Post-Katrina New Orleans might’ve looked like the sort of swampy, dystopian wasteland you’d see in a B-grade sci-fi flick, but like any self-respecting B-movie, its actors/looters/survivors slogged through knee-deep sewage with a healthy, if horrifically morbid, sense of humor. The city’s denizens are pretty salty, and had an amicable relationship with death long before death arrived so dramatically — wracked by hurricanes and flooding, New Orleans is, in fact, its own special ecosystem, an endless cycle of ruin and regeneration. Last year it just endured a great deal more ruin than usual.
That said, it’s not surprising that Mardi Gras, the city’s most famous tradition, is more about celebrating death than mocking it. Indeed, the whole impetus for five days of unrestrained, beer-soaked hedonism — especially in the wake of Katrina — is to live life to the fullest, as the cliché goes, while facing up to your own mortality.
A Bay Area Mardi Gras party — predictably but unfortunately — can’t quite match that gravity, or that joy. With so much PC hectoring rammed down our throats here, many high-minded moralists treat Mardi Gras as an overcommercialized frivolity and a colossal waste of resources. One Oakland-based activist groused that New Orleans is allowing tourists to seize vital hotel space that could be allocated to hurricane survivors. And he’s right — there’s something unsavory about the idea of a thousand rich tourists rubbernecking at the sight of so many eroded trees and dilapidated homes. And why waste time eating king cakes and banging drums when there are still houses to gut and social programs to fund?
Thus, many regard Mardi Gras as just a sinful, immoral, unnecessary raunchfest. And that’s the point. But around here, only the unnecessary part translated — the holiday seems self-consciously kitschy and sentimental.
Amnesia Bar — a hip, saloon-style joint in SF’s Mission — celebrated Fat Tuesday on a lazy Sunday with a lineup featuring Oakland-based brass band Blue Bone Express, the burlesque samba group Hot Pink Feathers, and the seven-piece Dixieland outfit Red Light Abatements. Located on a strip of sake bars, boutiques, and Internet cafes, Amnesia looks like a Disneyfied version of old New Orleans. The decor is spare and old-fashioned, with a honky-tonk piano, a few drooping chandeliers, and a small dance floor where people in sequined hats do the foxtrot and the Charleston. You almost expect to find one of the characters from The Great Gatsby lurking somewhere in a corner. They got the look right, but not the feel.
Fat Tuesday (actually on Tuesday this time) at SF’s Boom Boom Room was equally chintzy (if a little more subdued), featuring a night of “tantric fonk” with the Brothers Goldman. A middle-aged dude with a bright yellow shirt introduced himself as the “Fun Guy” (apparently christened so for his shiitake mushroom farm in North Mendocino County) and raved about both the venue’s vibe and instrumentation. “Not to sound like Al Bundy — you know, that guy from Married with Children — but, you know, I like music that, you know, it can make me laugh, or it can make me cry till I puke,” the Fun Guy explains. “Just as long as it makes me emote. Plus, you see, these guys, they volunteer a Hammond B3 to any band.” He points excitedly at the club’s vintage electric organ; when you don’t seem adequately impressed, he grips you in a half-nelson and pushes you down until you can smell the enamel on the keys.
So across the bridge it’s all about fancy clothes and fancier organs; here in the East Bay, Mardi Gras weekend is a bit less nostalgic, and a lot less refined. Oakland’s Bench and Bar kicks the weekend off with a Brazilian Carnaval party featuring Hi-NRG banda and reggaetón music, its revelers piled high with gaudy purple beads, plastic Miller Lite medallions, fattening 3 Musketeers bars, and, of course, grape-flavored condoms. The crowd is about 90 percent Latino and 95 percent queer, clad in muscle shirts and chinos, highlighted bangs and evenly applied hair product. The frat-oriented bouncers, meanwhile, fronted like mack daddies: Yo, dude, you gotta check out the strippers on Thursday night, blood. This one girl held out a dollar and the stripper picked it up with her … and I was like … aw, hell nah.
Saturday night was even bleaker at Oakland’s Jack London Inn, where several hurricane victims were allegedly evicted just a couple weeks prior — some left with their stuff packed in garbage bags, and no place to go. The chicken and waffle house next door was a different story. Late into the night, people filtered in from Too $hort’s video shoot at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, hungry for oily fried fish and sweet potato pies. Someone complained that he’d lost his top grill. Mistah FAB made a cameo. And everyone wolfed down soul food with an oddly soulless resignation. This is how people get down in Oakland: There are no brass bands or headdresses to speak of, and squeezing the joy out of life amounts to savoring a thick slab of pie in an all-night greasy spoon, with a somber tone but a sardonic edge.
Live life to the fullest while facing up to your own mortality. Maybe we’re not so different from New Orleans after all. It’s just that their lives are fuller, and their deaths sadly more public.