At one end of Canal Street, the Krewe of Bacchus was parading through an orgy of booze and flesh and beads and jazz, weaving and chugging and jiggling and strutting, its path marked by a roux of suds and trash.
At the other end of Canal, three dozen men and women were praying for the serenity and courage and wisdom to get them through today--Mardi Gras, a celebration for more than a million revelers but an awkward and sometimes anguished benchmark for the New Orleans chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The motto hanging on the wall, "Easy Does It," is not quite the same as "The Big Easy."
"Could I get a moment of silence for us?" said Cathi E., 49, who like other AA members asked that the organization's tradition of anonymity be preserved. Before leaving Grace Lutheran Church and stepping back into the Sunday night madness, they formed a circle, held hands and renewed their commitment to staying dry for one more day. "Keep coming back," Cathi implored them. "It works, if you let it. If you don't, you die."
Alcoholics here call Mardi Gras their "hurricane season," a reference to the tempestuous challenges of sobriety--as well as to the magenta, high-octane, frozen concoction wetting thousands of lips. In truth, the storms start brewing at Thanksgiving, build pressure over Christmas and New Year's, then begin lashing New Orleans with the start of carnival two weeks ago, until today's ultimate blowout--Fat Tuesday--turns the city into the wettest and wildest bacchanalia this side of Rio.
"It's really one of the hardest times of the year for people in recovery to cope with," said Clyde B., 50, a New Orleans native who sells industrial equipment. "Some other holidays are a bit more family oriented, or spiritual, or perhaps patriotic. But Mardi Gras is about drinking and letting it all hang out. That keeps us in a bit of emotional upheaval."
He has survived the season sober for 14 years now, usually by joining fellow AA members for coffee at home rather than risking a slip-up on the city's well-lubed streets. "It's not that I walk around every day with a burning thirst in my throat," he explained. "I'm not on the verge of a drink. But I also don't really know what it would take to set me off and put me back where I was. That's one of the scary parts of being a recovering alcoholic. Drinking is just part of the way of life here, part of the culture, part of our heritage."
Most major U.S. cities measure themselves in the language of progress--the tallest, the strongest, the richest, the fastest. Civic pride in New Orleans is a reflection of its ability to resist those pressures--to eat, drink, be merry and flush its cares down the ter-let. New Orleanians, as a local guidebook politely puts it, are "addicted to the art of living well."
Nobody is learning that faster than John King, who left Charlotte, N.C., last year to become the executive director of New Orleans' Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
When asked why he took on such a battle, given the city's propensity to party, King deadpanned: "Job security."
Strolling down Bourbon Street, whether it's Mardi Gras or not, you can just about get high from the fumes. Bars are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. (The 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. crowd is known, in bartender lexicon, as "the animal shift.") Drinks can be carried out in plastic cups or purchased at walk-up windows. At drive-through daiquiri shacks, you can even order a drink from behind the wheel of your car.
"It's a hard city to get sober in," conceded Mary Ellen, executive secretary for Alcoholics Anonymous of Greater New Orleans, which hosts more than 400 meetings a week, even (or especially) during Mardi Gras.
A billboard with AA's hotline number greets visitors at the airport--right next to ads for historic Antoine's Restaurant (whose wine cellar boasts more than 25,000 bottles) and for buxom lounge queen Chris Owens (whose French Quarter show includes a free drink with the price of admission). The phones are fairly quiet right now, but Mary Ellen predicts a flood of calls just after carnival, a Latin term loosely translated as "farewell to flesh."
"Not on Wednesday, because people are still hung over, sleeping it off," she said. "But by Thursday and Friday, the shame and guilt and remorse will have set in. For a lot of people, Mardi Gras is their bottom."
James M., a 56-year-old lawyer, remembers those days. Sort of. "To me, drinking and Mardi Gras went together," said James, who has been sober 17 years. "I assumed that the only people who didn't drink were religious fanatics, or otherwise culturally or socially deprived."
As a member of a prestigious law firm, he gained access to Mardi Gras krewes, invitations to Mardi Gras balls, seats on Mardi Gras floats. "It's one of the most exciting things you can ever do," he said. "Of course, I was virtually blotto." He stayed that way for most of the '70s, blacking out, waking up in jail cells and strange motels, downing a fifth of liquor every day just to get himself right.
"I think people who can drink ought to drink," he said. "Alcohol brings great joy to most men and women."
But for about 10% of the nation's population, the diversion eventually descends into necessity. "For me, it was like, where's the party gone?" James said. "It was fun, then it wasn't fun anymore." He does not believe that New Orleans exceeds that average, or that a drinker here is any more likely to end up as an alcoholic. But he does believe that New Orleans makes it harder for alcoholics to recognize their condition--and then to do something about it.
"Heavy drinking is not considered a problem here," he said. "It's considered a Southern eccentricity."
Which is not to say that New Orleans can't occasionally be accommodating to the sober. In 1980, it was the unlikely host of the international AA convention, attended by 30,000 clear-eyed delegates from around the world. Advised that recovering alcoholics sometimes share a ferocious sweet tooth, striptease bars in the French Quarter stocked their freezers with plenty of ice cream--and required nondrinking patrons to consume a two-scoop minimum.
But more often than not, the city's love affair with liquor is blind. Charlie B., 60, a founding member of Bacchus before his drinking made it physically impossible for him to ride on a float, tells the story of a French Quarter dive that delighted in kicking 12-steppers off of the wagon.
The establishment, which he declined to identify, had a practice of giving a free drink to anyone who brought in a one-year chip--the quarter-sized tokens that AA members use to mark their first anniversary of sobriety. Charlie knows. He used to drink there during his Jack Daniels days and saw more than a few chips get deposited into a big brandy snifter, stationed behind the bar like a trophy.
"I guess people thought it was clever or cute," Charlie said. For a while, he did too.
But after Charlie sobered up 11 years ago, he returned to even the score. "I went out and bought a ton of one-year chips--a thousand of them, actually--and started passing them out to winos," said Charlie, a former Tulane University research psychologist. Before long, the bar was flooded with drunks demanding free drinks. Needless to say, it withdrew the offer. Charlie still laughs at the thought of it. "One sick joke deserved another," he said.
For today's festivities, Charlie planned to be snug at home, watching TV. Cathi said she would be by the phone, fielding emergency calls. Clyde, who felt as if he needed to look the demon in the eye, was considering a stroll to the French Quarter. "I'll go down real early and hopefully not get too contaminated," he said.
At Mardi Gras, there is no easy answer to the question of how close a recovering alcoholic can--or should--get to the flame.
James recalls his surprise upon learning that the bartender at the famous Sazerac bar (who served him many a Sazerac) was in AA. "When I got sober, I asked him how he managed to do it," James said. "He said, 'If I was a garbage man, would I eat the garbage?' "
But Mary Ellen also points out that alcohol is a cunning and bewildering foe, a trickster that can make the drinker lie to himself just as easily as to others. And for that she offers a more cautionary axiom: "If you go to a barbershop often enough, you're going to get a haircut."