Photography by Kristin Reimer
New Orleans isn’t merely a place. It’s euphoria. It’s enchantment. It’s inebriation. It’s nostalgia. It’s gut-wrenching homesickness. I know the ache of what it means to miss it. It seems like I’ve been missing it since before I was even born. And I miss it most of all when I’m not living there full time.
I miss it all. The art at every turn, gracing the walls of a narrow courtyard gallery or screaming at you from the sides of buildings. The ghosts that entice you into alleyways, touch you in the bathroom of a morgue turned bar, or stare at you from an attic. The music, so much music, but most of all the trad jazz and bounce that seeps into your psyche through the cracks of the warped floors and wood-rotted windows. (I miss the elderly homes too.) I miss the hot sauce placed unapologetically on every table; the always accepted indulgences. (Of course you should have this enormous cinnamon roll for breakfast, a couple of twenty-five-cent martinis at lunch …) I miss the booze-soaked everything. I miss hot and humid-as-hell Sunday fundays spent with a frozen Pimm’s Cup in my hand, the cold-drink sweat running down my hand and wrist mixing with my own. And this past February, for the first time, I missed Mardi Gras because I couldn’t get home. I am still gutted by that.
There is no time of year that’s more reflective of the New Orleans beguilement than Carnival, that cherished time of year between Epiphany and ashes.
Fat Tuesday starts cruelly. Almost. It’s still dark, and if you’re doing it the wrong way, you are woken up by revelry in the streets. If you’re doing it right (I never have), you’re there swaying to the rising lilt and rhythm of wind instruments and drums before the lambency of dawn. And then the glaring sunshine that almost makes you feel guilty for indulging so early (you started with a drink from that corner bar that never closed).
It’s like Christmas morning, but on mushrooms and Champagne and glitter. And even if I take my time putting on my wigs and lashes and costumes and miss the early-morning mayhem that I will never experience any other day, the moment when my feet hit the sidewalk I feel a pulse, for New Orleans is in the rapturous throes of an intoxicating celebration. Everyone is dressed up and fascinating. We all love each other on this one blessed day.
Everything about this celebration is reaching its apex in the morning. And I’ll stroll, I’ll skip or dance past an array of homes, also dressed in their finest, from the all dolled-up Marigny homes in giant glitter masks, beads wrapped around iron gates, to the grand-dame homes on Esplanade, wrapped in the robes of Venus, purple, green and gold lights intricately woven into garland wrapped around Grecian columns. We cherish them all, the ruined showgirl shotguns and the posh Victorian ladies.
The early afternoon of my final Mardi Gras while living in New Orleans stands out among the manic blur of so many others that preceded it. We had found ourselves in an exquisite little lair above a jazz club on Bourbon Street, normally a street I avoid altogether—especially on Mardi Gras afternoon. But could anyone resist something that called itself a vampire speakeasy? If so, I probably don’t want to know you.
We had needed a specific password to gain entry past the gatekeeper, who directed us up the winding wrought-iron stairway leading us inside. Enthralled, I looked around me, staring at the dark violet walls, crushed velvet couches, vermilion red and black furnishings. There was, thankfully, barely any natural light, with the exception of what seeped through the French doors leading onto a balcony. Before I knew it, I was sipping on my second Death in the Afternoon. If only one could order their death, it would be a most enjoyable one if it were on a Mardi Gras afternoon.
The bar was exquisitely empty, save for the three of us. I went to the balcony that afforded a view of the mayhem below. As you can imagine, there is nothing gentle nor kind about Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day, nor should there be. For a brief moment, I looked back to the inviting interior and I felt like I could live forever right there within these glorious environs, dark and practically quiet with the hum of debauchery creeping in from outside. I felt thankful to be a spectator when I wanted to be privy to it all; I could take it or leave it.
We sat on the couches and had the bar to ourselves. I could drink as many Death in the Afternoons as I wanted without having to get past anyone, and I consumed three (which is what Hemingway prescribed, I believe). That’s when things became just as fuzzy as they were vivid. A morphine drip of an afternoon. As liquid as I had felt in that moment, I was a part of the frenzy outside too. Eventually I joined it.
Six months later, I sold my house and moved back to New York, place of my birth. I’ve always felt fiercely torn between my love for these two cities. No matter where I was living, I was always crying about not being with the other. Whereas I have felt an umbilical attachment to the Manhattan skyline, I’ve also sobbed inconsolably in the car on the way to Louis Armstrong Airport, leaving this beloved second home. I’d stare out as we sped past the cemeteries, the mausoleums and tombs crammed on top of each other not unlike the homes in my favorite neighborhoods, an off-white and sooty haze. When will I get to return?
No matter where I physically live, I need a home full of New Orleans. I always have a costume room, which features my collection of wigs, some of them pieces of art in their own right, along with racks of costumes, or things that would be considered costumes if worn in almost any other part of the world.
And my fireplace’s sole purpose is to display the Mardi Gras magic on full tilt: beads spilling out instead of flames, and the mantel displaying my most prized throws from the famed krewes: the Muses shoes, Zulu coconuts, Cleopatra fans, Bacchus grapes, Iris sunglasses, and Femme Fatale bejeweled mirrored compacts. These are easy to arrange because they don’t need neatness or order, nor do they need to make sense. They may be a feng shui nightmare. They may violate every ounce of sense and sensibility and decorum, but when paying homage to an unbridled, almost lawless place, you need to apply the same sense of passion and disarray. I also make use of dressers, breakfronts, sideboards, tables, countertops—all serve to display my New Orleans flotsam and jetsam.
It may appear to be whimsical ephemera, but so much of it has significance: My future husband caught me my first Muses shoe, a motorcycle boot coated with red and green glitter; I caught another one outside my apartment on Magazine Street during my first Mardi Gras. A dear friend in a krewe devoted to Wonder Woman handed me bottlecap pins during Chewbacchus a couple years back. There are hundreds more.
Similarly, every single wig, each costume, is a vivid piece of my New Orleans history. Once I wore a wig so elaborate and heavy, with its huge fake flowers, beads, and feathers, that it hurt my neck to hold it up, and my feather eyelashes were so long that they brushed against all that wig hair and made my eyes tear. Somehow I managed to teeter around MOMS ball with this get-up in five-inch platforms. I can still feel both the rapture and the pain.
I am in New Orleans always, with my altars and costumes and music and art. My ghost haunts the 150-year-old Creole cottage, the first home that I ever bought, on what was once known as Rue d’Amour. Because my kind never leaves.
Find Joi Brozek on Instagram @joidarling.
Follow Kristin Reimer on Instagram @photomuse_kristin.