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March in New Orleans

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It is a front porch, fine and cool and overlooking everything, just before you step inside the high house of summer.

People get together on that porch and laugh and point out things to one another, things like rains that don't turn to steam. When it is over and it's time to go inside, everyone shuffles their feet and tries to linger.

Flowers speaking in tongues of many colors bubble up, fed by the fertility of gardens whose soil has washed up from a nation's greatest river. They even pop out from deserted bricks of old buildings and seem rightly proud of their ability to produce life in such lifeless places. It is, after all, the end of a continent, and the flowers have assembled themselves for one last look, waving hello and goodbye.

The flowers of the city put on their finest clothes in March and shame the glory of Solomon; all this you can see in photographs or from the high windows of a hotel room. Step out to the sidewalks and let your nose tell you how their thick perfume intertwines with the odor of decay and makes you drunk.

March is a time of then and now and, for many, a time for here and there. "There" can be one of two large islands, Ireland and Sicily, plunked down in oceans whose waves carried conquerors of all creeds to their shores and later carried them to ours. This time of year, in the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph, many in the city maybe feel a vague exile's guilt for not being there now and wipe that guilt clean by strutting around town in drink and celebration.

The Irish were one of the earliest immigrations to woo the city, and the city was contemptuous of their courtship, even cruel. When large numbers of Irish came to dig the New Basin Canal, the city flung its flus and fevers at the newcomers and in a couple of years had swallowed 10,000 of them in her swamps.

But there were those who survived and became an integral part of the city. They pumped the heart of the Uptown wards that straddled the riverfront docks and learned how to give to and take from a land alien to them in every way but one: its mix of celebration and resignation. The greatest of their poets, William Butler Yeats, knew that mix: "Folly alone I cherish,/I choose it for my share,/Being but a mouthful of air,/I am content to perish,/I am but a mouthful of sweet air./O lamentable shadows,/Obscurity of strife,/I choose a pleasant life,/Among indolent meadows,/Wisdom must lead a bitter life."

New Orleans was once one of the continent's most Catholic cities and as that great faith was carried along on the shoulders of its rites and rituals, so those rites and rituals were best carried along on the shoulders of the city's Sicilian population.

The Sicilians came in large numbers in the second half of the nineteenth century and the religion they brought with them was as passionate and personal as any other affair of the heart. You love me, Lord, and I feel it. Now I love you back and please feel it. You love me enough to feed me and I will feed you back.

On the week leading up to the feast day of St. Joseph on March 19, in kitchens all over town, families gather and prepare the old-country feel. Plenty of it, with lavishness.

In times past, this plentitude of food was placed around makeshift altars in homes with all the city invited to view the succulent covenant between God and those who love and are loved. In recent years, St. Joseph altars are erected in a traditional church, but the finale is the same. The feast is distributed among those least likely to be invited to a feast.

In the way of a city where cultures piggy-back on one another, St. Joseph's Day also brings out the Mardi Gras Indians.

As befits fantastic kingdoms and mythical peoples, the origins of the Indians remain cloudy. Do they date to a New Orleans visit of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show? Or do they motion back to a spiritual connection between races whose lives were lessened by a dominant white culture?

Whatever the origins, there is nothing cloudy on those rare and wonderful days when the Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets. On Super Sunday, they swirl down Orleans Avenue and it's all there: the raucous music, the mustering of tribes, the art of the homemade costumes. The Indians are dreams come to dance, and heaven hangs from the edge of their sleeves.

And because this is New Orleans, there is the notion that anyone can learn to disregard the meagerness of their day-to-day surroundings and take up fine things that can elevate you to the most beautiful feather-shaking chief on the avenue.

In other words, we do these things in New Orleans because we can. In March, when the flowers are looking good, or any other time we damn well please.

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