Mardi Gras rode in on a giant golden cock a la Krewe du Vieux Saturday night. If you were there, depending on your palate, the golden phallus was sweet, bitter, bitter-sweet or sweet-bitter; but there was no denying what it was as it rolled down Royal Street—long, proud, veiny, illuminate—a symbol of fertility, strength, mistakes to come, and more importantly perhaps, of the sheer ridiculousness, bold silliness, and yes, sexiness, that makes Mardi Gras Mardi Gras and not the Macy’s Day Parade or some other family and retail store-friendly Puritanical exhibition of inhibition.
The magnificent cock, head held high and aimed towards Canal Street, couldn’t have looked more at home among the crowd gathered on the sidewalks adorned in neon wigs, clown noses, eye patches, cowboy hats, angel wings, Rasta dreads, Indian headdresses and Mardi Gras polos. Ninjas bearing silver swords. Aladdins with ruffled carpets slung over their shoulders. People dressed like Prince, Michael Jackson, The Power Rangers. Queens and princesses with glittering cheeks and colorful boas wrapped around their necks. Kings and princes with long staffs and spray-painted belts. Big groups of folks in a myriad of costumes and styles mixing together with no end or beginning in sight. It was a beautiful mess to behold—enough eye candy to make you diabetic—and the night seemed to covet as many meanings as the many eyes lurking mysteriously behind bedazzled Venetian masks.
After the parade, a good portion of the crowd stuck around and mingled on the sidewalk talking, dancing, passing bottles, while others surfed the streets drinking Hand Grenades, Hurricanes, daiquiris, Big Ass Beers, flasks of whiskey and rum tucked in heart-pockets, carrying backpacks and coolers full of beer—a cigarette dangles in the distance from azul-colored lips—a girl on a bike with LED lit wheels spins purple circles in her midst like the wake of a magical wave—and above it all a big moon blushed orange over the city like the ghost of a ripe tangerine.
Mardi Gras is here folks! Whether you like it or not! Time to bum cigarettes to strangers, share your beer and meet your neighbors even if you forget their names and what they do for a living before Jazz Fest arrives. This is what we’ve been training for all year, the Olympics of New Orleans’ living. What parades will you see? How many parties and balls will you attend? How often will you start drinking before noon, or have the stamina to keep dancing past midnight? How many slices of King Cake will you devour before you give up sugar and unprotected sex for 40 days? Will you burn out (again) before Fat Tuesday? Will you successfully avoid ending up in OPP? In short, how do you plan to run the race? And what are the chances you’ll actually stick to your plan?
These are just a few of the many questions I begin to ask myself this time of year. But for many residents of the Big Easy, dealing with Mardi Gras is anything but easy, and the whole shebang would be erased from their calendar if they had the choice. To these folks, Mardi Gras is many things; a charade, a drunken debacle, an over-hyped pageant, a waste of city money, a nuisance, a transportation nightmare, an anachronism, a harsh reminder of social class and past and present injustices, an environmental catastrophe, even—though only to a select handful of fanatics most of whom look like they’re fresh out of the State Penitentiary—a blasphemous congregation of heathens hell-bent on destroying Christian values. (It won’t be long now before the "born-agains" start chanting fire and brimstone through bullhorns in the French Quarter to all the "sinners" dressed up in their spouse’s regalia gallivanting from parade to live music to bar, guzzling unknown elixirs from homemade chalices and bubbling over with joy). No matter the reason, to many people Mardi Gras is Bourbon Street on a Sunday morning. It smells like piss and stale beer. It tastes like regret.
And to these people who hate Mardi Gras, or who would rather do without it, or are just plain tired of it, all I can do is shrug my shoulders and express my condolences. They’re probably right. Mardi Gras is all of these terrible things, at least it can be. But it is also much, much more.
Just like New Orleans itself is a mix of tragic and magic—and like Forest, you never really know what you’re gonna get—Mardi Gras is not simply one thing that can be summed up and given a name—though “Mardi Gras” seems just about perfect since the Tuesday in question has become so fat it lasts for nearly three weeks—but rather a mixing of innumerable energies let loose upon the Crescent City and left up for every individual to navigate, and effect as they may. That’s the way I like to think of it--not as holiday, but as a storm.
So for those of you who’ve already sworn off winter, and are waiting around for spring and the more low-key festivals like Jazz Fest and French Quarter Fest, I respect your decision. I really do. I’m certainly not the guy to argue with you, not because I’m not certain of victory, but because sound arguments are generally based in logic, and Mardi Gras, well, just isn’t. Plus I’d rather conserve my energy to dance to the best high school bands in the nation under the Calliope bridge. I have no energy to waste if I’m going to make it the long haul and be mixing Bloody Mary’s at 8 AM Mardi Gras Day with a big Fat Tuesday smile on my face, as planned.
But what I am dying to know from everyone who doesn’t like Mardi Gras is how exactly you plan to escape?
“I don’t do Mardi Gras (this is something only native New Orleanians are allowed to say, or even consider),” my friend and bandmate said to me after practice this Saturday afternoon, pledging not to go to any parades with the certainty of an addict who’s been clean for about 24 hours, and the seeds of this “article” were planted firmly in my mind. What struck me most as curious was how the statement—which I could tell he hadn’t entirely convinced himself of yet—was phrased. It was as if Mardi Gras is something you do, like making groceries, and not something that is done around you, to you and through you.
I’m a transplant. A yankee. A carpet bagging gentrifying poetry-writing Pedi Cab driving hipster who’s only been in the Big Easy for four years, so I don’t know much. But for me, Mardi Gras is like a vision, or a mix of vision and sentiment that ripples through the city like a dream, or a movie where the plot points are parades; days like Bacchus Sunday, Endymion, Mardi Gras Day, Muses, Krewe du Vieux. Days that everyone knows, has a plan for, a route, a party to be at or particular block to stand on, a style of attack that’s often accompanied by the only feasible form of transportation during the parades; a new bicycle or one pulled out of the shed and coated with WD40 and last year’s beads. And what makes Mardi Gras magic and so much better than nearly all of what Hollywood vomits up is that within the plot points of the movie the agreed upon expectation—the feeling, the energy, the spirit, the vibe of the whole thing! (to be a fucking hippie about it, which I also proclaim to be)—is that pretty much anything can happen, and it probably will, and it probably should. One learns during Mardi Gras that to set expectations is an exercise in futility, and to become frustrated by what does or doesn’t happen is like relying on the street car as a reliable means of transportation; it’s silly and causes one to miss appointments with the Now.
Mardi Gras is chaos in a bottle being drunk by a drunk man. I don’t know what that means, and maybe that’s the point. It’s madness, joy, mischievousness and lust duking it out in a Crescent-shaped arena with no scoreboard. It’s a trip. A psychedelic journey with its own index of colorful waves. How Aldoux Huxley failed to mention Mardi Gras in his classic work on psychedelics and the "mind's antipodes," I know not. But far more than your average Sunday mass, Mardi Gras is a religious experience. It puts on display and tests human morality, behavior and emotion better than any single “event” I know. Sure, there are constant sparks, and explosions are inevitable. Sometimes eruptions gush forth from unsuspecting hearts that have been bottled for lifetimes. (This happens all the time in New Orleans. It is part of the reason people come here). But usually, I think, the effects are subtle. People of all classes and colors come out and share the streets together. A man decides to give the Zulu coconut he just caught to the shy kid on the ladder instead of stuffing it into his plastic bag already fat with throws. We see our neighbors on the block after passing them all year on the street, but now there’s a barbecue, a party, a parade to watch together—and we finally exchange names. The Mardi Gras experience provides innumerable opportunities to do good—and many heroes are born inside the festive spirit that lurks only in this most unusual Coliseum, even if their heroism might not last.
And of course, Mardi Gras also provides ample opportunity to be bad. To be the villain, the drunk, the rabble-rouser, the bead-hoarder, the titty flasher, etc, etc.
Either way, a unique stage is set; one that unlike Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter, your birthday, or any other American holiday I know of, permits—no, demands the players become more dynamic, more complex, more outrageous, and more full of Life.
If you were on Royal Street Saturday night you were under the cloud of Mardi Gras, dead smack in the center. On the corner of Bienville the smell of crawfish wafted out of the Industry bar where folks slipped in and out to get warm and get drinks, and mixed with spilt booze, cigarette smoke, and a chilly air blowing off the Mississippi that was sound-tracked by jubilant shouts and hollers over brass bands walking between the satiric, crude, sexy and sometimes utterly ridiculous floats. Like the float that featured the giant golden cock, or the “Notell Motel,” or the one with a papier-mâché of Trump with a beaver popping out if his head. And the troupes of dancers and grown men and women dressed like “One Night Stands,” and the street musicians, the bums, the business men, the gutter punks, the hipsters, the tourists—all brushing shoulders on the sidewalks and laughing as the signs floated by—”It’s cold! Thanks Obama!” “This parade is filthy! Thanks Obama!” And of course arguments too, drunken stumblers, loose words that should’ve been chopped off in the mind but found their way into the night, vomit hidden in corners, the distant or not too distant sound of a siren—yeah, all that jazz!—that good shit and that bullshit soaking like stew (gumbo?) in the pulpit of the great (greatest?) American festival in the heart of a great (the greatest?) American city —a celebration of life and death at once!—the love child of War and Party, Bacchus, Ruckus and Soft Kiss!—throw those plastic beads nobody needs into our hands! We know they’re ephemeral and worthless in themselves. We know they were made in China. But they sparkle in the night before they turn to ash--they give us VISIONS!--and that’s more than enough to justify their existence!
I doubt very much that any man can entirely escape Mardi Gras over the next two weeks, even if all he does is Netflix and Ramen, gym, tan and laundry. For what’s a little wwoz on the radio? a slice of King Cake at the office? a story overheard on a bus about two middle aged men in tuxedos driving electric powered lazy chairs down St Charles at two in the morning drinking whiskeys on the rocks on their way back Uptown, but a taste of Mardi Gras? Try as you may, Mardi Grinch’s, but I don’t think it can be missed no matter how hard you try.
The better “plan,” I think, is to take Bruce Lee’s advice and be like water. Go with the flow. Don’t resist. Let it pour over you. When the streets are blocked off, get on a bike. When the band is bumping next door, kick your slippers off and boogie a little, even if you can’t dance for shit. Becoming Mardi Gras is far more enjoyable than shunning it.
And when it’s all said and done, you don’t have to go to the parades to end up at the House of Blues, Tipitina’s, Rouse’s, the bank, the post office, Les Bons Temps Roulez, Chickie Wawa, the laundromat—wait, nobody does laundry during Mardi Gras—the street car, the corner store, Frenchmen Street, the gas station, the Saint, the Half-Moon; places where everyone who does do Mardi Gras will be sparkling purple, green and gold. Hell, a few might even stand out like giant papier-mâché dicks; rude, loud, blunt, (possibly French), erect and in your face.
But soft you now, and be an eye if nothing else.
For over the next few weeks, the lovers of Mardi Gras will be wearing the most remarkable masks. And even if you only catch the slightest glimpse, it is a beautiful sight to behold.
** this article is from 2016.