Her Story, Part III


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For the Gambit cover story, “Rally of the Dolls,” I had the pleasure of speaking at length with Mrs. Miriam Batiste Reed, sister to “Uncle” Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, and the self-proclaimed original Mardi Gras Baby Doll. The transcript of our conversation, which I will post here in segments throughout the week, amounts to nothing less than an oral history of the revived Baby Doll tradition and other latter-day Claiborne Avenue rituals — as well as a vivid reanimation of one woman’s most vital memories.


You know I comes on television? Every Carnival. Did you see me? I was on television with my two brothers, Norman and Lionel. He got that name Uncle Lionel and it just stuck with him. You know where he wears his watch? On his hand. They said, “Uncle Lionel, why you have your watch on your hand?” And he said, “Why? You don’t know why?” He said, “I got more time on my hands.” He is something else. When I get out there, I let them know that I’m coming. But with the family just scattered all around, you know, I don’t want to go live in no hotel. When I get in town, I go see my people. They all, “Oh, Auntie, Auntie, Auntie.” I got people call me “Auntie” and I’m not their aunt. But this the way my Batiste family was raised up. We love everybody, we do what we can for everybody, you know. And we would get there and have practice at my house. I lived down in the Ninth Ward. If you ever get a chance to, you pass going all the way back of Caffin Avenue, the 2400 block. And my house is still standing, but everything inside is gutted out. I’m planning on what I have to do to get it back.


So, Uncle Lionel. Oh, I have so many nieces. I got German nieces, Japan, England. Don’t he look like the peanut man? Yes indeed. My other brother Norman, he’s sort of quiet. Uncle Norman plays drums. He is an original shoe pimp. You know he can pimp your shoe for you? That’s what he was doing: pimping shoes.


I keep in touch with my brother Norman. We always was famous for the King Day. You get a King Cake and you have your party at your house. And food, and you singing and dancing and we kidding and joking. And when it’s time to cut the King Cake, you take the knife and cut you a slice of cake, and you get to eating it. And if you chew on the little baby doll, you have to have the next party.


People used to dress in women’s clothes, you know, because Mardi Gras was “All Fool’s Day.” Then after they took that away from Claiborne, the kids start with jeans and plaid shirts. And nobody wanted to take up the old, old faction of Mardi Gras. We say Mardi Gras. But the other people, they say, “Oh, Carnival.” Hell with Carnival.


It’s like everything just went ka-boom, you know? Because on Claiborne, people used to come out early in the morning and get a spot. They’d have their barbecue grill and their music and things, you know. And they’d be under there waiting for the Zulu parade to come by. Because the Zulu used to come and stop by Dooky Chase on Orleans. Each stop where the Zulu would be at a different barroom. I know you heard about the Caledonia — the old Caledonia that was down on St. Philip and St. Claude. And they would leave there and they would go down St. Claude to Sidney Brown’s lounge, on St. Claude and St. Bernard. And then it was other spots, you know, all around London Avenue and all that. The floats was made out of the papier-mache. But then they dropped all that and they came out with the old fancy floats and everything. Because they have a club that parades, and we were in that parade. It’s the first parade that wanted the Baby Dolls with them. 


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