Next Tuesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, will officially shut down for the day. It has nothing to do with a budget crisis or, let us hope, any sort of calamity. The occasion is a street party, the biggest in America and one that happens every year.
It’s Mardi Gras — “Fat Tuesday,” translated from the French — a day of wild celebration and excess before Ash Wednesday and the start of the solemn Christian Lenten season that leads up to Easter. “Take your burdens to the Mardi Gras/ Let the music wash your soul,” wrote songwriter Paul Simon. All of the day’s revelry and make-believe are one reason New Orleans calls itself “The Big Easy” and “The City that Care Forgot.”
Fat Tuesday is the culmination of Carnival season, in which parades and festive costume balls take place in the midst of normal life — if there is such a thing in the Crescent City (named for a big bend in the wide Mississippi River that courses through town).
Fact is, there are more parades and festivals in New Orleans than there are days in the year. At least there used to be, before the city lost about a third of its population to death and departures in catastrophic Hurricane Katrina  in 2005.
Come next Tuesday, forget about getting any work done. Banks, post offices, courts, and every city department save for police and fire will be shut tight. So will be most businesses, unless they’re selling po-boy and muffaletta sandwiches, cooking up red beans and rice, or hawking Mardi Gras souvenirs to the tourists.
All day and into the night, the city’s old, oak-lined streets will be jammed with revelers, including hundreds of thousands of long-distance tourists as well as out-of-towners from the Gulf Coast region. Along the St. Charles Avenue parade route Uptown, families will have staked out blanket and cookout space on the “neutral ground” where New Orleans’s classic streetcars usually run.
During my five-year stay in New Orleans in the 1980s when my family lived on Napoleon Avenue, which crosses St. Charles and is also on the parade route, I remember rising early to claim space for our sturdy ladder, upon which I had built a wide wooden seat.
There, my three youngest children spent Mardi Gras begging, vigorously and quite successfully, for the cheap beads and coins called “doubloons” tossed to the throngs by masked riders on elaborate floats, pulled slowly by tractors, that passed right in front of our house. My eldest, Jeannette, was on the ladder, too, but standing on the rear rungs. I held the whole shebang, kids and all, against the surging crowd.
At the end of Mardi Gras day — a redundancy, but one that’s often invoked — many folks will have collected whole bagsful of cheap trinkets and wonder why they screamed their lungs out to get them. Beads and doubloons and little flags in Mardi Gras gold, purple, and green do make colorful table and balcony decorations for the following Carnival, but only up to a point.
According to folklore, the colors are said to have been chosen by a visiting Russian archduke in 1892. Purple is supposed to stand for justice, gold for power, and green for faith — none of which has much to do with freewheeling Mardi Gras. New Orleans historian Errol Laborde says it’s all poppycock, that the colors were chosen simply because someone thought they looked pretty together.
More than a million people were said to have attended Mardi Gras in 2005, a few months before Katrina struck. It’s taken a long time, but New Orleans appears sufficiently recovered to handle such multitudes again.
As always, social organizations called “krewes” will sponsor Mardi Gras street parades. Krewe members dress in billowing costumes, wear somewhat freakish masks with big eyeholes, and toss the aforementioned trinkets, which New Orleanians simply call “throws.”
Their floats are not allowed in the narrow streets of New Orleans’s historic French Quarter. But the day-long party is even wilder there. Costume contests and banter between partiers on the Quarter’s famous wrought-iron balconies and the typically inebriated celebrants below are flamboyant and, quite often, bawdy. People on those balconies often flash a lot more than smiles.
And at the stroke of midnight on Fat Tuesday, it’s over, at least on the street. A cordon of police trucks rolls through the French Quarter ahead of mechanical and human street sweepers. There’s no need for them Uptown, since the last parade will have passed at least an hour earlier. There, the leftover litter resembles a glittering landfill, to be dealt with later.
If I were posting this on March 15, a week after the city had turned somber and prayerful for Ash Wednesday, I could write pretty much the same blog, even though the beer cups and chicken boxes and broken beads will have just been swept up from this year’s Mardi Gras.
That’s because work will already be proceeding for NEXT year’s Carnival season. Krewe captains — who, when unmasked, would be recognized as prominent New Orleans “movers and shakers” — will almost immediately begin planning parade logistics, costume-ball locations, even the process of picking their krewes’ “kings” or “queens”.
Why so early? For one thing, it takes a lot of work to build and repair floats. It’s a process that visitors to New Orleans can watch up close at “Mardi Gras World,” which is now located in a giant warehouse just down the block from the city’s convention center, within easy reach of year-round tourist traffic. It was founded by Blaine Kern, the city’s pre-eminent float-builder. One of his sons runs the place.
To make a float from scratch can cost $50,000 or more. Some are double- and even triple-decker behemoths, usually with some large allegorical or mystical sculpture like a ship’s figurehead at the front. These floats can carry more than 100 riders.
This coming Saturday night, for instance, the Krewe of Endymion will roll through the streets. For it, Kern built what he called “this huge, monster float” that he described in detail in an interview with me several years ago:
Consider this: That krewe, Endymion, tosses out more than 2 million dollars’ worth of trinkets in a single parade. No company, city agency, or foundation pays for these throws, for the costumes and masks worn by riders, or for the elaborate coronation balls that follow each parade. Members themselves bear these considerable costs, which gives you an idea why many of the krewes are made up of the city’s moneyed elite.
But ordinary folk have their crack at make-believe as well, and not just by calling out “throw me somethin’, mistah” to masked riders passing by. What I would call irreverent “populist” organizations such as the Krewe of Tucks parade early in Carnival, often through back streets or along impromptu routes. They take mirth and merriment to the extreme, rigging makeshift floats, wearing outlandish outfits, and pulling no punches when spoofing local and national leaders with their themes and signs.
On Mardi Gras, middle-income and even poor neighborhoods sponsor “truck parades” that follow the big Rex parade. Truck parades are just that — gatherings of friends who ride through the streets atop flatbed trucks. Like high-falutin’ riders in the social krewes, they toss out goodies, though theirs are often second-hand leftovers from other krewes and previous years. You’ll see truck-crew riders swig beer or something stronger, blast music from boom-boxes, and chow down on home-cooked food while they ride. They party as hardily as the crowd beneath them.
Rex is the “king of Carnival” — “King Rex” would be another redundancy, since “rex” means “king” in Latin. He is a prominent New Orleanian whose identity is nominally secret but revealed on Lundi Gras, the day before Fat Tuesday. His consort is usually a young debutante.
Carnival draws to a close in formal fashion on Mardi Gras night, when, following their masked balls, Rex and his consort meet the king and queen of the Mystick Krewe of Comus, the city’s oldest, stuffiest, and, I would guess, wealthiest parade organization.
Mentioning Comus reminds me of a chilly Mardi Gras memory. Mardi Gras dawned bitter cold — unusual in semi-tropical Louisiana, even in February (its March date this year is unusually late). Snowflakes turned to an icy rain that drove thousands of people inside. The parades rolled, but at the speed of light compared to their usual pace. Riders veritably dumped bags of beads onto the few bedraggled onlookers, just to get it over with. Comus, which rolled last, when the wind was its iciest and the rain needle-sharp, made a beeline for its ballroom.
Although Carnival season is constrained by the calendar, you can get a taste of Mardi Gras year ‘round. Say you’re a dentist, planning a big convention in New Orleans. Voila. You order up a customized version with a mini-parade, riders, throws — even Mardi Gras king cake, the sticky-sweet, streudel-like pastry that’s a Carnival tradition. You can even hire some of the city’s nonpareil jazz musicians to liven things up, then form a second line to snake through the convention center and nearby streets.
And unlike more staid conventions in Las Vegas or wherever, you can take your cups of beer or sweet “hurricane” cocktails with you, right onto the streets. “Go-cup” drinks in something unbreakable are perfectly legal, year-round, in the City that Care Forgot.
For my part, there are things I miss terribly and things I don’t miss at all about Mardi Gras. Public drunkenness and all its crudity were never my style. And while the entertainment at Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade, about which I wrote in January, is largely original and intricately choreographed, Mardi Gras parades are concocted from the same recipe each year. The same masked riders, by and large, toss the same sorts of cheap baubles from the same repurposed floats.
But last year’s “Tréme” series on HBO television, set in a historic and poor New Orleans neighborhood, captured Mardi Gras’ enduring allure. For outside visitors it usually represents an early taste of spring. I can remember nearing New Orleans at Mardi Gras time and getting the first whiff of warm, moist air. It was a tonic and a foretaste of good music, good food, and good times.
For New Orleanians, Mardi Gras is an affirmation of its uniqueness, its laissez-faire outlook, its tolerance, and its determination to let the good times roll. Mardi Gras just institutionalizes its joie de vivre.
Strangers, drunk or sober, call out an exuberant “Mardi GRAS!” to each other on the street, with no explanation. They’re saying, “I can’t believe I’m here, loving life, soaking in history, beauty, human camaraderie, and magnolia-scented Gulf air.”
Mardi Gras is more than an event or what we used to call a “happening.” It’s a feeling.
For the most part, a wonderful one.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Muffaletta. Pronounced “muffa-LOTTA” for some reason, this is an Italian specialty sandwich that's especially popular in New Orleans, which, though originally French, had extensive Italian immigration. The sandwich, on a large, round loaf of bread, combines Italian cold cuts, cheeses, and flavorful, minced olive salad.
Po-boy. The New Orleans term for a sandwich style that is called a “hoagie” or “submarine” in other parts of the country. It consists of a long, fresh roll, cut horizontally and stuffed with a variety of fillings, such roast beef, fried oysters, or lunch meats and cheese. Piquant Louisiana hot sauce is an almost-obligatory condiment.
Poppycock. Nonsense; drivel; meaningless talk with no substance whatever. The word traces to Dutch terms that, roughly translated, refer to “doll excrement,” in other words, something quite insubstantial.
Second line. In New Orleans jazz music, this is a jaunty, syncopated rhythm, to which people dance in a sort of bouncy conga line, often twirling parasols to the music.
Shebang. All of something; the whole thing. This word is almost always paired with the word “whole,” as in, “the whole shebang,” to underline the entirety of it all. The word’s origin is obscure, but it may trace to an 1862 Walt Whitman poem that described the campfires and “shebang enclosures” of Civil War soldiers.