PREMATURE PROJECTILE DISORDER
As we turned away from the river onto Jefferson Avenue (our float’s namesake!) a small crowd was waiting, though we wouldn’t ‘officially’ be underway until we turned back downriver along Magazine Street. By now, though, the anticipation was killing us and we began tossing beads and a few specialty items to the modest crowd as we passed these four ‘unofficial’ blocks.
Magazine Street, like St. Charles and Tchoupitoulas, runs the entire length of Uptown paralleling the river, housing the main commercial artery of Uptown. We would follow it for nearly a mile, turn away from the river again onto Napoleon for seven blocks, and continue upriver via St. Charles for three miles back to Canal Street which divides the French Quarter from ‘downtown’ or the Central Business District. After turning down Canal towards the river for four blocks we’d turn back on Tchoupitoulas, ending where we began. (This should give you an idea of the parade box trapping much of Uptown that I’ve spoken of previously.)
As we crept along Jefferson waiting to make that final turn past ‘Go,’ my mind raced trying to figure out how to ration my seemingly modest pile of throws. Don’s and Kim’s, were double mine in size, though I did note they had a lot of medium-sized inflated balls, fleur-de-lis footballs, and long toy spears that took up a lot of space but would go quickly. I’d collected bags of plain beads in all sizes and colors with a little help from my friends (Kyle, Kelly, & Aimee; K.R.A.P. at Nyx; Krewe du Brew; and two bags left over from Mardi Gras 2011 via my Jacksonville friends) and these are compact and small so I should be able stretch them out. Still, as we at long last we made that critical turn I tentatively threw plain beads along with a few blue & sliver Morpheus moon & star strands, terrified that in my excitement I’d blow my multi-colored load before we were halfway through!
THREE SHEETS TO THE SOLAR WIND
I don’t now if it was the VH1 incident or a flat tire on a float or something else, but it was around 8:30 by the time we started to roll. Kyle and Aimee would text from Lee Circle where they were waiting at 10:08 (though I wouldn’t see the text until after the parade) to see if we had in fact been cancelled. Apparently there was a long wait after Krewe D’etat and much of the crowd was leaving. By then, though, we were well underway.
As we now crept in motion, I was definitely in full party mode. Even after a year of living in New Orleans I rarely drink to the point of true intoxication, yet had sailed through Chewbacchus three sheets to the solar wind and had lustily hit the open bar at Generations Hall while I rocked out to Bag of Donuts. On the float I had kept the spirit alive with beer and Jello shots. Once we were rolling in earnest, however, I wouldn’t even pause to think of taking a sip, completely oblivious that I had a beer open. In fact, once we started I didn’t think we were ever going to stop!
I’ve seen enough Mardi Gras parades to know that most of them cruise along for a while, get held up for a few minutes, start back up, and soon stall again. I don’t think this is by design and can be frustrating to viewers caught up in a frenzy of bead lust but provides time to reload and regroup if you’re a rider. Or so I guess. Perhaps it was that we were late or maybe we had unusually good fortune and a clear path, but once we hit Magazine we didn’t stop until we were almost downtown.
I beg forgiveness for any distortions of time or space that have occurred in this recounting so far. They’re only going to get worse from here on out!
My heart was pumping with excitement as we began to greet the crowds, and my mind raced trying to soak it all in, struggling to process the instant bombardment of pleas from the people piled several rows deep on the sidewalk. It felt like we were doing 70 mph as we zoomed past the eager faces and outstretched hands, yet in actuality we would travel a paltry 5 miles in about two and a half hours, which is slower than I walk!
Footage of Frantic Crowds Taken From Atop Our Float: Courtesy of Debbie Cleary Raynor
I had been advised to ‘see who you throw to’ and as I began attempted to follow this edict, for so many beads tossed randomly during Mardi Gras parades fall on the ground and remain untouched until the street sweeper rolls through. Despite my intentions, though, I struggled to slow things down and make eye contact as the float ‘barreled’ down the road. As the crowd swelled, screaming and waving for attention or running up alongside the float, I was pulling beads and toys out as quick as I could and yet had trouble identifying someone and unloading before they were out of view.
I’d heard you go through more throws riding on the bottom because so many people rush up asking for something, and I found it hard to tell anyone ‘no.’ A few people had warned me that many of the onrushers demand certain throws and get huffy if you don’t give them what they want, but I found that most people just wanted something and were happy to get it. The item most often requested was actually doubloons, the collector coins minted by most krewes, and I was happy to give these out. Doubloons are highly prized amongst hardcore Mardi Gras collectors, but they are hard to catch and most people would rather have beads to display so I was thrilled when someone asked. I handed a lot overboard, as well, to randomly outstretched hands, but most of the ones I tossed ended up on the ground where many of them likely stayed.
…& A WARPED SORT OF SOCIAL DECORUM
Although I’d formed an idea of whom to throw to going in, I spent the first part of the parade trying to refine my theory and figure out who ‘deserved’ or appreciated a throw. First I looked for anyone, especially a child, who didn’t yet have a specialty throw, though wiser kids know to hide their prizes to maximize their take.
In posting about walking in the Chewbacchus parade I mentioned that, being a guy who has walked away from parades with a single bead, I tried to distribute evenly to the crowd, and kept this rule in tact, though little kids still demanded the most attention. I also did good sticking to my ‘see who you throw to’ rule, though at times I would shower beads into the crowd if there was a particularly thick mob, counting on someone reaching up. Other times a person would look away just as I launched. Oops! Overall, though, I feel like I had a pretty good shooting average.
I mostly handed plush toys and blinking wands to kids walking alongside the float on their parents shoulders or to those sitting within easy throwing distance because rude adults will intercept a flying toy intended for a child in a heartbeat. Most parents of young children would wave and mouth ‘thank you’ for your generosity to their child, and I quickly came to appreciate this, for when the recipient of a special throw or nice bead took a second to examine it or mouth a ‘thank you’ you felt like it was worth the effort. When people would snag a prize, though, and dump it in a bag without looking—already trying to make eye contact with the next rider—it felt somehow wasted, as silly as that sounds. It just goes to show how much weight a millisecond of gratitude can carry. (Though who’s to say the latter type valued their prize catches any less when they dump their treasure out on the bed or table?)
The further we progressed, though, the better I got at spotting people who appeared appreciative, yet still felt a pang of disappointment every time I gave away one of our awesome flashing Morpheus night caps or sleeping masks or plush sheep or moons (have I mentioned that Morpheus has awesome throws?!) only to have it tossed aside without a thought. It was a silly (and fleeting) sentiment on my part, but I’d spent a lot of money on this stuff at a time when I have no source of ongoing income, so I was sensitive to literally throwing money away. (Besides, ingratitude is a pet peeve of mine.)
Every high and low was short-lived, however, as things were moving quicker than I could keep up with. And every pang of disappointment was quickly replaced by a child’s face lighting up to receive a new toy or a parent seeming truly touched that you had shown a kindness to their child. Those moments formed a magic connection between rider and crowd. Riding really was like playing Santa Claus on a really, really big sled!
SANTA CLAUS OR JUST SANTANA?
During my first Morpheus meeting I’d met two riders, Mike and Jason, who were now busy above me showering the crowd. At that meeting they’d said riding feels a lot like being a rock star as an ecstatic crowd presses against your vehicle screaming for your attention. This is as good a way as any to describe the rush of facing the frantic crowds of a Mardi Gras parade. As I stood basking in the attention and mass pleading for gifts I felt somewhere between Santa Claus and Santana!
I’d had a blast kidding around with Don during the long wait, and Debbie from upstairs had gotten in the act, busting his big balls and demanding he surrender a few to the loot she and Chris and krewe had bought for the Make-A-Wish float, but I was so deep in the zone now I might as well have been the only person riding. I was having a blast, but my head was spinning but not from the alcohol, for as I said I’d completely forgotten I had a beer. The rush of excitement and adrenaline had caused me to zone out so completely that suddenly I realized I had no clue where we were on the route or how long we’d been rolling!
FLOAT FAUX PAS & LOST IN (FAMILIAR) SPACE
Although I’d traversed the streets on our route a hundred times by foot, bike, and truck I suddenly felt completely lost in foreign terrain. I looked around for landmarks, but had completely lost my bearing as the blocks zipped by without pause. I’d completely lost track of time and space, and wasn’t sure if we’d been rolling twenty minutes or two hours.
Suddenly desperate to determine my location, I pulled out my cell phone and turned on the GPS, but Kim yelled over at me, giving me a stern look while signaling for me to put it away. I blushed at my apparent faux pas and continued pouring beads into the sea of outstretched hands, unsure if we’d made the turn up Napoleon yet or were still heading straight down Magazine. Yes, I was so caught up in the moment that I hadn’t noticed whether or not an entire parade had made a turn! Yet I needed to know because several friends were waiting for me along the route, having texted me their location, but I was now lost in what should have been familiar space!
RETURN TO THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Although riders by law must remain masked and anonymous, it is custom to let friends know your float position so they can look for you, and in turn they often let you know where they’ll be standing. Yoda Pat had tweeted just before my ride that he would be looking for me with his two young kids at Chestnut and Napoleon. I promised to set aside some cool throws for his son and daughter, so as we made the turn onto Napoleon I was relieved to finally regain my bearings. Now that I knew he was close I tried to clear my head and slow down time. It is a great feeling to be so lost in the moment, for such moments are a rare gift, but now I needed to focus.
It only took a block and a half of screaming revelers running into the road with outstretched hands, though, to pull me back into the zone. As I bent over to open a new bag of beads I slowly became aware someone shouting my name through my disjointed haze. I looked up to see Pat running along behind the float. We’d just passed Chestnut!
The crowd was now impeding his pursuit, so I grabbed a wand and a wad of beads and slung them backwards with all my might. He made a perfect catch as I reached up and grabbed a plush throw which I believe reached him. I’d wanted to give him more, but we were long gone.
About a block later, though, I spied a kid in a WVU sweatshirt in plenty of time to prepare. “Hey, West Virginia,” I called. As he looked my way I buried him with beads and a wand. After that I kept an eye out for the flying W-V, but he was the lone person of tens of thousands we passed sporting the blue and gold of my birth.
THE BIG LEAGUES, AKA: THE AVENUE
Time had now sped up again, and as we turned up St. Charles the crowds grew in size and more resembled what I thought of as Mardi Gras. While most outsiders have a skewed vision of Mardi Gras as Bourbon Street, it is St. Charles Avenue that is the heart of the parade route for anyone who lives in New Orleans or is a seasoned visitor. Thus, when Fred LeBlanc of Cowboy Mouth defiantly sang after Katrina, “And the parades will ride again / I’ll find my family and my friends / Because this cannot be the end of The Avenue,” no one had to ask which one.
I now felt like a pitcher called up from Triple A to the Big Leagues, and my heart raced even faster as I tossed beads as fast as I could take them apart. I tried a few times to hold a plush toy or flashing hat aloft to tease the crowd, but we were moving too fast to hold people’s attention so when someone made fleeting eye contact I’d eventually just toss it.
By now I had my pattern set. I tried to give plush toys to girls and toddler boys, although a few cute grownup girls managed to coax one out of me; flashing wands mainly went mainly to young boys; flashing sleeping caps and specialty beads were distributed evenly to all ages and gender as long as the person looked fun and friendly; and sleeping masks mainly went to adults who looked like they’d partied to hard! The beer koozies, though, I saved for big guys like myself. “You look like you could use this,” I’d say, tossing it down. Dudes were nearly always grateful for a beer koozie!
WAIT! THERE’S BEER? AND OTHER RIDERS?
As we continued down St. Charles without pause my adrenaline began to subside a bit, and I suddenly remembered that I’d had an open beer sitting for an hour and half. The float kept rolling but I finally stopped to catch my breath and really survey the crowd. I’d been too pumped to pause until that moment, not wanting to let the crowd down. As I pulled my mask out of my eyes and lifted it up a few inches for some needed relief, I reminded myself I was on a float packed with other riders throwing to the crowd and another dozen or so packed floats were behind us.
Jaunting upstairs for a visit to the disco, I stopped for a better view of the massive crowd that throbbed and undulated until St. Charles disappeared in the distance. It truly was a stirring sight of massive collective joy and celebration. As I made my way back to the stairs though, I slipped several times on beads and beer on the floor, grabbing onto riders to steady myself. No wonder the city requires us to strap in!
ACCOMPLISHMENT & SATISFACTION OF AN INSIDER’S HOOKUP
By the time we passed the Garden District I’d started to master the chaos, so when Kim Doughty Gaines from last year’s Krewe of Rocckus popped out of the crowd I was quicker on the draw. She was thrilled to get a haul of specialty throws and I was thrilled to finally execute a successful handoff. A little later Melanie Finley, a K.R.A.P. member I’d marched with in Chewbacchus, popped up. She hadn’t sent a message so I wasn’t expecting her, but being local knew to tail the float so I made another successful friend hand-off. There is an elevated sense of accomplishment and satisfaction giving an insider’s hookup to someone you know, and couldn’t wait to bury Kyle, Kelly, and Aimee at Lee Circle.
I quickly fell back in my zone, though, and we passed Krewe du Brew before I realized we were almost downtown. Looking back I spied Eugene, the owner who’d let me clean off his fence, receding behind me. I yelled his name and he looked up the exact moment I launched an entire pack of moon & star beads to replace some of the ones I took. In a split second he recognized me and instantly snagged the bag out of the air in a Willie Mays style catch. Impressive.
DEJA FREAKING THREW
It was now dawning on me that I was being too conservative. We were easily two-thirds through the route and I still had nearly half my throws left. My ‘see who you throw to’ rule suddenly went overboard without a harness, and I started searching for kids seeking a wand or plush toy.
And once again I slipped into the space-time vortex.
As we passed under the Calliope overpass I was expecting my group to be halfway through Lee Circle at the mouth of Andrew Higgins. Just as we entered the roundabout, though, I bent down to open a new bag of beads and again became aware of my name being shouted through the haze. I looked up to see Kyle, Kelly, and Aimee receding behind me. I grabbed the closest specialty throw I could find without looking and hurled it in their direction. As we rounded the circle I motioned for them to follow, but they didn’t seem to understand. My heart sunk. I’d been waiting the whole route to hook them up and they were gone out of sight before I hardly even saw them.
To Be Continue . . . .