RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: New Orleans’ music baachanalias fill the soul and the belly

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

The first thing you notice are the hats. That’s because these are hats made to be noticed, with feathers and netting and glitter and bodacious color.
What’s the point of dancing in front of thousands of people if your hat doesn’t have an exhibitionist streak?
I think music bacchanalias like the French Quarter Festival must hire exotic young people from Central Casting. There is a look reserved only for such events that most of us don’t have, a sort of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” meets “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” We wouldn’t have that look even if they assigned us hats.
Let’s just conclude that you no longer have to go to Bourbon Street to see skin, and that self-mutilation is “in.”
But older festivalgoers in boring khaki walking shorts know the ropes. They know how to avoid throngs of young people. The space around a small traditional jazz stage in Dutch Alley fills quickly with game geriatrics, most hauling chairs that will be positioned in a rare spot of shade and won’t move again all day.
There comes a point in your life when a crowded festival seems more like work than play. But I keep pretending I haven’t reached that point. And so I brave the crowds.
I want to hear the Pfister Sisters sing jazzy harmony and the Pine Leaf Boys sing Cajun. I eventually will manage both. I also want to eat at a few of the dozens of food tents set up by New Orleans’ most famous eateries, from Galatoire’s, which has a wonderful shrimp BLT po’boy, to Bubba Gump’s, advertising shrimp cake. And I wouldn’t turn down K-Paul’s butterbeans and rice with trinity, chicken, pork, andouille, tasso and duck, which today costs only $5.
I can handle the BLT only because a nice young man named William Trahan jumps up and offers his seat when he sees me struggling to balance my bag and the po’boy. “Here, sit down, the rest of my party hasn’t arrived,” he insists.
That’s one thing about New Orleans that never seems to change, no matter the occasion. It has manners. Individuals, most of them, go out of their way to be courteous. Statistically, you may get mugged and murdered before you leave town, but otherwise you’ll be treated like royalty.
From the stage in Jackson Square, Pfister Sister Holley Bendtsen gives a nod to Andrew Jackson for defeating the British. “That’s why there are no Puritans here,” she says. She and her stage sisters have the kind of pleasingly plump bodies that both benefit their lusty singing and keep them from having to pay for cleavage. When they harmonize on “Mood Indigo” it’s as if they are triplets co-joined at the lungs.
It gets to be too much eventually. I visit the Tums tent and make my way toward a quieter street outside of the Quarter. Even the quieter New Orleans streets are not quiet visually. The hot-pink bougainvillea is everywhere, and the gardenias leave limp their bloom-burdened bushes. A 1959 Chevrolet parked curbside is painted with voluptuous mermaids and wears this slogan: Good Work Ain’t Cheap. Cheap Work Ain’t Good.
I feel revived enough to visit a store with AC. I buy a hat, a practical straw number with a shading brim. But, all the same, it is a hat.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.