Recurring dispatches from Benjamin Morris covering New Orleans Mardi Gras, 2011:
“I thought I’d be happy with just one!” Kellie says, her slender frame weighed down under two full pounds of beads. Around her neck they gleam in a perfect rainbow: red, purple, blue, green, pink, gold, and even white. “What happened to me?”
Answering the question is the easy part. Figuring out what to do about that answer, however, is a different matter. We’re in the middle of the Ancient Druids parade, early Wednesday evening, having raced down St Charles at Napoleon where we caught it the first time it passed, to St Charles at Louisiana where we caught back up with the head. We’re slightly out of breath—I’ve just finished a soccer match (2-2, for the record), and Kellie’s been eating beignets. She’s only got 36 hours in New Orleans, and we’re making every last one of them count.
If the parade is any indication, it’s been a successful trip: within the first five minutes the Archdruid himself, whose identity forever remains a secret, has given her a silver doubloon, and by her own account she’s been pelted in the face with her first-ever pair of beads. Half a dozen floats pass by and soon we’re both laden down with goods—whoever out there in Carnival-land accuses the Druids of penny-pinching their throws must be standing in a different zip code. At one point the parade backs up and the floats stand stock-still; eager revelers rush the side of the nearest float (the football float, in our case, sporting a certain local quarterback in papier-mâché) and the riders greet every outstretched hand with some kind of token.
The kids, of course, get the best throws; the signature acorn-painted plush footballs are tossed to loud acclaim, and the boys and girls who catch them hold their prizes aloft like trophies. Not so easy for us; after we’ve run back up to the head of the parade and crossed St Charles to the other side, a masked rider emerges from the side of the upcoming float. He’s holding a football, arm cocked, ready to throw. We’re the next in line. Then he sees us, looks me square in the (unmasked) eye, and yells, “You’re too old!” A girl half my height muscles past me and plucks the ball from his hands like a defensive end.
The show goes on: dancers march past—the Majorettes from John Ehret High School in Marrero, and the famed Muff-a-lottas (“All You Can Eat”) all-female step troupe from across New Orleans, strutting their stuff between the musicians’ floats and the krewes. The Druids are accompanied tonight by horseback riders, also tossing beads and doubloons and roses, but a few of the horses get spooked from time to time, shying left and right as they march. One near St Charles and Louisiana jumps a full two meters out of line; a father standing next to us instinctively pulls his kids back onto the sidewalk. “It’s their eyes,” he quickly explains, as the rider calms the wary beast back down. “They can’t see you when you’re so close.” His children nod sagely—then return to the fray.
The same is true of many of the human; as the US Navy rolls past I race up to the side of the float, a mock USS Constitution. The offers in full dress uniform—no masks—are happily tossing beads into the crowd from up on high. “My dad was in Vietnam!” I yell up to them, jogging alongside the vessel. “Something for an old Lieutenant Commander?” My cries go unheard—they’re just too high up, and their brass band accompaniment upon the poop deck is just too loud—but an officer smiles and drops some beads onto my head. (This is tonight’s lesson: to get the best throws, if you don’t have a kid, bring two things: eye contact and a reason. With the Navy float I had one but not the other; with the Coast Guard float I luckily had both—their float was right at eye level. Dad, you’re now the proud owner of a monkey stuffed inside a plush banana. Semper paratus!)
After the second wave, we feel full of beads and throws—cups, medallions, Kellie’s sweet St Patrick’s Day shamrock necklace—but empty of stomach, so we duck into the bar where I work. The place is staffed up, everyone switching shifts—the cook on the door, the dishwasher as barback, the barback as bartender—and the place is rocking. But Kellie didn’t come to see the bar, so after we’re fed and watered we slip downtown, down into the darkness, down into the glare of Bourbon Street.
Had Dante lived to see it he would have written an extra bolgia just for this: not three blocks in and already people are scrambling on the pavement for loose beads, even though they’re wearing dozens around their neck. Men and women of every age, shape, hue and size prowl the blocks between St Peter and Canal, holding Huge Ass Beers and Hand Grenades, everything the cameras say is true. Where a balcony is full a pack of tourists form a circle underneath it, hooting and cheering and looking altogether thrilled at their good fortune: to be here, in this town, on this night, with these fine revelers around them. As we enter the neon jungle, parting shoulders to weave through the crowd, Kellie yells above the din: “It’s like America! As if Disney had designed it.”
She’s closer to the mark than she knows—Disney has designed the Quarter, but in Anaheim, and in so doing made a critical mistake: it drew the streets to curve. This design flaw would be unremarkable except that for its one brief cameo in the no-hilarity-barred electoral contest in 2006, when it exposed a mayoral candidate for using a photo of the Disneyfied Quarter as her campaign photo. Needless to say, the majority of her votes came from her family, Nagin was re-elected, and the rest, they say, is history. But what the ‘real’ Quarter is up to us: so for a moment of calm amid the storm we step into Galatoire’s, which is just that minute closing. The front-of-house manager graciously invites us to have a look at the historic dining room, and on the production of my own restaurant affiliation, and Kellie’s last name—his own—we’re soon fast friends. Disney may lay claim to the ‘small world’ idea, but they sure as hell got it from us.
The house is closing, though—Babylon, which will be rolling the following night, has just finished dinner upstairs—so after a quick word of thanks we’re back on the street. We slip briefly inside the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone, another landmark, before heading back to Frenchmen, where we’re parked, and calling it a night.
There’s a certain way of looking at a city that only comes from swift dislocation from it. On the drive back home, we take the interstate, and as we pull onto the elevated stretch the skyline of the Crescent City leaps into view: the sight is breathtaking, a salve for us both, as we run both through and above the sights that we have seen. In a few hours Kellie will be on a plane back up north, but not before she’s packed her bags with beads and cups and cans of coffee laced with chicory. Everyone finds their own New Orleans when they visit—regardless of when they do—and leaves part of themselves behind to find again the next time. She’ll be back, we both know it, and she’ll find the same part she left behind when she does: the slender strands of beads she gave me, dangling from the mirror of my car.