Tales from Ash Wednesday: Who killed Arthur Fonzarelli?

by Brian Clarey

It’s carnival time in New Orleans, the time of year when I forget how much I hated Mardi Gras towards the end of my time in that city and instead romanticize like an oily poet about the seriously decadent and unapologetically depraved things my friends and I used to do during the final days leading up to Fat Tuesday.

Only problem is, I don’t seem to remember much between the years of 1988 and 1997, my own personal forgotten decade.

I do remember the flatbed truck on St. Charles strapped with beer kegs and that we hired street folk to work the hydraulic elevator. I remember it was Fritzel’s on Bourbon Street where a bunch of weary bartenders nearly beheaded a tourist who had the audacity to play “Mardi Gras Mambo” on Ash Wednesday morning. I remember Big Tiny and the Dance of the Ugly Woman, which was much funnier when he performed it in a hiked-up nun’s habit. I remember the bottles of Thunderbird and Night Train and Mad Dog 20/20 bought on a lark and drunk on a dare. Everything else is a bit… fuzzy.

So what I do is I get some of my old friends on the phone and ask them what, if anything, they remember from our hard-partying past – but not before putting the children out of the room; these stories are for adults. Be warned.

The first call goes out to the Dick in Manhattan, and all he wants to talk about is some property he and Mrs. Dick are thinking about buying up in Harlem.

“But what about Mardi Gras stories?” I ask. “We were down there together for five years. Do you remember anything?”

“Remember when we started a rumor in the French Quarter that Henry Winkler died?”

“That wasn’t me.”

“Oh. Well how about the time I was passed out on the bar at Fat Harry’s and you were standing right next to me with my girlfriend-“

“We won’t be telling that story,” I say. “Good luck with the house.”

Ramón Ramone, out in San Francisco, don’t know jack.

“Oh dude,” he says. “I don’t know… remember when we went into, like, that family’s house and they were having a party and-“

“Ooh, yeah,” I say. “I don’t think I can print that one.”

“Good luck, dude.”

And then there was one of the Mikes, who remembers having a moment of clarity while buying beer in a Circle-K convenience store on Mardi Gras Day 1992 with a couple girls waiting for him outside.

“I realized that I hadn’t eaten, slept or taken a shit in seventy-two hours,” he recalls. “I ran out the back door and ran home, closed the blinds and slept for eighteen hours.”

And then I think of Joe Parade. He’s old like me now, runs a restaurant in New Hampshire with his wife, sits on a couple civic boards. But the kid loves Carnival more than anyone I’ve ever known. Every year he lived down there he’d quit his job so as not to interfere with his parade schedule, and even after he’d moved from the city he would always show up at my bar on Mardi Gras Day, more booze than man.

I make the call and he answers from Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta. He’s on his way down one more time.

“Yeah, dude,” he says from an airport bar. “We’re getting in tonight, going straight to the Krewe of Oaks. We’re changing into our costumes in the car on the way over.”

Some of his finest Mardi Gras moments came when he lived in a house – a mansion, really – on the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Fourth Street, on the parade side. One year we parked the flatbed truck out there, bedecked with 20 or so kegs. Joe Parade and his roommates had about 30 houseguests that weekend, and traffic between the two parties turned the front lawn into a muddy, sucking swamp.

Now he’s in the airport with his wife, and when she leaves for a minute he speaks conspiratorily.

“All right, I’ve got one. You remember the whip?”

I do.

After the semi-pornographical Mystic Orphans and Misfits ball in 1996, held on Saturday night every year since the ’70s, a lot of revelers spilled into my bar, including Joe Parade who wore as a part of his costume a braided leather whip that was not meant for bulls.

Another customer dressed like an underwear model flirtatiously asked him to demonstrate the whip. With a glass of gin sloshing in his free hand, he reared back and let loose, raising an long, angry welt on the woman’s left buttock and cackling madly afterwards.

“Yeah, I remember that,” I say. “She was a pretty good sport about it.”

“Heh. You really gonna print this stuff?”

“As much as I can get away with,” I say.

“Cool. Why don’t you come on down? Come on… you should do it.”

“I don’t think so,” I say. I hang up before doing something I’ll regret.

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