As always, N.O. throws a big party
By Gordon Russell
It wasn't something you'd see in, say, Cleveland.
Ray Nagin, the man who in hours would be sworn in as mayor of New Orleans, jumped out of the horse-drawn carriage taking him to City Hall on Monday morning and started second-lining like a pro in the middle of Canal Street.
As he was about to rejoin his wife and 3-year-old daughter, a man on a balcony threw several sets of beads to him, which he nonchalantly grabbed and strung around his neck.
Minutes later, Nagin took time out again -- this time in the lakebound lanes of Poydras Street -- to slap a tambourine and sing with a group of Mardi Gras Indians who were marching behind his carriage.
Partly, the new mayor just likes to groove. But more than that, his urge to boogie came from his feeling that with his inauguration Monday, a burden had been lifted. As he explained it, the two-month wait since his election has been agonizing.
"I'm just happy this day is finally here," he said as he prepared to head into St. Louis Cathedral for an interfaith prayer service. "All the planning, the writing, all that stuff is done. It's time. It's time.
"It's liberating," he said. "The anticipation was starting to wear down on me."
But though Nagin spoke Monday of wanting to get past his inauguration and start work at his new job, he clearly savored the pomp and circumstance as well.
And who could blame him? Admiring crowds lined much of the parade route from the cathedral to City Hall, visible evidence of the optimism that Nagin says he has been feeling around the city since his election.
And the day's events were profoundly New Orleanian, in ways that kept a broad smile on the face of a man whose proudest boast is that he was born in Charity Hospital. And that he, unlike his runoff opponent, Police Superintendent Richard Pennington, an Arkansas native, knows how to make a roux, and knows what people mean when they say banquette.
Celebrating in the street
As the second-line began, on Royal Street just behind the cathedral, schoolchildren flocked to Nagin as if he were a rock star, chanting his name as he patted their heads and clasped their hands. The Treme Brass Band began blowing a funky tune just in front of Nagin's carriage, and the Lady Buck Jumpers, a social and pleasure club, started dancing.
Above the fray, a stout, shirtless man in shorts stumbled out onto a wrought-iron balcony, savoring the scene and what looked to be the day's first cup of coffee.
As the parade moved through the French Quarter, Nagin was greeted and cheered by such a varied cross-section of New Orleanians that a cynical observer might have suspected some in the crowd had been planted to demonstrate the breadth of the new mayor's appeal.
A house painter shouted down from the upper story of the building he was working on, and gave Nagin a thumbs-up.
At Brennan's restaurant, a group of tuxedo-clad waiters stepped outside to applaud the passing entourage. And the windows of a bank just inside the Central Business District were crowded with tellers cheering the new mayor. A crew of hard hats took a minute to shake Nagin's hand as he passed a construction site and headed up Poydras.
"We believe!" one man shouted. "Go get ‘em," another said. A third yelled: "We want a good four!"
The free-spirited parade came after a morning of religious events in which Nagin gave vent to his spiritual side, a part of him not prominently displayed during his dark-horse mayoral campaign.
Nagin spent Sunday night at the venerable Fairmont Hotel in the Central Business District, heading downstairs Monday at 7 a.m. for an interfaith breakfast with the city's ministers.
"I am so happy this day is here," Nagin told the crowd of several hundred guests, many of whom wandered in late because of the early hour. "You guys have no idea. There's been such a buildup to this day.
'Spirit of optimism'
"There is such a spirit of optimism, of hope, everywhere I go in this city," he said. "It's been really humbling to watch. And it's been humbling to me that God selected me for this."
Nagin said he would be calling on the ministers again to help him cleanse New Orleans' seat of government. "We're going to surround City Hall and exorcise some serious demons out of this city," he said.
A more conventional ritual, the interfaith prayer service at St. Louis Cathedral, showcased the city's religious diversity without downplaying the black and Christian traditions that dominate it.
The service, organized by the Rev. Will Mackintosh, a Presbyterian minister with a passion for ecumenism, incorporated Scripture readings or prayers from Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and Baha'is.
Rabbi Ed Cohn of Temple Sinai blew the shofar, a ram's horn, from the cathedral pulpit to signal a beginning and an end for the city.
But old New Orleans was certainly on display as well: Aaron Neville, clad in his trademark black muscle shirt, hushed the congregation with honeyed renditions of "Ave Maria" and "Amazing Grace."
And the Rev. Paul McQuillen, pastor of the Nagins' home parish, St. Joseph the Worker in Marrero, pulled the crowd in the old French cathedral into a call-and-response rhythm of "Amens!" and "Yes!" as he asked God's blessing on Nagin -- and warned his friend and the new City Council members not to become too cocky.
"We don't want bickering," said McQuillen to the first of several rounds of applause.
And to Nagin: "Your faith must enlighten all of your decisions if you're to be faithful to who you are -- and whose you are."
From there, it was off to the New Orleans Arena, where Nagin was officially sworn in about 1:45 p.m.
'So many opportunities'
Nagin is the first to admit that the infectious optimism he's feeling could sour quickly if he's not able to deliver.
"Expectations are through the roof," he said. "It concerns me, but I also see so many opportunities. In the first six months, we're going to have to demonstrate success. Something substantial has to be visible to the public. We need to show something to keep this momentum going."
But those were worries that could be postponed for at least a little while.
"It was just a great day; this is the way to get inaugurated as mayor," Nagin said, glancing from the master of ceremonies, Morris F.X. Jeff Jr., regal in traditional African garb, to one of the City Council's most conservative members, both politically and sartorially. "I mean, I look over, and there's Jay Batt sitting there with a white linen suit and white bucks on. And I'm saying: This is New Orleans."
Staff writer Bruce Nolan contributed to this story.
Gordon Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3347.
©Copyright 2002, The Times-Picayune