Harold Myers Jr. loved Carnival in New Orleans, and he celebrated it in a way unlike anyone else. He didn’t ride in a krewe and never reigned as a king, but he mastered capturing the spirit and integrity of the season.
Myers’ moment was on the evening of Twelfth Night as the Christmas season segued into Carnival. He and his accomplices would gather their trench coats, float riders’ masks and a cowbell or two, plus the hand-printed signs they had made, and head to the streetcar barn. Once disguised, they would congregate near the spot where the Phunny Phorty Phellows were preparing for their annual Jan. 6 streetcar ride to announce the Carnival season’s arrival. Someone in Myers’ group would start ringing a cowbell, and others displayed the signs; soon members of the Phellows would be drawn to the maskers, whose identity they didn’t know. Over the years an informal routine evolved. “I didn’t catch your names,” a Phellow would say, to which the makers would introduce themselves with krewe names, past and present, such as “Mokana,” “Okeanos” and “Proteus.” The signs they carried were satirical, some with a biting wit, a few with an eerie inside knowledge of particular Phellows.
After the streetcar ride began, the “Mystery Maskers,” as the Phellows referred to them, would disappear only to show up again at other spots along the route, each time with different signs. At Gallier Hall, a Masker straddled the streetcar tracks as the trolley approached. His sign boldly commanded the streetcar to stop. It did, and thus began an annual ritual of Phellow officialdom and the Maskers toasting each other in front of Carnival’s Capitol. This was the first toast of the season at the site where other royalty would splash the champagne as Carnival unfolded.
One year the Maskers gave the Phellows a proclamation commanding that a plaque should be placed at the corner of Julia and Magazine streets stating that that was the spot where, in 1857, the first Comus parade began and thus began the Carnival parading tradition. (Last year Zulu and his queen were among the Phellows’ guests. Extending his arm through the window, the head Mystery Masker poured each monarch a cup of champagne.) Within moments the Phellows were climbing back into the streetcar but not before one Phellow, always moved by the occasion, would tell the Maskers, “Y’all are the real thing; you represent the true spirit of Carnival.”
After the streetcar began moving The Maskers would appear a couple of more times along the route. Their last sighting would be at the end of the line, and then they would go away into the dark, not to be seen or heard from until the next Twelfth Night. This ritual, born of spontaneity, continued for nearly 15 years. Amazingly, no one in the Phellows ever knew who The Maskers were.
One afternoon last May I was sitting in the waiting area at JFK airport checking my messages when I got the news. A saddened voice asked me to call him, saying that he had disturbing information about someone I had never met but whom I was familiar with. That is when I learned the identity of Harold Myers. A cousin of his told me that, on the evening before, Myers had attended a Zephyrs game. As he was returning home, his automobile was near Bonnabel and the Interstate 10 service road when a vehicle that had been stolen and was being pursued by the police crashed into him.
“Harold loved virtually everything about New Orleans, the people, the food, the culture, the history and often remarked that this city was unlike any other city in the world,” one of his cousins wrote. “He was emblematic of everything that was right about the city of New Orleans and unfortunately died being a tragic symbol of everything that was wrong with the city of New Orleans.”
I would learn that Myers worked for the Louisiana Department of Labor’s Job Service’s division where he showed a real passion for the troubled and strived to create opportunities for them. A friend lamented that Myers would have wanted to find a job for the person who was driving the stolen truck.
When he last toasted the Phellows on Twelfth Night 2008, Myers was told that the plaque he had proclaimed years earlier now existed. Though it speaks of Comus, the plaque, on the side of a building at Magazine and Julia streets, is a tribute to someone who appreciated Carnival not as a profiteer, a rowdy or a celebrity but in a spiritual way that touched his soul.
Harold Myers lived in Metairie, but his funeral Mass was at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Central City, which, a cousin said, was his favorite church.
“Why a church so far away from home?” I asked.
“Because,” the cousin answered, “it was close to the parade route.”
In writing about Harold Myers, the last word properly belongs to his widow, Donna, who wrote: “Please know he enjoyed Twelfth Night so much. It gave him so much joy.”
And he gave so much joy in return.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival – Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e- mail at email@example.com or (504) 895-2266.
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