Last Friday, after 2 weeks of daily second lines in his memory, Treme Brass Band‘s bass drummer, Uncle Lionel Batiste, was to be laid to rest. To say it was raining doesn’t begin to cover it. Waiting for a streetcar to take me into town, I stood in the neutral ground wearing a plastic hoodie sack and rubber sandals and gripping an umbrella against water coming from all sides. When no streetcar appeared, I jumped onto a bus and we all stared out the windows at the flooding in the streets. It was pouring when the ride came to its final stop. Bourbon Street was a canal with water coming up over the sidewalks and into the shops’ open doors. By the time I crossed Rampart heading into Armstrong Park, the water was nearly knee high.
The untold story of the day is that the city’s pumps failed, but even Mayor Mitch Landrieu focused on paying respects to one of the city’s most beloved citizens. Uncle Lionel knew he was dying in advance and had a few requests. Though he was open to holding his memorial in the Superdome, the event found its home in his other choice, the Mahalia Jackson Theater. He asked that we not wear black (unless it was Saints black and gold, of course) or cry. He wanted a party – a big, fun one. In his words:
I’d like the memory of me to be a happy one, I’d like to leave an afterglow of smiles when life is done. I’d like to leave an echo whispering softly down the ways, of happy times and laughing times and bright and sunny days. I’d like the tears of those who grieve to dry before the sun, of happy memories that I leave behind when the day is done.
These sentiments were expressed on the back of a postcard featuring a photo of him banging his drum while leaning on the back of a hearse. They were signed, “Your New Orleans Legend, Uncle Lionel.” I wish he could have attended the festivities as he wanted, but it was certainly the party he’d hoped for. There was singing and hip-swinging-ass-smacking dancing, second line umbrellas, baby dolls ( grown women dressed in ruffles and bloomers originating either in Storyville in the 1890′s or by Uncle Lionel’s mother, depending on who you ask), Mardi Gras Indians and a brass band of over 50 musicians (despite many of the local bands taking to the road in the summer months).
Uncle Lionel’s casket sat between a faux streetlamp (with street signs for Charbonnet and Treme) and his iconic drum. His familiar band uniform stood with it’s cap cocked to the side just as it had been in life. The day before was his viewing. Though I didn’t attend, the whole city heard about the man “outside the box.” His body, dressed in his typical finery with his watch across his hand signifying “time on his hands,” stood at the funeral home. Yes, STOOD, leaning slightly on the faux streetlamp, like a mannequin or a wax figure. Even in death, he went out in style.
After the giant brass band paraded through the theatre, a lovely young lady did an interpretive dance to His Eye Is on the Sparrow and several family members and city spokesmen took the podium. Mayor Mitch Landrieu talked about how black and white don’t make grey here, that they weave a tapestry. Like good gumbo, this city is a stewpot where each flavor stands out on it’s own while becoming part of the whole. Landrieu smiled, “We gonna be who we gonna be.”
They stalled the program as long as they could hoping the skies would clear, but the funeral ended with the announcement that the cemetery was flooded and we’d have to return Monday to try to put him in the ground. Since the musicians don’t stop second lining until the burial, that meant 4 more parades to come starting with the one led by the giant brass band with members from the Treme, Storyville Stompers, Young Tuxedo and Free Agents brass bands among many others. Like good gumbo, good NOLA jazz can come from all the different elements of different bands playing together for the first time, each finding moments to stand out while never losing the group’s overall flavor.
Though I attended alone, I was never by myself. I ran into many friends and neighbors (including Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, Twelve Years a Slave‘s Rob Steinberg and Beasts of the Southern Wild producer Nathan Harrison) but mostly, I was just part of something too big and full of joy to be lonely. In the throng, I spotted the satisfied smile and storied face of Big Chief Alfred Doucette of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Flaming Arrow Warriors. I walked beside Willy Picket, our family’s carriage driver in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, as he kept time on his bells with a drumstick. I saw second line staples Jennifer Jones, Tambourine Green and DancingMan504. And I also saw the wildest thing I’ve ever seen at a second line. As we were leaving the theatre and making our way through the park, a woman walking beside me simply disappeared. With all the flooding, she didn’t realize she’d stepped right into the manmade lake. She resurfaced, trying desperately to save her professional camera, when we suddenly realized she didn’t seem to know how to swim. Several people grabbed her out and she seemed fine but it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen at a parade – and that’s a pretty tough contest around here.
We paraded through the Treme with a brief stop at the Candlelight Lounge, a regular gig for the Treme Brass Band, then up to the underpass on Claiborne. By then, the rain was up past our ankles so the freeway above provided a dryer path and amazing acoustics for our growing crowd. As usual, there were people grilling barbecue or dragging coolers full of beverages for sale all along the route. When we ran out of overpass, many people headed home, especially when the rain kicked it up a notch, but dozens of diehards continued on toward the Marigny.
Then it really started to pour. I don’t know how the musicians were able to keep playing, but as long as they did, we kept pace with them as the waters rose. A picture may be with a thousand words but I finally had to tuck my camera safely away as I trudged through flooding sometimes up to my knees. The strange thing was, the harder it rained, the more it energized our dancing and singing.
We wound our way across Frenchmen, stopping briefly in front of the old folks home before making our way down Rampart and into the New Orleans Healing Center . The Healing Center is a collective of community focused shops, co-ops, programs, services and activities designed to help local neighborhoods come together and restore themselves. The center’s operating principles are built on the United Nations guidelines for healing and sustainability. Among their many tenants are a grocery co-op, a credit union, an interfaith center, an organic cafe, a yoga studio and Cafe Istanbul, a performance hall that will soon play host to Joan Rivers.
We dripped, danced and slipped our way through the entire building to the venue all the way in the back. I feel terrible for whoever had to mop up after us. I danced through the band’s last song as they took the stage and some in our number bellied up to the bar. I seriously doubt the party was over, but it was time for me to begin hiking home through flooded streets. My thanks to DancingMan504 for carrying me over some of the worst of the flooding into the Healing Center and for helping me find higher ground on my journey homeward.
I didn’t attend Uncle Lionel’s burial Monday but it was a beautiful, sunny day – perfect for a grand finalé. Uncle Lionel passed on July 8 with strict instructions that we celebrate in bright colors and with no crying. I’ll admit I’ve shed a few tears for this man but many of them were tears of joy from sharing our love and memories together as a community. I think Uncle Lionel would have been happy to see all the partying the rain delays caused, the die-hards galumphing through floodwaters, the musicians and paraders who showed up day after day for 2 weeks of second lines. It was a sendoff worthy of the man. I will miss you, Uncle Lionel, and it has been my supreme pleasure to celebrate you as a man, a musician and a New Orleanian.