At the time of this happening, I was an even sillier person than I am today, who had come to expect certain things of people of a certain age, namely, that they won't be able to drink me under the table. I found myself re-evaluating these notions when an ancient New Orleans lady of my acquaintance invited me to join her for a memorial brunch. When one is invited to a "memorial brunch" in any other American city, one may well expect---as I did---to be served southern comfort food in the company of well-behaved bereaved persons. As it turned out, the only fare being served at this brunch were Bloody Marys, and they were feasted on by young and older alike. As your nonagenarian date drinks you under the "brunch" table, you will find yourself casting off former notions of vitality belonging to those with a lower year tally. But don’t linger in epiphany for long; her dancing feet are about to leave you in the French Quarter dust.
New Orleans is a city that celebrates every chance it gets. One festival rolls into the next and whenever you quit her always feels too soon---like leaving a party that has hit full swing. It's fitting then that the eternal departure of a loved one would be marked with celebration: an exuberant, jazzy parade called a “second line.”
A few weeks after Mardi Gras and with several Bloody Marys coursing my veins, I attended my first second line, kindly invited by Mrs I. Sassy as she is wise, Mrs I possesses New Orleans secrets and histories, having grown up here. A longtime friend of hers had made his earthly exit 'round about the time of Mardi Gras, and though he had already been interred, the second line parade which would traditionally follow his funeral was delayed to avoid the season’s crush of Carnival revelers. Mrs I instructed me to wear black and gold (“A strand of Mardi Gras beads with that black dress will do, darlin'.”) and we headed to the Charter Room, a smokey bar beloved by the deceased and his many friends, family, and buxom ex-wives now assembled there.
People speak of diversity in terms of numbers, something which has always struck me as coldly inhuman. In my sometimes-home of NYC, communities may overlap while remaining remain strongly segregated. My NYC life moved through familiar circles, peopled by those in the arts and those with certain degrees from certain universities, our resumes matching line for line, excepting their particular letter arrangement. But in the country of New Orleans, people mingle. Before I had clocked a month as a New Orleanian, my happily growing circle encompassed writers, a priest, tour guides, street performers, magicians, hoteliers, young people, and older people. The colorful crowd assembled for memorial “brunch” in the Charter Room that day was my first initiation into this special aspect of New Orleans living.
The deceased gentleman had been a prominent New Orleans lawyer and it seemed to me that his earthly days had been spent acquiring the most bizarre and colorful spectrum of humans ever discovered pouring libations together under one roof. Several of his blonde and bosomed former wives moved through the bar, heads topped with festive little stovepipe hats. A Lincolnesque black gentleman with chiseled gold teeth and top hat gangled over a crowd of raggedy and richly dressed people, humans whose hues and ages were various. A roomful of lawyers, architects, musicians, street performers, students, and scallywags laughed, cried, and drank together as as we waited for the brass band to arrive.
The brass band assembled, and we topped off our red “go cups” before moving out of the bar onto Chartres Street. Wife Number Most Recent passed out black handkerchiefs as we waited for the band to strike up the festivities. The march began with a somber dirge, and we followed behind, waving our handkerchiefs in slow time, stomp dragging our feet across the cobblestones. One sad song, just the one. Then the band kicked up and the celebration began.
When those first wild notes of jazz followed the dirge, I cried like a baby. I didn’t know the man being mourned from Adam, but I can tell you that he was loved. And had one hell of a group of friends. To be one of their number, dancing through the streets and laughing through tears, was one the most moving things I’ve experienced. They loved this man, and we were going to let the whole city know it.
Behind a police motorcycle escort we danced, pausing at places holding special significance for the deceased; the hotel where his father had been a doorman in another life, the restaurant where he proposed marriage to Wife Number Unknown, the church where he worshipped. Pedestrians stopped to watch us pass. People peered down at us through wrought iron balconies and shouted us on from the doorways of stores and restaurants. A few even joined us, dancing along with the best of them, and increasing our numbers so that when we arrived back at the bar, our energy had grown and we were louder and rowdier than ever. There, the brass band played a few more songs before the crowd of mourners dispersed---some back to the bar to further nurse their grief and some setting for home across those worn cobblestones.
To call what I witnessed a “jazz funeral” would mark you as an outsider and imply that there is some more staid alternative here in New Orleans. Possibly it exists, but I don’t want to know about it. The fact that grief can make such joyful noise is a profoundly beautiful thing. The sort of heartbreak that smiles into the sun through its tears, claps its hands and shakes its booty---to celebrate what is good in what we have lost---is an act of reverent gratitude, and life-affirming defiance in the wake of loss.