The final dispatch from Benjamin Morris, who covered New Orleans Mardi Gras, 2011 for The Rumpus:
The problem of Mardi Gras—of the day itself, Fat Tuesday—is that you only have one body.
Consider the map of the day. Uptown, you have the parades: the last of the season, Zulu and Rex, followed by two parades on trucks, Elks Orleanians and Crescent City. Downtown, you have the street life: the reviewing stands in the CBD, and the nonstop, joyous chaos in the Quarter. In the Tremé and the Lower Nine, you have the Indians, who come out only three days of the year. In the Marigny and the Bywater you have the walking krewes: St Ann and Eris. And in Lakeview, in Gentilly, in Mid-City and in the East—all across the city—you have the house parties: your friends and your family and your coworkers who throw open their doors and say come on in, everyone’s here, come and eat and drink and be merry. All of this is happening at the same exact time: all day long. But there are only twenty-four hours in a Mardi. How do you take it all in?
Practically, the answer is simple: by bicycle. In the People’s Republic of Mardi Gras, cars are the enemy of the state (unless they’re carrying musical instruments). The only way to move about the city is on two wheels—or three, like my tricycled friend Whitney, or one, like the unicyclists that rolled unsteadily through the Quarter. There are hazards to this approach, of course—the broken glass that lines the streets is dying to meet your tires, but that’s only if you take the wrong streets. Parking, now up to $50 per spot in some areas, is removed as an issue, as are traffic or gas. Point-to-point, low-impact, and the wind in your face: it’s the only way to fly.
Spiritually, however, the answer is a little more complicated: you don’t. At least, not physically. There is simply no way to cover the ground required in the time that is allotted. Lest this give the impression of indolent, lay-a-bed revelers, then caveat lector: everyone, and I mean everyone, that I know was up at five or six o’clock in the morning, seven or eight at the latest, to get ready for the day that was to come: to put on their costume, to amass their supplies, to coordinate with their cohort, to stake out a parade-watching spot. And this is after Lundi Gras, which itself tends to run until the small hours of the night. We play hard, here.
You don’t take it all in. But the beauty of Mardi Gras is that you don’t have to. As I wrote in the third of these dispatches, everyone makes their own experience of the season, and part of the art of its celebration is standing in one place—in our case, on the corner of Royal and Frenchmen—and letting it all wash over you. Everyone you meet brings news of another party somewhere, and begs to hear the news you bear in return. In so doing it’s possible to experience them all, no matter on which corner on which you stand. As a noun, the day is plural: Mardis Gras. But said the same way, mes amis.
We started Uptown, with Zulu, picking it up on Jackson riverside of Claiborne, following it all the way down to St Charles, netting not one but two golden coconuts along the way. (Despite their appeal, rumors of their potential as weapons are true: my sister-in-law painfully caught one on the top of her head in the middle of photographing the parade.) When we arrived at the Avenue we found it brimming with excitement—after Zulu would roll Rex, and the street was already full of expectant partiers. Among them were the Krewe of St. Anky (sound it out) and the West Bank Wigglers, walking krewes of about half a dozen people each, and the Jefferson City Buzzards, an historic walking krewe famous for laying down in the street and kicking their legs into the air like cockroaches, just to stop any oncoming traffic. “We don’t do much of that anymore,” the Buzzard-in-chief told me. “Our costumes have gotten a little more expensive over the years.”
When Rex finally did get underway, much of the crowd swarmed the street, but just as many remained in the neutral ground, relaxing in lawn chairs, chatting and drinking and grilling out, unmoved, and even slightly relieved to see the beginning of the end. What scholars politely call the ‘informal economy’ was on full, flagrant display, as it always is on parade days here. Locals did a swift trade in selling beer and heaping plates of food—barbecued chicken, corn on the cob, hamburgers and po-boys, even full platters of freshly boiled crawfish, sign of the seafood season soon to come—from their pavilions, as well as what else such trade would require: most of the port-a-lets were going for $2 per visit.
Rex’s theme—This Sceptred Isle, a celebration of all things Britannic—was competent, if slightly canned. As my friends in the actual Britain would have put it, it did what it said on the tin. (When the rankings finally come out, the safe money is on Orpheus for the most spectacular floats.) Characteristically stingy, the Krewe members occasionally fired off a few remarkable throws, such as plush Knights of the Round or the boeuf gras, the last cut of meat eaten before Lent. Upon its end the action moved to the other side of the street, where the truck parades rolled—interminably, though, so we called it a day Uptown and ran off in search of our cycles.
Will Self once noted the meeting of “a guy in a yarmulke talking to two coffee-colored men” as “the interface” between different ethnic neighborhoods in New York; I’d argue that the interface in New Orleans is based just as much as on what you drink. Cycling in to the Quarter through the CBD, just as I passed a krewe of scarecrows from the Wizard of Oz, I came across a bright green plastic hand grenade cup lying on the street by Lafayette Square. There: that was it: I had entered the heart of neon darkness. Surely, hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s were soon to follow.
Surprisingly, I never found a one. What I did find was Canal Street crawling with packs of revelers, and the streets of the Quarter thronged with tourists and locals alike—a rare sight in New Orleans, a city whose internal borderlands are drawn in stark black lines on every mental map. Weaving down Chartres I passed the Skeleton Krewe, one of the infamous bone gangs that roam the streets along with the Indians, whose primary aim is to draw attention to the brevity of life and the consequent requirement to live it as fully as possible. (The motto on their doubloons: Sin, Repent, Repeat.) That their costumes are, frankly, terrifying, is of less concern than their apt message—except, perhaps, for religious fundamentalists, as Anna-Juliette Lamphear, a krewe member told me. “The Christians didn’t get it,” she said. “They said we were public school rejects, transvestites, and that Jesus hates us.”
Should this be the case, feeling suddenly compelled to find other public school rejects, I continued to Frenchmen Street. By this point in the afternoon, the rain which had been whispering all morning began to say its name; the winds that came in off the river buffeted the revelers all up and down the street, causing us to seek shelter alongside parked cars and park benches. Like Canal and Chartres, Frenchmen was thick with celebrants, including, as a representative sampling, a human-sized Rubik’s Cube, a bright pink hammerhead shark, and the Animals That Didn’t Make the Ark: the Orangu-poontang, Muff the Magic Dragon, and UniHorny (which promptly speared me in the eye). As inventive as these costumes were, others could have retaken the originality test: our final count of Black Swans hit seventy-one.
But inventiveness reigned supreme: I was shooting for a house party on Esplanade, above a bar, but when the host didn’t show I lingered outside the doors. (It’s worth mentioning that it is entirely possible to spend the whole of Mardi Gras careening from one house party to another, and never touching a single float or parade.) Moments after I’d cracked a beer and lit a smoke the Voodoo Trio showed up, who were booked for a gig down below. When, too, the bar owner failed to materialize—rumor had it he was just a block up Frenchmen—the Trio took out their drums, their trumpet and their bass, and began to gig on the street, leading to an impromptu dance party. Several hours later, we were still dancing, to a symphony of pots and pans hung on shopping carts. I don’t exactly remember how or when that happened—certain liberties in traditional research methods were required in the crafting of this article—but I do remember this: the beat was out of this world.
That beat was ultimately followed by another; hours later, we were still dancing, but this time in the garden of the house of my three best friends, with Weezy and Biggie and Jay-Z leading us note by note into our dreams. (Not everyone in town slept well, I’m sorry to say: the blood we feared during Bacchus was indeed shed, and a walking parade in the Bywater was violently disbanded.) You may not go to sleep on Mardi Gras. If you do, expect that it might not be in your bed. Correspondingly, when you wake up, and stumble forth in search of breakfast, regardless of whether ashes will grace your forehead, give thanks. For the food and for the company that shares it, even if they’re not necessarily at that table. For they will be, again, soon. The problem of Mardi Gras is also the solution: in meeting again afterwards, and running through what you saw, what you heard, what you danced to, one body becomes many all at once: in reliving the experience over and over, it becomes a day that we celebrate all year long.