MARDI GRAS - NEW ORLEANS, LOUSIANA

Mardi Gras, that maddest of all mad days when every man may be a king, or, if he prefers, a tramp or a clown or an Indian chief, and dance in the streets. 

New Orleans City Guide (WPA, 1938)

If you didn’t come to party, take your bitch ass home,” shouts the man selling t-shirts on Bourbon Street. He adds, “I have size sexy for the ladies.”

The main street for Carnival Season partying in New Orleans has a distinct aroma—a mix of sweat, crawfish, Daiquiri puke and just-starting-to-rot garbage. All around the senses are assaulted with beads thrown from above, shoes getting stuck to the sticky wash that covers the street, drummers drumming, people shouting and bursts of purple, gold and green. Mardi Gras has been taking place in New Orleans since before 1835. It is a time for the loud, the grotesque, the strange and excess. While this might sound awful, it is intoxicating. The season has lasted all these years because it is what you make it.

Everyone has a different experience because no one is in charge and the celebration spreads throughout the city. If you came to party, you will find one on Bourbon. I saw lots of tits, a couple asses, hundreds of hollow plastic legs dangling around people’s necks filled with red liquor, people tumbling after one too many and too many crazy outfits to count.

The balcony people taunt the crowds below. Some put fancy trinkets on fishing wire to yank the items out of greedy, eager hands. They lay in wait to judge who is deserving of the beads. Sometimes it requires a dance or a flash and sometimes they take pity on a cute nine-year-old who is getting quite an eyeful.

Just one street over, there is the opportunity for family friendly fare. Royal Street, which turns into St. Charles when heading Uptown, is filled with jugglers and street musicians, and is also the main parade route for the bigger parades. Smartly, the first couple rows of people have chairs and right behind, people set up ladders with elaborate boxes for children to sit in for a better view. There is definitely alcohol, but people try to keep it together a little more here.

Quintron and Miss Pussycat are playing at the Spellcaster Lodge with Jello Biafra in attendance and Big Freedia is bouncing at VASO. There are fancy balls with high society that are by invitation only and parades that are solely for the people who know where they start and stop.

It can also be a time for the political. Different Krewes head different parades, all with unique themes for the year. The Krewe d’Etat is known for its biting satire and this year was no different with floats criticizing the sex trade and prison system. The Zulu Parade, that goes through the neighborhood torn apart by the freeway, celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela this year.

For me, Mardi Gras was cruising the city by bicycle and taking in the sites and sounds. The majority of the time it was a delight. Walking and making photographs, I was moved to tears during the Talladega College Marching Band’s version of Get Lucky and was surprised to find how amazing it is to make eye contact with someone on a giant float and catching the beads thrown right at me. And I already miss the smell.

Mark Twain said: “I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.” 

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website, TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press.

JOY PROM - JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEE

"Young man, there’s no need to feel down. Young man, get yourself off the ground" — pumps from the speakers, the trumpets blare and then — "It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A." — and hundreds of arms extend into the sky while red and blue lights flash from the stage.

Grace Fellowship in Johnson City, Tennessee, joined the Joy Prom movement in 2011 and are continuing to go strong along with other groups in Las Vegas, Charlotte and more. The guests of this prom range in age from knee-high to a grasshopper to older than 60 and have a range of special needs. Everyone at the event has the common goal of dancin’ their ass off and having a good time.

The night starts with the red carpet, where the attendees are announced and they enter dressed to the nines. Once at the party, you can get a horse drawn carriage ride, play Wii or air hockey, get your photo taken at the photo booth with a wacky mustache or big boa, or sit around and visit.

After dinner is served and all have eaten, the DJ starts the music. Some roll out to the dance floor while others strut — and everyone dances.

Like out of a movie, while Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is spinning one young woman hops on the stage and does the entire choreography without missing a beat. The crowd cheers and she is not without a dance partner for the rest of the night. Couples smooch and slow dance and many are spun during a fast number. The music is hit after hit and it seems like barely a minute has passed before the lights come up and it is time to go home.

Guide Note: If you or a family member has special needs, consider finding a Joy Prom near you to attend. If you have photography skills, have mean dance moves or have experience with food service, consider volunteering at the prom. (It’s the only time you’ll see me dance in public.)

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website, TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press.

PARADES - THE SOUTH

I love a parade;
The tramping of feet,
I love ever beat
I hear of a drum.
I love a parade;
When I hear a band
I just wanna stand
And cheer as they come!

from “I Love a Parade” by Harold Arlen (1932)

I love a parade (and a rainy night, but that is a different tune altogether). It is a snapshot of the cultural landscape of a town. It marks the passing of the year with the 4th of July, Veterans Day, and Christmas, as well as countless city festivals unique to themselves.

There are the staples of a parade: a representation of the military,
marching bands with pulsating bass drums, the Shriners, some horses,
classic cars, politicians handing out trinkets, area churches, candy,
and the street sweeper to bring up the rear.

Within that formula, there is an opportunity for personal expression.
I’ve seen an electric company rig a float to pour out fake snow as it
passes (which was brilliant in the moonlight), Shriners dressed as
clowns in bright zoot suits, and a pack of Great Danes dressed like
elephants.

It is also an indication of a what is in the air in general. The tone
of political themed floats will vary based on the proximity to an
election and often citizens will pay the modest entry fee and decorate
their car with a more personal political statement. Pop culture is
also represented. For the past two years the amount of Grinch’s in any
given Christmas parade is staggering. The latest Grinch film was
released in 2000 and is now in the parthenon of regularly scheduled
winter viewing.

And there is an air of unpredictability that only a live event brings.
Motorcycles are driving in weaving patterns that seem impossible at
those speeds, horses get skittish, tumblers flip above concrete, and I
believe with all my heart that the Shriners who drive the flying
carpet buggies love terrifying children of all ages.

There has been a steep decline in communal gathering places. Town
squares are a thing of the past, malls are closed and boarded up, and
churches have started to live stream sermons for people to watch at
home. Parades still get crowds to set down chairs early — to line the
route regardless of weather.

Cheers erupt as certain groups march by
and everyone is waves and smiles. As long as the band plays on, I will
continue to love a parade.

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website, TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press. 

MEANS OF TRANSPORTATION - THE CAR IN AMERICA 

I counted down the day until I was able to get my driver’s license as
a teenager. A car represented independence and the rest of my life.

My Dad had started a savings account for me when I was born and had
dutifully put in a couple bucks a week every week. We decided a
suitable amount to spend on a first car would be about $500. It
couldn’t just be any car though — this was MY first car. After an epic
back and forth with my parents, who I can now say wisely wanted me to
get a boring dependable car, I was able to get the car of my dreams or
the closest thing that $500 could get me. It was a 1979 Pontiac
special edition “Yellow Bird” Firebird with t-tops.

It was awful. The t-tops leaked in the rain. They were so heavy. I
was pulled over often because it was Iowa and not a lot happened, so
they had time to check in on young girls with crazy cars. Most days I
had to “two foot it” or constantly give the car slight gas so that it
wouldn’t die at intersections. One door had been dented by the farm
boy who sold it to me and it was very much a different shade of yellow
than the rest of the car. But — I adored it. The imperfections made it
mine.

My friend Theresa and I would go over to the East side to cruise the
loop most weekend nights. I could drive myself to school. My friend
Mike and I would jump in without opening the doors like Bo and Luke
Duke and then drive around listening to cassette tapes we bought at
the pawn shop. I loved every minute of it.

The car only lasted about six months total before it stopped running.
My uncle Hulie bought the engine off me for about the price of the car
so I could get my next car. I’ve had many cars, a couple scooters and
one motorcycle since, but I’ll probably never love a car more than
that one.

We experience life in our cars — we eat in them, sleep in them, watch
movies in them, and they become a small expression of us.

Guide Note: Photos from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website, TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press. 

PETERS HOLLOW EGG FIGHTS - ELIZABETHTON, TENNESSEE

There’s pretty much no one we’d rather have as our guide to the folk festivals of Tennessee than our pal Tammy Mercure. She checks in for Field Assignment #4 with this great dispatch:

2013 was the 190th year of the Peters Hollow Egg Fights. (My photographs are from 2011—it rained really hard this year.) On Easter Sunday, families from around Elizabethton, TN, gather to see whose chickens laid the strongest eggs. 

The competition is divided into age divisions. Dressed in fancy Easter clothes, each group is organized in circles. The first contestant turns to the left, under supervision of one of the judges, and hits the end of their egg to the top of their neighbor’s egg.

One of the two hardboiled eggs will have its end flattened and that end is “out.” This continues, sometimes for hours, until all the eggs are out… leaving one person victorious.

Sounds like they’ve got some tough chickens there in Peters Hollow.

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website, TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press.

THE BLOSSOM AND THE VINE (and the Racoon) - TENNESSEE

Perhaps the best known of the mountain flora is the rhododendron, ranging in color from white to deep purple. At Roan High Bluff (6,287 altitude), is a rhododendron garden, an outstanding display of the shrub in its natural setting.

Tennessee, A Guide To the State (WPA, 1939)

To share the plant and animal life of Tennessee, your Guide Tammy Mercure sends along blooms, creepers, and the unofficial mascot of American Guide Week for Field Assignment #2 - Flora and Fauna:

The rhododendron images are from the Rhododendron Festival on top of Roan Mountain. The festival tends to hit with the blossoms every other year. When they bloom with the festival it is magical—dense fog and beautiful pinks.

Then I have a couple photos of kudzu, the plant that ate the South. In the summer it can grow as fast as one inch a day. My first winter here, seeing how dead it looked, I was convinced the plant had become eradicated, but it greens up every spring.

The state animal of Tennessee is the raccoon. I found this poor little guy dead and clutching a Frito. I have several theories to how this happened, but none are very plausible.

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website, TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press. 

LAND OF OZ - BEACH MOUNTAIN, NORTH CAROLINA

As I step off of Dorothy’s back porch, I see the withered twitching legs of the Wicked Witch of the East under the house. The yellow brick road is before me and brighter and more magical than I ever imagined.

Hidden among the twisty roads of Beech Mountain, NC, the highest town east of the Rocky Mountains, the Land of Oz awaits. The defunct theme park was the passion project of Grover Robbins, the man behind the successful and still operational Tweetsie Railroad. The park was plagued with problems from the onset with Grover’s death shortly before the park opened in 1970. Problems continued throughout the park’s ten year run, including a devastating fire in 1975.

Grover Robbins knew that the L. Frank Baum books and Wizard of Oz film from 1939 would endure. Cynthia Keller, caretaker to the park, sees it every year for the popular Autumn at Oz event (usually the first weekend in October). People of all ages, take the slow drive up the twisty mountain to travel to Oz.

For the two day event, there are hordes of Dorothys with ruby red slippers and prides of cowardly lions enjoying the park. Costumed volunteers line the walk: one of the scarecrows is a master of somersaults and one of the tin men says “oil me” through clenched teeth.

There is an intriguing mix of psychedelic elements (the middle of Dorothy’s house is dark and seen in black light with a projected twister), homemade and Hollywood (they have some props and costumes from the film), as well as melancholy and whimsy.

Parts of the walk are truly terrifying: green faced guards block the entrance to the witch’s lair and those horrible flying monkeys pop out from seemingly nowhere to give chase for a few steps. I don’t know if it is the lack of oxygen or my great affection for these characters (growing up the film was an annual event and I was Dorothy from age 8-10 in a small 4th of July parade in Iowa), but I love this place.

The 2013 Autumn at Oz took place October 5th & 6th. During the rest of the year, Dorothy’s home is rentable as a hotel room. If you ask nicely, Cynthia Keller can usually leave the gate open so you can take a look as long as she knows and you won’t steal the bricks.

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was recently named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website,TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press.

COUNTY FAIR - TENNESSEE 

The county fair is best experienced at dusk with the smell of deep-fried oreos filling the air. I associate fair season with summer’s end and that last blast of oppressive heat and humidity. As wrathful as summer can be at this time, seeing the ferris wheel glow means that there will be a bit of a breeze when the sun goes down.

People from all walks of life stroll along the Midway. Young couples stray from their large group of high school friends and embrace quietly between the clanging whirring rides. A man with a straight billed cap wants to impress his wife by raising a giant mallet and sending a puck up the High Striker. Children sit at the edge of their seats straining to see the cars in the open-air arena growl and shift into gear and smash all of the other cars in its path until no one can move.

Beside the Midway is the heart of the fair — the friendly competition of neighbors showing off their art, from a smoked ham to a perfectly groomed angora rabbit. My Mom, who grew up in Iowa, has great memories of exhibiting at the fair through 4H. Growing up on a farm with a big family, you are instantly part of a well-oiled machine. Along with childhood mischief, she also had chores and important jobs. As the oldest child, she learned to drive at twelve to help caravan farm equipment from their farm to my Great-Grandpa’s farm. With her 4H cow, she was solely in charge and took great pride in raising and showing it.

I see that same pride today walking around the barns full of animals and crafts. A ten year old boy, usually unable to sit still for a moment, gently applies Purple Oil to his goat’s horns, explaining to me that it makes them shine for judging and I shouldn’t touch them. The fair requires discipline and preparation. He spent months walking the goat on a lead for exercise and sociability, grooming him often, and caring for him daily.

The fair is a magical place where young people can try on their more adult selves and grown-ups can act like children.

Editor’s note:

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was recently named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website,TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press.

ELVIS WEEK 2013, GRACELAND - MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE

Elvis is alive.

When I walked away, I heard you say

If you need me, you know what to do

I knew it then, I’d be back again.

Thirty-six years after Elvis’s death, he sang this low tune in front of Graceland while thousands held up candles at his annual vigil. Some silent, some singing along, some crying, and some hugging their neighbor.

He is one of the best musicians of all time, but it is still amazing to see the love and devotion all these years later. Standing surrounded by fans crowded in the middle of a closed street, it’s easy to see why he endures. He is still alive. 

When he was physically here, he was vibrant—his voice beautiful and versatile. We have him woefully sad, singing, “Today I stumbled from my bed while thunder crashing in my head, my pillow still wet from last night tears,” and we have his heart beating fast and “in love and all shook up” and everything in between. And in his personal life, from the peanut butter and banana sandwiches and his gleefully tacky media room to his pulsating hips and sweat drenched scarfs, he did it up.

At some point in our life, we will all lose someone desperately important to us. The sad thing about memories is the more one is accessed, the less intact it becomes. (For a fascinating read on neuroscience and more, I highly recommend “Ignorance: How it Drives Science.) The memories we cling to, because of our love for them, will change and fade more quickly than the ones we don’t actively recall.

Unlike our lost loved ones, Elvis can be resurrected in a fashion. The quality of his voice makes him sound alive and present and in the same room. He is there when we play his music. When I was five or six and listening to 8-tracks, a version of “Wooden Heart” came on. In the middle of it, he starts laughing and has to stop the song. It was a revelation to me— the song was recorded live—and it hadn’t been perfect. Elvis got the giggles. It was at that moment I fell in love with him.

I imagine most fans have a similar moment. This is how he crosses generations and different backgrounds. Strolling the streets much earlier in the day, I saw a four-year-old enraptured by George, an impersonator who sings live, competing in the championships, and an older Indian man with gold sunglasses and thick sideburns tapping his toes to every song. There were Brazilian flags and the Midwest Mafia, one of the many represented fan clubs. Across the board, everyone was smiling and enjoying the people around them—laughing, hugging, and dancing. Later, during the vigil, one could feel the love for Elvis and the memories of those who could not be there.

Guide note: Every August, fans gather at Graceland for Elvis Week, celebrating the memory of the King. The cornerstone event is a candlelight vigil, beginning on the evening of August 15th and lasting into the morning of the 16th. For more information, visit elvis.com. (And for those in the area, you haven’t missed it all this year - the Elvis 5K run is tomorrow, as are the finals of the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist contest

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was recently named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

 Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website, TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press.

CATS AND DOGS - SOUTHEAST UNITED STATES

Lazy during the day, the dog frisks like an excited puppy at night when lanterns are refilled or carbide headlights brought out for a hunt. Padding down a dim trail, he suddenly jerks his nose to the ground and snuffles anxiously, his soft nose making little noises over each stick and leaf; then his quavering, exultant baying floats across the swamp. 

Arkansas, A Guide To the State (WPA, 1941)

"Cats is the devil’s own and they’ll sure steal the soul of the departed if they can get up into the coffin."

Tennessee, A Guide To the State (WPA, 1939)

Animals are a part of our daily life. There is the occasional exotic pet and I’ve met my fair share of mule lovers, but for the most part, we live with our domesticated pals: cats and dogs.

A portion of the pet-loving population enjoys showing off their companions and their skills or perfect proportions. My two favorite events to walk with the animals are cat shows and coondog treeings.

A cat show is the more quiet of the two. Cats are fascinating. I am constantly reminded in the dealings with my cat Mad Max that they are the only species to domesticate themselves, preferring the interior protected life to the chaos and dangers of outdoors. 

Cat shows are most often held in hotels and fairground buildings. Each cat gets an allotted space at one of the long tables. Their person makes them as comfortable as possible in this foreign space brimming with new smells. Some fluffy cats snooze in the cage with fancy curtains shrouding their enclosure and some, like the super chatty Tonkinese (a sleek muscular breed who often do gravity defying flips), interact with their person—extending up a paw to touch a face or bat at a brush. 

Divisions and classes are called and cats are brought up and put in their spaces to await the judge. Cat show judges are a beauty to behold. The best judges can focus the cat’s energy on them to show their bright eyes and unique personality by using the perfect hushed coo or an irresistible stick and feather. After a quick tally, ribbons are hung and reasonings are provided with a flourish of staccato language describing what made the top felines stand out.

Far from the hushed tones and orange glow of fluorescent light, coondogs are baying in the harsh light of day. The dogs are used to excitement in the middle of the night. Raccoons are nocturnal and are more active in the moonlight, so that is when the hound normally gets to play. In the event of a treeing contest, they are out in the daylight in front of hundreds. 

A special tree is chosen, or temporarily erected under a tent, to be THE tree. Dogs are registered and put in divisions. (If betting is to take place there is a round at the beginning to introduce the dogs to the crowd. The dogs are bid on and some are chosen for hundreds of dollars. Most often in a betting situation at least half, if not all, money is given to charity.) 

Then the noise begins. A raccoon, either real and frazzled or stuffed and drenched in scent, is caged. The first dog enters the circle around the tree. The handler shakes the cage in front of the dog (sometimes with a hiss from the man or the raccoon) and another man then pulls back on the rope to hoist the creature up the tree to mimic a hunting situation. The dog reacts. Some roff, roff, roff, roff, while lobbing up the tree into somewhat ungraceful flips. Some do long low bays, aroooroororoororroorooroororoooroooroooro while standing at attention. Then, some get distracted by the crowd and trot along the edges of the circle goofily looking out at the people or simply sit and just don’t bark.

During the minute, the crowd is utterly silent and the four judges listen carefully, calculating the bpm or barks per minute. The crowd responds after each dog, cheering wildly a high bark count or young hunters regardless of how their dog did, while the judges confer and average their counts. Ribbons are given and bet money is dispersed.

As the French poet Anatole France remarked, “Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Cats and dogs hold a special place in the heart with probably the most pure love one can have for another being. They live in the moment, don’t hold grudges or feel ill will, and reflect the best parts of ourselves back to us. Consider spending the day with a fancy feline or black and tan.

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Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was recently named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.

Follow on Tumblr at tammymercure or on her website,TammyMercure.com. Support her work at TCB Press.