Years ago, I worked at New Orleans Convention Center, as a tech in the audio and lighting department. Like the rest of New Orleans, the NOCC was a wonderfully diverse mix of people.
There was a carpenter who worked there named Jake Millon. To the white folks, he was just Jake the carpenter, but to the blacks, he was, by God, Big Chief Jake of the White Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe. From a newspaper article about New Orleans refugees:
In New Orleans, the Millon family has a sort of royal status, because their late brother was Big Chief Jake Millon, a highly respected leader of the White Eagles, a Mardi Gras Indian gang.
One Mardi Gras, I asked:
Jake, where you gonna be on Mardi Gras Day?
I don’t know, bro, around.
Well, where’s around?
Somewhere Uptown, off of Claiborne.
So, on a sunny Mardi Gras morning, I hopped on my bicycle (the best way to dodge the Mardi Gras traffic) and headed to the neighborhood where I thought I might find Jake. I rode around for a while, enjoying the warm weather, looking up and down the streets. A few blocks down, I noticed a commotion, and there were the White Eagles, making their way through the crowd under 50 lb. costumes. I saw Jake.
Big Daddy Doug!
Ain’t I pretty?
Yeah, Jake, you’re pretty!
Ain’t I the prettiest?
Jake, you are the prettiest chief of them all.
Then, he shook my hand and moved on. I moved on too; although I didn’t feel threatened or in danger in this poor neighborhood, this wasn’t my place. This wasn’t for me; it was for them. It grew out of that fertile and trembling earth, this strange tradition that happens nowhere else.
It’s been almost a year since Katrina ripped a hole in the fabric of our country, but for me and my family, that wound is still raw. A few bars of the right music, or a photo on the Web, and I feel that knot in my chest again. The tears still come at the drop of a hat. New Orleans is still there, but the Big Easy is gone, receding into the past.
Maybe it’s selfish, but at least there’s this: I lived there for 6 years, and I got it. I soaked it up. It changed me to my core, changed my ideas about life, about music and art, about culture, about family. It crawled up under my skin like no other place.
Jake died a few years ago, and I guess I’m glad that he was spared Katrina. But I’ll always be grateful to him for that sunny day when he let me, a guy from Indiana farm country, take a peek, just for a moment, into a world where black people dress like Indians and sing and dance in the streets.