Recurring dispatches from Benjamin Morris covering New Orleans Mardi Gras, 2011:
This is how it begins: with a lot of standing around.
Some of us are drunk. Some of us are getting there, some of us are dead sober, but no one gives a shit either way. Some of us are clothed, some of us are costumed. Some of us are jesters, others are just clowning around. Some of us are wearing horses’ heads for hats, others are wearing horses for shoes. Some of us are carrying instruments, some of us are playing them, others are singing or listening or wondering who they’re going to play with when the music stops. Some of us give a little trill on our brass, others hum along in recognition.
Some of us are just absorbing it all.
The crowd is composed of hustlers, gangsters, and cops; of professors, photographers, and journalists; of gutter punks, cokeheads and spy boys; of businessmen, lawyers, and curators. Of students and teachers. Of preachers and the choir. Of priestesses and acolytes. Of everyone you’ve ever met in your life. The crowd is equal parts angels and devils and patches of pure black oil, gliding like shadows through the mass. Dogs crouch in purses, cats perch on shoulders, and mules pull the carts that bear the krewes. Cokes and water for a dollar, cotton candy for two, and beer for whatever you’re able to pay. It’s half-past six on a warm, high Saturday evening, and we haven’t even started to roll.
If you didn’t know or care, Carnival season officially began on Twelfth Night. This year it fell on January 6th; on this night the Phunny Phorty Phellows kick it off by hijacking a streetcar and riding it up and down the St Charles Avenue line, throwing beads and necklaces and trinkets from the windows. Things die down a little after that; with Carnival season so long this year we’ve been bracing ourselves for the marathon to come. For locals, Mardi Gras begins not with the Phellows or the king cakes so much as the procession of Krewe du Vieux, one of the city’s lewdest, and funniest, parades, now celebrating its silver anniversary (25 years wasted, proclaim the cups they threw to the crowd).
Too risqué for the family-friendly parades Uptown, Krewe du Vieux—in fact a parade of several dozen smaller krewes, linked by brass bands and costumed dancers—has built its reputation mostly on sex and satire, blending them into a potent cocktail of anger and creativity. That you will see, within about ten minutes, giant ten-foot long papier-mâché penises spurting cloudy bursts of lasers into the air, or men from ‘Pizza Slut’ displaying the hot sausage pizzas taped to their crotch, goes almost without saying.
But the real fun begins when the Krewe takes aim at politics and culture. This year, one anniversary float heralded 25 years of “Running with the Bullshit,” featuring photos of more or less every elected official in town, around which one woman waved a sign proudly proclaiming that “(Senator) David Vitter Eats Locally.” Later in the parade, “the Spermes and David Semen” premiered their new hit television show Sperme. (“It’s not TV,” said an acronym down the side of their float, “It’s Hot Buttered Orifice.”) Followed by an army of sperm cells hoisted on poles, even local luminaries couldn’t escape the lens: one of the sperm cells sported a trumpet, bandana, and trilby à la the beloved Kermit Ruffins.
But by far and away the figures hauled in for the most abuse were Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and the BP oil spill, sometimes in ménage à deux (ou trois). Palin was often paired with Jindal, as on one float where she ran him as a mush dog in the Idiot-a-Rod, whipping him with a plastic American flag, a string of Benjamin Franklins trailing out of his ass. Later she arrived lounging in a teacup in the Tokin’ Tea Party, named the Queen of Heartless by her krewe. At the end of the parade, one of the finest—namely, the most accurate—likenesses of Jindal depicted him in the bathtub, reading the newspaper and selling Bobby’s Bath Salts, a surefire recipe for cleaning up the Gulf. The spill showed up over, and over, as it has in town since the Krewe of Dead Pelicans first rolled last spring: the Krewe of Crude was one of the first to march in the parade, featuring a float labeled ‘Crude Lubes for New Oilins’ pulled by none other than members dressed as BP execs, and flanked by an oil-soaked mermaid dancing with the crowd. Shortly afterwards came a man carrying a sign that said “God Hates Shrimp”—we’d seen him marching earlier with the Crude, so when we asked him why, he sent us straight to Deuteronomy. Only then did his krewe roll up behind him: the Krewe of Mishigas. Chai Ho Silver—Oy Vey!
Krewe du Vieux is behind us (not literally, which is where they’d want to be), but it only gets more interesting from here. Should be visiting, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind. First, if drunken tourists ask you which way back to the French Quarter, bite your lip and point them in the right direction. As tempting as it is to send them across Rampart Street into Tremé – the true cradle of much of New Orleans’ culture, where they might actually see something other than beads and boobs – resist. Sometimes, hospitality simply means not lying.
Second, if you want the good throws, bring a kid – your own or someone else’s. They’re bonafide Mardi Gras magnets – Krewe members always deliver to a tiny hand, and you can be next in line to catch their eye. It’s how I scored a badass fleur-de-lis walking cane and about half a dozen condoms (which went unshared).
And last, and on that note: when at long last you crawl home, after after-partying at any of the bars that scoff at closing (BJ’s, Ms Mae’s, Snake and Jake’s), expect the children that live in your house to leave plastic poop and penises everywhere you plan to sit or sleep.
Get used to it. This is how it begins.