It is almost halfway through Carnival, when things ought to be ramping up, with Chewbacchus behind us, Barkus and ‘tit Rex happening, Krewe de Vieux rolling and frantic costuming and planning going on, with lists being made of the things that you just can’t miss this year that somehow you missed last year. The travelers and street people should be getting more flamboyant mixing with the locals who start to mask for parades and dress formally for other Krewe-sponsored events and the flocks of tourists donning beads and doffing clothes in an effort to join the party. Musicians should have full schedules of gigs, ranging from the elaborate receptions and parties thrown by the big krewes to the neighborhood clubs hosting live music through the wee hours.
Instead, the streets are mostly empty and the clubs are closed. The city shuts down at 11 except for the people hanging around outside convenience stores and gas stations. People are decorating their houses in a kind of quiet desperation, with people who normally decorate ramping it up a little, and the people who ride with the big krewes spending money on professional artists to build out their houses into semblances of floats.
As a fan and participant in the walking parades, the formal floats have always left me a little cold, even as I enjoy the crowds, bands, and dance troupes that accompany them. Now the elaborate house floats just seem a way to demonstrate how much money someone is willing to spend. I understand that excess is the point for many, but I prefer the overindulgences and the stretching of social boundaries to overspending on decor. The driving tours past tableaux set up in parks, for a fee, are just depressing.
The music scene remains grim, with a ban on live music one of the plague rules that is being enforced. The music clubs remain closed, with a few offering live-streaming shows of bands playing to empty rooms. The festivals have been postponed indefinitely. A handful of players have staked out busking opportunities outside clubs, playing to sparse audiences in the street for tips, and a few of the restaurants have hired people to play to to their half full rooms. I have not taken advantage of these, not really interested in taking up table space for a singleton. When a restaurant is operating at 25 or 50% capacity by rule, how much do you tip to make up for the bad day/week/year the server is having? The bars remain in “to-go” status only, unless they operate in the restaurant permit gray zone.
A few tourists are still coming and are oblivious to the risks they bring and to the changes, a striking example of shifting baselines. I am glad they are enjoying the city as a shadow of itself, but it is hard to appreciate the first time visitors who proclaim it is “so good to hear the bucket drummers” as an example of the New Orleans music culture, or exclaiming about how great it is to see people hanging around outside the bars.
Friends in the service industry are getting hammered, those who remain employed getting a shift or two a week at limited capacity at restaurants and nothing at the bars.
In the meantime the real estate market is crazy, with for sale, rent and lease signs up all over, but prices and rents going up rather than down. People are not being evicted because of the plague rules, but the bill will come due and it is hard to see how it will turn out well. Friends, renters now in the neighborhood, are shopping to find a modest house or condo and finding nothing less than $500K. A recent listing in the Quarter had a 100 sq foot efficiency for $169K. Photos made it look like a nice, if tiny, hotel room in an old dependency. Rents across the board exceed most people’s income.
This plague and the official response, including the increase in economic inequality, feels like a case study in “How to Kill a City.” New Orleans is resilient, as shown by Katrina, but many neighborhood institutions did not survive that regional disaster. How long can the city continue to play Rope a Dope, taking the body blows of the pandemic and claiming it is a strategy?
I’m hoping Carnival 2022 looks better, but the foundations are slipping.