Ash Wednesday, 2006
: The streets have been cleared, the classic floats have once again been stored for another year at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, and the controversial 2006 party is over. Six months after Katrina’s flood waters attempted to wipe the earth clean of New Orleans and its deep culture, the city officials have attempted to show that tradition is stronger than any devastation.
There have been many within the New Orleans parishes, who were hoping that the 2006 Mari Gras festivities would be cancelled in order to further accommodate the rebuilding of the city. Thousands of residents are still displaced in the wake of the destruction, and with so many who remain homeless, even some city officials claim that this is no time to party.
To party or not to party has been a matter of controversy ever since Katrina made landfall, last August. Of course, back then, people were more concerned about their survival from one day to the next without the slightest thought about beads and floats. But, don’t think for an instant that the city officials weren’t entertaining thoughts of Mardi Gras Indians dancing amidst the city’s devastation.
Mardi Gras usually generates about 4.5 million during the week prior to Fat Tuesday. And that sort of income is exactly what New Orleans (businesses and residents alike) needs in order to dig themselves out of the watery grave that the levees made it become. Let us not forget what New Orleans is really all about. Yes, the Big Easy is a major US port, and yes, the industry is a huge money-making factor that cannot be ignored. But, moreover, it is a city that exists by the grace of tourist dollars.
New Orleans’ officials knew that if they were to bring back the tourist bankrolls, and thereby allow the city to further get back on its feet, they would have to make the city appear as though the recovery rate is doing just fine. What better way to pull-off this illusion than by continuing on with the 2006 Mardi Gras plans? The tourists never go into the hardest hit areas like the 9th Ward, so to the untrained eye New Orleans looks as though nothing ever happened. What many tourists don’t realize is that the French Quarter and Uptown (Garden District area) were barely touched by the floods, which leaves many wondering where all those horrible photographs came from.
A couple of the major levees which hold back Lake Pontchartrain’s waters hover right over the lower 9th Ward. This is where most of the photos of devastation came from, and this is exactly what the city’s business officials no longer want you to see. It’s just not good for business. Go into the 9th ward today, and it looks like what it has become; a demilitarized zone. Again, the business owners know that you’re not likely to see that end of town, so it’s all about letting the good times roll. Mardi Gras revelers can safely tuck their drunken heads under the city’s wings and pretend that Katrina never happened.
Being a tourist-funded city, the majority of businesses in New Orleans heavily rely upon hospitality workers. These people almost entirely make up the residential zones of places like the 9th Ward and the French Quarter. They are horribly underpaid, and even though there is a lot of tourist tip money to be had during Mardi Gras, some bartenders and waiters in the Vieux Carre walk home from a typical eight-hour shift with less than a dollar in their pockets, during the off-season. These are also the exact people who had no money or transportation out of New Orleans when all hell began to break loose. The people who take care of us when we go there for drinks and laughs; the waiters who serve us the great gumbo; the bartenders who ironically pour our hurricane drinks; the hotel workers who make our beds and clean up after our slovenly selves were the exact same people we all saw gathered around the Superdome on TV, and a great many of them died in the floods.
Still, these are the people who represent the heart and soul of New Orleans, along with her cryptical, confutable and often controversial heritage. Most of them are the good folks who put the mints under your pillows and the extra shots in your glass. And, even though it’s in the nature of the typical New Orleanian to be extremely cordial (New Orleans has always had a reputation for offering the absolute best in the hospitality business; Southern hospitality is not completely lost amidst the city’s controversy), tourists should know by now that it all comes with a heavy price tag. It’s through these prices for outstanding hospitality that New Orleans has continued to thrive amongst a South that is otherwise made up of the poor and uneducated. Quite an accomplishment for one city, when one takes a serious look at the rest of Louisiana economy. This in itself should bear the up-by-the-bootstraps trademark of a people who care about their city and their culture.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Hell is a place where everyone has a complaint, and makes it ceaselessly.” With this quote in mind, the controversy surrounding this year’s Mardi Gras festivities should be put aside in the hopes that the tourist money will do what FEMA and other government agencies neglected to do; provide the residents of New Orleans with the necessary funding to rebuild their great city. Instead of debasing supporters of the 2006 Mardi Gras, people who truly care about New Orleans should be sinking money into the heart and soul of the city, its workers. It is through them that the city will be rebuilt to its former glory, not in the worries over political corruption and mismanaged funds.
Ash Wednesday is the polar opposite from Fat Tuesday’s decadence. It marks the beginning of Lent, which is a time of atonement. It is a time when we are to make a fearless and moral inventory of ourselves. Whether you hold faith to Catholic dogmas, or not, the 2006 season of Lent should be exactly that; a time to take a break from the self-justifications, the complaints, the blames and accusations of others, and instead take a good and hard look at ourselves. This is not an easy feat to accomplish in our contemporary accept-no-blame culture, but without self-atonement there can be no forgiveness; without forgiveness there can be no progress, without progress New Orleans may well become nothing more than a swamp with a lot of good memories.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.