IN THE GAP BETWEEN PARADES: Ray Nagin on Mardi Gras Day 2010

 By: Brian Boyles bboyles.jpg

"Rex is on his way."

On the grandstand in front of Gallier Hall, we watch the tail of the Zulu parade pass and the lieutenants of the Krewe of Rex approach. Mayor Ray Nagin speaks into a thin microphone perched over St. Charles Avenue, greeting the citizens who wait and re-fill during the transition. He engages in light banter with the DJ who sits behind us in a booth on the front porch of the hall.

“Damian Porche, your daughter is looking for you,” the DJ announces. “Parents, watch your kids,” Nagin rejoins. “Kids, watch your parents.”

Nagin’s voice and words are at their most folksy, worn down by fatigue, peppering in many an “It’s all good,” and “Only in New Orleans” through a weary, perhaps winey afternoon as master of ceremonies. With heavy bags under his eyes and his head tilted back in the sunshine, the mayor looks only half-way there. A few minutes later, the DJ searches for the parents of another lost kid, this time one with the last name Nagin. Ray’s face shows no reaction, his eyes hooded as he stares down the avenue at the approaching Rex.

“Here comes Rex, y’all.” A TV truck passes by. “Cox Communications. Those were the days. I didn’t get any grief when I ran Cox Communications. Somebody’s HBO went off, that’s it. City Hall, HBO go off everyday.”

Inside Gallier Hall on Mardi Gras Day, the floors still shine and the purple/gold/green bunting hangs from the chandeliers. A wide hallway leads to the grand portico. The adjoining banquet hall holds round tables and a buffet line. People sit and relax with family and friends at the end of another Carnival season. The noise from the DJ and the crowd outside is muffled, we have more than enough room to spread out in here, and a quiet peace is at hand. On the buffet, servers offer red beans, chili dogs, and chips. I pay $4 for a chili dog, a bag of Zaps, and a bottle of water, and think back to another party in this place.

The Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball of February 15th, 2007 was a much different affair. Two floors of the hall were filled with free food and drink, with stages set up in three rooms for live bands that played an assortment of Motown hits, New Orleans R&B, and Latin Jazz. Servers passed hors d’oeurves to a guest list dressed to the nines. Like today, the crowd was roughly 90% African-American. The hallways, dining tables, and dance floors were well-peopled. Ed Blakely made his social debut. I met an ex-NBA player. The mayor worked the main room briefly, shaking hands and smiling, a slightly uncomfortable host. New to this scene, I was impressed at the largesse of the party. Electricity was still an issue in many neighborhoods at the time, but Gallier Hall glittered that evening.

Three years later, the grandstand bubbles with assorted staffers, their families, council people, and ticket snatchers like me, most of us in jeans and winter coats. The mayor sports a Saints championship hat and matching letterman jacket. The team never sent him Super Bowl tickets, so he went to the game on the taxpayers’ dime, budget crisis be damned.

Earlier that morning, we watched Nagin cross Simon Bolivar at Jackson Avenue on horseback. He rode with three others at the head of Zulu. They passed with little fanfare, a few waves to the people gathered in the parking lot of the Chicken Mart. Behind them was the real show, the Zulu King and Queen, the loud floats filled with men in blackface, not a few of them white men. The day before, the City awarded an $800,000 grant to the Zulus for a new headquarters on Broad Street, quite a gift for the 100-year old private club. On dilapidated Simon Bolivar in the heart of Central City, coconuts and footballs soared through the air as “Lombardi Gras” finally begot a warm day.

This Carnival was perhaps the first one ever upstaged by another party. One week before Fat Tuesday, the largest crowd in memory lined the streets for a victory parade, braving unseasonable cold to cheer on their world champion New Orleans Saints. The previous Sunday, hell had frozen over as the final seconds ticked away in the Super Bowl. A celebration erupted throughout the city, centered on the French Quarter and open to every person, regardless of race, class, or gender. The greatest violence punished the shoulders and palms of New Orleanians with a million hi-fives and bear hugs. After years of bottled up anger and suspicion, the people exploded together as winners.

Oh, and the night before the Super Bowl, voters elected a new mayor. Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu’s victory in the primary was historic in its decisiveness, its reliance on voters from across the racial divide, and its repudiation of the political disorder of recovery era New Orleans. A white man from a well-known family, Landrieu took all but one of the voting precincts, an obliteration of his opponents that calls into question the future of African-American politics as a functional term. By saying very little about his plans, Landrieu enters office with the promise of energy. That promise was enough to blow away the remains of a status-quo already knee-capped by the storm, its aftermath, and the ineffectual response of city government.

With countless opportunities over the last four years to speak to the collective rebuilding spirit in the city, the mayor stuck his finger in multiple wounds with increasing frequency. The newspaper responded accordingly, running stories about the mayor’s travel plans as if they were more newsworthy than updates on levee progress, allowing its feeble online version to become a forum for hatred, and routinely taking a backseat to blogs at the vanguard of investigative journalism.

As the election approached, Nagin and Police Superintendent Riley whispered that Shadow Government forces controlled the media and levers of power, stopping short of naming names to keep all whites in the realm of suspicion (Riley: "You know, that's why it's the shadow government, because you're not supposed to know. That's just my opinion."). The mayor took out an ad on the black radio station WBOK imploring African-Americans to vote with their race or risk losing “the franchise.” As the Saints made their run, the newspaper all but ceased coverage of the election, and gave no serious analysis of its potential outcome or ramifications. Even the political beat writers gave more attention to the mayor’s forecasts of doom than to the actual sentiment among voters. The Saturday morning of the primary, the paper ran just one column on the election, while the website for WWL-TV made no mention at all of an election. Mayor and media locked once more in the grave dance they’ve practiced for years, detached from the citizenry and so unable to serve it. All the while, the body politic shifted under their bumbling feet.

The signs were hardly cryptic: the 2002 election of Nagin, a political outsider without ties to a black political organization; the defeat of Congressman William Jefferson by a little-known Republican outsider; the federal indictment and prosecution of Jefferson and a plethora of black officials, as well as black and white contractors and the burgeoning crisis in Jefferson Parish; the Nagin-sanctioned demolition of the projects, further cementing the dispersal of the African-American vote and perhaps the end of “street money” as an effective election day tool; the upheaval in the public schools and medical sector that displaced the black middle class; the election of white Arnie Fielkow and white Jackie Clarkson to the Council-at-large seats; and the very real disgust with the workings of City Hall. In a poignant end to his confounding career, Nagin was again the last man shouting when the system fell apart. His appeals to division and fear were a final, shaky defense of a political reality he’d helped to destroy. Only 28% of registered African-American voters went to the polls on Feb. 6th, and while the electorate remains 60% African-American, the power apparatus erected around that number has been crumbling for some time.

On St. Charles Avenue, the mayor moves back to the microphone as the King of Rex pulls up on his throne. R. Hunter Pierson, Jr. is another in an endless line of pasty, slightly femme monarchs from this Krewe who “rule the city” for Mardi Gras. With his eyeliner, tights and sequins, and his nasal gentility, he resembles a besotted Dauphine in exile, not a king. Like Nagin, his New Orleans is gone.

Three decades ago, if a black politician complained of a Shadow Government, he might’ve meant a member of Rex. The equation of black political power vs. white business power was a crutch that ensured a place for old-line white aristocrats who contributed little in the way of commercial ambition, instead happy to live off their various inheritances. They paid virtually nothing property tax, rode in old-line parades, and maybe practiced some law. These are the men who for so long kept the doors to their private clubs closed, thus alienating outsiders black and white who might improve the business and social climate of the city. Historically, the integrationist Landrieus were more their enemy than a Cox Cable official, and they haven’t put forth a serious challenger in a mayoral race in a long time.

The white upper crust no longer sits atop a hierarchy that ensures their insulation. The upending of the black/white power equation, the decades-long emigration of aristocratic sons and daughters from Orleans Parish, the post-Katrina influx of young entrepreneurs and social activists, even the dying wheeze of the local paper, all spell the decline of that Shadow Government. Never before has that class of New Orleanians been more unnecessary to the operation and survival of the city. Whatever shred of truth there was in Nagin’s fantasy, it did not lie with the members of Rex.

“We wish you much love, peace, and happiness in the future,” the mayor tells R. Hunter Pearson, Jr. “May your reign today be the reign you have tomorrow. Hail Rex! Hail Rex! Hail Rex! Now drink up.”

Nagin sips his champagne, Rex sips his champagne, and I take a blast of the moonshine I picked up on Jackson Avenue. This is goodbye. Someone hands Rex the microphone.

“Mr. Mayor, I’m just so glad to be here today [feedback squawk] with this wonderful group, and the outpouring from the people of New Orleans. Our city is on a roll like never before.” He really does seem happy, too, and enters into a call-and-response with the crowd. Nagin’s voice on mike is audible in the response.

“I’d like to ask the people here one basic question. What is the best city in the United States?” New Orleans!

“What is the best city in the world?” New Orleans!

“What is the best city on the planet?” New Orleans!

Not just the world, people. The entire planet.