Roy Exum: My Worst Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, February 26, 2020 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Today, and every Ash Wednesday to come in my life, will be the anniversary of the longest one hour I ever spent. And, what’s more, either this year or next will mark the 50th year I attended an early Ash Wednesday service that provided one of my life’s greatest lessons. Back in the day a gaggle of us swells from Ole Miss had descended on what was brazenly called “an adventure” in New Orleans. I’d been to several Mardi Gras before and I knew no matter what happened, it would be a dandy adventure, but what makes The Big Easy so wonderful is that you know what to expect, but you’ll marvel for days over what you find every time.

We departed the university, which is in north Mississippi (some 60-70 miles south of Memphis), early Sunday afternoon, since the first party had already been called for that night in the city’s French Quarter. There were three cars in our group, each driven by a freshman “designate,” and at one point our younger friend ventured, “Let’s put $5 each in a pot and it’ll go to the one of us who kisses the most girls!” Willis, who was sitting up front, shifted his eyes towards Mr. Excitement and in his syrupy drawl told the pup, “Son, don’t embarrass yourself … you riding amongst professionals,” and that sort of set the theme for this road trip.

We soon set up camp at the Hotel Monteleone, where our ace – who we called ‘Kudzu’ because he’d crawl over anything – had phoned ahead and told management we were a Christian singing group, since the churchman’s discount during Mardi Gras Week would save us thousands. The hotel handed out our wrist bands – this to keep the unwanted out during Carnaval – and we were to reconnoitre at the Famous Carousel Bar at 6:30. The Carousel is a huge bar shaped in a circle that rotates. Those on the prowl know each rotation takes 15 minutes, thus at 6:45 we paid our way and eased into heavy foot traffic. Driving during Carnaval is impossible, of course, and the party was not far away – over on Royal Street – at the ever-popular Court of Two Sisters.

Let me interject this: a carnival is a place where you walk on sawdust and eat cotton candy. Carnaval is the celebration that precedes Lent, a hallowed Christian time that lasts 40 days, from the stroke of midnight on Fat Tuesday – which was yesterday – until Good Friday and Easter. A “carni-vil” is Ferris wheels … a “carna-VAL” is so completely different and divine it is a very delicious time in life for believers in Jesus Christ. Actually, the word "Carnaval" likely originates from the Latin term "carne levare," or "to remove meat." On the day before Ash Wednesday (Mardi Gras or "Fat Tuesday,") many Catholics would eat all of the meat and fat in their home and would hold these huge and joyous parties in the streets as one last celebration before the penitential Lenten season would begin.

When I was growing up, many Catholic families would not eat meat at certain times during Lent and would only eat fish on Fridays. So the idea is to party extra hard on Fat Tuesday, believed to be your very last chance before facing 40 days of somber penitence prior to The Holy Week. Mardi Gras is also known for its beautiful masks and bright colors. This is very purposeful and beautiful in itself. The masks are so “all social classes can disguise themselves, joyfully congregate, and forget their usual tribulations.” The reason I know this is because it is “ammo” for your conversation with pretty girls for the next three days. Beautiful women are drawn to intellect as a moth is to a flame, so to speak.

Our freshmen drivers had never been to a bar, much less one that rotates, so they arrived to the stunning Carousel early in khakis, sweaters and windbreakers like we had taught them the girls back at school thought was cool. Yet they were dumbfounded when we “the professionals” each showed up dressed to the nines. I would always wear an elegant tuxedo the first night with a white formal shirt that was more starch than cloth. I would ditch the traditional black bow tie for a jaunty red-and-white striped number, tuxedo pumps with satin bows but never with socks. ‘Arrogantly shabby’ was the look you wanted and Billy Mack was also tuxedoed. The others were in dark suits and we were properly groomed. “Buff your nails but never shiny; shiny shoes but never buffed” – that sort of thing.

“X, what are you dressed like that for?” one of the kids asked and I told him my dress was “bait. Nice women are drawn to elegance. You can chase the girls but it is far less time consuming to attract them. “You tell your chicky you’ve just come from a christening … oh, they love those, and when I get my Cary Grant in high gear, with beautiful manners and a cocktail for every girl at the table, man … it’s better than cut-and-release, listen to what I’m telling you.”

Some shipyard baron had rented out the Court of the Two Sisters and, since the freshmen weren’t invited, I sent ‘em down Bourbon Street, telling them how minors could best buy beer, making them swear to the water trick, “and when you start down the street, put your wallets either in the front of your shirt or in your front pocket, never show a wad of cash – one bill at a time – and when you see those girls swing out of the windows on the second or third block, they ain’t girls. Steer far away ‘cause rumor has it them he-she’s carry knives.”

Before 8 o’clock during Mardi Gras – or in the French Quarter for that matter – it is “beginners hour.” Most nights you are best served lying low. Kudzu, who paid his way through school crop-dusting in the Delta, asked about the water trick once more. “It’s one-for-one. Look down in your empty drink glass. If you see a piece of lime, your next drink is a glass just as tall with plain water. Slip into the men’s room, fill the glass, and take care to pause at minimum of five seconds between each of a measured four gulps. Get a breath or two of air each gulp. Wait ten minutes and then order your next drink. It ain’t the moment yet, it’s the distance. That way when the moment comes, you’ll neither belch nor be a sloppy kisser with a slurred tongue.”

Wait, why do I need to take a breath between each gulp. “It’s H2O, ya dummy, let the water ‘work.” (They still think I’m Einstein.)

We get to the party, find the ship builder's daughter, who by prior recognizance we knew was Tammy, and told her it was such a pleasure to join her. Then I find the ship builder, telling him what a pleasure. You want to be remembered by people like that? Tell him two more times before the night’s end and he’ll call you by name. Well, this was an A-list crowd. There are the middle-aged ladies who flirt first but always be kind, polite and nice. The younger ones watch from afar carefully, I’ve found, and how you treat other women is how you’re gonna’ treat her, right?

That first night I got two phone numbers and four valid invitations for parties over the next two days. Made some fine acquaintances and there was one girl I let slip I’d be at The Columns in the Garden District between 11:30 and 12. One of my chums knew a couple who had a balcony on a parade route, which is the only sane place to watch the Mardi Gras krewes. This is because balconies aren’t crowded where fat girls will stand on my tuxedo pump, but are attached to beautiful homes or condos with viable restrooms, and have a bottomless bar, clean glasses, and nice ice. “Nice ice? to which Freddy replied, “No little flecks in it.” Flecks of what? “I don’t know … I just can’t abide flecks no matter what flavor they bring.”

When I was a kid at the Yazoo City carnival, there was a “Men’s Tent” off to the side that offered some soft burlesque. At Mardi Gras you toss a string of beads at some girls, yell “Show me your (bosoms)” and they do. The catch is the bosoms ain’t exactly worth seeing or, as my boy Willis noted, “Any women who’ll bare herself in a crowd of strangers, Ex … listen to me, a woman that common is carrying some kind of disease. I promise you!” I told Willis, that’s something I’ll never know.

Well, we walked into The Columns about midnight and I’m thinking I’d be better going to two waters between jiggling my ice like Cary Grant. Wow, a lot of cute people, several I knew from elsewhere when … hello … the girl I told at the Court of the Two Sisters was there. Apparently, her friends were elsewhere and who would have guessed her daddy was a Ford dealer and she was a junior in law at Tulane. She thought getting cozy on one of the sofas was special. It was. She was simply lovely.

That Monday was more of the same. A late breakfast at the Camilla Grill where, how about this, three best friends were in a booth who had graduated from Florida State. One was married, one engaged, and the prettiest of the three would relish going to a lavish party in lower Garden District that night. Tuesday was Marti Gras proper and I’d copped a table for two at 1:00 with Miss Ella – a friend of my mother’s – at Brennans. I’d been bold enough to ask her for my favorite meal of a lifetime, where they had set up a table with fine linens and rich china in the kitchen itself, but she said she couldn’t do it, not during Mardi Gras Day, but we still got to eat among all the rich and famous and she set aside two bowls of turtle soup with a wee bit of sherry.

My best meal ever was on a blind date with a girl who is today a lifelong friend. When I first started to be seen in New Orleans several years before, Miss Ella Brennan – sent us to the kitchen and in no time the waiters started bringing us remnants of the best wines in the world that had been left behind. These wines had been poured by the wait staff … in no way were they ever touched by unknown hands … and that sampler was incredible.

Further, as the chefs would prepare this dish or that, they would add half a serving of trout almandine, oysters Rockefeller, Stone Crab & Mirliton Salad (green apples), custard and caviar, redfish, smoked scallops … I’m telling you; even the speckled butter beans would make you want to cry, the seasoning was so fine. Well, that kind of picked up where we’d left it before and she had some fun places to go that afternoon. She had a beautifully resorted small house near the levee with some Tommy Edwards standards on her Victrola.

At the Carousel Bar that last night, we’d all just had good naps and gotten through almost two rotations, when Bobby and Willis urged a strong finish. “Tonight let’s run with the dirt dogs,” which, at Ole Miss back in those days, was tantamount to suicide. The expression comes from coon hunters, whose dogs will run all night to see which of the pedigreed hounds can tree the most raccoons. Whichever dog does, the owner wins that night’s pot – said to be quite substantial, depending on where the hunt was in the state, and I’ve seen many a truck bear the sticker, “When the tailgate drops (releasing the dogs), the B.S. stops.”

It’s much the same with college boys, so we set up a checkpoint list with given times, including the 4141 Club, that would be open ‘til dawn, and other all-night hangouts like the world-famed Carousel Bar, the Fairmont, and so forth where we could reconvene every couple of hours until the last stop that was required by all, the first Ash Wednesday Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. One last disclaimer – this was before cell phone and I didn’t know who had called me, but I knew who I had not called.

I have no idea how we got through the Mardi Gras final hours, or how we all met back up at Jackson Square in front of the cathedral. The Café du Monde didn’t open until later and I needed double-sugared beignets and chicory coffee badly. As it was, my longtime friend was eager for pew hugs and hand-holding but my mouth felt as though the Hessian Army had walked through it in their socks. As the processional begin … this is 7 a.m. or whatever in the morning, I felt as if I am being watched and there was my “newest best friend” from Sunday and Tulane shooting daggers through me. I nodded as politely as I could and broke eye contact. Oh my gosh, oh my mercy. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, why did she walk into mine? 

Soon I turned to casually glance at the growing crowd and – what!—the tanned blonde from Florida State met me eye-to-eye, she about seven rows back, and her blue eyes were considerably colder than mine. The girl I was with sensed whatever women sense that men don’t. “Is something wrong? Are you okay … want me to get you some water” No, no, I’m okay but jiminy skillet, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

On the way out, after I had gotten a deep look at penitence 101 -- the very hallmark of Ash Wednesday – I stopped to light three candles. For every Ash Wednesday that has been since, my quest for penitence has only grown. Yes, I apologized to all three by the end of that very week, and sought forgiveness as I would on any Holy Week, I discovered that the really beautiful girls are like wives, no man can handle more than one at a time and only a fool ever tries. What a great lesson, as even today I long to be better.

Thankfully I’ve come to believe I am more seasoned, kinda’ like Brennan’s speckled butter beans, but not quite as tasty as I had one day hoped. The redemption is that there is still time for each of us. That’s Easter’s guarantee. That, then, is why we can outscore an opponent on any field in this Fourth Quarter of our lives and exit a winner.


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