ate oysters and blackened gator at Felix’s. A monsoon blew in as we were finishing. We dashed across the street for a sazerac apiece at the bar while the rain stopped. On our way over to the Marigny to meet Jon, in the big church in the square where the fortune tellers sit, a wedding burst out of the doors and wound its way through the crowd, bride and groom with parasols, the whole wedding party twirling white handkerchiefs and dancing to a Dixieland marching band.
We had another sazerac at the bar at Mimi’s while people drifted in wearing glittery costumes. Jon arrived and we ordered another round; the bartender squawked a bit (sazeracs are complicated) so we switched to rye on the rocks, left Mimi’s finally, and headed for a pre-parade party where there was a pot of great-smelling, roux-based gumbo on the stove next to a pot of stewed kale. The Krewe du Vieux parade, the kickoff to Mardi Gras, started after dark. It was beautiful and profane, raucous and funny. One float had a papier-mache Bob Barker getting raped from behind by a wicked, Technicolor cat. Prosthetic boobs and asses and penises abounded, lewdly oversized and otherwise realistic. Beads and tchotchkes flew through the air. One superlative band after another came by.
After the parade ended, Jami and Jon and I wandered through the city with our loot, weighed down by necklaces, drinking more rye on the rocks from little plastic go-cups. We stopped in at the Spotted Cat to hear a band play. Starving, we ate cheap, homemade stew with rice in Styrofoam bowls at a crowded bar, then ran into another parade, a brilliant sci-fi fantasy pageant. We ended up at Mimi’s again for hours, watching decked-out young revelers get drunker and talking intently among ourselves. Then, very late, after Jami went home, Jon and I took a pedicab to the Bywater for a nightcap. Our taxi bicyclist, a small, strong girl, rode us through the streets. The revelers were quiet, and the streets were almost empty. We jounced and glided along under a canopy of wet leaves that released droplets with each breeze.
Jami, who claims not to cook, put some ingredients into a hot pan, and they alchemized into something sublime. The things in question were eggs, Emmenthaler cheese, baby spinach, chopped onion, and mushrooms. We waved a bag of potato chips over our plates and ate it all and were restored.
I asked a bartender the other day in Miami for a Cuba Libre. She was about 50, and shook her head. She said, “we don’t serve that drink; we serve a Mentirita (a little lie.)”
I asked why and she said, “because Cuba isn’t free…”
The good news of the day is I’ve discovered you now have a blog. I’ll be visiting one of my favorite writers all the time here now.
Thank you so much for writing this Kate. I wished with all my heart that I could have made it to Michael’s memorial. Now I feel like was there. I have many pictures of us all playing pinche in the back of Rock n Roll. When I get some spare time I will send them to you.
Extraordinarily beautiful and sad
I read your novel Trouble yesterday, a day off, in my sun-drenched garden in New Orleans. I loved it, and searched for you online and found that you were here last magical weekend. You might have heard me playing Plena music on the radio last Saturday afternoon on ‘OZ. I hope that your next trip to New Orleans will be for happier reasons. Thanks for portraying part of the wonder of this place in the midst of your mourning.