By John Bonanni
Belief creates tradition, and when left to man, becomes superstition.
And superstition is the seed of prejudice.
Jefferson Parish, 1940
The hole in the ceiling of the camelback house shown a ray of light through the empty backroom. The house filled with laughter and fresh fried catfish on Butler Street when Beatrice called her family to dinner. They lived, separate and unequal, within this world run by Gown Men and the Siren.
That’s the way it was. No one complained.
Except the sweeper boy, Beatrice’s youngest son. Lloyd would hide away in the tin-roofed shed and dream. The hole in the ceiling was a way of knowing things, and when he moved the can away that collected rain on stormy days, he could tell how angry the Siren was by the number of drops that fell into the can. He could tell the mood of the world from that hole.
On sunny days, he could see planes taking off at the nearby airport. He wondered where those planes went, and he knew he would have to find out. He watched his father dig trenches for septic pipes, and he didn’t want that for himself. Even though his father dug the septic pipes all over town, he did not want that. He even dug for the high school across the street. But the sweeper boy never attended that school. He was not allowed by the Gown Men. If you stayed in your ‘hood west of the Esplanade in Tremè or just across the street in Kenner, you had no trouble. You just had to stay in your place. There was no other way. Sheriff made sure of that.
A Bartender serving up Sazerac, a specialty of the house, 1950
I work at Commander’s Palace. I work the bar, but not at lunch, only dinner. Too many sightseers looking for the new 25-cent martini at lunch. You know they are outsiders because they talk silly about nothing. They may well be foreigners. And I like to stay out of my neighbor’s trouble. Like one of them talked like he knew all about the levee and the floods. He spoke no truth. He is a visitor and he will be gone soon.
I told him about that house on Butler Street. I’d say the rampart by Butler in Jefferson Parish was about 15 feet taller than that last house on the road. The house was really a lean-to, a shack; weathered, gray slats of pine clinging to rotting posts sunken in sandy loam. Once, the shack was almost flattened on the Siren’s last visit. The wind pulled and pushed so strong it looked like the shark tried to up and leave the wrath of rain and wind on its own, as if it stretched itself to pull away from its foundations and make a run for it. I saw this myself. It stood the ground, though. Figured it was out to remind people: Remember what happened here. The shack stayed its roots. It had its own life.
Once, it was sturdy, standing bright white over mossy greens made moist by swamp water seeping from the levee. You could shore up the levee all day long and the Siren would inevitably make her way, pushing and pushing against the giant berm of earth; always threatening to overcome like an unholy goddess with revenge in her heart. She lived in that water just beyond the levee, ready to take you and thrash you about, like a soaked ragdoll. She’d whip you round and round faster and faster, watching the spray of wetness leave you. Then, when you’d dried out and come to, she’d rear back as far as she pleased and hurl you into the cold green-black soup of the Miss’ippi. A Siren, she was. Every inch of her beauty paid for by those who dared to turn back and challenge her titillating fury.
We are Napoleonic Code here in Jefferson Parish. We don’t trouble our neighbor and our neighbor don’t trouble us. Except when they do. Then, the Gown Men take care of things. You may think you are in America, but you are Napoleonic Code here. It’s different here. Was French. Was Spanish. So, America come last. You can have your muffuletta and your beignets and your drink in Vieux Carre, but you must eventually leave, because if you don’t, either the Siren or the Gown Men will get you.
Then there are the masks. There are specific reasons for the masks. They protect us. That’s why the Gown Men wear them.
Come Mardi Gras, you know a foreigner when you see them make fools of themselves putting the masks on, dancin’ like thoughtless clowns and mimicking them, singin’ and dancin’ with them. But when they do that they dishonor the power of those masks. They mock them. And then, the foolish clowns are gone. For as sure as I am standing here wiping the bar, you will be gone too, if you mock the mask.
Once, at the Lundi gras, the night of the arrival of King Rex and King Zulu, I seen a boy mock a Master Masquerader’s mask. He danced around him real close sayin’, “I don’t need no mask, my face already colored.” Then the sheriff come. He came between the boy and the Master Masquerader. He told the boy to go home. I guess he did.
I not seen that boy since over a year now. Missed school and all. Didn’t show up for work at the ice house. Probably got lazy again and stayin’ in neighborhood by the Esplanade, away from trouble. I hope, anyway. But we don’t speak of who is not there anymore.
Here, the Siren rules the water and the wind, and the Gown men rule the land and fire. They knew the law and the power, and if they needed to, they show it with fire, bright white like the lean-to in Kenner, bright white, like an outside church.
When the Gown Men set a place for gathering up, Sheriff let them run their business there, since nobody wanted that house on Butler Street anymore, being right by the levee and abandoned and all. No one went there. Nobody wanted to be in between the Gown Men and the Siren of the levee. The water of the Siren or the fire of the Gown Men, it don’ madda.
There was righteousness there. When there was trouble, a night at the shack by the levee set things straight. I seen trucks there, trucks I know that people owned, but I didn’t see them. I seen figures, in masks, in gowns, like spirits. Just like the Siren. Soc au lait! You heard her howl, you felt the whip of her wind, the slap of her watery waves, but you never saw her. But you knew she was there. And when the Gown Men did their outside church, cross and all, it was a sight to behold. The riverboat crews knew the Gown Men was at church service when they would see the bright white light on the horizon below, like a boiling cauldron cleansing the stains of wrongdoing and making it white again. When it was finished, it was right again. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Let the good times roll.
New Orleans, 1953
Downtown on Canal and Rampart, Dave Bartholomew, an established R&B conductor, picked up a baton and directed a young pianist named Fats to play for the first recording artist scheduled for the day.
The artist sang a ditty he had played back when he was a sweeper boy at a defunct restaurant by the airport. The young man, without sheet music or training, became a musician that day. He remembered his Nainain, his godmother, who had cured his headache the night before by taking his head in her hands and invoking the name of Agwe, the goddess of the sea and marine life. His headache left him after the incantation.
The Bartender, wiping the bar for the last customer, 1960
I don’t know about no Mambo or Lychee. That’s the practice of the Esplanade folks. They keep their distance, they keep their peace, and I don’t need to know them or their habits. Beaucoup crasseux, I hear. Very dirty. They are wild and sometimes can wake the Siren up. Then they get whipped and thrashed about, and the Siren pours her wrath over the levee and takes some of them out to sea with her.
When the Siren is pleased, everyone celebrates, even the Boogalee with Fais do do, with maybe a few less. But no one speaks of who is not there anymore.
We just know our place. Everybody knows their place. Everybody respects that. That’s just the way it is. Its Napoleonic Code here. We don’t cross lines here. We respect lines. And that is how we live.
Los Angeles, 1966.
The recording artist traveled with his father on his first experience out of Kenner. It had been a long time since his childhood as a sweeper boy in Kenner. They were away from the Gown Men and the Siren. They felt free. They arrived at the hotel in Los Angeles, where he was appearing.
Upon approaching the lobby, he was directed to the rear entrance. Confused, he informed the doorman who he was and that he was scheduled to perform there. He was told that black folks did not enter from the front, but through the kitchen.
The doorman was black.
The recording artist’s father’s eyes welled up with grief. His father said that his sorrow came from the belief that outside of Jefferson Parish, outside of the Gown Men and the Siren, things would be different. They would be free of the thrashing and whipping and tossing, but they were just in another part of America, where nothing changed.
Superstition without insight becomes tradition and perpetuates malice.
Lloyd Price is an iconic musical artist of the late 1950s who appeared on national television and toured across the country. Among his major hit songs were “Personality,” Stagger Lee” and “Wedding Day.” He has a treasure of great stories that are funny, poignant, heartbreaking and tragic. He is 85-years old and still performs his act at the Cutting Room in New York City. He introduced me to the term “Gown Men” and I wrote this to honor him as a wonderful, dear friend.
John Bonanni spent a career in the theatre on tour, on Broadway, at Radio City Musical Hall and many places in between managing every sensitive personality he encountered. He now writes about them, among other things. He has been published in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Senior Outlook, Poor Yorick Literary Journal and Inspired Magazine. He will complete the MFA program in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University in 2019.
Image: “Felicity at Night,” New Orleans, 2016, digital photography, William O. Pate II