“Throw Me Somethin’, Mister”
New Orleans celebrates three kinds of events.
The first are mystical insider rituals, many rooted in the Catholic tradition of this former French colony, such as St. Joseph’s night or All Saints Day.
The second type follows the sports seasons; the home opener of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints is circled on calendars from Uptown New Orleans to the Jefferson Parish suburbs.
Finally, there are the huge spectacles that draw tourists by the thousands, the blow-out events like the Mardi Gras Carnival and Jazz Fest.
Hurricane Katrina hit nearly four years ago, adding anxious poignancy to each of these traditions: Would the local customs survive? Would visitors return? The tonnage of debris from Mardi Gras has even been weighed and measured as an indicator of the city’s resurrection.
Locals have their own benchmarks. The re-opening of a favorite restaurant. The return of a neighborhood second-line parade. The cursed futility of the Saints.
This year’s Carnival pulled off another small but important milestone toward recovery. For the first time since the storm, the parade offered a full contingent of flambeaux carriers.
These torch-bearers of the city’s nighttime Carnival parades were almost non-existent since Katrina—until now. This past Carnival, residents cheered the rugged men who carry the traditional flaming torches to light the nine February parades that precede the Lenten season.
The tradition goes back to the pre-Civil War era, when many of the flambeaux carriers were slaves of wealthy parade organizers. The earliest torches were fueled by oil dripping from cans affixed to wooden poles. Walking with a stick of dripping fire for a six-mile parade route was sweaty, soot-covered and often dangerous work.
Today, the parade routes are even longer and the large wooden contraptions are just as heavy. Kerosene has replaced lantern oil, but any experienced flambeaux carrier can display burn marks to attest to the risks. But that’s part of the tradition. Most of the flambeaux men are poor African-Americans who are blue-collar laborers by day, and the prospect of scooping up more than $100 in change tossed by parade spectators is worth the work.
It’s certainly not the money, though, that fuels the tradition. Deep inside, a flambeaux carrier is really a showman, and the best of them make a dance of it: dipping and twirling their fire sticks as they march and step alongside massive paper-mâché floats, sustained by the roar of the bead-hungry crowd and the marching band just up ahead.
These are portraits of some of this year’s New Orleans’ flambeaux carriers. Some are regulars who learned the tradition from a father or uncle. Others are some of the characters that decide to give flambeaux a try, some maybe just once, lighting one of New Orleans’ famed parades with kerosene lanterns shining against aluminum sheet metal, just as it was done more than 150 years ago.
But whether they’re first-timers or the original pre-Katrina old guard, the important thing is: they’re back.
Michael Perlstein covered crime in New Orleans for 20 years for the New Orleans Times-Picayune before earning two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
All photos: Michael Perlstein.