This essay originally appeared in the book Unfathomable City (University of California Press, 2013)
The day starts at 10 am at Spring Hill Missionary, a white stucco four-square Uptown Baptist church crowned with an all-watching steeple. Inside, we spread our tropical peach sleeves across the double rows of wooden pews, dark olive alligator shoes sticking out in the aisle. The pastor wears a pink power suit and reads from Corinthians about how Jesus might be anywhere, might even be on today's second line (so I guess we should watch for him). We're all mostly bored until one of our own, 72-year-old Sidney "Lil Bruh" Morris, stands up to act as a deacon and brings the message home with quiet dignity, asking the Lord for a good parade and a peaceful day of celebration and we all say Amen.
In New Orleans, the second Sunday of each October belongs to the Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club and has for a very long time. Founded in 1928 by dockworkers and railroad men, there is some disagreement about the origin of the club name. Most members believed it was named for the love of the club ancestors for J&B scotch (it says "dedicated to the Prince of Wales" on the label) while a few believe it was named for the actual Prince of Wales, a renowned jazz hound who made his first visit that year to the source of the cultural river. Mostly in our 40s and 50s, many Walers are second- and third-generation paraders who recall watching second-lines as kids or remember when clubs sewed their own colorful suits every year. On our day, by police permit and with police escort, all traffic is stopped and cleared out a quarter-mile section at a time as the Prince of Wales and Lady Walers -- and more than a thousand second-liners from all around -- funk up four miles of bad New Orleans road.
After church, we drive over to take the annual club photo on the neutral ground across from Tipitina's, the famous club and shrine to Professor Longhair on Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas. We line up all in the unity of our finery half-facing the photographer. Standing proud in the year's colors -- peach suits, dark olive accessories -- we hold aloft two oval so-called "fans" upon which the club's lion symbol roars from a field of velvet. Then we move on up the street a quarter-mile to our home base where there's an hour until we launch ourselves onto the streets.
The Rockbottom Lounge is the staging ground for coming out the door, the parade's kick-off at 1 pm. The core of the current club met here in the 1990s, many of them friends or relatives of Alonzo Landry, the President for most of that decade, while "White Boy Joe" Stern, our most veteran member, was adopted into Landry's extended family. Here we start getting the spirit, talk to former members, watch mothers dress their kids, take pride in being told by past generations that this year's peach three-piece with matching dark-olive hat and alligator shoes, has again made the grade: "Y'all look clean, ya look pretty," the men tell us. We each pin up a long streamer that flows across our torsos and down to our knees, full of bows and ribbons with a nickname on the shoulder-strap. All the while we're spiking our Sunday-go-to-second-line spirit with Heineken, Seagram's 7, weed, Grey Goose -- don't forget the wine coolers for Phyllis -- except for Miss Betty, a church-going woman soberly surviving with style at 65. Coming out in single file, we each by each hit the threshold, strike a pose and present this year's model of our selves. It is a serious celebratory matter. As Betty says, "All I know is when I come out I want to look like the baddest motherfucker there is."
We come out rocking Soul-Train style between the ropes held by our prop men and descend onto Tchoupitoulas Street powered by The Stooges brass band: kids first, girls skipping and mugging with their green hats, boys next, a twelve-year-old already with a quick hip-dip and touch of the hat, then the Lady Walers saunter out, cool and low-flowin', Terina’s star-time smile followed by Phyllis' slow boogie and Desiree crossdressed in a Prince's suit working the glory of a threshold till its hers. Then the gents: Noland comes out lean and mean, a cool hustler as if with money to burn, White Boy Joe faces West and side-steps, sporting a matching dark olive bandanna under his olive Stetson, Bruce waves his booty round and round and covers the most ground, switching back through the ropes and up Peniston, Alvin does his gangster strut and runs his hand along his hat brim. Then Lil Bruh comes out holding his fans high and kicks his knees up higher than you'd imagine a 72-year-old man can, the very incarnation of the original "Grand Marshal," the strutting dancer who led the second-lines back when Black New Orleanians first "made up the parades just for the pleasure of it," as recalled by jazz legend Sidney Bechet from his childhood.
After only two blocks we slow the parade roll to honor the dead. The band downshifts into a dirge in front of the late Jimmy Parker's house on Annunciation and The Walers fall into a halting step with a syncopated slip: we strut in two lines with a slight diagonal step, shaping the air into chords of ancestor worship. Maybe we pick up his spirit, maybe he's satisfied we're all still dancing for him. Once past, the tuba and snare drum pick up the groove and down the block we pick up the Queen and her Court. Elected from outside the club, she rides with her maids and throws a few beads, honorary royal figureheads in the ritual. While waiting, Paul and I buckjump together, his thrashing kicks set off my deep-knee corkscrewing, and the Walers gather around, throw their fans down and get busy with The Stooges. The tuba-man slows his beat and a pride of princesses and their children dance down the steps and ascend a half-sawn off Mardi Gras float with their children. Then the Queen comes down the steps in white taffeta approaching a vehicle that has to be seen to be believed: an open-air bare-bones stagecoach woven of wire and drawn by two stallion-sized white mules. The Queen steps in as if she's a relief pitcher from Heaven. The driver flicks his switch and she is driven half a block to the awaiting float for a day of regal waves and champagne riding.
We set in to serious second-lining through the 12th Ward, a seamless sunny brassy carpet-ride of strolling, drinking, talking, and strutting, tuba-&-drum call and community response, until the parade turns onto Magazine Street and the Walers hit this commercial strip like a holiday: Alvin throws down his fans and we make a circle around him as he zigs back and forth with zip starts and stops, Desiree turns her palms up and damn near limbos, and everyone digs making the rich white folks wait and wonder as they stare from their cars with culture shock-and-awe. Second-lines run four hours over five-mile routes almost entirely through African-American neighborhoods -- Treme, Central City, Carrollton -- so many locals have never seen one due to residential segregation. Until recently, New Orleans culture was racially coded for locals: white and black Mardi Gras, white Krewes and Black Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, white touristy second-lines and these black-cultural rolling block parties.
The Prince of Wales is a rare Uptown second-line and this ain't no First Friday: it's a community getting its collective freak on, working off the weekly tension so at some point everybody is a star (to riff on Sly Stone). The parade belongs as much to the second liners as to the first line: that's why it's named for them. As Louis Armstrong testified about his childhood: "The Second Line is a bunch of Guys who follows the parade. They're not the members of the … Club. Anybody can be a Second Liner, whether they are Raggedy or dressed up. They seemed to have more fun than anybody." This weekly ritual is named for the celebrants and not the sponsors, and at this point we all swing together onto the broad expanse of Louisiana Avenue and head up to The Sandpiper, a bar whose '50s neon martini sign is a beacon in the late unholy NOLA night. This is the first scheduled ten-minute stop of the parade: we rest for a drink and momentarily de-compress.
Once we re-emerge we're in the thick of it, between the dancers and the deep heat and the strolling crowd. Sometimes you look up from getting down and don't even know where you're at even in your own neighborhood. The music shapes the air, the band torques up our internal gyroscopes, the tuba syncs our bodies together. We're getting the street into our system and putting our energy into the street. Like any good ritual, second-lines suspend everyday industrial time. And then it's out LaSalle to Washington and on around to the stop at Charley Wright's place, and we’re lettin’ the good times roll on, Walers out front.
On your club's parade day, the suit is your club uniform and the band is your motorcade. "Shut that street down… I'm coming through here. That's what it feel like," Noland once said, having driven a cab and a truck and run assorted hustles as well as a home-repair business in his fifty-odd years. "You feel like, [there's] nothing they can do [to stop you]… Eleven months they [we] slave, for one day out of the year." Miss Betty distills this feeling: "That’s my day. I feel like a star. Everything's got to stop for me." On this day, the second-liners bask in refracted glory off our colorful shoulders and bad-ass shoes: our tropical blaze of body and soul lights up the community. "It’s your day, you the one shining," Betty says.
If a city is a circulatory system of its residents' energy -- with streets like arteries and airwaves -- then New Orleans is the city as dancing body, a place whose spirit is stomped into existence every Sunday. Every day musicians inhale the city and on Sundays, they exhale it through valves and pistons and put the music on the wind for dancers to make the city's rhythms visible. There's a third line, too -- the platoon of photographers and tourists who think the main action is the first line when it's more along the sidewalks, where two people lock eyes and drop into a dance-off full of fluid shimmies, spins, and pelvic pops, where an impromptu drum unit rings time on cowbells and pint bottles, where every surface becomes a platform of celebration -- church steps, flatbeds, low rooftops, billboards -- and I watch seven young men from the community pace the Prince of Wales single-file each with his own move (leap, hurdle, split, cartwheel) while a few women lean forward on a parked car and booty-pop their pleasure since it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive.
"There's no place like this place," Stan smiles at me as we swing onto St. Charles and hold up a streetcar, tourists' eyes popping wide as their camera lenses. The Stooges shift into "Billie Jean" and pump up the volume, honoring the recently deceased Michael Jackson and blowing up the prized quiet real estate with brassy antagonism. "The tourists … be trying to see what's going on, they taking pictures," Phyllis says with pride, "but we own the streets that day." Stan is originally from San Antonio and joined the club post-Katrina for one reason: "It became imperative [for me] to step up because they were trying to take the culture away." In the immediate aftermath of "the Storm" (as it's called here), the city doubled the cost of a police permit and spread the lie that violence was endemic to second-lines. The clubs sued to rescind the increase and the Walers' own Joe Stern testified to the lack of parade violence over a generation. "They don't help us at all," Phyllis once said about the city, "if it was up to them, we wouldn't even be second lining… That's why we have the [Second-Line] Task Force…because we're trying to fight for our culture… Any kind of commercial dealing with New Orleans, the first thing you see is a second line. But they don’t support us."
We have looped back around into the Garden District and arrive at our last stop, Commander’s Palace, the city's #1 restaurant as rated by Zagat's: this was a prestigious coup engineered by Bruce and Noland and represents very recent attempts by local businesses to embrace local Black culture for its spectacle value. Five feet from the door, Adrian, the youngest Waler, throws her hat to the ground and she dip-bam-double-skips and spins into a quick routine that The Stooges support with sustained, escalating riffs, and Adrian does a stutter-kick, a half-split and then a slight backbend from which she rolls her head back in to place, gives the band an appreciative side-eye, then bends gracefully to pick up her hat and sashays on in. It is her way of claiming this new terrain and honoring its prestige. We swirl into the restaurant, human birds of paradise swooping low past shocked faces in the midst of quiet mid-afternoon lunches. I toss back a gimlet with Alvin and Terina's goldened smile spurs us back on out to Tchoupitoulas and the wide-open homestretch along the river that takes us home to the Rockbottom.
A second-line parade is an annual house party that moves lightly like the feathers on our fans yet inexorably like a tank through the streets. Gotta roll wid it or get the hell on outta the way.