Ash Wednesday resonates in New Orleans more than in most places because of the way we live the day before. There would be less purpose in saying “farewell to flesh” were we not previously so consumed by flesh of all forms. The simplicity of an ash spot on foreheads is a counterpoint to vividly painted faces.
On Ash Wednesday morning in the French Quarter, merchants sweep their sidewalks. Where on the day before, the air was permeated with the smell of fast food, the smell the morning after is of pine oil, chasing stains. Beads, which for the previous two weeks had been flying through the air, bouncing off buildings and crash-landing on trees as revelers leaped to snag them, are now humbled on Ash Wednesday, coiled in the gutter awaiting the man with the broom and shovel. A few escaped doubloons and blinky items, having lost their flicker, join the pile.
Necks, that on the previous day were piled high with those beads, are now adorned with just a simple tie, necklace or open collar. Suddenly we have landed in the middle of the work week. Reality sets in. City buses now travel what was the path of kings in the days before. Commerce returns to where abandonment reigned.
We are told to fast on the day after Mardi Gras though there’s still leftover party food. Yet there’s relief in being spared more Moon Pie with wine. By Ash Wednesday simplicity is welcomed. It is the tonic we need, so that one day we can return to the flesh and then say farewell again.