JUMPING UP & DOWN, DANCING, & HAVING FUN (‘NUFF SAID)
Around the time my guests who’d I barely glimpsed receded behind our Jefferson Avenue float at the mouth of Lee Circle, fellow rider Debbie Cleary Rayor (who provided the video last post) experienced a particularly awesome moment of magic connection between crowd and rider:
I had several moments like that even from the top-level. By far my favorite was when I saw an elderly woman with 2 toddlers standing back from the crowd. I somehow managed to throw a Morpheus sheep far enough so that they could catch it. The woman was SO happy as she handed it to 1 of the kids. Due to the space/time vortex we’re in as the parade rolls, I was able to throw a Morpheus moon as well. She handed it to the other child & the 3 of them went crazy! Jumping up & down, DANCING, laughing, & having fun. They had no idea who threw the stuff & I didn’t care. It was just awesome that they were so happy.
Thus is the magic of Mardi Gras. Part of the impetus for this blog was to shed light on all the misconceptions floating around the non-Delta parts of this great nation, for it truly is a life affirming, community binding, spiritually nourishing beacon of light during the darkest part of the calendar. Yes, like our great nation its roots were intertwined with racism, violence, and condensation of the wealthy on the working class and poor. Like our great nation, it continues to struggle with many of these issues. Like our great nation, there are plenty of crass and classless citizens eager to besmirch its reputation while exploiting it for the lowest common denominator. But like our great nation, it is so much greater than a sum subtraction of its flaws, providing an oasis of hope and light in a harsh and unforgiving world.
And that concludes the soapbox portion of the program.
BLEACHER BUMS & MISSED OPPORTUNITIES TO SEE THE FUTURE
Past the wide open expanse of Lee Circle (a traffic circle housing a statue upon a giant staired pedestal at its core) St. Charles Avenue narrows to a one-way street that flows Uptown except for the two weeks during Mardi Gras when a flood of parades rush down its final 8 block to Canal Street. Whereas St. Charles is the main artery running through Uptown, Canal is the other of the city’s two main cultural and commercial arteries (Bourbon is more famous, but carries little traffic and serves as more a liver than an artery, filtering out the worst vice and debauchery!). Canal, with its expansive neutral ground dividing its four lanes, divides the French Quarter from what was once The American Sector when the two cultures didn’t get along and largely met only in the middle, i.e. Canal, to trade thus establishing its economic and cultural gravitas.
Certain divisions, if less rigid, are still marked by these boundaries today and the parade route changes drastically once it reaches the downtown portion of St. Charles and again at Canal Street. The narrow stretch of St. Charles running through the CBD is lined with bleacher seats rented out (quite exorbitantly during the most popular parades) to tourists and residents of means with more money than patience to rub elbows with the rabble. Once you pass through these eight block and turn towards the river on Canal, the crowd is on foot again like in Uptown, but in greater density and heavily weighted towards French Quarter tourists of more modest means than the bleacher bunch. (While some bleachers sell high-priced tickets for general admission, many are for guests of the already expensive hotels along the route that charge insane rates during Carnival.)
This stretch is also where the parades stop to toast city officials and where TV stations set up to broadcast the parades. Because the bleachers were “mostly rich people and tourists,” one rider had advised as we waited on Tchoupitoulas that I toss most of the ‘good stuff’ to locals Uptown. Yet as part of Krewe of Rocckus last year we’d congregated on the bleachers outside of Michaul’s for Hermes, and I’m certainly not rich (although we were certainly tourists). Sadly, since one of the two Better Than Ezra shows that were the center of this event was later that night, we’d left for the show before Krewe D’etat and Morpheus passed. If only I’d known then that I’d be rolling by that spot in Morpheus the next year I would have certainly lingered a little longer!
HEMMED IN & FADING
As I mentioned last post, Kyle and Aimee had sent an unseen text while I was swept up in my bead bloodlust asking if we were still coming. There had been a long delay after Krewe D’etat and much of the crowd downtown had left. Not so Uptown, which had given us a huge, enthusiastic welcome. As we passed the bleachers, though, the crowds ranged from 10 to 20% full. Sometimes less.
This was time for the top level to shine, for the viewing and throwing angle from the bottom was off. The floor to the bleachers tended to range from waist to eye level down below, so we spent most of this stretch looking slightly up at the crowd through railings. Because of the narrowness of the streets there was only a few feet between us and the bleachers, so you couldn’t (and shouldn’t) lean out. It was very difficult to achieve a good throw.
Justifiably or not, it did feel less organic and satisfying to throw at these metal behemoths. Perhaps I would have felt differently if the crowds had stayed and I were throwing at flesh instead of aluminum, buy even so, the tone definitely changes once you reach downtown.
The thinning crowds soon disrupted my vortex, and I began to notice the sweaty, clingy mask more, though I’d been constantly readjusting it throughout to maintain sightlines. I searched desperately for something to buoy my enthusiasm again. On cue, that something popped up out of nowhere.
OUT OF THE BLUE & INTO THE BEADS (MISSION ACCOMPLISHED)
As we passed the narrow gap between two sets of bleachers I heard my name again. Suddenly Kyle and Aimee popped into view. I’d given up hope of them following, but there they were, yelling for me to pose for a picture for the blog. After a quick snap I hurriedly tossed a few specialty throws their way before we passed the narrow gap. A little further down Aimee reemerged in the open space of an intersection which allowed her to walk along the float as I’d intended back at Lee Circle, and I leaned over and hung the giant-sized bead necklace around her neck that I’d been holding back. Another perfect handoff. Mission accomplished.
DEBACUHERY VS REALITY
Some guys on the float called these giant beads ‘boobie beads,’ and stocked up on them, though I’d brought only the one. This flashing phenomenon associated with Mardi Gras, though, is almost exclusively contained to Bourbon Street, where any tiny bead can become a ‘boobie bead’ when drunk girls from out-of-town are desperate for a little attention they wouldn’t dare seek back home, spilling a little out onto Canal during parades; thus, this enduring stereotype is the exception, not the rule, and almost exclusively performed by out-to-towners. It’s not New Orleans. It’s the rest of the nation (and world) visiting New Orleans that’s eager to show its tits.
At my first Mardi Gras when I was much younger and spent a bit more (though never most) of my time on and around Bourbon Street, I did witness this debauchery and observed it spill over onto Canal. Being a young man, I wasn’t complaining but I also never used a bead to make a quid pro quo request! As we turned off St. Charles onto Canal, though, I saw nothing that would rise above a PG rating. It had been a long three parade night and it was now late, so if anything the Canal crowd was more sluggish and subdued.
Maybe some of the dudes (we’re a co-ed krewe and I didn’t see women with ‘boobie beads,’ though it is New Orleans so you never know!) who’d bought the big expensive strands were rewarded for their investment. I’m just saying I saw nothing to shock the Puritanical set.
In fact, I didn’t see many interested revelers at all.
IN LIKE A LION, OUT LIKE A LAMB
While Canal Street is the most crowded point for many parades, only a modest crowd of mostly adults remained, and their modest enthusiasm was focused mostly on beads. I had way too many novelties left. My momma and daddy always said I should listen!
I now targeted any kid I saw or any adult that looked mildly interested before we turned again after only three quick blocks. Many parades turn left on Canal and travel towards the lake several blocks before making a U-turn back to the river. Morpheus simply makes a right turn and heads back towards Tchoupitioulas where we’d loaded up six and a half hours earlier.
Although technically the route continued several blocks until we arrived back at Generations Hall, the crowds completely disappeared when we left Canal. Most of whom we passed now were police and other service personnel. A few gratefully accepted throws, but we all soon began unwinding and unpacking. As abruptly as it had started after a long, tantalizing wait, my Morpheus ride had petered out.
TIRED, BUT NOT THAT TIRED!
As I gathered my beads and cooler I was suspended somewhere between euphoria and exhaustion. It had been an amazing ride and my fear of running out had been unfounded…I still had two small bags of beads left, plus a bunch of stray beads and several specialty throws! I’d scared myself into being over-cautious.
Oh, well. Even this long-winded four post rambling doesn’t begin to convey how much fun I had that day, and I already knew I’d be back next year. As a Cubs fan, I felt comfortable telling my leftovers “wait until next year,” as I tossed them on the ground. Most people, though, left their unused goodies behind. Don even left his half-full Styrofoam cooler of beer. I tapped him on the shoulder, but he waved it off as he and most of my float mates shuffled back to their vehicles so spent they could have served as extras on The Walking Dead.
I wasn’t that tired! I drained the cooler, slipped a few beers in my pocket, and dragged my heavy load a block and a half to the after party.
CODA: LATE NIGHT EGGS, BACON, & A BAG OF DONUTS
I quickly located my guests inside Generations Hall, for the place was mostly empty. They instantly jumped up and embraced me, gushing with stories about their amazing day that contained a higher epic-to-adjective ratio than a teenage slumber party in Encino. They were smiling uncontrollably and loaded down with beads. I’d felt a little guilty leaving them, but they’d managed to get along just fine, as I knew they would. They had also had one of the best days of their lives, wandering the mask markets along Decatur seeking the perfect disguise for later in the weekend and yucking it up in a tiny corner bar before retreating to the parades where they’d been flooded with love.
At the table beside us, Bag of Donuts were tearing eagerly into the breakfast buffet, still seeming as energetic as ever. Although we were all on Cloud 9, my friends were exhausted and I had achieved a new and transcendent level of tired, my legs aching and slightly swollen from standing so long in tight quarters. The Donuts, though, who’d spent so much energy rocking Morpheus and getting us pumped before riding along with us looked like they could take the stage and rock out another set.
Aimee had been particularly impressed by the bass player, and leaned over to tell the Joker as much. Hell, I was impressed by their stamina. Later as Aimee and I hit the buffet to load up on eggs and bacon before heading home, Bobby was in line in front of us. I introduced myself and said hello from Marquis de Metairie and Yoda Pat, who’d said to call him ‘Pat McCrotch.’ He remembered McCrotch but not my friend Mark, and, besides, was a whole lot more interested in talking to Aimee. Free food, getting paid to party, and women. I guess that’s ample motivation to keep donning the makeup.
As for me, this epic day was all the motivation necessary to keep me coming back and spending my time and money to host the greatest party on the planet.
Meanwhile, a few people were still trying to keep the party alive on the dance floor, but only a small fraction of the krewe had trudged inside for post-parade nourishment. The bar was in even greater neglect. It had been a long day and apparently everyone—except maybe the Donuts—was spent.
As we drove home in the wee hours of the morning I was still glowing from a day I’ll never forget. I was a little sad to see it end, but we still had four days of Mardi Gras ahead. The fun was just beginning. For now, though, I hit the bed and fell into sleep like a stone falling into the deepest canyons of the Pacific Ocean.