Recurring dispatches from Benjamin Morris covering New Orleans Mardi Gras, 2011:
“Y’all ready?” I ask the cops, clustered near the corner of Napoleon and St Charles. “Been ready,” one shoots right back at me. “Just ready to get it done.”
The parades this evening, led by the Krewes of Sparta and Pygmalion, are back to back; the Pontchartrain parade has already rolled earlier in the day but most people have just decided to stick around, eating and drinking and playing football and beer pong, lounging about in deck chairs, playing fetch with their dogs, listening to WWOZ on portable radios, bantering with those nearby. Street vendors saunter up and down the neutral ground (New Orleanian for ‘the median’), hawking anything you can imagine in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold: shirts, hats, bags, candy, jewelry, and accessories wobble high atop their carts, occasionally falling off like apples from a tree. Late afternoon and the weather is perfect: warm and clear, with just a touch of crispness that for a moment makes us think it might be autumn. By the time the Krewes begin to roll, around six o’clock, some folks have been out there for over eight hours.
I’m working the door tonight, at the bar: when I arrive at work, the inside is a little sparse, mostly Bloody Mary drinkers in search of a little late nutrition, and the patio in front of the street is lightly populated and relaxed. Soon dusk begins to fall and the parade begins to roll, led by a fleet of black limousines, a half-dozen of them on either side of the street. After a ten-foot-tall Spartan helmet rolls by, the King of Sparta leads the procession, presiding at the head of his Krewe and looking thoroughly bored already, arms outstretched and waving back and forth in slow, careful motion like a doll in a music box. The theme this year is pop music, and no one is impressed. A Michael Jackson float (“Bead It”) precedes a Madonna float (“Material Girl: Blond Ambition”), and by this time, and then by the time that Pygmalion is underway, none of us are really paying attention. The street is filled with revelers in search of beads and throws, as ever—a woman comes dancing back to the patio with a stuffed animal yellow jacket, and proudly displays it to a man who has just walked past, her neighbor—but with little in the parade itself to amuse us, our attention veers back to the food and the drinks and the company.
At this point no one is drunk, and no one seems looking to be, either. This will change by next weekend, when the superkrewes begin to roll, but until then, this is what Mardi Gras looks like to a local: like perfect leisure time spent with the people you know and love, at whatever hour and in whatever place you find each other. Everyone wanders through the city at their own pace, making their own Mardi Gras anew as they go, and the moments in which neighbors suddenly greet one another in a bar they’ve never set foot in before in their lives is a moment where the splendor and the serendipity of the season are at their most visible. Serendipity but also inventiveness: as I write this, late Sunday afternoon, after the traditional Carrollton and King Arthur parades have both rolled through, one of my personal favorite krewes is currently marching, or rather, trotting—the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, spoof upon the old-line Krewe of Bacchus, a krewe in which the members are the city’s dogs. And last night, the Krewe of ‘tit Rex (sound it out), spoof on Rex, rolled in the Bywater, but not without incident: one of the tiny floats burst into flame, recalling the infamous Krewe of Saturn parade of a few years back, which caught on fire halfway through the parade, leading to the evacuation of the float.
At last the parades roll past, on their way to the CBD, and the drunks and the tourists begin to stumble off. One girl, leaving the bar, trips over the sidewalk and immediately hollers out “It’s the shoes!”, and a man dressed as Truman Capote, falls face-first into a parked police car. The night returns to its warmth and its quiet company, but not for long. There is, after all, the cleanup: Mardi Gras is measured each year not by the number of tourists or dollars it brings but by the amount of debris it leaves behind. What the tourists rarely see is how it’s done: with a parade after the parade.
First comes the initial wave, prison labor from the parish penitentiary, walking along the neutral ground and the sidewalks, picking up the bags and banners and signs that litter the ground and sweeping the remaining debris into the street. Then come the wave of dump trucks and steamrollers, crushing the debris underneath their wheels; the plastic cups popping like gunshots every few minutes. Another wave of prisoners picks up the larger objects and tosses them into a garbage truck idling back, then a second wave of machines comes roaring after them. The operation is military in its efficiency: after the third and final wave of prisoners and trucks, and the sheriff’s escort at the end, the street is clear—as if nothing had ever passed.
Except, perhaps, in the trees. The oaks that line the Avenue have caught a fair proportion of the beads, and will keep them adorned in their branches for weeks and months to come. They’ll hang there like garlands of nights well spent until well into the hurricane season, when a storm will eventually blow in and introduce them to the ground. It’s not uncommon to walk around the city and find strings of beads laying on the sidewalks without explanation; picking one up, and thinking about the Mardi Gras in 2006 that nearly wasn’t, neither is it difficult to invent one.
(Postscript) Tonight’s rule: when you’re working the door, and a drunk feeds you an outrageous lie just so they can sneak in to use the bathroom—saying that they ‘have to tell someone inside that they left their car in their backyard’—for God’s sake, let them.