Only those who were there during the storm have the understanding of what happened and why.
—Tara Aleman, NOLA.com
They spilled from two tour buses like tacks from a knocked-over box. White-faced and black-leotarded, most shot off toward the stores and bars around North Gates and the surrounding neighborhoods: the flower-named street neighborhood; the Ivanhoe, Carlotta and State Street neighborhood; Little Pakistan; the new condo community at the opposite end of the old shopping center; and even into the president- and state-named street ghettos. They avoided entering campus—however, we figured—so as to not violate the bible-parchment thin barrier that serves as separation of church and state in south Louisiana.
With the buses was a semi, which, like the buses, had a long, diagonal golden cross, only on the side of its trailer, reaching from the lower rear to the upper front corners. Muscular mimes, who didn’t disappear into the places of business or the humidity-sogged neighborhoods, stayed behind, unloaded the truck and began assembling a stage, complete with lights and sound, the stewed air quivering over the dead asphalt sea around them. Helicopters buzzed back and forth overhead, between the purgatory that was now Baton Rouge, the hell that was now New Orleans, and the flattened, flooded, beaten, boiled and then baked landscape in between. After the stage was completed, the sound system checked, the muscular mimes began unloading long square wooden posts and beams, enough wood, someone—probably Wiley—opined, to hang a Tiger-Stadium-ful of Jesuses.
Much of this went on before and while we were all trickling into Chimes for happy hour after our various jobs, mostly on campus. Word of the mimes had preceded us there, but we offered our accounts of what we’d seen and then shrugged off their presence, especially when word also reached us that these particular mimes were Christian mimes. One of us—Big Custus, I think—said, “A silent Christian?”
We all laughed and started talking about that bunch the other day that’d come down from the righteous hills of Woodville, Mississippi, a town better known to us as the home of the closest totally-nude titty bar to Chimes, the generally agreed-upon center of our universes. Members of the family of God, they called themselves. These portly, flannel-clad third cousins to Christ, from Woodville, Mississippi, along with their wives and children—apparently quaintly costumed for an episode of Little House on the Prairie, someone, likely Barry, the IT guy from the School of Business—joked, set up cathedral in front of LSU’s student union and commenced sermonizing.
According to them, the following people had more or less invited that harlot, that jezebel Hurricane Katrina into south Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama merely by being―the egg-shaped, bearded great nephew of God said―gluttons, drunkards, fornicators, liberal humanists, homosexuals, adulterers, drug addicts, Democrats, evolutionists, secularists, and Catholics. The throng of students there might have had some empathy for him until he got to that last breed of evil sinner, the Catholic, which was what about 80% of them were. The heckling then commenced.
These are the end times, the students were scolded, the preacher informing them that Revelations predicted disasters such as Katrina, and, when a helicopter passed above, he roared that Revelations also forecast iron-breast-plated six-winged locusts. When the preacher bellowed from his denim and flannel that the students were the future of America, the students woo-hoo-ed the mention of America and proceeded to drown out John Boy Swaggart by chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” until he and his clan were able to return to Woodville, Mississippi, indulging in their self-fulfilled prophecy of being persecuted martyrs in the name of their direct blood kin and savior Jesus Christ. “Good riddance to bad New Testament exegesis,” one of us, pretty sure Wylie, had said.
The first of the mimes that infiltrated Chimes were pleasant enough, each simply nodding hello and giving us a postcard-sized announcement that explained all the commotion down at the now mostly empty shopping center. Businesses there were being forced out by a developer who bought the property and was in the process of evicting everyone―the textbook store, Helga’s, Chelsea’s, Roly Poly, the Saigon Café, etc.―in the name of providing new housing, at at least $900 per apartment, for an overstretched market. Baton Rouge had become such a market in the wake of Katrina, sponging up permanent evacuees from NOLA.
The mimes’ announcements read, “Christ-like Righteous Angelic Pantomime Productions (C.R.A.P.P.) presents, in honor of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a dramatic yet silent retelling of Noah’s Ark, now set in New Orleans. A Joyful Pantomime Productions is affiliated with the Bakersfield, CA, Apostolic Church of Christ’s Blood, within its Division of Righteous Dramatic, Performance, and Bible-Believing Bodybuilding Arts.” We all were touched that they were erecting the stage and set for a performance specifically designed just for us, here in south Louisiana, God bless. The messenger mimes, as we’d realize they were when the next wave eventually inundated Chimes, were wispy, dainty asexual little waifs who appeared and disappeared like the shadows of overhead birds on the ground.
We’d learn later that CRAPP had initially planned to hold their righteous performance on Bourbon Street but discovered that the National Guard was letting no one in, even these particular impish messengers of God. We all figured it was for the best. Mimes wouldn’t really stand out in the French Quarter and, if anything, they might get confused for a parade or something. New Orleans will throw parades at the drop of a Big Ass Beer cup, which is why we, at first, were underwhelmed by the notion of the mimes in the first place. One thing about this part of the country, they are serious about their costuming: months of stitching, gluing, and fastening decorations go into costumes for Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and, foremost, Mardi Gras. They dress up. They masquerade. They go all out. After you’ve been to Zulu, after you’ve seen those flamboyantly feathered Zulu warrior outfits, many sadly lost in the hurricane, after you’ve seen the most searing of homosexuals dancing around in nothing but sequined thongs, attached to which were long, bejeweled costume erections the size of elephant tusks―once you’ve seen things like that, little skinny black-leotarded sexually ambiguous Californians with their faces painted white just didn’t stand out. We all had to admit, though, that our collective imaginations had been at least somewhat piqued by the idea of a silent, mimed Noah’s Ark set smack dab in the middle of Bourbon Street. No telling what they might find two of each of down there.
The mimes’ novelty began to wear off with the next wave, as these mimes attached themselves to anyone they found in any public place. This alone wasn’t what annoyed us. In this particular wave of mimes, each had one of the Seven Deadly Sins embroidered in Latin on its chest. These Seven Deadly Sins mimes then sought out relevant purveyors of whichever sin was etched on their chests. At first, we found this rather creative, but what actually got to us was we weren’t exactly comfortable with their uncanny knack of perception.
D-Flatt, a bartender at Chelsea’s and country band leader, was accompanied by a Luxuria and an Ira, which, we figured, had something to do with not getting called out for an encore at a show the night before. Malinya, another bartender, one we’d always found to be inexplicably cranky, had, by our count, innumerable Iras around her, increased her anger which, in turn, attracted even more Iras, which, in turn, increased her anger… So much so, that she was sent home for the day to allow room for customers, a snowballing knot of Ira mimes following her down State Street, drafting in her bitter invectives like cyclists.
And, thusly, all the usuals in and around North Gates had all their sins advertised for all their neighbors to see. Plum, the owner of Slinky’s, hosted a Superbia. In Chimes, most of us tried to fend off the many Luxurias. I mean, what did they expect? Why else were we here, other than to risk Gulas because of our lushing and our devouring plates of blackened gator, cheese fries and boudin balls? Usually, there’d be piles of oysters on the half-shell as well. Katrina’d put a temporary end to them.
Needless to say, Gulas, too, were everywhere, though we were not at all surprised to see none of them go near Helga, but we, along with her husband Jerry, wondered why a Luxuria was with her. There was a Superbia, too, we noticed and figured it was due to the glass-encased pair of john-boat-sized Nikes that Shaquille O’Neal wore while at LSU. In her sub shop, Helga always pointed them out to new customers, a sparkle in her eye, claiming Shaq’s favorite place to eat was Helga’s.
We started calling Wylie Mr. Lucky 7, since he collected a mime from each sin, and he orated above the din of the bar that he was proud of “every goddamned one of them.” Big Custus’s Gula mime surprised no one, and we also expected him to have an Invidia, Ira, and Accidia, and he did, but we were startled at the absence of Avarice. Big Custus was a Republican, after all. In from Atlanta, Katherine (with a K), a ballerina teacher and former stripper, had a Luxuria, and managed to attract it, and us, without a single Superbia. The many Gulas around her got into it with the many Avaritias. They silently argued, to the point of a near shoving match, which of the two had the most right to her.
Upon reflection, none of us could answer this either. An Ira intervened, divided the groups evenly, and ordered them toward Katherine. Luke, a manager, and one of Katherine’s exes, was accompanied by an Invidia, as we figured he would be, wishing he were a Luxuria mime himself right then. Fuzzy, a bartender, bar back, rugby player, National Gaurdsman, and Katherine with a K’s fuckbuddy, had an Ira and Luxuria, which we all found plausible, but we couldn’t figure out the Avaritia. Fuzzy was always game to buy a round of shots and then chant rugby mantras.
Barry had a Luxuria as well, and we found it fitting that the most masculine of those particular mimes found him out. An Ira spotted him from somewhere in the middle of Texas, we projected, as Barry, due to a lack of alternatively-sexual watering holes, had to resign himself to drinking with us. To no one’s surprise, an Avarita flocked to Dan Vinnagre, the real estate agent who’d been licking his chops the minute the levees failed in NOLA; also, to no one’s surprise, no other mimes sought him out. Enos, resident Vietnam vet and trust-fund vagrant, commented that if being boring were one of the seven deadly sins, we’d all have to leave to make room for Dan’s mimes. Enos’s Gula and Accidia nodded in agreement, as did we. Myles Mires’ Ira surprised no one; however, we were bothered by the lack of Luxurias. Hanna, built like a brick bar, acquired a Superbia but no Luxuria, which is what we’d delusioned she’d have.
Once we’d all yucked it up about the Seven Deadly Sins mimes, at each other’s expenses, we’d had enough of them. Turned out, though, the only way we could remove ourselves from them was to go to their Noah’s Ark in the French Quarter show, which had to settle for a Baton Rouge parking lot. We all decided, except Big Custus, to go. What can I say? We were curious. Morbid, even. Most of us in Chimes’d pay a cover charge to watch a monkey fuck a microwave.
On the way down, we ran into Instructor Calliga, from the English department, who was popular with his students for his not only non-teacher-centered classroom but also his non-classroom-centered classroom. Of course accompanied by a Gula, Calliga said he wouldn’t miss this for the world. A Luxuria, an Ira, and a Superbia all hustled to catch up with him as well.
And, oh, what a crowd! North Gates was renowned for its Carlotta Street Halloween block party, the streets vibrant with an assortment of ghouls, vampires, devils, angels, ghosts, sluts, Huey Longs, David Dukes, and Kathleen Blancos and such. This dwarfed that. Melodramatic synthesized hymns blared from the large speakers on the stage, a murmur of confused people hung in the briny dusk, and a dark, blank flat screen fronted the stage. The hippies and punkers from Carlotta/Ivanhoe were there, including the funky bicycle guy, who tottered above everyone on his six-foot-tall bike made from welded logging chains and regular bike parts, but he never went down. Grad students were there, as were waiters and bartenders, store clerks, Smoothie King jerks, bums, residents of the president-named streets and state-named streets neighborhoods, Asians from Little Pakistan, and the street artist and his adversary the bluesman (who, for a moment, called a truce in their battle over the same prime spot in front of Chimes to collect change for their respective talents). National Guard locusts buzzed about overhead, some landing at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, delivering casualties from NOLA.
In all the chaos someone said, “The mimes are gone.” We looked around and saw nary a mime. We’d all been abandoned, our sins once again anonymous, and the music and stage lights were turned down. An eerie silence embedded itself into the humidity, as if giving it even more substance, a viscosity like oil that we could almost grab and hold by the handfuls. To the north, downtown and Exxon glowed in the distance beyond the stage. Sirens rang out from all over town. Then thunder. But the pinkish graying sky was cloudless. More thunder. We realized it was rumbling from the woofers on stage. Lightning fragmented the vast black curtain and then it was dark again. More thunder, this time loud enough to feel in the ground, the vibrations coursing through our soles, up our leg bones and agitating our guts.
As the lightning and thunder grew more intense, we could see the screen being raised, behind it an ark skeleton, twenty feet high and twice as long, horizontal beams every two or three feet. Then, emerging from in front of the crowd, mimes, two-by-two, followed an incline onto the stage, walked among the ribs of the ark skeleton, and took their positions inside, staring out at us with masks on. A wide projector screen, stage left and high enough for us all to see, flashed on, the camera zoomed in on the first pair of mimes, who wore a Louie Armstrong and a Professor Longhair mask. Next, Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco. Then, President Bush and Michael Brown. For thirty minutes, the ark skeleton filled with famous New Orleanians, Louisianans, and others connected thereto because of the hurricane. People cheered or booed whomever they admired or loathed. Wylie booed them all, except Armstrong and John Kennedy Toole. The thunder and lightning unceasing, the mimes looked as if they were in a prison about to set sail on the ocean.
To our right, we noticed a bus easing down Highland from downtown. It turned into the shopping center parking lot, cops clearing room for it. Unlike the other vehicles, this bus was black and windowless, except for the windshield and front side windows, which were all tinted black as a bible. On the sides, the only relief in the black was gray splotches that some of us thought looked like ominous thunderheads. Others said they were ghost faces, someone even seeing the face of an uncle who had died during Katrina. Barry saw Jesus, describing his ample lips and thin, sensuous nose, and we all nodded at the possibility of that, though we were a little uncomfortable, even the atheists among us, with his sensual description of our Lord.
The loudest thunder crack of all shook our teeth and shut us up. A sizzling sound hissed from the speakers, and Myles Mires said it made him need to pee, but he dared not move. From the third bus exploded mimes with the same white heads as the others’, but these wore tie-dyed blue-brownish leotards instead of black. They rushed the stage and coagulated all around the ark skeleton. More mimes, now in the blue-brown leotards as well, emerged from behind the stage and massed with the others, climbing overtop of each other toward the ark skeleton, grabbing at the beams and posts. The mimes inside the ark skeleton scrambled higher in the vessel, the blue-brown mimes swarming under the stern and prow, the ark skeleton now tacking back and forth from stern to prow, a little higher and a little faster each time. People in the crowd oohed and ahhed at the blue brown mimes, who, with their white heads and all clotted together like that, looked like white-capped muddy water set to capsize that ark skeleton, which, we realized, none of us wanted to happen. We had the visions of broken levees; the stranded people on rooftops and bridge islands; people wading in chest-high fetid water, trashbags of clothes hoisted over their heads.
From the ark skeleton, the New Orleans mimes beseeched us to cheer, to help them fend off the water, and a roar of applause erupted from the front of the crowd, the sun now gone, the National Guard locusts loud but dissolving into the dusk, save for their blinking lights. We all wanted to cheer too, but no one wanted to risk ridicule by being the first. Finally, Wylie, of all people, yelled, “Alright!” his hands clapping over his head. The rest of us joined in.
A Moses mime emerged from inside the ark skeleton, the blue-brown mimes parting for him and grouping at the ends of the ark skeleton, as the Moses mime spread his arms above his head. Most of us thought the mimes were mixing their biblical stories, but, Wylie advised, “Let’s see what they have in mind.” The blue-brown mimes rose higher and higher around the ark skeleton, the mimes inside scrambling to its upper reaches. More and more mimes crowded the stage, climbing over one another and encroaching on the Moses mime’s turf, but he held his ground, arms still high overhead, waving us to him. People nearest the stage were speaking in tongues. Catholics stroked rosary beads. Muslims bowed to the east. Rastis smoked from a bowl. The mass of us eased forward. Someone nearby yelled, “Praise, Jesus!” Someone else yelled, “Aye-eeeieee!” A state police locust hovered above us, probing us with a spotlight.
Those at the front of the crowd began the ascent up the stage ramp, those of us in the back slowly herding forth. The Moses mime directed them to each side, along the base of the ark skeleton, and the audience displaced the blue-brown mimes, more and more people sending the mimes hopping from each other’s shoulders, onto the stage, onto the ground, and off into the darkness. We were all cheering, all surrounding the ark skeleton, absolutely cheering our asses off, like at the countdown to New Year’s, like for an LSU touchdown, like at the end of a successful rescue mission. The loudest cheer of all erupted when the last blue-brown mime, and the state police locust, had disappeared.
Later, at Chimes, we all reviewed the evening’s events.
“It was only a lynch mob mentality,” Wylie said, now embarrassed to admit he’d been briefly out of character and caught up in such impropriety. “It means nothing. We just got caught up. It was fun, though.”
“I don’t get the ark. It was too late for an ark in NOLA,” Myles Mires said.
“The fuck was Moses even doing in there?” Big Custus asked, now having heard our account.
“The story,” Calliga said. “It’s meaningless whether Moses and Noah were in the same story in the Bible. They were in this one.”
We all nodded, until Barry said, “You’re all missing the point. New Orleans can still be saved.” He did a shot of Jager. “That’s what they were telling us.”
“What about the dead guy masks?” Wylie said.
“You got any Louis Armstrong cd’s?” Barry asked. We nodded. “Any Everett Maddox books?” We nodded. “There you go.”
We sat there nodding, mulling this, Fuzzy buying us all a round of Jagers, Baton Rouge shimmering in the mucky air outside. New Orleans was 80 miles downriver, trying to survive a standing eight count, knees wobbling, head swimming, and its next opponent was possibly just creeping off the shores of Africa.