Everything I need to know about life, I learned in a sweltering backyard shed in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward last Thursday afternoon.
The shed’s owner, Ronald Lewis, repaired streetcar lines in New Orleans for more than 30 years. He raised a family in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood and presided over the Original Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club—one of several traditional African-American societies in New Orleans that combine service with Mardi Gras celebration.
It’s nearly impossible to explain to outsiders (like me) what the social aid and pleasure club tradition is all about, but Ronald Lewis has made it his mission to try, ever so patiently, to translate his world for the rest of us.
There have been two great loves in Lewis’ life: his wife, and the collection of artifacts he stores in a ramshackle building in his back yard. His House of Dance and Feathers is a D-I-Y museum to a strain of traditions that for generations ran underground, but parallel to the splashy Mardi Gras balls and parades of mainstream white society. African-Americans weren’t invited to the party, explains Lewis, so they made one of their own.
A proper visit to the House of Dance and Feathers isn’t really about examining the old photos of Mardi Gras Indians decked out in their regal best, or stroking the bedazzled masterpieces of beadwork and plumage that “big chiefs” and their entourages spend a full year sewing by hand. Do those things, to be sure.
But whether you realize it or not, the real reason you’ve come to Lewis’ overstuffed, “supersized man-cave” (as he calls it) is the man himself.
There’s an art to doing this visit in a way that will have you walking to your car, knowing you’ve just learned everything you should know about how to live a good and useful life. Here’s how you do it:
1. Call the appointment number and respectfully ask Mr. Lewis if you may visit his museum.
2. Come with your humility and curiosity both tuned to “10.”
3. Know nothing. Ask everything. Listen. Be genuinely interested.
4. Ask more. Care.
5. Say “thank you” in words. If you can, say “thank you” again in cash.
It’s not difficult to get Lewis telling stories. A question or two will do. Start with a few general queries about Mardi Gras Indian culture, and get him going about whether the show Treme offers an accurate portrayal. (He has an opinion, but not of the snarky or condescending variety.)
Then go personal. He won’t mind. He’ll tell you he lost his original collection when Katrina hit, and that he also lost his home, his neighborhood, and many friends and loved ones. He’ll tell you that he didn’t know what the word “depression” was until he saw how much his wife cried during their “Katrina diaspora.” You’ll find it wildly disarming that the boylike grin never leaves his face, even as he describes the annihilation of his community, the bureaucratic warfare he waged to get his house rebuilt, the funerals that became de-facto reunions, and the insult of being called a “refugee” in his own country.
There’s simply no bitterness in the man. No matter what life delivers, he refuses to stop loving it fiercely, or to give up on a piece of low-lying real estate that the rest of the world has advised him and his to abandon for higher ground.
“I love this place,” he’ll tell you, the grin spreading. “My greatest happiness was bringing my wife home. I couldn’t carry her across the threshold, but I opened the door for her.”
You’ll blink a little faster just then, but he won’t mind. He’s used to it.
Were you expecting a chicken-gumbo-for-the-soul list of life lessons here? No such luck. To absorb the Lewisian philosophy of happiness through sheer, cussed doggedness, you’ll have to go right to the source.