“Wake Up, Wake Up, it’s Mardi Gras Morning!”
So goes the chant of the Northside Skull and Bones Gang as they float quietly through the Tremé and the northeast corner of the French Quarter, rapping on doors and windows, waking up those who slept in cars they’d parked on the roadside late last night, waking up those who’ve been asleep in houses they’ve lived in for generations.
A quiet, muffled chant, barely audible through papier-maché masks of huge skulls that cover their heads. A lone tambourine beats out a steady, slow, singular rhythm. The leader walks on stilts, urging one and all to change their ways…”Stop your cheatin’, stop your lyin’, stop your drinkin’…” His chant repeats like a mantra, low and slow, almost under his breath…
Up and down the streets of a Mardi Gras dawn they wander, five men and five boys, unidentified, anonymous…”Young and old, you all got to go…North Side Skull and Bones, wake up, wake up, it’s Mardi Gras Morning…”
Every now and then a door they rap on is answered, and old friends emerge, bleary-eyed, to give the skeleton crew a beer, or a hug, or a friendly wave. Mostly the streets are empty. But in a matter of a few hours these same streets will throb with an anarchic throng of wildly-dressed revelers, celebrating the final climactic day of the ancient pagan ritual known as Carnival.
The North Side Skull and Bone Gang have been waking up New Orleans since 1819, or thereabouts. How or why the Gang came to be is a matter of folklore, but there hardly needs to be a reason. Whether our origins are African, Amerindian, European, or elsewhere, we all feel the numinosity of a walking skeleton emerging from the shadows of night. Bones coming back to life; talismans left over from something that once had a spirit, a heart, a soul, that once had blood pumping through arteries and lungs respirating the breath of life. Skulls, the fossilized containers of a once-living mind, reminding us of our mortality, and hinting at the age-old human question of what happens to us after we breathe our last breath. The one certainty is repeated over and over in the muffled chant of the Bone Gang. “Young and old, all got to go.”
Few cities in the modern world are more familiar with the constant presence of death than New Orleans. Cemeteries all over town hold the deceased in above-ground tombs, like tiny cities of the dead, to keep the wet ground from dispensing rivers of caskets into the streets. Men and women in period clothes lead ghost tours around the French Quarter, extolling the city’s abundant folklore of murder, morbidity, and revenge from beyond the grave. Memories of Katrina still haunt the city, and she is ever-present in still-abandoned houses with spray-painted marks telling the number of bodies that were found inside after the storm, in torn-up streets sprouting grass through cracks made by swelling ground trying desperately to soak up the floodwaters,
From a strictly religious viewpoint, Mardi Gras is the last day, the very last day, of a celebration whose Latin translation could mean either “farewell to the flesh” or “to lift up the flesh”…In either sense, it is a celebration of life that, at its heart, embraces the inevitability of death. So while the Bone Gang slides through the shadows of Mardi Gras morning; as the day grows ever-brighter with the promise of brilliant colors, outrageous behavior, and joyful mayhem; the long shadows of the big chief’s stilts grow shorter and shorter, and death slinks into a dark blue tavern for a cold beer and a soda pop, waiting to re-emerge into the light of day to dance with the living on Mardi Gras Day.
Walk the streets of New Orleans on any given Sunday and you will see more evidence of the rebirth of this town that was almost washed away, more than once, by nature’s fury and man’s hubris. Second-line steppers in fancy dress being followed by brass bands and hundreds of plain-clothes Sunday strollers. Barbecues on the neutral grounds, shouts of “All Right!” and offers of beer and chicken to total strangers, a random couple dancing on top of a street-corner mailbox. Any excuse is a good excuse to get together and let the good times roll. New Orleans is a world where life is lived on the streets; and it is loud, colorful, funky, and just a little insane. In a town that has seen tragedy after tragedy, such an overabundance of music and dancing and pure joie de vivre might seem frivolous, or nihilistic; but somehow none of that makes any difference. The music bubbles up from the ground, the beat calls all to the dance. Neither nature’s fury nor man’s incompetence can stop the symphony.