Letting the traffic push you away from the tourists till you end up on Franklin, driving a couple of blocks and finding a spot on the mist-sprayed street. Peering through the bars of the iron mask -- good costumes invariably mean poor visibility -- picking out the front of a house thoroughly soaked in Carnival colors and decorations. Flanking the home front, a pair of leafless cypress, struggling to stand up straight, curbside in a cement sea, each bearing the amputee scars where a limb wanted to reach for the street.
This is it, the true Mardi Gras. Far from the television cameras and tourist gawks, the real deal.
Outside the iron mask, the noises swarm like bees trying to get inside the hive all at once and sounding like a radio dial being spun. A few doors down, there are a couple of guys loafing on the porch with some loud Latin music coming from somewhere. Behind them, in the doorway, a couple standing in the middle of lust, she with her skirt hiked up around her hips.
Shuffling along from the back apartment of a corner bar, a guy with dyed hair and a cigar way too big for his face stops to offer use of a bathroom and drinks and sandwiches.
And down the street, the corner of Royal, the bus named Franklin working its way through knots of people dressed like Dorothy and the Good Witch or Spiderman, inching around the corner. Pressed against the shaded glass of the bus window, a small girl standing on the seat, arms spread wide and fanned fingers seeking to touch the happiness outside while her big eyes slowly fill with the realization that the bus is moving on.
Catty-cornered are Big Daddy's, an earthy gay barroom, and Flora's, an ersatz bohemian coffee hole, and pressed between the two places, people like this: the dwarf with the magician hat and cape and the bright blue bikini. A guy blowing a trumpet with a 2-year-old backpacking along. The silverhaired old guy playing "The Saints" on the bagpipes. A young guy dressed as Gandhi, eating a dripping chili dog.
All them and those who smile while watching, pushing to get into some kind of a soul-wash and return with a life sweetened, a life refreshed, to a city that is a yardbird, but on this day becomes a fanned peacock.
Just down Royal from the Teamster's Hall, framed in an open door, the image of an old and haggard woman propped up in bed to blankly watch the people. A passerby stops to salute her with the eternal cry of Fat Tuesday: "He-ee-y! Mardi Graw!" And she smiles wanly and maybe thinks about it for a moment and lifts her withered, quivering arm over her head in a triumphant frieze.
Just then comes a thudding thump and all heads swivel toward Elysian Fields and its steady march of iron and petrol, and there is a frozen moment when no one quite comprehends what they have heard or even seen. Then the scene begins to sort itself out: a city bus and an elongated pickup truck, close to the rear of the bus, making the turn onto Royal. Puffs of smoke swirl upward from one or another of the vehicles.
In the time it takes to walk down to the corner, the scene has begun to take shape as a tiny domestic horror. Two or three people have opened the pickup's passenger door, so you can see the front airbag has opened; someone is face down on the seat. The bystanders bend their knees and lift together and bring the woman to the curb, where someone has spread a blanket too small for what it is being asked to do.
The woman from the truck lays there with one arm across her eyes and begins to shake and sob. Already, big bumps on her cheek and head are beginning their lives as bruises.
A drag queen with a well-made, sweet face saunters up. He is splendid in a light dress of sunny yellow and red trim with a big slit up the back and a magnificent head-dress. He hurriedly slips on a look of concern. "Has anyone called 911?" he asks bystanders. Then he looks around thoughtfully and with his gloved hands lifted and curved at the thumbs and forefingers, turns onto the sidewalk and is gone.
Gone and hoping to leave behind -- at least until the time that the courts of Comus and Rex meet -- all reminders of that other side of Carnival, that other end of the arrow from the one with the bright and soft feathers. They are the young guy laying on the wet sidewalks in his own vomit, the college girl passed out in her hotel room far from her credit card, the three kids on the back seat of the overturned pickup truck crying pitifully, tears thinning the blood on their faces.
Queens don't deal with all that. They don't have to. The slit in the back of the tight yellow skirt moving toward the wharves winks over and over again at the little group clustered around the telephone pole near the corner of Elysian Fields.