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The Most Organized Mardi Gras Ever

Former Crescent City citizens make a go of it at Navy Pier.

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When Ricky Campbell and his wife, June, meet people in Lincoln Park, they tell people about back home. "When I make groceries or wherever we go, I tell them about New Orleans," Ricky says. "I tell them I come from Katrina, but I don't dwell on it. I want to tell them about before Katrina."

I come from Katrina too, though having written a ten-part series about it so far (see the final installment this week on chicagoreader.com) I can't say I don't dwell on it. I left two days before the hurricane reached land. Ricky fled a couple weeks after the levees collapsed. We each eventually joined the many other evacuees who are now scattered across the greater Chicago area--about 700 households in all, according to the Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit that's coordinating social services for people like us. But I only met Ricky for the first time on Saturday, February 18, where neither one of us ever imagined we would find ourselves: celebrating Mardi Gras at the Chicago Children's Museum on Navy Pier.

When I arrived in Chicago on New Year's Eve, I was told by another evacuee that finding New Orleanians in Chicago was all luck and word of mouth. This is a city of communities, but we're not one of them. We rely on ourselves and our friends when we need to beat back the post-Katrina feelings of desolation. It's hard to overstate the emotional intensity of being a New Orleanian right now; it's even harder to overstate the isolation that can envelop you when you're surrounded by people who aren't thinking every day about levees, FEMA, the future of New Orleans neighborhoods, and how much has been lost in the past half year. At the very least, it helps to talk about it with people who don't require explanations.

That's why I joined up with other former New Orleanians to put together a Mardi Gras party here. Melissa Cook, a New Orleans native who's lived here since 1981, did most of the organizing. I contributed a carload of beads I brought with me when I moved. Another native, Hayes Ferguson, got a member of New Orleans's Rex krewe, which sponsors one of New Orleans's most historic parades, to FedEx a box of doubloons and commemorative wristbands. The museum paid for three large "king" cakes--traditional cakes colored purple, green, and gold--and helped provide transportation. Mama Digdown's Brass Band came down from Madison and played for free. We set up tables of supplies for kids to construct shoe-box floats, which almost every New Orleans kid learns to make during carnival.

The Heartland Alliance helped get the word out to area evacuees; the museum encouraged all its visitors to join the party. Preparations occasionally got a little excessive. Kris Bares, an evacuee who grew up in New Orleans, spent seven hours making a shoe-box float (with the words "Long Live New Orleans" handwritten on its back) to show the kids how it's done. She used tweezers to place the sequins on the purple backing and painted a fleur-de-lis to match the one she recently had tattooed on her right arm.

But on Saturday morning, when it was a numbing seven degrees below zero, it seemed unlikely that these ingredients would congeal into anything resembling Mardi Gras. Would any New Orleanians even venture outside? This party was a test: we wanted to see if there was a reason for Katrina evacuees to get together. Will a community of survivors form here, or will we just settle into the city along typical lines of class and race? If so, can we live with ourselves, as if we hadn't all been betrayed by the Army Corps of Engineers, as if the Superdome and the convention center never happened?

By noon, when my family arrived at the museum, Kenna Hart, the museum's Family Programs Educational Assistant, had things running smoothly--perhaps more smoothly than any Mardi Gras event I've ever seen. Volunteers had matching T-shirts and assigned stations, and had gone through background checks; now we were being briefed on safety procedures and bathroom locations. We received copies of the parade route, which would help us steer revelers through exhibits featuring a pirate ship, robots from Star Wars and Forbidden Planet, and a giant statue of Buddha's hand.

It was nearing 2 PM when I faded out of the safety briefing and headed to the entrance to see if anyone was showing up. About 30 people from Biloxi were coming up the escalator. I tried to guess who else might be evacuees. Then I saw Ricky. He was wearing a searching expression too.

"Where's the band?" he asked. "I came to dance."

He told me that he's been dying to second-line since evacuating New Orleans. "You want to be our grand marshal?" I asked. He nodded without hesitation.

As Mama Digdown's Brass Band set up in a bright crafts room where kids usually build houses out of red and blue boards, Ricky went up to Erik Jacobsen, the sousaphone player. He sang the parts he wanted Erik to play. From behind the mouthpiece, Erik nodded.

The band started with anthems like "Little Liza Jane," and Ricky launched into the same smooth, loose-limbed, marionette style of dancing that second-liners perform on neighborhood streets across New Orleans. It didn't feel at all different from New Orleans, he told me later. "It doesn't feel different because I love to dance. I could be the only one at a second line in New Orleans and it wouldn't feel different.

"In New Orleans you got maybe 10,000"--he stopped himself--"you got maybe 3,000 people, and they follow the band, and they'll be right in front of you, behind you, and around you, and everybody'd be dancing. They'd be on top of light posts, on top of buses, cars, they'd all be doing what I do."

Of course, that was before Katrina. Here it was Ricky leading the way, dancing past displays of robots. The more he danced, the more others joined in. Erik later said he could look into the crowd and see who was from New Orleans by the way they started to respond. About 500 people were there, maybe 200 of them from the gulf coast. People filed out of the crafts room when the band started moving through the museum. Staff and volunteers tossed beads at the paraders--actually the opposite bead trajectory of what you see in New Orleans, where the beads fly from the paraders into onlookers' hands. But it didn't matter. We made it up as we went along.

Ricky kept moving in time, spinning, ducking, stopping along the way to hand beads to children. We all followed along until we came to a spot where sunlight streamed through high windows. Museum staffers were perched on a second level outside an administrative office, throwing beads down to the crowd. Hands went up in the air, and the shouts actually drowned out the band. We'd achieved some level of chaos. Just like a proper carnival. The beads finally depleted, Erik blasted out another song intro and the parade moved downstairs.

At the bottom of the stairs, we all gathered around a large dinosaur skeleton. Ricky put both hands on the Plexiglas fence surrounding the display, kicking his feet and shaking his hips, while the band launched into the spiritual "Glory, Glory." A young brother and sister stepped out near the band and started dancing for a few seconds before retreating back. I'd met this family earlier; they'd told me how it took a month for them to reunite after the storm. Now the young girl was shyly giving Erik a thumbs-up.

The band finally called it quits a little past 4 PM, after playing its encore, "Feet Don't Fail Me Now." Ricky went back upstairs. He sat down to drink a paper cup filled with apple juice. Then his head crashed down onto a table face-first.

I didn't learn that Ricky had collapsed until the next day, when I called him. He told me how nice everyone was, that he got immediate medical attention and cab fare home. Then, over the phone, he and June told me their hurricane story.

Ricky was raised in New Orleans's Calliope housing development; he used to dance with the renowned Young Men Olympia second-line organization. June moved to New Orleans from Australia in 1984 and worked as a medical biller and coder. They married four years ago and lived together in Gretna, a suburb on the west bank of the Mississippi. They rode out the storm; after the roof blew off their house, they slept under their bed. They boiled water but still got sick. They ate MREs and food from an apartment complex down the street, but after a week provisions were running thin. So they ventured out.

They reached a food distribution point a block away. Ricky was keeping a little Crown Royal bag filled with change in his back pocket. Someone tried to grab it and Ricky shoved him away. The next thing he knew, he says, a national guardsman had an M16 pointed at his chest.

"I thought they were going to kill him," June said.

Helicopters were flying overhead. Ricky and June did everything they were told. Still, the guardsmen followed them to their house. They remember seeing a body in the street, uncovered and swollen in the heat.

A few days later, they finally got to the airport; they spent three nights there before they could get a flight out to anywhere. It was heading to Chicago. People in the airport gave them money when they arrived. Ricky has diabetes and glaucoma, and being away from his medicine for a few weeks, he'd lost sight in his right eye. But they met some people from Fourth Presbyterian Church, who introduced them to a woman who offered them an apartment rent free for a year. June is getting help looking for work. They have each other.

By the end of the party it felt like we'd achieved some kind of community, but not necessarily a lasting one. Melissa Cook and I realized that nobody had collected names and phone numbers of the evacuees who had attended. Sign-up sheets got misplaced among the beads and construction paper.

Ricky, however, met his goal absolutely. "I wanted to give something back," he said. "I wanted to show Chicago a little something of New Orleans."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/June Campbell.

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