Saturday, February 18, 2012

Vicarious Mardi Gras

Southwind--"New Orleans (Mardi Gras)" (mp3)

For all of my trips to New Orleans, I've only gotten close to Mardi Gras one time. A high school calendar and Mardi Gras simply do not mix, though I once had a student over 20 years ago who was from New Orleans and went home the weekend before Mardi Gras, called a day or two later to say that his mother had run over his leg and returned sometime later in the week with a slight limp that seemed to get better quickly. He worked the calendar quite effectively.

Just a couple of years ago, our winter break synced pretty closely with Fat Tuesday, and four of us headed down to try to capture some of the spirit and energy of that great holiday.

What were we thinking? Mardi Gras is largely for the young. It is is not for men who are middle-aged or approaching it. How do I know that? Well, I'd say simply karma. It isn't that we didn't have a good time--we did--but all of the issues that face a family man manifested themselves.

It happened quickly. One of our ranks, you see, used to teach here with us, but he has since moved on to two, now three, other schools, and he usually flies in from New Jersey at the start of each Spring Break to join us for an all-guy trip. The year in question, though, was a strange year where our two school's calendars didn't sync, and so we arranged to meet earlier in February, during the weekend before Mardi Gras.

The thing that he didn't tell us, in his intense desire to join us in the Crescent City, was that all of the rest of his family was back home with a virulent stomach virus. Even as he landed at Louis Armstrong Airport, his four boys were in various stages of puking, either just getting over it or just getting started. His wife was just getting started.

But we found out.

It is our tradition on the first night of our New Orleans gatherings to eat at the Acme Oyster House, a touristy but reliable French Quarter dive that makes pretty good everything--chargrilled oysters, red beans and rice, shrimp po-boys. But there's always a wait. So we stood in line outside, waiting for the perfect fit of table available and number in our party. A minute or two into the wait, he said, "You know what, guys? I'm going to head back to the hotel. I'm not feeling too good. My stomach's kind of queasy."

That was just about the last we saw of him for two days. He camped out in our hotel room and experienced every possible way and place to throw up.

And the beautiful thing about this particular stomach virus was that not only did it include incessant projectile vomiting, it also incubated very, very quickly, spreading from person to person within a 24-48 hour time period. And so, while we talked to him on the phone while we ate (guardedly) at Acme and learned of the condition of the rest of his family, we started retracing our steps with him since our arrival. One thing I knew for sure: I had sipped his drink when they had gotten confused and before we swapped back.

It was that kind of virus that parents get because their immune systems haven't encountered it since they were young, like my friend's children. Suddenly, like the characters in the movie D.O.A. who has ingested a time-release poison and has only hours to live and try to figure out who poisoned him, we were marked men. And the clock was ticking.

My pal Chet made a crucial executive decision: there was no way we were going to stay in the "puke room." Regardless of what it cost, we would get a separate room from him and see if we could avoid getting the virus.

But our luggage was still in that room. We entered it like a scene from Contagion, not wanting to inhale any airborne pathogen from the heavy, sour air that had taken over the room and bathroom. If we could have worn plastic suits we would have. As it was, we repacked our luggage as quickly as possible, made lame gestures of sympathy to the thing in the bed, and got the hell out of there.

The rest of the trip is kind of a blur. Yes, we went to parades, yes, we ate at Commander's Palace, yes, we got out in the car and traveled all over the city, but the illness had cast a pall on the trip, not only because we lived in constant fear of getting sick (which we didn't), but mainly because when a comrade goes down like that, it's hard to experience total enjoyment knowing that he is lying in agony in a hotel room.

No, I'm afraid that Mardi Gras is for the young, with their iron stomachs and "run over leg" stories. For those of us with family obligations and the trials that come with family, Mardi Gras is probably a bad idea.

This year, I'm kind of content to enjoy it vicariously from far away. I'll be having a few friends over. I'll be making chicken and adouille gumbo, shrimp and crawfish etoufee, the best approximation of muffalettas I can construct in this city, and bread pudding and I'll have some New Orleans tunes and some beads if I can scare some up and we'll be nice and safe here at my house.

That doesn't mean that my favorite city won't be calling to me and that I wouldn't rather be down there, but some concessions need to be made--to job, to family, to time. Give me a month, though, and I'll be back, New Orleans. See you at Spring Break!


TommyD said...

Ticket to New Orleans: $400
Cost of quarantine room in which to hurl: $350
Phone calls from hotel telephone to home seeking assurance that I wasn't actually dying: $12.50
Fact that I drank 3 beers on the final night: PRICELESS!

Anonymous said...

The funny thing was when we went to domileses and you said, "I don't know what it is but this shrimp poboy doesn't taste like it normally does."

Um, tommy, could that be because you were puking for two days?

TommyD said...

Bob, please remove that picture of the shrimp étouffée immediately.