As we are getting closer to Mardi Gras, I can't help but reminisce about the first parade I was ever able to participate in: the Krewe of Freret Street in New Orleans, where I was raised. Certainly, Baton Rouge has its share of nice parades like Southdowns, but they are nothing like the ones in the Big Easy.
My favorite parades, like Bacchus, meander down St. Charles Ave on the streetcar route passing Lee Circle and usually stop to toast the Mayor and other officials at Gallier Hall and then end up eventually at the Superdome or other venues after going down Canal Street.
Back in 1981, when I was a senior at Loyola, I figured that I would take the plunge and try to join a parade group that would not be too expensive and is close to where I lived. Since I was born in the uptown area of New Orleans, it was always fun to catch the parades on St. Charles Ave. near Napoleon Ave. and later, closer to Louisiana Ave, where two of my buddies families lived – so you could have a place to relax and use facilities if needed.
As a kid, you would try to dress up to have more fun at the parades, especially on Mardi Gras day – almost like Halloween! For a boy, this was maybe Superman or other heroes that you would hope to impersonate. It was a thrill to be able to sit on one of those converted small ladders that had a place for kids to sit on safely with Mom and Dad keeping it secured, and I would strive to get the attention of someone on a float, so as to get many beads, doubloons and other throws dumped on me!
Traditions were always fun to keep and we would develop some as the years went by. Besides seeing David and Scott's families near Louisiana Avenue off of St. Charles Avenue, I would see some other uptown neighbors cooking up some great jambalaya and other goodies right on the streetcar tracks!
Later, when we had our own kids, we would join other family-oriented gatherings along the route, as we tended then to want less rowdy venues for our kids to enjoy.
Since King Cakes kind of usher in the Mardi Gras season after Christmas, I can't help but recall some of my favorite McKenzie's versions, that were more like glorified coffee cakes – long before the “filled” kinds evolved. David's mother used to have a “Cajun Kringle” type one every year that had a praline flavor to them. Being that we were in New Orleans, we had to usually get some good Dixie Beer to help swallow down all the burgers and chicken fix-ens we would enjoy!
Well, since I was on a tight college budget back in 1981, I looked more into what I had heard about the Krewe of Freret, which was formed from businesses found along Freret Street, which paralleled St. Charles Ave, Willow and South Claiborne Avenues. Loyola University, where I was attending, bordered right onto Freret Street, so it looked like a natural fit for my needs.
After making some inquiries, I was told to meet for an informational meeting and dinner at Frank's Place, a restaurant on Freret Street somewhere near to Napoleon if I'm not mistaken. The members of the krewe were very down to earth and not sophisticated, snobbish or stuffy, and the cost for membership was next to nothing – compared to some of the elite groups like Comus or Rex.
Next thing ya know, I was signing up and looking forward to the ride of my life – not to mention a “ball” party gathering with a date to be held after the parade at what was then known as the Rivergate – a mini-Superdome and exhibition center, which used to be located near the Mississippi River on Canal Street, near to where Harrah's Casino is now located. I couldn't wait to see what my Crusader costume would look like for the big event!
So I had to get my throws to be ready for the Freret Street parade, which used to be held on the Monday of the week before Mardi Gras – not Lundi Gras, which is the day before Fat Tuesday. I went to the Carnival World shop near to Causeway and Veterans Blvd. in Metairie since they always had such good prices when you bought things by the gross (144). And I prepared some special zip-lock-like bags for the special folks I would see along the way.
On the special day of the event, as dusk was beginning, I got on the float and looked forward to a great time, as the weather was wonderful in the low 70s. I had to make some slight alterations to my Crusader mask in order to see better, so I used my Swiss knife to carve out some more visibility. We embarked on our float that juggled us off and on and side to side, so I was glad that we had earlier made sure to be secured with a rope to fixed poles on the float to prevent us from falling off.
No sooner had we gone just a few blocks and I already was seeing classmates and friends to throw my special bags to. At the corner of Palmer Avenue and Freret Street, I saw the Debens, who handed me a bag of what I thought was extra beads or other throws, since they and others knew how I'd had trouble getting many gross of throws.
When I opened up the bag with the Debens still in my sight, they were so excited to see my smile as I saw that they had actually given me a six-pack of Dixie Beer, which I shared with my friends on the float – thank God I had that rope strap secured!
By the time we got to Canal Street, I was all out of throws and had to bum some off of my buddies to keep it going till we got to ride into the Rivergate. It was so much fun being able to be on the giving side after all of those years of being on the begging and receiving side. Meeting Sharon for the ball and dance afterward was so neat, as we had an elegant breakfast meal and champagne.
Thankfully, after a long night and coffee, I got home safely and had enjoyed being a part of the “Greatest Free Show On Earth.” I guess that's why they say, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”