Like all good adventures, my most recent began with an unlikely hero. In this case, a heroine. Who also happened to be a weatherperson.
And another hero, who happened to be a hardware store owner in the French Quarter.
But also, a third hero, who happened to be adopted. Like Little Orphan Annie? Well, sure, except this hero happened to be a neurotic dog, named Jo Jo McWood.
The story of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus all began in November 1992 when that owner of Mary’s Hardware, Tom Wood, was at a regular meeting of a social group dedicated to a local celebrity and meteorologist for WDSU — the Margaret Orr Fan Club.
“It was, obviously, just a way for us to drink more together,” Wood told NewOrleansPodcasting.com in a 2012 interview. Meetings were hosted by Wood — get togethers with a handful of his close friends — on the second floor of his widely-beloved Marigny establishment, Good Friends Bar. I learned that the second floor bar actually goes under another name, Queens Head Pub, which he also owns. In addition to the hardware store and those two bars, he is also the proprietor of the Bourbon Street haunt, Cafe Lafitte in Exile, as well as late-night lifesaver, Clover Grill.
So Tom Wood is a busy guy! (But, like any good New Orleanian, not so busy that he doesn’t have time for extracurriculars — in this case, a fan club dedicated to a weatherwoman.) And, because meetings could sometimes last awhile, he’d bring his dog, Jo Jo McWood.
“You know, the other members didn’t really appreciate her,” Wood said in the interview when discussing his socially challenged puppy’s relationship with other club members.
Why? I wondered. Well, in 99% of the accounts of the Krewe of Barkus origin story — and there are many accounts available online — the reason for their distaste toward Jo Jo McWood is consistent but vague. Whether it be the Times-Picayune, The New Orleans Advocate, or dozens of other blogs, podcasts, and Mardi Gras-related websites, the word “neurotic” is always listed as the cause.
Neurotic? Like she makes the other members unhappy by sitting in the corner and nervously biting her nails? She brings down the party by constantly questioning the point of hers — and everyone else’s — existence?
What do they mean by neurotic?
“Well, she bites everyone,” Tom said matter-of-fact. “Not hard. But if you turned your back to her for a second, she was gonna bite your neck.”
Okay, fair. I might struggle loving someone who keeps trying to take a chunk out of my jugular.
But Tom was tired of everyone making fun of his dog. He wanted them to love her as much as he did. “I just wanted her to be popular.”
So, like any reasonable adult, to prove his dog could be loved by others, he created the first Carnival krewe for canines, and he wrote in the bylaws that his Jo Jo McWood would serve as captain-for-life. “And I told everyone else that if they didn’t like it, they were out of the Krewe!”
Their first parade would be that upcoming Mardi Gras, in early-1993. Modest beginnings?
“No, it was big right from he start. Word of mouth happened fast,” Wood explained. “That first year we didn’t know what we were doing and didn’t expect much, so we had the end of the route cross back over the beginning of the route. Well, there were so many dogs that we ended up creating a huge traffic jam for ourselves because the dogs in the back hadn’t even started by the time the dogs in the front were trying to pass by!”
But Barkus — a play on the name of the famous super krewe, Bacchus — has only gotten bigger in the last 25 years. While I was researching Mary’s Hardware, I learned a few interesting things:
- The store had been on Bourbon Street starting in 1983, but moved to Rampart Street in 2012.
- Mary isn’t a lover or family member of Tom’s, like many people think. It’s the name of his favorite biker bar in Houston!
- French Quarter denizens love Mary’s Hardware for so much of the unexpected you find there. Wood says he is always thinking about what people in the Quarter need. So he carries materials that fit the historic architecture of the neighborhood. He also meets the needs of the average Mardi Gras crafter, and has a second floor dedicated to home decor, as well as…
- There’s a Barkus Museum on the second floor, and that’s where I was heading next!
I walked into Mary’s Hardware last week and walked up to the register where a woman with big, curly hair and thick glasses greeted me. “Hi! How can I help you today?”
“Hi,” I offered back, as one does, “I heard there’s a museum for Barkus someplace in the store,” the inflection of my voice implied something between a question and a statement. “Am I able to check that out?”
She directed me through the standard array of nails, screws, hammers and shovels you’d see at a hardware store, and then up to the second floor past chic and colorful pots, pans and ovenmits you wouldn’t expect to find in an Ace Hardware.
I wound my way to the associate behind a circular desk in the middle of the floor who intuited, “Here to check out the Barkus Room?”
“I am!” I laughed. “Getting a lot of visitors?”
“You’re the only one right now, but we get more this time of year than usual,” he smiled as he took me to a large conference-style room with a wooden table in the center of a glossy, brown floor. The room was surrounded by white walls covered with pictures, posters, trinkets and proclamations. “Enjoy!” he flipped on a light, and I walked to one end of the room.
I look at a picture of a small dog dressed as a crawfish and, while I make my way around the room, I read the names of 25 years worth of themed doggy parades. Names like “Jurassic Bark,” “Bone of Arc,” “Tails from the Crypt,” and “Wizard of Pawz.”
I smile at paintings of dogs in crowns, read City Council proclamations lauding the importance of The Mystic Krewe of Barkus, and admire the names, capes, and costumes of a quarter-century of canine kings and queens.
Of course, the first queen was the inimitable Jo Jo McWood, who — as the bylaws so clear stated — served as parade captain for the remainder of her years. She was succeeded as captain by Jo Jo McWood II (who Tom Wood later gave to a friend in need of some companionship), Jo Jo McWood III (who was the victim of a tragic accident), Jo Jo McWood IV (who was also adopted by a friend), and Jo Jo McWood V (who, as far as I know, is the current parade captain).
The room told the story of captains and royalty, but also of tens of thousands of New Orleans dogs and their owners who are committed to the idea that Mardi Gras is best when it’s for everyone…humans and otherwise.
As the parade approached, the duties of this year’s King (by tradition, always a purebred) and Queen (customarily, having been rescued from homlessness) increased. There was a funny attempt at an interview on NOLA.com with King Baker Williamson.
Next — a Barkus ritual — was a press conference and royal lunch at Galatoire’s Restaurant. I’ve posted a few pics of the coverage on NOLA.com, here.
And, then, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, all that was left was to go to the parade. I stood a few blocks from the end of the route, next to Julio, whose silent enthusiasm made him an ideal partner with which to enjoy the festivities.
This year’s procession was called, “Game of Bones.” Julio and I watched tiny dogs dressed like Daenerys Targaryen riding on top of shopping carts decorated like winged dragons. We watched human mothers carrying, both, baby Hodors and four-legged White Walkers down the route. Julio’s stubby tail wagged every time a little kid would run toward him. He knew a common parade “throw” was a bag of treats, and his owner couldn’t say no to that cute, fat face!
The funk was extra loud, bouncing against shotgun homes on the narrow street, while smoother jazz sung from a trio jamming on an old man’s porch a few houses away.
Dogs in every shape, color and size marched down the pavement. Some looking back to their “parents,” wanting constant reassurance. Others bounding fearlessly from side to side, onlooker to onlooker, collecting treats and head pats, and doling out slobbery licks, at every opportunity.
Troupes of women in corsets danced in unison to music blasting from a stereo following them down the route. Adult humans and dogs — along with toddlers and puppies — dressed like dragons, blond-haired queens, and bearded warriors.
On this Sunday, the sun lifted the spirits of a city that had dealt with more cold and rain in the past few weeks than it was used to. And, as a krewe of humans and dogs marched down the street, holding back laughter while shouting “Shame!” as they reenacted a famous scene in the show they were spoofing, it was a reminder of the magic of Mardi Gras.
A city coming together, defining itself with an elaborate game of make-believe. Pretending this January day is the first of Spring. Pretending this tiny French Quarter street is the main road of a powerful kingdom. Tiny dogs and tired humans pretending they ride dragons and slay monsters. Mardi Gras is beautiful because, for a few weeks, we can be anything we want to be.
Which is exactly the way a neurotic dog became so popular there’s a chance her name will live on in New Orleans lore forever.