It took the near obliteration of a city and her culture to make me care about Mardi Gras. I had lived in New Orleans for 16 years, and for each and every Mardi Gras during those years, I would grouse and grim about how much I hated Mardi Gras—that the mere color scheme of purple, green, and gold was an assault to my eyes. And those damn beads were like acid to the touch, never to be worn around my neck like some silly tourist would wear them. Oh, I would go on and on about the living hell of having an apartment in the thick of all this foolishness. Sure, there were certain parties and a couple of parades that I deemed worthy of my time, but I never gave Mardi Gras its due, never attributed any merits to it—that is until Katrina.
From the time the levees broke, along with our hearts, I have seen things differently; the cataracts of complacency have been removed. The color combo of Carnival became my red, white, and blue, and those damn Mardi Gras beads took on a reverence one might attribute to a rosary. Yep, we nearly lost it all, but that first Mardi Gras back—back from being a city left to die—was a battle cry to take back our culture and community. Make no mistake; it nearly didn’t happen (at least, that first 2006 Mardi Gras). Many thought that it was too frivolous, too expensive, at a time when monies were lean for recovery—too disrespectful to those whose lives were taken. But what better way to honor the people who paid the ultimate price to live in this often dangerous environment. There we were, lucky enough to have survived, to be back, and to simply allow traditions to fade away would just be wrong. And even if celebrating life while laughing in the face of death was disrespectful to some, most felt an urgency to do it.
One of my most euphoric moments during my life in this town, a moment that made me weep and laugh until my sides ached, was the viewing of Krewe du Vieux that year. There on Decatur Street, across from Molly’s at the Market (bar), this parade of satire, parodies peppered heavily with profanity, and music romped and rolled. Adding to my emotions was that Molly’s was where, during the six days we remained in New Orleans after Katrina, we had taken a beer break from fear every evening. I still find pride in the fact that we in New Orleans can laugh through horrific moments. I mean, the city was still damp from the floodwaters and the death toll had not been capped yet, but there we all were, facing down the still ongoing effects of the levee failures and governmental neglect. F*#@ ‘em if they can’t take a joke.
That Carnival season, blue tarps were glue-gunned into costumes. Folks masqueraded as FEMA, Bush, “Helluva Job Brownie,” Nagin, and just about anyone or anything we could lampoon with sharp satire. We took no prisoners. And yet, for everything we mocked and held accountable with grim glee, we also celebrated and honored those who survived, those who died, cultures lost, and cultures ready to endure. We paraded to prove to the world that we, our city, and all our neighboring communities along the Gulf coast were worth saving.
In my hometown of Mobile and, of course, here in New Orleans, high school marching bands have always been associated with Mardi Gras. My appreciation of their music and footwork was always there, even when Mardi Gras meant little to me. But now this marching talent has a visceral effect upon me. And that first time after Katrina (Mardi Gras 2007), when I saw and heard St. Augustine come charging down Royal Street during a pre-Carnival celebration, I burst into tears. I was so overcome with pride. Students, many of whom did not even have a house to call home, would commute to the city to attend their schools and perform with their bands. Their music was a call to arms to unite us.
Mardi Gras post-Katrina would act as a magnet to draw back, if only for a few days, displaced New Orleanians. It was more than a party, a carnival; it was a reunion of families and neighbors. Talk about a party with a purpose. It would be years before many of our people could return to their former homes. In the meantime, Mardi Gras kept many connected to this crazy place. When one might feel there was no point in returning and that the effort might be too costly, a visit home would strengthen the resolve to come back. And with due respect to Houston, Memphis, Atlanta, and all of the great towns that became residences for our expats—they simply, for better or for worse, were not New Orleans, not home. The magnetism of Mardi Gras and our Saints, Essence and Jazz Fests (heck, just about any excuse to come home was good) helped build resolve to make New Orleans home again.
It has been over 13 years since much of our city was slammed and left for dead. A great deal was lost forever, yet despite the odds, so many old friends and neighbors did make it home, and along with them, our culture, music, traditions, and our crazy funk are still alive and well—sure, a little worse for wear at times, yet here. So, all I can say to those who doubted the need for Mardi Gras back in 2006 is that it helped to save a city. And may I offer my heartfelt thanks to those who persisted and knew that the “show must go on.”