AS SERIOUS AS A MAN DRESSED LIKE A PIRATE HOBO CAN BE
It had rained during our lunch respite, but the crowds remained strong and steady if not overwhelming as I left Superior Seafood and began to wander down St. Charles Avenue. The truck parade was chugging along–a good two hours strong–and would still be in its final stages a couple of hours later as I reached Canal Street, blocking my entrance into the French Quarter. It was a little melancholy leaving my friends again and setting off alone into one of the greatest communal celebrations in our nation. I’d always attended Mardi Gras with friends, the last time with some of my dearest on this planet, but this time I was on a mission as opposed to just hanging out. Despite slinging a hobo pack over my pirate-clad shoulder, I was serious about documenting as much as I could before midnight struck.
To set the scene Uptown for the uninitiated, I first must remind you that, despite the malice and recklessness some associate with Mardi Gras, throughout most of the city this is a family and/or community celebration. It’s kind of like everyone turns up for Fourth of July fireworks with a Thanksgiving spread, already dressed for Halloween and accompanied by guests who normally wouldn’t show up in town until Christmas. Groups of friends and families line the sidewalks and neutral ground (the grass embankment in between lanes where the streetcars run), spreading out elaborate feasts that often feature red beans and rice, fried chicken, and gumbo, though the menus are as varied as the celebration they represent. While hordes of people line the streets with arms upraised, yelling at passing floats, forward-thinking early birds align sling-back chairs up front while leaving others behind the crowd for needed breaks. The use of step ladders is common (and legally must be as far back from the street as they are tall, though some folks annoy their neighbors by flouting and/or ignorance of this regulation), usually decorated with a highchair seat up top so young children can rise above the fray. Masking, or dressing in costume, is common amongst children and adults, focusing either on bright, abstract creations incorporating the day’s colors of purple, green and gold; characters, usually fictional, that typically embrace whimsy, fantasy, or science fiction; or satire, humor, and sarcasm (this is where real-life characters tend to come into play).
There are no open container laws, so cups and bottles abound. The parades run on the southern, eastbound lane of St. Charles, leaving the lane north of the neutral ground open for pedestrians, patrolling police, and vendors pushing grocery carts filled cotton candy, flashing toys, and mini King Cakes. Dotting the neutral ground are the tents and shelters of those who camp overnight or longer to snag a favorite parade viewing spot.
CHARIOTS OF THE ZEUS SHOOTING SPARKS (REAL MEN DON’T PAY FOR BEADS)
I often explain to people that Mardi Gras is a sliding scale of debauchery where you find your comfort level and plug in. The further west you are on St. Charles in Uptown, the more tame and family-friendly the crowds whereas the closer you get to the Quarter, the wilder things get. If you want more partying than where you’re standing then walk towards Canal. If you want less, go west young man. There truly is a place for everyone, no matter how wild or reserved.
Things definitely kick up a notch as you pass the Garden District and enter the Central Business Distract (CBD), which borders the French Quarter; still, you’re not likely to see forbidden flesh outside of the Quarter (and there mainly on Bourbon) and the adjacent parts of Canal. Locals don’t flash, and baring your breasts Uptown is a faux pas that may get you arrested, as cops here are more vigilant (though you may get you arrested in the Quarter–while open containers are legal, public nudity is not.)
To close the case on the beads issue, let me just say that anyone with a smattering of Fat Tuesday acuity realizes that parades throw free beads by the TONS. So plentiful is the deluge that one of my favorite sights is to lean into the road and watch the floats approach from a distance. The constant firing of beads by throwers makes the floats appear as Zeus’s Olympic chariots shooting off rainbow colored sparks as they materialize in the land of mortals. After the onslaught of parades subsides, tree branches and lampposts are left bejeweled with beads as they hang over the roadways as if to say they, just like me, celebrate Mardi Gras year-round.
Thus, male tourists who pay for beads to throw to female tourists who bare for them are laughed at like an Eskimo investing in a snow cone machine. It’s everywhere, people. Don’t pay for it. Not that I’m a prude who’ll claim to never have looked, but I’ve honestly never propositioned a woman with beads–it seems rather rude and some men get downright aggressive. What likely began as harmless rebellion against repressed social mores has led to widespread misunderstanding and PR damage that keeps many people away who would otherwise discover a love of the holiday and city.
“I’VE WALKED THESE STREETS IN A CARNIVAL OF SIGHTS TO SEE….”
As I continued, then, towards the debauchery, I followed the truck floats at a similar pace, stopping to talk to as many locals as I could, but ultimately catching up to the same two or three rigs time after time. Fatigue accompanied my worsening cold symptoms, so every couple of miles I would find an open spot on the sidewalk and rest, allowing the cold sweat trickling from under my pirate’s bandana to evaporate a bit.
Although stopping to talk and hand out my jovial business card (I wonder if 1 out of 100 will actually view the blog?!) mostly I snapped photos and watched the carnival unfold around me as more an observer than participant. In fact, the Natalie Merchant song “Carnival,” where she sings of wandering the busy and bizarre streets of New York as a detached observer, kept running through my head and I envisioned myself in a full-color, much more festive version of her black-n-white video where she wanders the streets snapping photos. Of course, she wasn’t dressed like a pirate, though she was in New York–the one other place in the U.S. where you could dress as such yet turn so few heads!
RUBBER CHICKEN ROMANCE
A few people, though, did stop to notice the pirate hobo, mainly young children (and my bead dog bartender). The further I got down St Charles, the more frequent and flamboyant the costumes became.
I was about two thirds of the way to the Quarter and entering more commercial, less residential neighborhoods when I stumbled onto a costume I couldn’t pass up– a girl colorfully dressed girl carrying a female rubber chicken. Having once travelled with a rubber chicken named Cleotus in order to stage funny photos–an experience that led to an ‘around-the-town’ column called “Travels With Cleotus” for a Jacksonville Magazine –I had to snap a picture for my foul companion back home. If only Cleo had been there, I suspect rubber chicken romance may have ensued.
Feeling satisfied at my photo capture, I chased down a shopping cart vendor to indulge in a sticky King Cake, the traditional cinnamon roll-esque Mardi Gras pastry topped with icing and purple, green, and gold sugar and ate in triumph.
DISSECTED & DEVASTATED BY CONCRETE
As I gradually neared Lee Circle, a wide roundabout marking the entrance to the CBD where St. Charles narrows and runs one-way, there was a clear change in socio-economics. While New Orleans is universally a diverse cultural mix, Uptown is known for being more white and wealthy. As I approached the CBD, though, wild costumes gave way to street wear and family gathering morphed into groups of lively young adults and roving teens–minorities now the majority. The crowds became thicker and there was more of a block party feel, as several DJs had set up station on the open side of St. Charles to keep things hopping in their vicinity. I in no way felt threatened or nervous, but I had definitely crossed an imaginary line of class and color where a white pirate hobo stuck out.
The party seemed to climax in the width of Lee Circle. On the other side, as neutral ground disappeared but just before buildings suddenly crowded the sidewalks, I passed under a tangle of intersecting highway bridges where people continue to gather in a nod to past times when the ceiling above was open sky rather than drab concrete, though the most sacred grounds where Indians continue to gather is, I believe, well to the north of here . As with most of the U.S., when the internet highway system cut through New Orleans it was politically easier and, some would argue, socially desirable to some, to carve up traditional African-American neighborhoods. I’ve read about about this phenomenon in multiple cities–how thriving, vibrant minority neighborhoods were thrown into enduring poverty once dissected and devastated by interstate concrete. (I think a study of the impact of the rise of interstate highways on urban neighborhoods would make a fascinating read, but for another day.)
If you understand history and are in any way aware of the tension that is both the beauty and blight of this city (Katrina shocked the nation with its glimpse of poverty, but anyone who knew the city knew that much of the culture rose from these neighborhoods, constructing dignity and meaning amongst despair and disparity) it’s hard to pass under such a drab monstrosity during this defiantly ongoing celebration and not have it affect you. While it bears sad witness to the oft destructive march of progress, it also attests to cultural resilience; nevertheless, it’s easier to imagine these dark recesses as breeding grounds for crime more than culture.
SNAKE IN A BOX
Leaving the bridges, I was now in the short CBD section of St. Charles that runs westward from Canal for ten uneven blocks. Crowds are historically thick in this narrow alley, though they were now thinning as the truck parade dragged towards its conclusion, Passage becomes difficult here not only because of the crowds, but because many restaurants and hotels put up viewing stands such as the ones at Michaul’s we utilized during Krewe of Rocckus. As I strolled on, now a little somber, two girls around ten-years-old caught my attention from atop some bleachers. Pointing to a white cooler, they asked if I’d grab a couple of waters. I reached down and opened the lid to find a giant, vicious Copperhead lunging out at me. I dropped the lid, jumped back and screamed like a ten-year-old girl. Looking up, I saw the girls laughing. I joined in, needing the comic relief at this point, and asked for a picture. Further up the road, I came upon two men pulling the same gag. When I told them of the girls, they grumbled that they were being ripped off–that they had been doing this gag at this spot for years. I stood back and tried to subtly catch a couple of victims on video, but it was no easy task in this crowd. My efforts are imbedded in a postscript below.
With my spirits restored by a good laugh, I grabbed a hot chocolate from a local grocer to ease my sore throat just before I was forced off St. Charles by impassable bleachers. Moving up a road, I ran into a wholesome-looking crew of midwesterners who were about to wade into Bourbon Street for the first time. I gave them a few tips as I prepared to enter the chaos myself, the light rain just starting back. Perhaps as a cosmic warning, when I popped open my umbrella hot chocolate spilled all over my shirt creating a filthy, brown stain. Oh, well. Who respects a clean pirate hobo, anyways?!