Goatwater is a column which explores the mystifying, joyous and liberating concept of Carnival through the New York born and raised, Caribbean-American perspective of poet and artist Tiffany Osedra Miller.
Festival, then Funeral
I once believed that since I was born and raised in New York City and not the Caribbean like my parents, that this diluted my Caribbean Carnival experiences, reducing them to a series of second-hand hallucinations and celebrations, devoid of culture.
I’ve since learned that Carnival is a universal canvas on which to record dreams, enter emancipation dimensions and parallel existences, even heal from trauma, while wearing an infinite array of costumes and masks. Carnival celebrates the personal, spiritual and communal. Therefore, for me, Carnival is Caribbean-American. What is your Carnival?
Due to mystifying life experiences that left me dispirited and disoriented, my Reveler-Ancestors shared stories with me – literary masquerades full of characters on quantum journeys, to help me to understand my own Carnivals and Play Mas’ – raw, surreal, post-colonial, inner theater manifested onto an island’s real or symbolic roads or streets. These writings are my Caribbean Dream Carnivals. My personal mythologies. Goatwater.
Many Carnivals ago, my Reveler-Ancestors marched into my meditations and placed a reporter’s hat, replete with ornamental motley, onto my embattled head. Armed with a miniscule, metaphysical camera of infinite range, to record memories, mixed with hallucinations and history, I entered into a Dream Carnival.
Here is my quantum reportage – in the form of notes for a midnight Masque or Movie:
Gorgeous, gregarious prostitutes, twirling parasols and strolling along the moonlit, Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan to Greenwich Village call out to crowds of pensive, potential customers:
We Mami Morenitas
have got The Sweet Carnival!
Even if on your way to funeral
You can still bacchanal and festival
They wear long, fur coats over beaded, crotch less bikinis, leopard leotards, grass skirts made out of green dreadlocks, Puerto Rican flag garters. Gold, Adinkra earrings. Antiguan ankhs.
They smell of Haitian hand lotions, St. Lucian skin-lightening creams, Bajan Burnt perfumes, Anglophone opioids, Francophone freebase.
The Mighty Sparrow, in his Calypso, lyrically branded the whole of them – Rositas and Clementinas, as they cruised the roads and nightclubs of Port of Spain, looking for Yankees. The Bad Johns of New York City – fairground for femme fatales, continue to call them Nada. Nothing. Not even Calypsonian Blues Women.
Yet, they would do anything to you and for you. Anything. Even shine your bald, bellicose head like a dog seed.
You there, Papa Grande
We’ve got your cotton candy
We call it The Sweet Carnival!
Delicious and it’s plentiful.
The prostitutes in Midtown generally present better than the ones at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx, where they visibly suffer from alcoholism, autoimmune disease and drug addiction while working the dark doorways of walk-ups and tenements. Some come from dusky islands full of the descendants of the descendants of slaves or are the progeny of Europeans who arrived on Ellis Island. They wear sweatpants or torn jeans, spandex shorts or skirts and sun visors, bought at Alexander’s Department Store on Grand Concourse.
Nearby, in basement apartments, work weary men wearing guayabera shirts, hoodies and cheap suits, shoot heroin into their veins, then host brutal cockfights. They emerge in the early morning hours, glassy-eyed, and shuffling down the damp, filthy streets like disgraced butchers, their bloody, feathered shirts clinging to their torsos. They seek pleasure in abandoned cars and doorways.
I can just now see my mother, who was a nurse, alive again and tending to these street revelers, as they lay dying – young and old – in her beloved Union Hospital on Valentine Avenue, near Fordham Road by the Woolworth’s. In those days, hospital rooms were transformed into candlelit, Santeria Ceremonials, where families, soaked in Florida Water, prayed for medical miracles.
In Detox, my vivacious mother, an angel, really, administers Methadone (quantum sufficit), and makes the dying street revelers laugh one last time. Many had shared needles and made fatal mistakes with the pleasures of love. Open sores. Cocktails of AZT. Festival, then funeral.
A character called Maman, reveals herself to me in my Dream Carnival. Impoverished, yet powdered and wigged like an aristocrat, Maman dances for money outside New York City nightclubs like Latin Quarter and Act Three, where she Vogues like a Black Madonna.
I can play your Dame Lorraine or Baby Doll
Come! La Dolce Carnivale!
Maman designs and constructs her own costumes and masks for Carnival, and dreams of selling her Carnival apparel around the world. In the meantime, she peddles Johnny cakes, goat water and sorrel on Church Avenue in Brooklyn and from time to time, she peddles her ass along the Hudson River.
Maman offers passerby her lovemaking in exchange for a ticket back to her island for Carnival so she can bacchanal. If they decline, she threatens to ruin their lives with Hoodoo and Obeah. When repentant, she flutters her eyelashes and clutches her rosaries.
Unable to raise enough money to attend Carnival on her Island, Maman settles for Carnival on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway. She bleaches her skin white, dyes her hair blond, and plays Mas’ as the Swedish Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita.
In her Mas’, white men who are actually black men chase her in cheap suits and whiteface. These Marcello Mastroiannis and Paparazzos carry cardboard cameras, and take pictures of Maman, and only Maman in a sea of Paparazzi. La Dolce Carnivale.
Maman, on her island, had once played the Mas’ of a Moko Jumbie – a stilt walker. She loomed taller than The Taj Majal and walked with a gangster lean as pronounced as Italy’s Tower of Pisa. When she came to the United States, she felt oppressed, and shrunk to a small state.
Yet, Maman is full of grand ambition. Inspired by the genius of George Bailey –Trinidadian Bandleader, Mas’ Man and Carnival Maker, who created the Band, Back To Africa in 1957, she decides to design the most glorious piece of Street Theater. Ever.
Maman’s masque depicts
an uprising of slaves
leading to a marvelous Night
of One Thousand And One Parades –
Whenever my Carnival ends, another Carnival begins. What is your Carnival?