In most parts of the country, the days leading up to March 7th were just like any other day. I’m pretty sure people were getting up and going to work, going to the grocery store, paying bills, taking the kids to soccer practice, whatever it is normal people do. I wouldn’t know, first because I’m pretty sure my life hasn’t ever fit that bill, and second because March 7th was Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
For the uninitiated, Mardi Gras (say Mah-dee Grah) means Fat Tuesday in French, and it’s the day before Lent starts. Mardi Gras itself is just one day where all the good Christians have their fun before Lent starts. But in New Orleans, it has expanded into a whole season where wild debauchery is the norm and where letting the good times roll is the only rule.* Parades start in January and go basically every weekend until the day of Mardi Gras, that’s called Carnival. Mardi Gras is just a day, Carnival is a season. And really, a state of mind.
Mardi Gras is special because of the parades. They aren’t normal, flat-bed trailer parades though, they’re enormous, two and three story floats, covered in thousands and thousands of dollars of decorations that range from real gold to spray paint and Styrofoam to concrete, with people riding on every level tossing beads and throws to the crowds--I‘ve seen everything from cheap plastic beads to stuffed animals to underwear. And it’s not one or two floats, the smaller parades will have at least 15 floats a parade and the bigger parades will have 30 or more. Each parade is put on by a Krewe (it’s like crew but with klasse), which are basically social clubs dedicated to putting on a big show for the whole city. Krewes are expensive, membership dues are usually about 2 grand a year, and you usually have to be invited into the Krewe or inherit a family position. The riders are responsible for buying their own throws (although most beads are donated back to the Krewes after each season because you catch hundreds of beads and after Mardi Gras is over they’re basically useless. There are huge sorting centers in New Orleans for beads where people volunteer to go through all the recycled beads and figure out where they go back to. This is real.) Each parade eventually leads to the Krewe’s annual Ball, and these are the height of society--they go the whole nine yards, floor-length gown kind of deals. They’re really tough to get into, too, which is why I keep my A-game on every time I meet an eligible New Orleans bachelor. You never know who they’re going to know. I’m just sayin’.
Every Krewe has a King and Queen, and those are prestigious positions to obtain in a Krewe too--a lot of times for the Super Krewes (the biggest, wealthiest and oldest Krewes) will invite celebrities to ride as their King and Queen, they ride on the biggest and most elaborate float and wear these jaw-droopingly ornate outfits. The Queen’s headdress is normally so big that it’s hooked onto a part of the float so she can stand without toppling over. Then with the King and Queen have their Prince and Princess, and with them most Krewes keep it in the family. Whatever family has an appropriately aged son and daughter and are willing to shell out 22 thousand dollars for a hand-sewn jeweled costume have the honors. My little will be a Princess when she’s a junior in her hometown’s Mardi Gras for her father’s Krewe and let there be no doubt that I will be cashing in on that relationship and attend her crowning ceremony and ball.
The Krewes have reached an almost mythical proportion in the city, and I will never let anyone tell me that in reality Mardi Gras is a logistical nightmare for a city that has way bigger problems, a waste of resources, an absolute fleecing, an archaic and pretentious ritual, or downright silly. It’s a celebration unlike any other celebration. It’s a city-wide party in a city that really knows how to party. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe.
There’s a history to Carnival and Mardi Gras behind the Krewes and the parades and how it all came to be but that‘s why God gave us wikipedia. Unfortunately, wiki can’t tell you who really cleans up mardi gras and why it’s important to wear rain boots on the route, or why you should always wear gloves, or how last Saturday someone was rotisserie roasting an entire pig in the middle of St. Charles. That’s why God gave you me.
During Mardi Gras it’s important to stay with a group, because although strangers are extraordinarily welcoming and happy to help, there’s strength in numbers. You catch more beads in a block, also, less chance of getting kidnapped. So usually a few of us will head out to the route around 6 for night parades and 10:30 for day parades, and get down to Napoleon and St. Charles, pretty far uptown but still a mile away from school. Sometimes you can catch the streetcar but it’s always packed and you have to be pretty lucky for that to happen. So you walk a lot, and you get really good at finding where the best places to stop are at--the church that sells Bloody Marys and has a free and relatively clean bathroom is just one excellent example. You know you’re getting close to the route because everyone, and I mean everyone, is headed the same way, and you can start to hear the screaming as the floats pass and you can start to hear the marching bands--and then you can see the tops of the floats over the crowds. People are usually stacked four deep, and after that, you see where people have set up for the day--people bring tents, barbecues, plenty of alcohol (no open container laws, that’s what’s up), their grandmas, their dogs, their kids, ladders with seats attached to the top for the kids, posters, buffet tables, their own porta-potties. It’s a production. Everyone camps out on the neutral ground (the area in between the one-ways on St. Charles, where normally the street cars run). And everyone’s happy to share their food (the pig was delicious) and their chairs and let you stand under their tent when it pours, but the bathrooms are another story. Usually you can get in for a couple bucks, or you can con your way into a hotel lobby bathroom--this year our crowning achievement was making friends with the manager of one of the B&Bs on St. Charles; he would give us his staff pass and turn others away at the door. Last year we had the pleasure of knowing Mr. Paul, the owner of one of the most beautiful houses (and bathrooms) I’ve ever seen. However one of the cardinal sins of Mardi Gras is public urination. You will get to sent to Central Lock-Up (scare-scare NO prison), and you won’t get processed until Ash Wednesday. Don’t make trouble, kids.
After you hit the parade you walk down the street until you spot a thin patch in the crowd, and you weave through the various camps till you’re right up alongside the floats on the neutral ground side. Crowds are on both sides of the street but it’s hard to cross once the parade starts, you usually have to get a policeman to escort you--and never cross in between bands because the parents who accompany them will push you down and out of the way, or the kids won’t stop marching and you will be hit. It’s a jungle out there. But mostly it’s really fun, and everyone dances and yells for beads when the floats come by, which are thrown to you regardless of what assets you flash. Actually flashing is a big no-no uptown, it’s the drunk tourists who make asses out of themselves doing that downtown where honestly the parades don‘t even go. Little kids get the most beads--the riders on the floats favor the women and children. Everyone ends up with a huge hauls though, so many beads that by the end of the night your neck hurts from the weight of all of them. It’s not like they’re just tossing out one or two strands every mile or so, it’s hundreds and hundreds every few feet--after the last 5 days of Carnival every branch and every power line is dripping with beads that flew too high. Catching beads is all about making eye contact with the rider and having a good arm, after it’s all said and done you get pretty good at snatching them out of the air before anyone else has the chance. And if you’re smart you’ll wear thin cotton gloves, because while it’s probably not cold, your hands get chapped from so many plastic beads hitting them. Every year too each Krewe has its own plastic cups made up, and dubloons in every color, and stuffed animals and flashing necklaces--I grabbed a flashing tambourine this year at Hermes, everyone was jealous. It was great.
They go for so long that after the 20th float or so, depending on when you got there, you start talking with everybody there, and they share their good catches with you and you do the same. So you make some pretty good friends out on the route, most are from New Orleans or around Louisiana, but people come from all over the world to see the spectacle. After the last parade rolls (they go one right after another until late at night), the fire truck comes through and just like we came, we head out. It packs up so fast your head would spin. The prison crews (don’t worry, they’re minimum security), come out with their rakes and start collecting the trash and dropped beads (by the way, never pick up a bead from the ground. It’s bad luck, and also, God only knows what it’s dropped in. Coincidentally, that’s why you wear rain boots). The walk back gets long and and every gets tired, the comedown from the excitement high is tough. But once you get back on campus and toss the obligatory bead into the Mardi Gras Tree (a tree on campus where people have thrown beads into for years, it's pretty cool), you get a second wind that makes it easier to get back to your room. And nothing at the end of the night is better than hot food and your bed, regardless of what time it is. Midnight or three in the afternoon, I like a nap. Partly because my subconscious comes up with some crazy dreams, but also because it brings on that level of exhaustion where just keeping your eyes open requires supreme effort and standing makes you dizzy. Some people can power through and go back out, but I need my forty winks and so do my parading buddies.
And then you get up and do it again, no questions asked. There’s nothing like a New Orleans morning during Mardi Gras. It may be the only time I’m not cranky before 1 p.m., because it’s hard to be unhappy when so many people are out and having a good time. Laissez les bon temps rouler, baby. It’s infectious energy. So that’s it. That’s what all the fuss is about. Reading it on paper doesn’t look like much but seeing it in person will open your eyes to a whole new world, one that even Aladdin couldn’t compete with. And Carnival and Mardi Gras gives you the opportunity to create memories and have experiences that are unlike any other. Did I ever think I’d eat a rally’s chicken sandwich with my best friends in a monsoon in the middle of St. Charles, wearing at least a pound of beads and watching prison crews rake up oyster shells and wrappers? But did I? You better believe it. Nobody does anything productive during those days because everything else pales in comparison to Mardi Gras. Also, your ability to travel anywhere is extremely limited and everyone is given school and work off. So even if you didn't want to go the parades, it's not like you can do anything else. Details.
*Other rules: once again, no public urination and no crossing the parade routes. No obscenities. No fighting. No touching the horses. That’s it.