Last year, right as the entire Carnival season was swingin’ into action, I was “relaxing” at the the Touro following the surgical amputation of my right leg.
Article by Clint Bolton for a Vieux Carre paper, from Mardi Gras, 1979.
Through the windows I could hear the music, the sounds of a couple of uptown Carnival parades. Herself was sitting bedside and I grinned at her and said, “Well, darlin’, I guess we can kinda ace ourselves on the whole Carnival bit from here on. After all, the days do dwindle down to a precious few and even if I didn’t have my right gam sawed off, I think we could do the Joan and Darby bit, stay at home snug and comfy and catch the Carnival action on the tube.”
That ole Carnival caper fever hits us all . . . regardless of age. Physically I may not get much personal action this Mardi Gras season. But I don’t have to. Y’see, I can reach into my memory bank Movieola and run all that fine stuff through and frame freeze this or that shot. Then I’m back in the Sixties, the Fifties again. Don’t remember the exact year.
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I’m at Pat O’Brien’s. Time: about 9 p.m., the Sunday night before Mardi Gras. The block of St. Peter between Royal and Bourbon is solid with people. Some of the local constabulary are mounted and doin’ a fair job of crowd control. Everything is goin’ fine . . . when all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. To this day you’ll get a debate among us survivors of that era. Did the brawl break out on the street? The entrance of the carriageway? Take yer cherce. Any version will do.
Whatever may have triggered the donneybrook, it soon spread. The Mounties gallop into the mob; plain-clothes fuzz and blue coats on foot take a vigorous piece of the action.
Clubs swing, fists fly, there’s some nifty footwork as one and all, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief (and a fair majority of the latter two were on hand) get scufflin’. Things were tight, hairy dicey, you call it. Things were gettin’ a might out of control when . . . BLAM! Some lawman lets loose with the tear gas. Not a bad idea. Couple more tear gas rounds. Quite a bit on the street. Most in the carriageway of O’Brien’s and adjacent bars. Crowd cools down in a hurry. Some arrests were made. Enough air motion on the block to dissipate most of the street tear gas. Lots of it lingered on within the excellent pub. Enough to make for some swimmy eyes and very sniffy noses. But the commotion was over and the beat went on.
Just about this point, a now deceased but then very well-know Quarter tosspot, who shall remain nameless because of his wife and kids, awoke. He’d gotten himself a fair load and had been somewhere on the nod in the corner of the main bar. The whole rowdy-dow had breezed right by him. But now he comes to blearily, sniffily awake, with that somewhat annoyed, almost paranoid mood of the lush who has nodded off only to come to knowing something has happened . . . but not exactly what. He gazes about the all but deserted bar, sees the bartenders comin’ up for air and business as usual, takes one big sniff, and says . . . “Goddam! That’s the biggest fart I ever smelled in my life!”
Certainly more genteel is the joyous memory of parade nights spent on Bob Greenwood’s gallery over the A&P at St. Pete and Royal. Back then Bob used to invite a bunch of friends to each of the parades that came down Royal. It was one of the best vantage points in the whole Quarter . . . and you sure as hell got your share of beads, trinkets, and doubloons tossed from the floats. But there always hadda be the usual street bumpkins who’d try to shinny up the iron supports and crash the happy scene. For a couple of years, Bob and various other stalwarts in the entourage had a fair amount of fun leanin’ over and boppin’ tatterdemalion hobbledehoys on the noggin as they pulled level with the gallery.
Then, one year, ole Bob ended all that. He greased all those shinny-poles from halfway up to the gallery level. When one of us yelled, “prepare to repel boarders” he grinned and said, “Not to worry. Watch.” When the would-be gate-crashers hit the grease line, it was whoosh, and mucho fun. We would man the rails, beam down like cruise passengers tossin’ coins and, chant, “Slide, Slide, Slide!” It saved us a fair amount of hooch, too, I reckon, for as Jack Cooley so sagely remarked, “Why’n hell should we pour perfectly good booze on a bunch of greaseballs?”
Yes, we all go some kind of wacky on Mardi Gras, it truly is “anything goes” time. But mostly I’ve been ready to find some hole to sack out in just about the time the bells of old St. Louis toll out midnight . . . . And almost always I’ve recited to myself a
few lines from Kipling’s Recessional: “The tumult and the shouting dies, The Captains and the Kings depart. Still stands thine ancient sacrifice . . . An humble and a contrite heart.”
This is the third of three posts concerning Clint Bolton. He was a journalist who lived in New Orleans from the early 1950’s until his death in April of 1980. He was born James Clinton Bolton in New Jersey in 1908. He lived a full and interesting life: acting in summerstock plays with Humphrey Bogart, running away from Princeton to work on a tramp steamer to India, cutting his journalism chops in India to become an writer for the Associated Press, interviewing Gandhi during one of his early hunger strikes, working in New York as a journalist, serving in the Coast Guard in World War II. And finally, taking me under his wing in his last year.
I have kept this article of Clint’s, along with two letters, for 37 years now. As I fight cancer, and wonder sometimes that it may not be that long before I see him again, I feel honor bound to write about him. Since his writing is not on the internet, and there are precious few links to it in print . . . it is important to me that he not disappear.
In such a time, and in such a place, there was this man. He was witness to significant events in the 20th century. His name was Clint Bolton. He lived hard. He wrote on a manual typewriter with two fingers at a speed that awed. Black musicians loved him. Mafia capos treated him with deference. And I was fortunate to meet and spend long hours with him listening to jazz and to his stories.
First article on Bolton: To Miss New Orleans
Second, a transcription of one of his letters to me: Once Upon a Time
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Photograph of the Endymion Parade from iStock Photo.
New Orleans in the 1950’s. New Orleans in the 1960’s. New Orleans in the 1970’s.