Tuesday was Election Day in Los Angeles, but it was also Mardi Gras. In the Crenshaw district, while a close contest for the 8th district council seat preempted any political celebration, at least for the moment, the revelry of Mardi Gras went full steam ahead. The Louisiana-based festivities used to be one of the preeminent cultural events of Crenshaw, but as the Creole population has dwindled over the years along with the rest of the black population in the area--though Creoles have dwindled much faster--the big pre-Lent parties are fewer and farther between. The Louisiana to Los Angeles festival, otherwise known as LALA, has gone from being an institution to an annual struggle for funding and visibility in a city increasingly bereft of money for black celebrations in the urban core.
But the Mardi Gras events that are left are doozies, partly because they have to make up for the loss. On Tuesday night, my sister, cousin and I made our way to the church hall at St. Bernadette's at the foot of Baldwin Hills, where twenty-five bucks got you an all-you-can-eat Creole buffet that included a po' boy bar, and shrimp and crawfish cooked in various ways (I was at the church only a week earlier for a funeral, but the return for Mardi Gras felt appropriate--like a second repast). It's a big hall, but by 6 p.m. it was so jam-packed that we couldn't get in, only stand around and watch people draped in purple, green and gold beads eating at the overflow tables set outside. Inside, the buffet line looped around and around in crazy configurations that reminded me of lines for the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland back before uber-thrill ride parks like Magic Mountain became commonplace. Back then, the Matterhorn was the greatest thing going, and the St. Bernadette's affair certainly had the feel of a mountaintop. Not just because of the geography--the church parking lot offers one of the most amazing panoramic views of L.A.--but because it felt like everyone there was gathered on higher ground while memories of better times drowned below. Maybe that's too dour a thought for Mardi Gras, but on the other hand, death and revelry--funerals followed by second-line dancing--have always been of a piece in Louisiana culture.
The three of us were determined to eat and make a little bit of merry, so we left the church hall and drove east to Harold and Belle's on Jefferson. Who were we kidding? The line to get into the much smaller parking lot there was backed up well into the street and not even moving. In the end we settled on Denny's at Crenshaw and 39th Street. Hardly what we had in mind--the non-victory parties of council candidates Bernard Parks and Forescee Hogan-Rowles were probably more festive at that point. But Denny's was fitting, too--here was a chain diner meant to replace Holiday Bowl, the singular coffee shop/bowling alley that was a Crenshaw community institution for more than forty years. A poor replacement, to be sure. But the fact we could still gather at that spot at all for a meal at a moment's notice was a good thing. Not a victory, mind you, but a good thing.
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