DESPERATELY SEEKING KREWESMAN
After months of searching, querying, and inquiring like Desperately Seeking Krewes-man, Friday night I finally met members of my new home in Krewe of Morpheus. In addition to the monthly meetings that started in August, Morpheus holds two majors social event: The Captain’s Crawl in the French Quarter every spring and this night of booze, buffet, and bowling at Rock-n-Bowl.
The event was scheduled from 7:00-9:30 and I arrived at a quarter after, somehow missing this landmark near my home that I’ve passed a hundred times. Paul Leman, the Morpheus president (I wonder if he has brothers in banking?!), was taking names at the door as I arrived. He asked what float I was on and I shrugged. “Kim . . . something.” I then added that I’d been emailing with Connie Hibben, the membership director who recently gave me the green light to use names, and explained how I joined to blog my experience. He introduced himself and pointed out the lanes reserved for the Krewe and our buffet table, promising to come over and make introductions once he was settled.
TKO BY GUMBO
I spent a few minutes weaving through groups gathered to bowl or just chat, but was a little reticent about making an approach. “Hello, I’m Eric and I just joined out of the blue not knowing a dang soul!” I might as well tattoo NEWBIE on my forehead. I did attempt a few stunted introductions before realizing my admission covered beer and wine, so I fled to the bar and then started mowing through shrimp crostini, mini-pizza’s, chicken wings, and jambalaya. Once again, New Orleans 1, Restraint & Healthy Eating 0!
Fortunately Paul soon wandered over and introduced me to the Krewe Captain, John Beninate who is so Mardi Gras that if he were in an accident, EMTs would have to hang three different blood bags: purple, green, and gold.
John reminded me of super-cool Hank from Breaking Bad infused with a touch of Rodney Dangerfield mannerisms and larger-than-life personality. He heartily shook my hand, said he’d checked out the blog, and was off to the races filling me in on the Krewe’s history and sharing stories.
The Krewe Captain is, as I understand, the person responsible for putting together the parade, hiring the marching bands, securing the route, and making sure float lieutenants have their ducks in a row.
John grew up with Mardi Gras and helped form such major Krewes as Krewe d’Etat and Orpheus. It’s hard not to be taken in by John’s energy and engaging personality so it’s no surprise when he admitted he has lots of connections, especially with marching bands, so in the pre-Katrina years Krewes kept asking him to act as Captain or at least ride and serve as a resource. Citing an inability to say ‘No,’ he was riding in 13 Krewes before Katrina! After that catastrophe that made so many people slow down and reassess, he cut down to four, which still seems like a lot.
Although the key force in the rebirth, John wasn’t there for the actual formation of Morpheus, but when organization secretary Maggie Cuccia walked by, he pulled her in the conversation, saying she, along with director of legal affairs Judy Defraites (who I would meet later), had been riding since the very first parade. Formed in 2000 by a few veterans of Metairie parades looking for a fresh start, Morpheus first rolled in 2001 or 2002 (No one seemed totally sure. I don’t think record keeping is a high priority during the pre-Lent bacchanalia!) but quickly ran into financial trouble and was about to fold when John got a call asking if he wanted to save it. The infrastructure was there for the taking and since John specialized in reclamation projects he jumped at the opportunity.
THE GOD OF DREAMS RISES LIKE A PHOENIX
Neither Judy nor Maggie have any idea how the name was chosen, though everyone seems to agree that things congealed when John took over. His love for Mardi Gras bleeds out of every word, yet, not surprisingly, he explained that a lot of organizations get caught up in internal politics, trying to exponentially grow membership, and constantly expanding their floats which means hyper-focus on raising more and more funds, so he saw Morpheus as an opportunity to get back to the basics of having fun and focusing on people rather than ‘giant flowers which obscure the float and make it difficult for riders to throw.’
Every single person I met (including this year’s King, Phil, who happened to also be celebrating his birthday) went out of their way to tell me how much fun this organization is and assure me there wasn’t a lot of BS that often comes with a Krewe. Considering the money involved and blue-blood tradition of the older Krewes, it’s no surprise things can get dicey. “The all male krewes are the worst,” John said with a laugh. “Women work harder and are more organized. A lot of the men in those all male Krewes just want to get away from their wives for the day.” Morpheus, though, is co-ed and inclusive, and several husband and wives ride together, rather than fleeing one another’s presence.
AND MORPHEUS JUMPED OVER THE MOON (AND A BUNCH OF OTHER KREWES)
Morpheus really took a step forward, however, after Katrina. Before the storm this new Krewe rolled on Tuesday night a week before Fat Tuesday which limited its crowds and riders. The year after the storm, though, the city was determined to put on Mardi Gras but needed to consolidate to save money. John, being as deeply connected as the root system pushing up through NOLA streets and sidewalks, got a call from high up in NOPD asking if he could move the parade to later in the week to save shutting down the streets and deploying police protection so early, a huge expense to the city. John agreed and also called the captain of all female Muses. Muses gladly jumped from Wednesday to Thursday night and Morpheus leapfrogged to Friday after Krewe d’Etat and Hermes where their ridership swelled to around 600, as did the crowds.
“Some other captains got mad,” John said with a laugh, “because they said I used my connections to get the parade into a prime slot to grow, but the city contacted me.” Of course, the flip side of that is that the city wouldn’t have called if he weren’t thus connected, but that is the essence of New Orleans and Mardi Gras. The original Krewes were nothing but connections, formed of ‘old money,’ and, per what I gather, even looked down on the nouveau rich that formed Rex. A couple of these ‘elite’ Krewes even quit parading rather than integrate (stay classy, New Orleans). I’m sure the modern egalitarian Krewes where a butcher, baker, and a candlestick maker can ride beside a wealthy doctor or lawyer really grating to old money, but I love that Mardi Gras has evolved from a party thrown for the people of New Orleans to a party thrown by the people.
THE FUTURE’S SO BRIGHT I GOTTA WEAR . . . A MASK & ROBE
So the future looks bright for Morpheus, and I can’t wait to roll down St. Charles tossing to the swelling Friday night crowds on February 28th. As a band played and Morpheus bowled, I broke free from John and circulated through the crowd now that the ice had been broken. (Though every third person I met seemed to be related to Phil . . . no wonder he’s the king!!!) Everyone was friendly, excited, and inviting, so if John’s connections helped land Morpheus in a prime time weekend slot, it couldn’t have happened to a better Krewe.
Definitely to be continued!