Army Girl and the Mardi Gras Indians: St. Joseph’s Day, 2006

By Sarah White

St. Joseph’s day, March 19, brought to mind this story, which picks up where this one left off…

It is Sunday, March 19th, 2006. Yesterday was the Pontilly Vision Retreat, facilitated by Bert Stitt. We woke up this morning in a sweet French Quarter hotel. About midday Bert and Linda return from breakfast. Bert hits his cell phone: a plan comes together for Caroline, one of the organizers of the Vision Retreat, to take us on a “windshield tour” of the Seventh Ward and Treme (tre-MAY) neighborhoods, where she grew up. On our way, she tells us about her Creole pedigree and the grandparent who went to the hospital to see how black her grandbabies were.

Hurricane Katrina hit these neighborhoods hard. We drive for blocks and blocks with hardly a person in sight. The rubble of construction debris tells you someone is getting on with his life. The lack of it indicates houses that have become corpses.

The only signs of commerce are the semi-invisible bars. The clues are the signs spray-painted outside a house, the men out front, drinking and talking. The locals call this  “liming.” We come upon a party spilling out of a bar at a crossroad – cars are parking on the boulevard down the middle of Tureaud street, parking up the cross street Dorgenois.

“What’s going on?” Caroline rolls down a window to ask. Someone replies. “The Indians are marching! It’s St. Joseph’s Day.”

“What time?” A shrug. Caroline tells us, “The Indians put the L and the G in Loosy-goosy.” We drive on. Caroline narrates a tour through the landscape of her youth, now in tatters, with a stop to meet with a contractor at a house she owns in Treme. When we return to the bar, it is past 6pm. As we leave the car I pull out my camera. “Never take a picture of an Indian without asking,” Caroline cautions me.

“Liming” outside the Bullet Lounge

The Bullet Lounge. It’s just a dive like on every corner in Wisconsin, the long bar down one side, smaller groupings of tables and chairs. Down the middle is a passage. Now and then I glimpse  a man in partial Indian get-up—face paint, or an elaborate beaded and feathered skirt tied over pants—pass through to a private room.

Caroline says, “I never drink. I never go in bars.” But she orders a Miller Light. A girlfriend from high school spots her, squeals. “Ann!” “Caroline! You! Here?” Someone takes their picture. “Caroline in a bar!”

A woman in the corner is spinning Motown and funk, Tower of Power, and every third or fourth tune, a slower jazz number. One woman and man are dancing just the slow numbers. She is a teenager, pants slung low and exaggerating her long torso, which she undulates for him. He, old and tiny and wiry, is strutting for her like he’s the gorgeous one. This is dirty dancing.

Then that Booty Call song, a staple of Disco Nights in places much whiter than this. Caroline and Ann join the line. And the most delicious young woman I have ever seen. Slim but with a butt that rounds out the army camo pants she is wearing low on her hips. A hint of tattoo peaks out below an olive t-shirt, low on her back. (typographic trivia: you can guess a word from seeing just the top half, but not from seeing the bottom half.) She has us all wanting to lift her shirt and read what’s written there.

This woman knows how to seduce! When the dancers turn, I see that the front of her t-shirt – shrink-wrapped to her gorgeous torso – has a design entirely in rhinestones. “Army Girl” it says, with a graphic of a dog-tag on a rhinestone chain. Above that her sweet, caramel-colored face, and above that, two pompons of Afro’d hair that make me think of Mickey Mouse ears. The dancers turn again and again and now her perfect butt is facing me and she’s working that butt like a belly-dancer.

“That woman is FINE,” I shout in Bert’s ear.

The dance ends and Army Girl joins a friend at the bar. He’s much older, café au lait under a white cowboy hat. But she belongs to us all.

Linda, who has hardly said a word all afternoon, announces she is hungry. (We all must be hungry, we must be! I can’t feel anything but excitement.) Bert responds, “The it’s time we should go. Maybe this was the scene. That dance. Army Girl.”

But once we get outside, we can’t make ourselves leave, because we are catching glimpses of big feather pieces. In the gathering dusk, men are bustling with real purpose now. Bert disappears; reappears with a paper container of barbeque pork chops.

“Where did you get that?”

“I saw somebody and asked him where he got it. He said ‘you can have it.’ “

I see an Indian! More Indians! People are taking pictures so I do too. Not one is good. My camera has no power to see what my heart has taken in this day.

Photo courtesy of /houseofdanceandfeathers.org

We witness the challenge dance, Spy Boy then Flag Boy. But we must find food… do not mess with a menopausal woman’s needs. We hear the Indians’ drummers intensifying their rhythms as we pull away. Army Girl’s performance may be complete, but the Indians’ is just beginning.

We are all performers here: the white Wisconsin tourists, our Creole native guide, Army Girl and her admirers. The Mardi Gras Indians too, Black men celebrating their inner Native Americans. New Orleans’ culture of ambiguity, freedom from fixed identity, has survived the flood.

© 2017 Sarah White

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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