They don't hire just anyone to paint Mardi Gras floats. These jobs have always been coveted, the den bosses picky. This year, Katrina interrupted production for two months, and some artists never returned. So our den's new desperation crew consisted of the booker for a temporarily closed Frenchmen Street nightclub, a Jackson Square painter short on tourists and a graffiti artist once profiled by The Times-Picayune.
After my first day on the job blocking in giant stars with white latex so that a more-proven talent could paint in colorful details, my den boss led me to my own float. He bypassed the usual long apprenticeship to give me a part in our first post-apocalyptic Mardi Gras. Just a 38-second bit part--the average time each float is seen by paradegoers--but historic nonetheless.
Mardi Gras dens are gray warehouses, but their insides, crammed full of entire parades, make Wonka's factory look subtle. There are usually 25 to 40 krewes working on floats, and most weren't halfway finished when the levees broke. Because the floats are simple canvas-covered plywood carriages bolted to metal boat trailers, they're easy to fix, and most continue their march toward Mardi Gras. But this year's truncated parade schedule angered the many excluded krewes, whose dens sit abandoned, their storm-damaged roofs exposing useless purple, green and gold.
Lake Pontchartrain left a thick, brown stripe four feet up the side of all the floats in our den. My boss gave me a small color sketch to follow, an underwater-- dirty water--motif to draw over the stripe. I was to add my own jokes featuring blue tarps, FEMA trailers, dead catfish (wearing cat 3 athletic jerseys), a can of Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning and a sign reading bienvenidos a nueva orleans.
I climbed a 10-foot ladder to the hull, then another to the second story, where I drew the Superdome. My den boss approved, with the qualifier, "Right now, fast is more important than perfect." But he couldn't accept my brow-furrowed catfish watching Bush on TV, thinking, "Fishy..." "The folks who pay for these parades don't go so hard on Bush," he said.
On day three, I sprayed over the floodline--before the den boss could explain that each float's brown stripe was supposed to play into the composition. "And it's the first float of the parade, too," he said, sighing.
Our quickness determined our hourly wage. I signed a contract for $600 upon completion of my float. By day five I was down to $6.50 an hour. All morning and afternoon we labored among thousands of paint-filled plastic Mardi Gras cups. At lunchtime, the Red Cross lunch wound through the disaster area. Mexican men in paper masks emerged from the surrounding soggy houses and we'd all line up together for small, wet hamburger steak.
After sunset I'd clean up and ride my FEMA-subsidized motor scooter home through dead, powerless neighborhoods. Every night my dreams would explode in primary colors outlined in black, as if painted to be seen from 40 feet away.
One weekend, alone in the den, I imagined I was almost finished. Until Monday when my boss sighed and touched his eyebrows with both hands, saying, "I feel bad making you do this over, but I just haven't had time to teach you..." With those words, I was brought down below minimum wage.
"No problem," I said, not wanting to be demoted to blocking in stars. He grumbled some new color suggestions and walked away.
I left work early, depressed. Depressed about our city's being destroyed, then criminally neglected, but more depressed about what it might turn into if the government pays too much attention. Depressed about making a waiter's wage (sans tips). Depressed that I wasn't invited to be in the 9th Ward Marching Band though I'm one of the few musicians still living in The Nine. For the first time, I contemplated leaving.
Then, at one of the city's few stoplights, I noticed the streetcars. Only five people onboard, including the driver, but "Look!" I cried out to a black guy framed in the window of the white utility truck beside me. "Something normal !"
"Today is their first day back." He smiled. He eyed my paint-splattered clothes: "You workin'?" Lately, men in trucks have stopped to ask if I need $12-an-hour work painting or gutting houses. But this guy just hoped I was doing OK.
"I'm painting Mardi Gras floats!"
"All right!" he laughed, sounding like "God bless you."
And I decided not to leave yet, feeling like Mardi Gras needed me.