Memories of ‘The Big Easy’

By Don Jackson, February 13 2013
Former host of one of Canada’s most popular radio shows spanning three decades.
Author, broadcaster, storyteller.

Last night, my wife and I were discussing what to have for dinner. We eventually decided on take out. As the dinner dishes were being cleared from the dining room table, Lydia finally remembered something about yesterday’s date and said we should have made pancakes for dinner. It was, of course, Shrove Tuesday. Both of us had forgotten.

There is an old superstition concerning the reason for flapjacks on Shrove Tuesday. One of my sources said if you make them on that day then money will come to you easily throughout the rest of the year. I’m not the superstitious type, but that one intrigues me. We have made pancakes in the past on the day of Mardi Gras, but it’s too far back in time for me to know now if the superstition had any merit.

It’s a safe bet that most of the restaurants in the area of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street served many different types of pancakes yesterday to appreciative diners as they prepared for a wild night of celebrating the last day before the season of Lent. 

I don’t have to imagine what New Orleans would be like on Shrove Tuesday, the final night of Mardi Gras. I’ve walked the tiny, almost claustrophobic Bourbon Street in the oppressively high heat of summer. When I see photographs of people pressed so close together on that festive night, I can understand why they move as one entity and only as fast as the will of the crowd allows.

I have never attended Mardi Gras. I don’t know if I would be comfortable being pushed around by hundreds of people crammed in a very small area. That said, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who make the pilgrimage to ‘The Big Easy’ every year at this time for one of the world’s great outdoor parties.

I have very fond memories of New Orleans. Our first and last trip there was before the residents ever knew what the name ‘Katrina’ would come to mean.

It was a late August in 1999. We stayed at a spacious condo in the French Quarter. The dining room table was an antique made of heavily polished mahogany. It had a few nicks from years of use. I wondered what its heritage was in a city known for its rich history. It was there that we ate some of our meals while on vacation. It is also where I did some research work late into the night for my Toronto radio show. I felt a certain inspiration at that table in the French Quarter looking out the large windows at the historic quarter.

One afternoon, my wife and I were sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of a bookseller in the Garden District of New Orleans. The shop is located across the street from the cemetery where Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt brought two of Anne Rice’s moody immortals to life in the film version of ‘Interview With the Vampire’.

In fact, up on the second level of this small neighborhood collection of shops, is the Anne Rice store where one can purchase memorabilia from the films and her stories. As you enter this unique shop, you are confronted with a full-size mockup of ‘Lestat’, the character Tom Cruise played. In this scenario, ‘Lestat’ is standing with his bride who is a skeleton in a wedding dress. I can well imagine this is one of the most popular haunts come Hallowe’en. We were in the Garden District that afternoon for a walking tour. At the time, Anne Rice had a grand home in the District. Our tour guide said if we were lucky we might get a chance to meet her. She liked to spend some of her afternoons tending to her ornate gardens. That day, however, Anne was away. I assumed she might be doing some research for one of her new books. We were caught in a torrential downpour and our clothes were soaked through, but our tour guide kept her casual pace regaling us with the fascinating history of the District. 

At Mardi Gras time, the most popular haunt is Bourbon Street. And like Hallowe’en, the revellers are often done up in costume and ornate masks. They are not the usual trick-or-treaters in the sense that candy is not what they crave. During the carnival week and especially on the last night, strings of tacky beads that are worn around the neck are the most sought-after trinkets. As the revellers move along the street, those out on balconies along the parade route will toss these strands to eager hands. When we were there in the most humid days of summer, the beads were hanging up in cheap souvenir shops. The gaudy strands were dusty and basically worthless. You could buy them for a song. But when it comes time for Mardi Gras, they are valued like treasure.

One the first day of Lent in New Orleans, ‘The Big Easy’ undergoes the big cleanup. Some of the beads that were coveted just the night before are found scattered in clumps on the street amid the trash. I would imagine that some of the more tawdry strings are picked up and returned to the souvenir stores to be hung on walls again. There they will collect another layer of dust waiting for their next chance at being longed for.

By the way, while I was there I didn’t see a streetcar named ‘Desire’. I did, however, have my photo taken in front of a city bus with ‘Desire’ as its destination. 

Tennessee Williams would have approved.

Don Jackson, February 13 2013

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