Running from normal: San Fermin in Nueva Orleans
San Fermin in Nueva Orleans festival commences its 8th annual run this weekend. Three years ago, I nearly moved to Spain, but instead moved to New Orleans. A month after arriving, I ran from the “bulls” on a hot summer morning in 2011. The running will happen again this year at the Sugar Mill on Saturday, July 12. This story details the seriousness of my experience.
I stood amidst a throng of several thousand people dressed in white at eight in the morning when I realized the pants I purchased from Goodwill were lady’s yoga pants. I tried to adjust the waistline to reduce the now-glaring genital exposure before I gave up and drank cold sangria to combat my embarrassment. Above us, from the balcony of the Ernst Café, the Reverend Psych Ward began his sermon. He wore a feathered papal tiara and stood next someone dressed as a large blue bull:
“Brothers and Sisters of a drunken God… So many of you have sinned this past year, and you have come here to be cleansed. You are guilty of one great sin, and that is — you tried to be normal. You went to work on time, you finished your degree, you did not get that tattoo. But today is your day, my friends, because let me tell you something, New Orleans ain’t for the normal!”
A few months earlier I decided to leave Pittsburgh in search of somewhere funkier. I wanted to live where I could see something new every day, where the culture would proffer novelty and richer sensory experience. I imagined drinking wine in colonial plazas and running from the bulls in Pamplona, and I attempted to find employment in Spain. I failed. A vision of New Orleans quickly followed, and I moved to the only American city I thought was weird enough to drive my wanderlust away. Western Pennsylvania had normalized me, and now New Orleans offered to reverse my fortune. Here I was, spilling dark wine on tight, pocket-less pants in the summer morning heat. I wiped the sweat from my brow with a red handkerchief and genuflected on my life choices while heeding the counsel of the Reverend.
“Today, our avenging demons, our horny girls in red, are going to beat the normal out of your backside!... Now every one of you must get down on your knee to receive the blessing.”
Saint Fermin, himself, had been a good man and was later decapitated. His mentor, Saturninus, was tied by the legs to a bull and dragged through the streets. The stakes were higher then. I looked at the crowd in Fulton Alley and thought about this. We all kneeled. Who here was normal? How punishable is normalcy? And where were these demons now?
There were no bulls. Instead there were the Big Easy Rollergirls. They wore black leather shorts, fishnet stockings, and red bikinis. They had long-horned helmets and carried plastic bats and paddles. They growled and sneered, half-naked libertine sadists striding on roller blades. The dichotomy was clear. We were the normal. They were the wicked. On this morning in New Orleans, which made us the sinners, they were given the righteous charge to castigate us, the runners in virgin white.
“Oh, San Fermin! Oh, Patron Saint! Give us your blessing, guide us through the Bull Run, so that we may drink together forever in heaven! Release the bulls! Run! Run! Run!”
A bullhorn sounded. The first team of eight roller bulls rushed into the crowd and began to strike. The run was a mile long — through the Central Business District and the French Quarter and back. More than two hundred roller girls were positioned along the way, bursting from staging areas in twenty-second intervals in pursuit of (an estimated) ten thousand runners. Some of the bulls were especially zealous with their weapons. When they stood together, they were menacing. They appeared tough, fierce, scary, and beautifully alluring; I had the simultaneous impulse to both flirt with and flee from them.
The bullhorn sounded again. I fled. I began to run with my comrades; it felt like were in this together but at different speeds. I sprinted, then slowed, then I weaved in and out of folks who didn’t care to run in the heat. I stopped and tip-toed around a baby carriage. I dodged a motorcade of Elvis impersonators. Around me I heard the thwacks of plastic bats against flesh, the choral din of shrieks and subsequent laughter, the plunge of normal people into the depths of local weirdness. The bulls were everywhere.
I wanted to make it through clean. If a rollergirl was going to strike me, she would have to earn it. I passed the air-conditioned bars where runners rested. I resisted slapping bags of wine. I continued to adjust my yoga pants to optimize mobility. Around me, the syncopation of the beatings continued, thwack, thwack, thwack. I passed the purple globe at Harrah’s Casino and trotted up Canal Street. I galloped back towards Fulton. I leapt over a bat of one rolling harbinger and ran around another. The finish line was almost near. I was sweaty but unscathed. My comrades fell around me. Thwack, thwack, thwack.
Then a cat-eyed roller girl appeared five yards straight ahead. I stopped. We locked eyes. Her black horns emerged from her helmet in long, gnarled twists. Her paddle was thick and red. She wore no pants — only fishnet stockings and American flag underwear. She stood her ground. She stomped her blades. I gathered all my courage. I thought of all the good, banal deeds I had done in life — all the lawns I mowed, the paychecks deposited into savings accounts, the weekend afternoons spent hibernating in winter — all the things that almost made me normal, and then I snarled and charged.
She drew her paddle back. Thwack! I was hit, my normalcy despoiled, my good Virginian soul tainted by the half-naked bull-girl with horns. She laughed at me. Then she hit me again. My yoga pants padded my butt against the blow. The wine stains, though, were irreversible. I stopped running, then and marched on with my comrades. Escape was futile, normalcy impossible.
At the finish line a gauntlet of fifty roller girls stood together and funneled the runners between them, mechanically spanking us as we filed past. Some girls were gentle, their soft strikes, almost congratulatory, but there were those — perhaps the derby team’s frustrated back-up players — that drew their bats towards the sky and followed through with heavy grunts and moans, gratuitously flogging every man and woman. I took a final, bruising blow in the shoulder blade as I crossed the finish line, then left the crowd in search of cool air and drink.
I found no water during San Fermin. Only empanadas, wine and music. It was clear that no time of day precluded celebration here. I met two new friends that had lost their normalcy long ago and had constructed a hand-drawn rickshaw for the run. They were large men who looked like they could hammer rebar and affix axles without tools. They offered me a ride in their mobile throne and pulled me through the streets of the warehouse district.
I leaned back to survey my new city. My comrades looked at me, the guy in stained yoga pants being pulled in a chariot by large men in white. Their eyes asked, “what did you do to deserve this?” I winked at them and raised a plastic bottle of wine. I had been blessed. The benediction was fulfilled; the conventional pressure to feign normalcy confessed and dissolved. Now I was being chauffeured about like a king in a place that made me forget about festivals in Spain or northern winters. I rubbed the bruise on my shoulder and cherished the tender stamp my new city bestowed upon me.