The Presbytère

I’ve never been to Mardi Gras. It’s over-rated, they say. It’s full of rowdy, drunk people, they say. It’s dangerous, they say. For years I believed them — whoever “them” is — and tried to convince myself that I wasn’t interested. But I am, even if it’s true about the drunkenness, the rowdiness and the danger. So I’ve put it on my bucket list  and am making tentative plans to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras 2021. If anyone has Mardi Gras advice, send it on.

This comes up because I’ve been thinking about going to Mardi Gras since seeing Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana, one of two permanent exhibits at the Presbytère. The Presbytère, another building in the Louisiana State Museum collection, flanks St. Louis Cathedral on the east side and it’s where we headed after the Cabildo.

The c1980 Steinway in the photo above was owned by Fats Domino. It’s positioned that way because that’s how it was found, in Domino’s house, after Hurricane Katrina. The Mardi Gras costume was worn by the 2001 king of the Krewe of Endymion.

The Mardi Gras exhibit consisted of some floats and a lot of costumes. Here are some that caught my eye:

The seahorse costume was worn in 1992 by a member of the Krewe of Amon-Ra.

The Elizabethan costume was worn at a ball circa 1900.

The witch doctor costume appeared in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade in 1991. In 1909, Zulu became the first African-American (although it is now interracial) carnival krewe to appear in a Mardi Gras parade. “Zulu ridiculed white pomposity by using white notions of black savagery…” says the exhibit label. Lately, the Zulu tradition of wearing black make-up (which detractors are calling “blackface”) has been under fire. The Zulu have doubled down.

The second permanent exhibit at the Presbytere is Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.

Monday ->12->Army drive through; construction crew clear streets; also tour bus pass by….

That’s an entry on Marby’s Wall, part of the Living with Hurricanes exhibit. Tommie Elton Mabry was a New Orleans resident when Hurricane Katrina hit close to the city in August of 2005. The hurricane breached flood walls and levees built to protect low-lying New Orleans (not because of the Category 3 hurricane itself; it was blamed on shoddy work by the Army Corps of Engineers). Subsequent floods covered 80% of New Orleans and killed about 1500 people.

It’s interesting that the September 12 “…tour bus pass by…” entry was made just two weeks after the storm. I’m going to assume that it was an empty bus.

Mabry lived in his first floor apartment for two months after Katrina, and wrote his daily thoughts and activities on the walls of his apartment. He said he didn’t know why he started writing, but that it calmed him. He started on the day after the storm and wrote for eight weeks. In 2008, before the apartment building was torn down (Mabry had moved on by then), the Louisiana State Museum removed the walls and installed them in the Presbytère as a permanent exhibit.

His obituary in the Times-Picayune (he died in 2013) says that he stayed in his apartment — the only occupant in the entire complex — against city evacuation orders “dodging the housing authority and the New Orleans police, and coping with two feet of water that covered the floors.” The Coast Guard covertly dropped him cases of food, “once delivering a steak for his dog, Red.”  Go Coast Guard!

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