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I Marched With the Skeletons

Tagging along with a Mardi Gras tradition, the author feels exhiliaration in his bones.

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In 1998 I wrote an article in these pages about the origins of Mardi Gras skeletons, the "bone gangs" whose costumes and fearsome skull masks generated legends of black Carnival in the downtown wards. The skeletons sometimes materialized around Mardi Gras Indian tribes; but the bone gangs began earlier, before dawn, raising a racket in a performance art of scaring people -- particularly kids -- in their path.

Two years ago a friend told me of a white guy, one Chris Kirsch, who had been inspired by my article to immerse himself in the creation of skull and bone costumes and had led his own group, the Skeleton Krewe, for several years. Would I like to march with them Fat Tuesday?

To be a skeleton was a tempting invitation. But the issue of midlife is spare parts. In my case that means knees, each with cartilage extracted. All used up for jogging, I swim now, dutifully and in boredom. The prospect of marching down St. Charles Avenue through the Quarter, some five miles, made me waver.

On Friday night of Carnival I went to see a buddy riding in Le Krewe d'Etat, the parade famous for its biting political satire. Suddenly, at Napoleon and Camp, a dozen skeletons swarmed into view, the midnight cloth radiant with the paint of bright bones and huge heads in the middle of the parade, dancing, clapping, handing out doubloons. They had a crypt affixed to a baby stroller.

Two of them came close. Whoa! Turned out to be my friends (who insisted on anonymity in what I might write.)

"You coming Tuesday?" said s/he.

"I don't have a costume."

"Chris has one for you."

As Le Krewe D'Etat lumbered on, I watched the black figures with white bones and menacing heads weave sinuous circles between the floats, heading down Napoleon like mythical figures from some ancient rite.

I wondered which one was Chris.

COSTUME PREPARATION WAS MONDAY afternoon at the Uptown home of Chris Kirsch and Dorie Cavey with food, beer, and Carnival music.

One room was filled with skull masks, most of them made by Chris: bulbous foreheads, wire-mesh eyes in an array of shapes -- ovoid, square, rectangular. Chris had affixed bicycle helmets inside the curve of the cranium to stabilize each skull for wearing.

"In November I started having people over and teaching them the process of papier-machŽ," he explained. "We did it over several Sundays. I made a pot of red beans and rice. You start with a two-dimensional plane, a form, out of cardboard, which gives you something to wrap the chicken wire around. You get some detail from there, as you start layering on the papier-machŽ. It takes a couple of days for the first two layers to dry."

"How do you make papier-machŽ?"

"I use vinyl wallpaper paste," he reported, warming to his subject. "Couple of reasons. It's readily available and dries well. Plus, bugs don't like it. If you use the wheat paste, you'll either get boll weevils in it early on, or termites. Bugs definitely do not like the vinyl wallpaper paste. I go eight to 12 layers thick. I use a combo of newspaper, paper bags and craft paper for the shell."

A bright red devil's mask sat on the table amongst the skulls. "Dorie is our devil," said Chris. "Dorie and I make a good couple on more than one level."

Dorie was teaching English as a Second Language at the University of New Orleans, Chris checked credentials on physicians for a local health insurance company.

"I grew up in Kenner," he continued. "I remember as a child seeing my father march on Mardi Gras with the Jefferson City Buzzards. My grandfather was in Buzzards, too. My father passed away in 1967. I was 4. My mother was left with eight kids. I didn't see too much of Mardi Gras till 1979, when the police strike in New Orleans put parades in my backyard. In 1984 I began coming to the parades Uptown, and the older I got, my appreciation developed."

He cited a photograph of skeletons on Magazine Street from the Historic New Orleans Collection he had seen as a kid. "I was fascinated. Why do people dress as skeletons? Once I read [the Gambit article] about the bone gangs, it gave me appreciation. I read more, about skulls in Carnival in Haiti. It made sense to me. Mardi Gras and Lent, the end but the beginning, the circle of life."

And now his front door looked out on a cemetery behind Isidore Newman School.

"I decided to try to emulate the tradition. In '99 I did it by myself, walked down St Charles early on Mardi Gras morning. I got a really good crowd response. I did it again in 2000. In 2001, Dorie decided to join me. She dressed as Medusa. She had this rubber skull cap with snakes and painted her face green. She looked fantastically frightening. That year other people saw me, and the next year they decided to join."

"Here's your costume," said Kirsch, handing me an enormous skull. The grid of teeth was thick as a saw, the nose painted in the shape of a heart upside down. Each eye was the size of a poodle's head. The mask looked like a bucko who could do some damage. The patina was stained blue-gray with white rims to the eyes and lips.

The costume included overalls emblazoned with bones.

"I'm going to paint bones on a pair of my own black jeans and a dark shirt," I announced.

He handed me the overalls. "Take this just in case. Be here for 6 a.m."

I made a beeline for an art-supply store, bought a big bottle of white gesso paint and two brushes. That night I painted arm and shoulder bones on a faded black pullover that lay on a table shrouded in newspaper.

"If you put the paint on thick," my wife said, "it won't dry for tomorrow."

"I know what I'm doing," I retorted.

She had agreed to park downtown and meet us after we made it into the French Quarter.

"You're using a lot of paint," she said.

"I don't want prissy bones," I snorted, working on the right femur.

AT MIDNIGHT I CONKED OUT. FIVE hours later I beat the alarm, put on coffee, caught a glance of Rex and the Queen in the Times-Picayune, and tiptoed into the laundry room where the costume waited. Pants looked okay. I slipped on the bone shirt. Wet paint oozed into my hair, neck, chest -- out, damn paint!

The shower took a while. My wife was sleeping when I put on the costume Kirsch had made, dumped mine in the garbage, put the skull head in the passenger seat and gunned the engine as dark sky drained into gray.

At Chris and Dorie's, the Skeleton Krewe had gathered -- including a city employee, retired college professor, a lawyer, a guy who worked in marketing for a beverage company and his girlfriend, who ran a snowball stand. Another guy worked at the airport; he built the coffin in which food and beverages were stored for our march; another woman was an occupational therapist. There was a librarian and the son of a retired Saints football player.

I made the 13th skeleton in the krewe.

Chris lined up the skull heads and Dorie's red devil mask for photographs, framed by the cemetery and mausoleum across the street. At 6:30 a.m. we began walking along Liberty to Napoleon with Al Johnson singing "Carnival Time" on WWOZ, the radio set atop the wheeled coffin.

Walking with skeletons up Napoleon as people staked out turf on the neutral ground was surreal. Children peered. I began handing out wooden doubloons, two bags of which Chris had given each of us. At just about every corner, women with cameras asked for group shots. "We've got to push on!" yelled Chris. "We have to beat Zulu to Jackson Avenue!"

If we got caught behind Zulu we would never make it across Canal in time to traverse the French Quarter and meet the Society of Ste. Ann, a group that began in Faubourg Marigny. This was our mission.

Earl King was singing "Big Chief" as we made the turn on St. Charles. On the neutral ground a 20-something guy was sleeping on a sofa, a gal-pal stroking his hair. It was true: people actually slept out here to get parade stationing. I had a flashback of several years to a TV anchorperson stating that NOPD would treat public nudity on a case-by-case basis, but anyone caught toting a sofa to a parade would be arrested. The city of New Orleans does have priorities. Three sofas opposite Fat Harry's seemed to have sprung from the soil.

Peering out from the huge skull eyes, I felt like an alien watching people watch me. Several children wailed until I gave them doubloons. We crossed Louisiana Avenue at 7 a.m. in a fog of barbeque smoke and aromas of meat. In front of Bultman Funeral Home a lady decked out in red tights with black garters and showgirl fringe around the bustline sloshed a glass of champagne and called: "Hey Mistah Scary Skeleton, you got somethin' for a lil bitty sugar like me?" There wasn't much little about her, but I forked over a doubloon.

"What about one for my lil girl?"

I gave her another; both disappeared into her bust fringe.

Many people were taking our photogaphs. We got to Lee Circle just after 8 a.m. Pete Fountain's Half Fast Marching Club was moving along in front of us, the leader with his clarinet atop the lead float like a jovial buddha, shooting out "Bourbon Street Parade" above the din.

The Gallier Hall reviewing stands were not yet filled, and Mayor Nagin was nowhere in sight as we reached Poydras. It was getting hot inside the big skull, but just then a cool breeze blew in off the river as we moved into the CBD. The Rex reviewing stand at the Hotel InterContinental was empty, the queen and her court probably still at breakfast. Skeletons will clear the way for Rex ... .

THE CROWDS WERE THICKENING AS we got to Canal, a lot of people yelling "Skeletons! Skeletons!" What I wanted more than anything was an Old Fashioned with Maker's Mark, but Kolb's Restaurant had long since closed, and my plan to divert the bone krewe into the bar at the Ritz or Marriott got knee-capped by a cop.

"You look like Apple!" the police officer shouted.

He was staring at me in the skull head. I was too tired to run.

"Apple was my friend," said the cop. "He died, you know. And I saw you with that head, and I said, 'That is Apple. I mean, you a skeleton, y'unnerstand? Still you look jus' like Apple!'"

Poor Apple, I thought. The eyes I had on were the size of small dogs and the teeth looked like a buzz saw. But in the synapse of mask-simulating-life, I played the role, perspiring inside my skull.

"I can take your picture?" said the cop.

"For Apple?" I shrugged. "Sure."Ê

This was a moment of exquisite pleasure for Chris Kirsch, having made a skull that reminded a man of a friend, now buried. The cop pulled out his digital camera, and offered huge thanks. With the gravitas upon me of channeling Apple, we moved on, via Decatur Street, to Jackson Square.

We paused at the Cabildo, just before 10. That was when the Born-Agains arrived, holding signs that said "Fear God and Keep His Commandments" and "Give Your Life to Jesus."

We were taking a long break, with the skull masks lined up along the wall of the Cabildo, but I still had on my bone suit. An evangelist button-holed me. "What are those, brother?"

"Skulls," I reported.

"What is their meaning?"

"It's what happens to our heads after we die."

"That's what you believe?"

"I believe in the immortality of the soul. Biologically, though, after time in the soil, you don't get heads looking much betterthan those masks."

"Is this thing occult?"

"I wouldn't say so."

A flicker of relief registered in his eyes. "We're out here for the Lord. Are you a Christian?"

"I'm a Catholic."

"Why do you wear a mask like that?"

"Because it's Mardi Gras."

He nodded. "Well, the Lord keep you." He followed his companions with the signs, one of which showed a red devil holding a pitch fork and the words "Remember, we don't serve breakfast in hell."

That is when we decided to eat.

Peering out from the huge skull eyes, I felt like an alien - watching people watch me. - CHRISTOPHER HIRSCH
  • Christopher Hirsch
  • Peering out from the huge skull eyes, I felt like an alien watching people watch me.

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