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'Big Easy' Torments AA at Carnival

February 24, 1998|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — At one end of Canal Street, the Krewe of Bacchus was parading through an orgy of booze and flesh and beads and jazz, weaving and chugging and jiggling and strutting, its path marked by a roux of suds and trash.

At the other end of Canal, three dozen men and women were praying for the serenity and courage and wisdom to get them through today--Mardi Gras, a celebration for more than a million revelers but an awkward and sometimes anguished benchmark for the New Orleans chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The motto hanging on the wall, "Easy Does It," is not quite the same as "The Big Easy."

"Could I get a moment of silence for us?" said Cathi E., 49, who like other AA members asked that the organization's tradition of anonymity be preserved. Before leaving Grace Lutheran Church and stepping back into the Sunday night madness, they formed a circle, held hands and renewed their commitment to staying dry for one more day. "Keep coming back," Cathi implored them. "It works, if you let it. If you don't, you die."

Alcoholics here call Mardi Gras their "hurricane season," a reference to the tempestuous challenges of sobriety--as well as to the magenta, high-octane, frozen concoction wetting thousands of lips. In truth, the storms start brewing at Thanksgiving, build pressure over Christmas and New Year's, then begin lashing New Orleans with the start of carnival two weeks ago, until today's ultimate blowout--Fat Tuesday--turns the city into the wettest and wildest bacchanalia this side of Rio.

"It's really one of the hardest times of the year for people in recovery to cope with," said Clyde B., 50, a New Orleans native who sells industrial equipment. "Some other holidays are a bit more family oriented, or spiritual, or perhaps patriotic. But Mardi Gras is about drinking and letting it all hang out. That keeps us in a bit of emotional upheaval."

He has survived the season sober for 14 years now, usually by joining fellow AA members for coffee at home rather than risking a slip-up on the city's well-lubed streets. "It's not that I walk around every day with a burning thirst in my throat," he explained. "I'm not on the verge of a drink. But I also don't really know what it would take to set me off and put me back where I was. That's one of the scary parts of being a recovering alcoholic. Drinking is just part of the way of life here, part of the culture, part of our heritage."

Most major U.S. cities measure themselves in the language of progress--the tallest, the strongest, the richest, the fastest. Civic pride in New Orleans is a reflection of its ability to resist those pressures--to eat, drink, be merry and flush its cares down the ter-let. New Orleanians, as a local guidebook politely puts it, are "addicted to the art of living well."

Nobody is learning that faster than John King, who left Charlotte, N.C., last year to become the executive director of New Orleans' Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

When asked why he took on such a battle, given the city's propensity to party, King deadpanned: "Job security."

Strolling down Bourbon Street, whether it's Mardi Gras or not, you can just about get high from the fumes. Bars are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. (The 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. crowd is known, in bartender lexicon, as "the animal shift.") Drinks can be carried out in plastic cups or purchased at walk-up windows. At drive-through daiquiri shacks, you can even order a drink from behind the wheel of your car.

"It's a hard city to get sober in," conceded Mary Ellen, executive secretary for Alcoholics Anonymous of Greater New Orleans, which hosts more than 400 meetings a week, even (or especially) during Mardi Gras.

A billboard with AA's hotline number greets visitors at the airport--right next to ads for historic Antoine's Restaurant (whose wine cellar boasts more than 25,000 bottles) and for buxom lounge queen Chris Owens (whose French Quarter show includes a free drink with the price of admission). The phones are fairly quiet right now, but Mary Ellen predicts a flood of calls just after carnival, a Latin term loosely translated as "farewell to flesh."

"Not on Wednesday, because people are still hung over, sleeping it off," she said. "But by Thursday and Friday, the shame and guilt and remorse will have set in. For a lot of people, Mardi Gras is their bottom."

James M., a 56-year-old lawyer, remembers those days. Sort of. "To me, drinking and Mardi Gras went together," said James, who has been sober 17 years. "I assumed that the only people who didn't drink were religious fanatics, or otherwise culturally or socially deprived."

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