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New Orleans’s Social Aid and Pleasure Club tradition brings funky brass music and hard-grooving street dance out of the nightclubs and straight into the streets. On roughly forty Sundays a year, these neighborhood-based social clubs throw roving street parties that course through the city backstreets and boulevards – a hard-dancing flash mob powered by funky sousaphones and flanked by parade-savvy New Orleans police escorts.

These “clubs” began in the late 19th century with a double-barrel mission. In their “social aid” role, they raised money year-round for helping community members through difficult and often unforeseen tragedies (sickness, untimely passings) in the years before modern insurance plans. In the “pleasure” category, the clubs developed and refined a parading and street dance tradition that rules the city streets on most Sunday afternoons.

This week, as the world looks to New Orleans for the culmination of Mardi Gras season, the second-line crowd patiently awaits the Sunday after Fat Tuesday, when the CTC Steppers Social Aid and Pleasure Club rolls through the city’s historic Ninth Ward.

Plenty of folks show up for the dance and astonishing musical displays, but a hearty band of enterprising locals adds a solid shot of street hustle to the mix. Wherever you’ve got a happy crowd of folks assembled for fun and foolishness, there’s a chance to make a little scratch. Dancers will always work up a thirst. Cook up a little something and folks will pony up a few bucks to stave off hunger pangs.

At least once every Second-line Sunday, we find ourselves deeply admiring street vendors and their sheer commitment to the workaday hustle. It’s the modern incarnation of New Orleans’s three-century street vendor tradition and an energetic display of present-day street-level entrepreneurship.

An hour or so before the day’s first downbeat or trombone blast, the Truck People are doing brisk business. These vendors arrive early, setting up grills, trailer-mounted mobile kitchens, and 40-bottle makeshift bars to tempt potential customers. The crowds mill around waiting for the club’s energetic debut, tempted by the smell of meat smoke, the sight of sugary technicolor snowballs, and bullhorn-amplified promises of “Hennessy. Good ol’ good ol’ Ciroc. COLD beer. ICE cold. ICE COLD.”

In between sips, you’ll usually spot the regular vendors plying their standard wares – the Jello Shot Lady, the praline man hawking brown sugar goodness, The King of Cakes. Ms. Ackie and Keimika rocking the crawfish sausage po’boys and gumbo when it’s cold. Follow your nose to burgers, wings and whoever else is on offer. Wanna make some noise? Give three bucks to the Whistle Man. Too sweaty? Ms. Butterfly will sell you a neatly-folded hand towel to mop your brow (color coordinated to the club’s theme, of course…) or your mouth (lookin’ at YOU, saucy pork chop sandwich).

But when the tuba goes up and the show begins, the vendor action shifts to the Walking Crew – a group of hearty business folk who expertly guide ice-filled coolers around potholes, providing life-affirming cold beverages for the party in motion. A dollar for water. Two for regular beer. Heineken is three. Cash only. Thanks, man.

The coolers rumble along – plastic wheels grinding on blacktop or cleverly strapped to industrial dollies – trying to stay one stop ahead of the hard-grooving crowd as they fulfill their much-appreciated public service. After a quick menu recitation and price statements, the cooler men plunge their hands into rapidly-melting ice, serving from Igloo chest’s coldest depths. Cash and bottles change hands, and the cooler man barely break stride.

Every hour or so, the funky mob scene arrives at a pre-determined neighborhood barroom, a break that allows the club to cool off a bit and the bands to rest between sets. And as you’d expect, the Truck People have magically transported themselves from the start to the stop – grills roaring, bars pouring, bullhorns blasting.

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Pableaux JohnsonPableaux Johnson

Published on February 21, 2023

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