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Mardi Gras in the Midwest
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This week the phone lines are buzzing. The tears are flowing, the stories gushing.

Everyone’s pulled out their Zydeco tunes, their Cajun music, their Clifton Chenier and Fats Domino, their Wild Magnolias and Professor Longhair.

Their TV sets are on, too. Everyone knows when the next interview, the next feature, the next special is scheduled.

Earlier this week, for the evacuees, the displaced, the refugees, it was all about Mardi Gras.

And how they weren’t there -- either to complain about the tourists, to serve the tourists, to get an extra key made for guests, to stock up on food and drink for guests, to explain the king cake to the guests, to meander out along the parade line to catch a glimpse of a float or two, to explain the floats, at least once.

Because this year not everyone can be in New Orleans. And it’s strange.

Earlier this month, between trips, I stopped in Kansas City to see a good friend who was born and bred in the Crescent City. For the past few years she’s taken care of her mother, who has some form of Alzheimer’s.

So when Katrina hit, they got the hell out of Dodge. First, like so many others, they stayed with relatives. For them that meant Lafayette, La.

Then, when they got their bearings, they headed north to Kansas City, where my friend’s sister lives. From a settled existence with old friends down the street who my friend trusted, reliable caretakers who spoke the particular and peculiar New Orleans language, familiar landmarks in restaurants, grocery stores, drug stores, they were thrust into the world, into the diaspora.

For my friend and her mother that meant freezing temperatures, rolling prairies, signs pointing to tornado shelters, uncertainty about where to go next. This week it meant being away from New Orleans and seeing the last of the unemployment checks.

And these are the lucky ones. They have a nice house and generous relatives. Kansas City is nice. The Midwest is nice. The people are nice.

Before long they established a routine, important for someone with Alzheimer’s. My friend found a day-care facility, and though her mother -- who used to waitress at a New Orleans landmark called the Buck Forty-Nine -- calls it “going to work,” she complies. Most of the time.

For my visit, my friend found a caretaker through a friend of a friend. I was her second visitor in five months. Kansas City really isn’t on the way to much.

“Let’s go get a glass of wine,” I said at the airport.

“A glass?” my friend said. “How about a bottle? It’s been a long time.”

That night we went to an area called Zona Rose where putting money into the parking meters is optional (“Why have meters when there’s so much free parking?” the sign read. “Because a portion of the meter proceeds goes toward Change for Charity.” )

“Nothing like that in New Orleans,” my friend said.

“Nor Savannah,” I added.

In the next few days we explored Westport, a refurbished and artsy historic district near downtown; stopped to read bronze plaques for Thomas Hart Benton and Lewis and Clark; drove along the railroad tracks that took Truman Capote and Harper Lee to Leavenworth Prison for Capote’s In Cold Blood, and saw from the highway the huge monolith of a building; ate a great barbecue brisket sandwich; explored the National Silk Art Museum in Weston, a funky little nearby town, where we stopped to read about an 1847 hotel that was lodging for river captains and wagon masters.

“Nothing like that in New Orleans,” my friend said. “Nor Savannah,” I added.

In Weston, we saw a water meter that read, “Made in India,” a first for both of us. From people we met we heard about George Brett and the ‘85 Royals, the last local team to win the World Series; the big St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Kansas City and St. Louis (who knew?), the new casinos (they’re everywhere), the dying GM plant (they’re everywhere, too), the huge presence and generosity of Hallmark Cards.

We saw a great show at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, saw work on the striking glass-walled pavilions of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, then walked through the nearby Kansas City Art School, where a very friendly ceramics student showed us a huge bread mixer rescued from a World War II ship that the school uses to mix clay.

Every morning I read the Kansas City Star, one of the best newspapers I’ve come across in a long time.

On the way to the airport, my friend slipped in a CD and we listened to Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, sing “Time is On My Side.”

“She sang at my high school prom at West Jefferson High School,” my

friend said, keeping her eyes straight ahead, stoic and in control. “She was unbelievable.”

But that was then. And this is now. And right now, she allowed on the phone the other night -- after the isolated reality has had a chance to set in -- she’d just as soon be out on Bourbon Street doing a little Mardi Gras Mambo.