Travel March 2009

All the Street’s a Stage

New Orleans still has a way of making you feel as if you’ve been tippling, even when you’re stone sober.
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Scott Stuntz, right: Wayne Curtis

It was early morning in July and the sunlight in the French Quarter was silvery and sharp as scissors. The street was filled with hundreds of people dressed in white wearing red waistbands or red neckerchiefs or both. They looked like chrysanthemums, but chrysanthemums drinking beer. Everyone knelt. A man with a bullhorn shouted a prayer and people said “Amen” and stood up. Then a horn sounded—a loud and piercing horn, more keenly heard by those who had been drinking long through the night—and the crowd began to run toward the river. They ran through the narrow streets, past people standing on balconies holding their coffee. The bulls were coming.

I’ll say this: New Orleans knows how to do street theater like no other American city. In fact, it’s often unclear where the theater ends and the street begins: the jazz funerals, the second lines, the sidewalk barbecues during Jazzfest, the weeks-long celebration leading up to Mardi Gras. Despite Katrina and the slow rebuilding and the appalling crime rate, New Orleans remains a place where the street can surprise and often startle, and do this in a good way. Pageants large and small unfold against a backdrop of colorful Creole and Caribbean architecture, amid sounds and smells not found elsewhere in the United States.

San Fermin in Nueva Orleans is among the newer additions to the street here, having begun in 2007 when a wine salesman named Mickey Hanning, who goes by “El Padrino,” got the notion that a running of the bulls through the French Quarter would be a good thing to do. Hanning had attended the encierro in Pamplona, Spain, in 2002, and it made a large impression on him. So two years ago, Hanning and some friends, who called themselves Los Pastores, organized a run mostly by enlisting one bar to serve as the starting line, and another the finish line.

Watch a video of the New Orleans Running of the Bulls

The actual bulls presented some logistical challenges, what with liability laws and PETA and such. So someone threw out the idea of inviting the local rollergirl team to don horned helmets, like those worn by Vikings, and menace the runners with plastic Wiffle bats. Some discussion ensued, but the idea was so patently excellent that it quickly prevailed. And on a steamy July morning in 2007, a dozen rollergirls and 200 runners showed up—mostly gathered through word of mouth and a MySpace page. The next year Los Pastores, sensing they were onto something, created a Web site (nolabulls.com), got actual permits from the police, and handed out flyers around town. Nearly three dozen rollergirls and some 600 runners showed up at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, my wife and I among them.

We wore white outfits with red sashes, we knelt, we prayed, we ran when the air horn sounded and the crowd moved as one. The French Quarter, with its picturesquely spalling walls and tendrilly weeds spilling from cornices, often feels like a movie set, especially in the light of summer. Running with hundreds of excitable, shouting people dressed alike did little to lessen the cinematic flavor.

We rounded a slick corner onto Bourbon Street, past confused tourists and then past Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal club and the All-Male Review. We involuntarily sped up when a great roar behind us suggested the bulls were gaining. We veered toward the curb. The bulls skated by; neither of us was grievously Wiffled. I retreated to a banquette to watch the last of the bulls, and they were followed by about 10 Elvis impersonators on motorized scooters—some of whom wore capes— whose purpose was uncertain. At the finish, a line of runners stood bent over, awaiting their turn to be smacked by the happy-to-cooperate bulls.

The whole encierro was over in less than 10 minutes. We then went off with the crowd, to find a drink at the bar near the French Market—it was, after all, nearly 9 a.m., the humidity was nearing poaching levels, and we had run several entire blocks. By the time we got our Bloody Marys, the drinks seemed slightly redundant. New Orleans has a way of making you feel as if you’ve been tippling, even when you’re stone sober: colors are brighter, sounds clearer, images indelible.

The next encierro in New Orleans is slated for the morning of July 11. Hanning is hoping to expand it into a three-day event this year, and he envisions a time when the entire city might be dressed in red and white, at least for a day. Meanwhile, he’s organizing his second Andrzejki, a celebration of Saint Andrew’s Day, which last year brought out about 200 people to compete in eating kielbasas the size of Wiffle bats, and to parade through an empty city in a cold rain behind bagpipers and a small squadron of scooter-riding Elvises.

Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic correspondent.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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