HomeSouthern VoiceUptown Ruler

Uptown Ruler

by Marc Goldin

“Say, Reynard, How you doin, man?”

The voice startled me. I was lost in my own thoughts, but I turned around like it was nothin. Eddie was staring at me.

“Hey, I’m alright, ain’t nothin happenin.”

“Man, I didn’t mean to make you jump like that, you looked like you was deep in somethin,” Eddie said, half apologetically.

“Yeah, I was deep in it, Mardi Gras comin up and shit, I was tryin to figure out a coupla things …”

Eddie kept on, “I didn’t see you at practice the last few times and I didn’t know if somethin was up wit you.”

“Nawww, man,” I said, I’ll be there tomorrow night.”

“Alright Reynard, I’ll check you out later,” Eddie said, moving toward the door, “If you need anything …”

I shook my head in such a way as not to cut him, him being my best friend, but to let him know I had it covered. In reality, I didn’t have shit covered. Mardi Gras was drawing close and my Indian suit was still not quite finished. This worried me because my hours down on the docks had been cut back. Something to do with a drop in shipping business, they said. I hadn’t seen any of the white boys’ hours cut, but I thought, ‘fuck it.’ I wasn’t one to waste time with self-pity but that fact wasn’t lost on me. Sitting on a stool at Kemps, I swigged my beer and drifted off again.

My suit was gonna be beautiful this year. Blue, as befit the Big Chief of the Golden Senecas. It was to the ground, the feathers flowing into the intricate beadwork on the breast piece. The theme, in beads, not yet finished, was of a warrior reaching up to snatch an eagle down from the sky. Looked at another way, the eagle was lifting up the man, heavenward. When it was done, it was gonna be a work of art. The closer it got to Mardi Gras, the more hours I spent.

I’d been doin it for as long as I can remember, back to helping my Daddy sew on beads when I was too young and too little to mask Indian myself. I remember being on the side, watchin him and his tribe meet up with the others, his gang always doin it better than the rest. Then there was the music; chants and percussion intensifying, while my heart was ready to burst out my little-ass chest from pride.

I finished my beer and as I left out, stretched myself in the doorway and looked around, the late afternoon sun glowing on the gutted buildings in the neighborhood. I strolled down near Shakespeare Park and thought about the celebrations coming up. Uptown was my neighborhood. Sure there was Treme and also them downtown Indians. But Uptown too was home to the black social aid and pleasure clubs and Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Mardi Gras Indians — I shook my head sometimes when I really stopped to think about it.

Growing up all my life around it, I saw nothin strange in a bunch of brothers dressin up like Indians, whoopin and carrying on. Nowhere else in the U.S. could you see some shit like this, and it wasn’t til I left New Orleans for a minute and stepped back, that I realized how the rest of the country, especially white America, must see it.

Something about the Indian connection felt right to me. No one really knew where that whole thing came from. I heard that the local Indians had helped out escaped slaves, had taken em in so there was a bond there. All I knew was like everyone else in New Orleans, I was a mix of some of everything. Mostly black, with some obligatory white slave-owner thrown in — my name, Reynard Etienne, spoke of French Creole there somewhere. And then, of course the traces of Choctaw or Houmas Indian. I didn’t know if those Indian roots were for real or not, but the look was there and sometimes, especially as a kid, I felt closer to my Indian roots than my African ones, most often at those times when I felt kicked in the ass just for bein black. When I was little, groups like the Black Panthers hadn’t emerged yet, so I hung onto the Indian warrior image for self-respect. I even had dreams as a kid, where a wise and strong warrior lookin motherfucker, face painted, appeared before me, tryin to tell me shit. It made me feel good to think about that image now, even though it was getting harder and harder to keep the Indian thing afloat these days.

For one thing, the price of what I needed like beads, rhinestones and feathers was real high and my funds was short. Another thing that made it hard was that a lot of the young guys were into that Rap and Hip Hop, and thought the Indians were out of it. Here you were, on one hand, about to lose a good part of the next generation, and then at the other end, you had the older dudes either gettin too old to mask Indian, or just plain dyin off. Sometimes, it made me wanna give it up but something in me just wouldn’t let it go. I decided to go home for awhile to clear my head; maybe I could figure a way out of my financial predicament.

Definitely some serious shit goin on. My gang shoulda been put on the endangered species list. The Golden Seneca Nation had been around for a long time but lately, had some problems. A few of the fellas were in the state pen at Angola, a couple others had been taken by the streets. My main man Reggie might as well be gone, he never quite got over his tour in Nam but lately had gotten worse. Wouldn’t even come out th’ house anymore. Said he was hearin voices all the time. I felt like a lotta this was riding on me cause the group’s morale was so low. A few of the other tribes were doin a little bit better — Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, Monk Boudreaux’s Golden Eagles, and Tootie, big chief of chiefs, and his Yellow Pocahontas had all been written about, had recording deals, and basically had some kinda backing. Sometimes I didn’t mind not being known, I wanted to keep it down home. I had seen them other tribes change a little bit, get more commercial, as if trying to play to the motherfuckers sniffin around from up north, lookin to do some story or documentary about the exotic local culture of New Orleans.

I fumbled with my key in the lock for a second and walked in the house. Everything was pretty much how I’d left it, but then what’d I expect? Wasn’t nobody but me stayin there. Maybe it was because my wife, Marva, and my little boy, Ardoine, had been there until recently and I still hadn’t made the adjustment in my mind. She moved out a few months ago but we were still cool. I understood it, she really wanted financial security that I couldn’t give her. I knew she still loved me in a way, but she had grown up even poorer than me, in the Iberville projects, and sometimes that shit is stronger than love.

I cracked a beer, lit a joint and thought about my uncle Gaston, looking at his old walking stick covered in beads and rhinestones leaning against the wall. Gaston Baudoin had been a Big Chief once in the Black Eagles, a rival Uptown tribe. He was my mother’s brother, and we hadn’t really been all that tight but I guess when he got old and ready to pass, he wanted to get close with someone. He didn’t have any sons and my daddy had been dead for awhile, so we just hooked up. I helped him out some, helped him to get around when he couldn’t. Sometimes we would share a pint of his favorite, Wild Turkey, and he would just sit back with his eyes closed, telling me stories about the Mardi Gras Indians in the old days, occasionally slippin into a mystical thing, mumbling shit in Creole about spirits and such.

Miles’ In a Silent Way was playing in the background; just before I dozed off and in a half nod, that same Indian face appeared again, the one from my childhood dreams. Didn’t say shit, just looked at me.

The next morning, when I went into work, my boss, Mr. Musson, told me that during the night, a couple of ships had pulled in unexpectedly and asked could I work some overtime? I told him sure, and went on about my business. The whole time I was thinkin to myself that I was just about going to make it for the rest of my suit expenses. Later, after work, I stopped to pick up some more stuff I needed for it and set to work most of the night, with a steady hand, stitching and sewing beads and rhinestones into recognizable symbols.
Hey, Reggie, it’s me, Reynard. Let me in, man.”

I knocked a couple more times on the heavy oak door, not sure what was going on in there. I thought I heard some shuffling around. The sound of locks turning and then the door opened a crack. Eulalia, Reggie’s mother, was looking at me with both suspicion and resignation in her sad eyes.

“What you want, Reynard? You ain’t gonna get Reggie all upset again are you?”

I knew what she was referring to, shit got him all worked up and you just never knew.

“No ma’am, I ain’t gonna excite him, I just want to say hi and see if he wants to get some air.”

Reggie almost never left the house these days and I thought a little walk might help him out. At any rate, I wanted to see him for a minute. Even though he wasn’t in the Golden Senecas any more, he had still been one of my best friends since we were kids and it killed me to see him fucked up like this. We were tight all through school, then he went to Nam and it was different when he got back. I figured that he’d seen and done things that had permanently changed him.

“Alright, Reynard. Go on upstairs, that’s where he at, in his room.”

“Don’t worry, ma’am, I’m just gonna be a couple of minutes. He’ll be okay.”

I walked in and smelled the odor of mildewed rug that covered the stairs. That’s how it was in New Orleans, the humidity never went away and things never dried out. It was dark on the stairs but I knew Reggie’s house. I got to the top and softly tapped on his door. There was no answer but that didn’t mean shit. I walked in quietly so as not to startle him, at the same time callin to him in a whisper,

“Hey Reg, how ya feelin’?”

The tv was going but he was looking straight ahead, off into space. I wondered if his medication had just kicked in, I knew they had him on some heavy duty drugs. I tried again.

“Reg, what’s up man?”

He finally turned and looked at me, not really focusing. His face was thin and scarred, with hollow cheeks. His eyes were sunken and his hair in wild short dreads. He had on sweat pants and a stained 1978 Jazz Fest t-shirt. He was singing and mumbling something that I couldn’t hear so I leaned in closer. Mercy, mercy me. More mumbling, then, things ain’t what they used to be. Reggie always liked Marvin Gaye. Thought he could sing like him.

I just sat quietly and watched the tv mindlessly for awhile with him. He seemed to come out of his fog, turning around to notice me, as if for the first time.

“Say, Reynard, when you come in, man?”

“I been here for a few,” I said, “Just wanted to see if you felt like takin a little walk, you know, get some air and shit.”

“Reynard, man, I’m so tired. That stuff they got me on is knockin me out.”

“Hey, we can just go a couple blocks, over by LaSalle and Washington. I’ll bring you right back.”

We left his house and started walking, not really lookin at anything or anybody, just walking. Maybe his medication had wore off, but it seemed like he’d gotten a little agitated so I figured I’d better get him back home. He had that vacant look and he was half singing half chanting some garbled sounding shit. He kept babblin about Indians. Then he says to me, “Reynard, man, listen to your old Indian. You know, the one you say come to you all the time.”

I remembered as a kid telling Reggie about my visitations but figured he thought I was nuts and had forgot about them.

I paid closer attention.

“That old Choctaw Indian Chief, he said it’s alright, everything’s cool. He come see me last night and told me my man Reynard the baddest. Uptown ruler.”

I grabbed him, breathing hard,

“What else he tell you?”

“He come holding eagle feathers in one hand and a bag of gold Mardi Gras doubloons in the other. He said it’s your call, man. Everything gonna be okay, you just say the word.”

By that time, we were in front of Reggie’s house and I was takin him to the door. My mind was racing and I couldn’t figure out what the fuck he was talkin about. I looked at him one more time and asked, “That old Indian, he tell you anything else?”

“Naw, that’s it.”

He started into his house, then turned around with clear eyes and a big goofy ass grin singin, “make me wanna holler …”

Mardi Gras morning, blue sky, crisp cold feel to it. I’m out the house, Indian suit on, and with my partner Eddie, who’d come to get me, was making my way to the H&R Bar to meet the rest of my dwindling tribe. A few shots all round before we hit the street. A tambourine rattled, somebody else started bangin out a rhythm with a drumstick on a beer bottle. A conga drum kicked in and I felt my blood get goin. I shuffled a few dance steps, stretched out my blue feathered arms, and looked at the others.

“Do whatcha wannaaa ..,” Floyd yelled, half in the bag already.

“Hu ta nay,” I sang out

“Indians a comin,” the response.

“Hu ta nay,” conga drum and tambourines.

“Nobody runnin,” the fellas chorused.

“Let’s go get em,” Eddie chanted, the gang picked it up.

A moment of reverence while I called Indian Red, then with the drum and percussion rhythms cookin, we high stepped out the bar, into the street. I looked at my Spyboy, Eddie’s son and my godchild, and bellowed, “Golden Senecaaas – gonna have some fun this Mardi Gras day.”

 

In the street now, breathing hard, my suit heavy on me — steppin this way, then that — my fellas encircling me, “Hey, two-way pocky way,” nearby.

“Cha wa, cou chi male,” voices in the air.

Off to the side, tall white dude with camcorder.

I look up, my spyboy waving and signaling at me — what is it, which tribe comin?

Camcorder man following the action.

Drums and percussion booming, I dance some steps, stretch my arms out, shake feathers

My suit is a bitch — blue feathers everywhere.

Eddie in the corner of my eye, in brilliant red — Floyd and Arsene, off to the side, flashes of green and yellow plumage.

Spyboy yells, “Injuns comin.”

I look up and see Darryl Batiste, Big Chief of the Creole Wild West, surrounded by his boys, shoutin, “Creole Wild West. I’m the prettiest big chief! Humbah!”

Darryl’s gang, beautiful — ain’t got shit on us and I know it.

“I ain’t bow down. No humbah!”

I step on up to Batiste and swirl around him, Darryl drowning in a sea of blue.

Look him in the eye, declare myself, yellin, “Uptown Ruler!”

My boys shoutin, carryin on.

I dance effortlessly away from him, in perfect step with my fellas.

Cowbells and brass behind us — bass drum booming its challenge.

A chorus of tambourines shaken in unison and high steppin Indians.

We move in and around Batiste and his Creole Wild West, right up to em face to face with outstretched arms like eagles’ wingspans.

For a second, I see my Daddy and Uncle Gaston, from past Mardi Gras, dancin.

It becomes a blur — my Indian spirit grabs me — feel the Golden Seneca’s dominance. The swell of voices and rattling tambourines and I know we got it.

I see Darryl Batiste lower his head for a second, and then it comes up and he slyly winks at me as if to say, “Go ‘head on, Reynard Etienne.”

I hear people on both sides of the street yelling and cheering — as I glance over and see Marva and my boy, Ardoine standin there, lookin at me with bigass grins

 

Sitting in Kemp’s now, in partial suit, my headdress off, swiggin a beer, and half listenin to the white boy sittin on the next stool.

“What I really need, man, is your permission to use this video footage.”

He had come up and introduced himself to me. Said his name was Jack McCabe, an anthropology grad student from up north. He’d told me he was doin his PhD on what he called ‘endangered subcultures’ or some such shit like that.

I swung around on the stool and looked dead at him, my head still foggy from my Big Chief firewater and everything else I’d consumed earlier.

“Look here, what you need my permission for? I don’t know you — when you leave here, you’ll probably do whatever the fuck you wanna with it. You just another white cat come down here to get a taste o’ New Orleans and then go on back to wherever you from and tell your friends about it.”

He looked hurt for a second, but to his credit, he didn’t flinch.

“Mr. Etienne ..,” he started.

“Make it Reynard,” I cut him off.

“Okay, Reynard, I’m not trying to put you on the spot. This isn’t about bringing back home movies,” he said softly, unflustered. “I’ve been working for years on this, on local cultural groups. I’ve been looking at the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans for a while now and I’ve been down here several times.”

He continued, “For example, I know that in the last few years, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Wild Magnolias, and Yellow Pocahontas have had some record and video deals. I have a theory. I feel that with increased exposure and publicity, these tribes I mentioned have changed. They no longer do what they do because that’s what the culture dictates, but rather play to their new audiences. In other words, they’ve become imitations of themselves.”

This college boy was a sharp motherfucker.

“Now that you mention it, I guess they have changed some,” I grudgingly acknowledged.

“You see, what I’m looking at is an old culture, caught in the grip of the times, with all the modern stresses and strains, trying to survive, like the Golden Senecas.”

Through my haze, I felt this guy hittin close to home.

“What I’d like to propose is a kind of deal. I want to focus on the Golden Senecas as an example of these changes and that’s why I would need your permission for any kind of involvement, including sound and video. The whole idea is not to publicize the Senecas but to examine the situation as is. It could be financially beneficial for you and your guys, I’ve been given a grant to do this and some of the funding could go to your gang. Use it however you need.”

I couldn’t think straight. What was he offering? I had to think but was too fucked up from the day. I wouldn’t be deciding shit tonight. Reggie floated across my mind for a second, as did Marva and Ardoine. I could see Eddie and his son, my godchild; and a couple running partners laid up in Charity. Memories of past Mardi Gras and easier times. I told Jack I’d talk to him soon. He respectfully paid for the beers and took off.

I looked down the bar at the rest of the fellas in various states of undress and intoxication and smiled. I ordered all of us a shot and as I tossed mine down, felt the slow warmth spread and for that moment, neither my past nor future existed. M’alle couri dans deser.

Marc Goldin has been seriously writing short fiction for 15–20 years. He lives in Chicago, but New Orleans is his spiritual home. He’s been visiting the city since the early ’90s and says several friends there have helped take him beyond the thin veneer of the simple tourist. This story is a fictional examination of the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans.

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