The author thought a debauched sojourn in New Orleans would put greater distance between him and his conservative father. But the old man could still surprise him.
Sydney to New Orleans
My first overseas trip was to New Orleans for the legendary Mardi Gras. I was 33 – a late traveller – and had just published, with some success, The Americans, Baby. For me, New Orleans was a mythical place of jazz, bohemian Southern writers, French Creole food – gumbo, jambalaya, Gulf oysters – and, most of all, decadence. Of course, I was not naïve and told myself that this was an idealised view and I was bound to be disappointed.
I rented a flat near St Charles Avenue because, at the back of my mind, I thought I might live in New Orleans. I remember going to the levee of the Mississippi, where I cupped my hand and drank from the great river and swigged my first rye whiskey from a flask. Each night, I visited the French Quarter while waiting for Mardi Gras and the climax of “Fat Tuesday”, which was the last opportunity to eat rich food and revel before the Christian fast of Lent began.
Despite my forebodings, the fantasy started to come true. During the day, there were weird floats, fine bands and incredible dancing teams known as krewes, all flamboyantly dressed or half-dressed, who threw out beads and specially minted “doubloons” made of aluminium to those who were watching. Women baring their breasts during Mardi Gras has been recorded since 1889 – what social scientists call “ritual disrobement” – and happily continued when I was there. In the French Quarter, on Bourbon Street, there were male and female flashers on the balconies.
I drank cheap American Boone’s Farm wine from
a leather flask with a shoulder strap. For the first time
I saw lovemaking in the streets. I danced with some wonderful transgender showgirls. I ate corn off the cob that was sold on most corners. Many drank from my flask that night and we shared kisses and conversations. Mardi Gras was far richer than my fantasy.
Then at midnight at the end of Fat Tuesday, it all stopped dead. New Orleans police on horseback cleared the streets and announced with loudhailers that Carnival was over. Ash Wednesday had arrived. In many churches, ashes were given out to the congregation or used to mark a cross on worshippers’ foreheads.
It was the last year that the narrow streets of the city’s French Quarter hosted such a large parade; fire safety concerns led the city government to prohibit them.
When I returned home, I happened to have lunch with my father after years of estrangement – I’d been on the outer with my family, partly because of my way of life. My father was a conservative businessman – a member of Rotary and a Freemason.
He asked me what I’d been “up to”. I said I’d been to the New Orleans Mardi Gras and wondered what he would make of that. He became pensive then said, “When I was a young man, New Orleans was the place I most wanted to go. I never did.”
It was perhaps the most revealing thing my father ever said to me.
On the radar
The Drover’s Wife, a collection of essays and commentary celebrating “a great Australian love affair”, is out now.