Fat Tuesday just waddled by. I was never in Nawlins for it, but ah done been there wonce, I garr-on-tee. We went for the French Quarter Festival. Unlike the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which is for top acts known anywhere, the French Quarter Festival showcases unknowns and local musicians, and has looser style preferences. I have to be careful about using the term “loose” in the context of New Orleans. The town is already so loose that the boundaries between Earth, heaven and hell overlap. Religious symbols are everywhere. Catholicism mixes with Santeria, the animal-sacrificing, potion-making, spell-casting religion brought to Nawlins with the importation of slaves from the Caribbean. There’s a large vampire culture too, and you can purchase a guided tour of haunted sites led by one, after midnight.
You don’t have to drink to have fun, but if you’ve a mind to drink some, this town is made for it. They have drive-through Margarita stands. They hand you the straw separately. It’s your responsibility if you put it in the cup. They’ll even tell you “Y’ought not ta drink un drahve, aw raht?” as they hand you the Margarita. It’s also acceptable to be weaving about on the sidewalks with a drink in your hand. Not in a glass, mind you. You got to be safe. When you are ready to ooze from one bar to the next, you order your last drink in a “go cup” (plastic). Southerners like sweeter-tasting, fruit-flavored concoctions than Yankees. The drinks have names like “hand grenade”. That’s a joke, son. It’s got ‘bout five kinds of liquor in it, but when they mix ‘em, it come out green. And if you drink a second one, you gon’ need some “ade” gettin’ home safe.
It’s hot in New Orleans, and the kind of humid that makes you feel as if you are a goldfish in a sandwich bag. You better be wearing absorbent clothes, or next to no clothes which is the preferred alternative for many attending the festival. Heaven keeps an eye out, though. Just when you can’t walk another step, rain will pour down on you. An hour later it’ll be sunny again, and the steam will rise off the lawns and rooftops. No need to carry an umbrella. Just duck in somewhere. It’ll be gone soon.
We ducked into Pat O’Brien’s during one of those quick rain dumps. It was full of people. Some had just come in like us, but more had been there awhile. These patrons were regulars, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Their attention was fixed on an ancient waiter who was finishing passing out drinks from a round metal tray. A man on the tiny stage announced it was time for Joe’s act. Joe was the old waiter. Joe was thin and bowed, and so richly, deeply black you could see the blue tinge underneath the chocolate. He was bald, but had a halo of white cotton balls above his ears.
Joe silently walked up to the stage, while the watchers clapped in approval and shifted to get a better view. He put down his tray. He put metal picks on his fingers, the kind you use to play banjo or 12-string guitar. I expected he would be playing a conventional instrument, and I love hearing old people play. Joe’s instrument wasn’t conventional.
He picked up his metal tray and positioned it close to the microphone. A piano player sat down and began playing one of the old Stephen Foster songs in a tempo appropriate for the act. Joe remained still, leaning toward the audience like some wizened tree. Then his fingers began “dancing” on the bottom surface of his tray, in imitation of the rhythms a tap dancer might employ. Nothing moved except Joe’s fingers, and the fingers of the pianist. My companion and I glanced around the room. Eyes were wide and the room was quiet except for the tippity-tap-tap-scrape sound of Joe’s dancing fingertips, and the tinkling piano chords. Everyone was watching and not drinking. It was an eerie moment but also joyfully absurd. This was a situation as wild and weird as any Tex Avery had imagined for Bugs Bunny. It was Fellini or Bunuel down South. When my friend and I looked back at each other, we had to try very, very hard to keep from laughing. It wasn’t that Joe’s act was bad. He was doing pretty well, so far as fingers on a tray style tap dancing goes. It was the rapt attention and look of amazement on the faces of the patrons that got to us. They took it completely seriously, as did Joe.
At the end of the number Joe got lots of applause and cheers, and he went back to serving drinks with his tray. People would pat him on the back and put tips on the tray as he came by. Aside from a shy smile or two, I don’t recall Joe saying a word to anyone. He had his job, and he had his act, and he was as satisfied an old man as I’ve ever seen. The bar returned to normal cheery semi-rowdy joviality. The rain had stopped. Mist rose from the sidewalk. We took our go cups and walked on.