Mardi Gras: It's Not Just Beads, Boobs, And Booze
As a New Orleans native, all posts and questions about Mardi Gras are automatically deferred to me. And frankly, I like that. Actually, I don't just like it, I love it, because no one really gets New Orleans unless they have lived or loved there. I've done both.
So this is a post about the city of New Orleans because the Mardi Gras season is upon us. It is not a post about all of the lewd, raucous things that people do when they've had one too many beers and forget that they are in a city full of culture and history, not a kid on spring break in Cancun.
You'll forgive me if I'm a little sensitive about it, but when you come from a New Orleans family legacy that is as old as the city itself and have spent 29 of your years calling it home, you tend to bristle when people only want to tell you their stories of the time they got plastered on Bourbon Street.
Or the time they got plastered on Frenchman Street.
Or the time they got plastered at Jazz Fest.
Or the time they...well, you get the picture.
Does New Orleans have a culture that involves alcohol? Absolutely. But a native New Orleanian also has class - they can sip a Sazarac at the historic Carousel Bar, hold an intelligent conversation, and hold their act together. The world in New Orleans does not revolve around alcohol, it is simply a past time. You won't find us plastered on Bourbon street. Well, except when the Saints win the Superbowl - then all bets are off. But I digress.
You can go and google a million posts about the history of Mardi Gras - you don't need me to share that here. What can I share about Mardi Gras? Well, so much that I am having trouble figuring out how to narrow it down.
Maybe I should share my childhood memories of my parents parking their RV along the parade route the day before the parade rolled (that's what we say in NOLA when a parade happens - it "rolls") so that we could get a prime spot but still have a place to use the bathroom. I can vividly remember the smell of food cooking on the grill, the sound of kids running around playing and laughing, and essentially making a day out of a 2 hour event. It was sort of like Mardi Gras tailgating. I can still see the ladder with it's special Mardi Gras modification that my dad would sit my cousin and I in so that we were high enough to see the parade and catch beads. I'm smiling as I type this - those memories are a huge part of my childhood.
Or maybe I should share my memories of being on the dance team in high school and marching in Mardi Gras parades in freezing weather wearing nothing but a dance team uniform with tights and those awful pom-pom boots. Those years I learned every Mardi Gras song ever written, and usually a dance to them all as well. I danced miles and miles down almost every street in New Orleans - 9 or 10 parades a season, with 2 or 3 each weekend leading up to Mardi Gras. I can still hear the sound of the drum line behind me, my boots hitting the cold pavement every time I lowered my leg in a kick line. I can see the Mardi Gras Indians, the drum majors, and the people standing along the sides of the route - sometimes 4 and 5 people deep - cheering us on.
But most likely I should share the story of Mardi Gras 2006. It was the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina devastated our city. There were doubts over whether Mardi Gras would happen at all that year - as some people bluntly put it - we had bigger problems to focus on, you know, like rebuilding our city. But New Orleans is rooted in tradition - stubbornly so - and we refused to let the carnival season pass us by without a celebration. Some parades rolled that year, though not all. Honestly, a few were all we needed - I watched one parade that year with tears in my eyes. As Ike Wheeler, King Zulu 2006 said, "Katrina knocked us down but it didn't knock us out."
We stood together that year as a city, as a world of our own. We took care of each other, looked out for our neighbors, and all of us became better, stronger people because of it. The best part is that it hasn't faded. We wear that very, very trying time as a badge of honor. We are a hearty stock - you can't keep us down.
This is the first time in 29 years that I will miss Mardi Gras in my hometown. Writing this post reminds me of just how much I miss it (of course, having Louis Armstrong playing while I work is making me even more nostalgic). But it's not the king cakes or the beads, or even the parades that I miss most. It's the city - the most incredible city I've ever known - New Orleans.
One of my favorite New Orleans journalists, Chris Rose, said it best - "Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once."