New Orleanians hold certain things close to their hearts—and Mardi Gras is one. Yet for more years than not, I chose to piss and moan about how much I disliked Mardi Gras. I might as well have said I was a Falcons fan or that your grandmother couldn't make a decent gumbo. But, before you call for my expulsion, let me say that those years are all past. Katrina allowed for a seismic crack to dislodge some stubborn attitudes and slowly distance me from strongly held prejudices concerning carnival. When a city, a community, runs afoul of obliteration seemingly mundane things take on new meaning and or renewed importance. Our neighbors in New York and New Jersey, still recovering from a severe beating, each have moments and mementos that will never be taken for granted again.
Before completely vanquishing my inner curmudgeon, I have to explain that even the most loyal citizen of Mardi Gras might become jaded if exposed only to the Bourbon street version of this celebration. I lived in the Quarter for many years and formed my narrow opinion based on one small (and not so attractive) aspect of carnival— the "get hammered, strangle yourself with plastic beaded ropes, and piss in doorways." Sure, I learned to step a few blocks this or that way to marvel at the creativity, funk and poignancy of the saint Anne parade, but by Carnival Day I was pretty much done with the whole thing and quick to grouse like some tight-ass.
Negativity is fiercely tenacious. I remember listening to WWOZ on many a Mardi Gras Day when spontaneous shaking and shimmying to "Carnival Time" would overtake my bones. But instead of enjoying the feeling, I would shake my head and wonder, "What the hell, I don't even like this song." Now I rejoice when I hear this anthem.
My toe-dips into carnival culture became more visceral with my "second chance" to appreciate New Orleans and all its eccentricities (pardon my repetitive references to The Flood. But it changed forever my relationship with New Orleans and ultimately with myself—for this I remain grateful). Now each year, I find my carnival footprint increasing. After moving from the Quarter, I began to explore other neighborhoods, and their celebrations, and felt a more organic nature of Mardi Gras.
Two years ago I experienced my first parade uptown. I always thought that up there it would somehow be just a "family thing" and I would feel like a fish out of water. But no…it was, it is, a "community thing." Sure there were tons of kids but it was great because they remind you of the magic. And having seen it through the eyes of tourists for so many years, it was rather nice to surround myself with a homegrown audience.
I think the craziest thing is the church-hopping for cocktails. On parade nights, the churches play hard for the money, with makeshift bars outside their doors. Hymns are replaced with loud speakers blaring funky music as church ladies serve and sell the junk food that is crucial to float watching and bead catching. Parade route nachos with the crappy Velveeta and pickled Jalapenos rule the experience.
For many years, my friend, Diane, would host an annual afternoon party on Orleans Avenue to celebrate the approaching Endymion parade. I would never miss it. My walk from the Quarter down Esplanade was half the pleasure (living in the tight confines of the Quarter was a joy for me then, but I needed the brush with nature that this walk to City Park offered). After cutting through the park, I would make my way over and down Orleans, which by then was completely lined with ladders and chairs (think Home Depot conga line). My host's home would fill with family, friends, and food. There was this relaxed excitement in everyone. Somehow I compartmentalized that fabulous day and thought of it as an anomaly of Mardi Gras rather than the embodiment of this festival. Like I said, I was stubborn.
I need to pause here and give the Quarter her due. As I reminisce over Mardi Gras past and present I am reminded of the carnival traditions that are rooted in this amazing neighborhood. This small but dense province is a motherlode of costumes, small float designs, choreographed dance, and music all awash in sequins, feathers, and leather. Hollywood could never stage a production to equal this. But make no mistake: the splendor is not confined to the Vieux Carre.
The Mardi Gras Indians can and do rival (in my opinion) every costume ever made in this city. There is legend, lore, and love in each painstakingly sewn bead. Tradition stitched into fabric, history cherished in each feather. A visit to both the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme and Ronald Lewis' House of Dance and Feathers on Tupelo Street in the Lower Nine will deepen your Mardi Gras experience.
Of late, my favorite way to spend Carnival Day is for Boyfriend and I to walk into the Quarter by way of Orleans Street for about two miles—this is timed to view Zulu. Then a walk down Claiborne to Faubourg Marigny to greet the Krewe of Saint Anne and follow them into the Quarter. We visit our friends Kate and Richard and then meander home, passing Little People's Bar, Hank's Bar, and if really really lucky this year, maybe The Mother-in-Law Lounge will be open and we can pay respects to the spirits of Miss Antoinette and Ernie K-Doe.
Mardi Gras can be found in every corner of this city—you just have to open your heart to the Carnival.