A New Orleans Diary--The Two Faces of Carnival

02/12/2007 05:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's become a cliche of life in post-K New Orleans: the "tale of two cities"; usually the phrase is used to describe the surreal contrast between the "sliver by the river", improving, rehabilitating, trying its hardest to be better than before, and the great flooded swath, much of it still struggling just to look devastated.

But it has another meaning for me today. On the one hand, there's the steady drumbeat, in the local as well as national media, about the violent crime that, early this year, burst out of the "normal" realm of black-on-black killings. On the other, there was the scene Sunday afternoon in the French Quarter. I know, normally the words "French Quarter" conjure up scenes cobbled from "Girls Gone Wild" videos and Budweiser commercials. But here were families with children and dogs, or just with dogs, streaming through the narrow Quarter streets down to a quintessentially goofy New Orleans tradition--now in its 15th year--called the Barkus parade. I wrote about Barkus last year at this time, and it's always incumbent on me to say that, absent the New Orleanness of this event, a parade involving costumed dogs would strike me as an ceremony of surpassing lameness. But it grows out of the Carnival tradition itself, a time when beggars become kings and the spirit of barbed humor holds sway. So the event itself is a parody of one of Carnival's great parading organizations, the Krewe (sic) of Bacchus, and the entire proceedings are true to that spirit--there are a king and queen of the parade, echoing the love of faux royalty that's endemic to Carnival. But what was stunning this year was the return of the children. Far more kids than at last year's Barkus. And the sight of so many folks with kids, side by side with gay people and weird people and every other type of people, all having a fine, weird time in the midwinter sunshine, and then, after two hours, the crowd dispersing back through the Quarter the way they came, happier, and, seemingly, unafraid of the streets.

Which city is the real one? Well, today I heard that a friend of mine's house had been robbed; the missing property included her computer on which resided the only copy of her book manuscript. There's crime and there's joy. In New Orleans, there seem to be more than normal amounts of both.