Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Krewe of Everybody--Tout 'Semblage and a Ma Lai Lah

Since I lived in RiverTown, I could go to New Orleans' Mardi Gras with little or no trouble.  It was an amazing human drama, and I went every year. The best place to stay was Uptown. You could walk to the French Quarter, but there was more variety and less drunkenness if you stayed near the Garden District. I won't say you'll go anyplace completely tasteful--but--

For those of you who might not know the history, Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday. In the French Rococo period, when the King and other spendthrifts held glorious sway over France, Carnival Season started after Christmas, a time of revelry. Parties, balls, hunts, operas, masquerades, bed-hopping--think Dangerous Liaisons, the movie.  (Note: Noble folk are not gentle folk--a gentleman thinks of others. A nobleman has others to tie his shoes.)  Revelry ended at midnight when Ash Wednesday began.

Carne vale means 'farewell meat'. During the Forty Days of Lent, all those swinging courtiers became vegetarians. They also forswore sex and grand living.  For those that don't believe that--and why should you--at least the parties became fish dinners for one hundred instead of rotisserie beef with flowers around its neck (boeuf gras) for five hundred.

The French influence came to Louisiana early, and became part of its culture. This year, Ash Wednesday is on February 17, the Saints won the Super Bowl, and Carnival has already geared up for the first of two weeks of parade, ending at 11:59 p.m. on February 16th. After the influence of the Louisiana Purchase (Yankees and Kentuckians), the influx of slaves with very distinct cultures, and the French Revolution for that matter, it has become a party for the entire city. That means the Entire city--four year old girls, boys of seven, crooks, janitors, accountants, visiting movie stars, satirists and costumers of all types.

This is one of the Indians--slaves frequently ran to Native American communities--the beadwork and feather work is all hand done, usually by the wearer. It takes all year and significant bucks to make a costume like this. Opposing tribes meet and conduct ceremonies of truce or engagement. Music is involved.

The Good, the Bad and the Strange is below the jump--

I have seen fathers run after floats holding their small children, so that someone on the float could make sure the toddlers got the premium beads. In fact, the earlier parades are sometimes more fun than the glittery ones, because they are all about family and connecting with others.

I was not there when John Larroquette of Night Court TV fame switched from waving on his float for the Krewe of Bacchus in gilded white and crystal finery to on his hands and knees as two thugs duked it out in the crowd with Glocks. Later, both jerks were arrested. Even thug life must respect the canons of Mardi Gras. There were probably sixty informants for that one. However, post-Katrina, it's not quite that good. Six shootings last year.

The NOPD is the crowd-control expert. They have meal trucks set up--with full kitchens--otherwise, they would never get a break. One morning, prior to the Street's closure, a woman so distracted from parade prep ran her car straight into the back of a meal truck on St. Charles Avenue. Since that's a parade route, it was the only vehicle possible to hit. Twenty police officers cursed over their eggs and bacon. They also laughed--the idiocy was starting early, it seemed.  The pecking order was instantaneous--low cop on the totem pole put her eggs down, cursing the most, and wrote the ticket.

I've seen Pete Fountain and his crew step out in jockey silks and play jazz from Commander's Palace to the Quarter. The rumor is they stay up drinking at Commander's all night. Pete F. said, "You're kidding. We're old guys. we couldn't walk down the street after a night like that." But you know he did when  he was younger.

I love the slightly shabby Krewe of Zulu parade with its black-face parodies. You want to see satire? Zulu takes that stereotype of shuck and jive and gives it back with an extra serving of gilded coconuts. The Witch Doctor. Mr. Big Shot. The Province Prince. They are movers and shakers in real life, too.

I will never forget the couple in glasses, both of them looking like staid librarians, except they were costumed in pink fabric and stuffing from head to toe that imitated anatomically correct male and female parts. The horn-rimmed librarian would bend over and charge at his lady librarian companion, whose arms flapped helplessly at the onslaught. They had their skit down. It wasn't even noon. I'm not even sure they'd had anything to drink.

After Zulu, after Rex, there's the Elks' truck parade. They take mentally retarded and otherwise handicapped children out to throw beads to the crowd and have a grand time.

On Fat Tuesday, St. Charles Avenue is one long family picnic. People grilling, one fire hazard after the next. People bring their couches so grandma and grandpa have a place to rest. The families also dress up. In one, all the men from grandpa to little tyke dressed as Mickey Mouse, all the women from Grandma to baby Lily dressed as Minnie Mouse, all eating hot dogs in the middle of the street. A parade of costumers hobnob up and down the family love fest after the last parade is done. And that's not the half of it.

What they show on TV is the drunken college students on Bourbon Street. It's simultaneously more risque, and more family, than that. Drunken college students are not interesting--they only show the decline of elegance (but same attitude) as the days of the Sun King. Everything else about it transforms your view of people and society. What holds communities together. What we are in secret. What we love: our families, neighborhoods, and scoring more free beads than the next guy. And, we make a lot of trash.

Photos: Mardi Gras Indian 2007, City Pages; John L, Krewe of Bacchus; NOPD, noladishu; Pete F. at Amazon; Stephen Rue, Mr. Big Shot 2009 at, and trash from the LA Times.


Bob G. said...

Not all that removed from the MUMMERS back in Philly, except the weather in PA is colder, the participants are a mish-mosh of nationalities, and the only jusic ios a STRING BAND...oh, and no beads tossing...LOL..

Thanks for that interesting history of Mardi Gras.
Never knew all that before today.

The Observer said...

Ann T

One of my finest memories of the first nursing job I had in KC was what happened after a colleague returned from Mardi Gras. She brought all the beads back she could carry, and passed them out to her fellow day shift people and both outgoing and incoming night shift people. For 36 hours, the hospital unit was awash in beads and good will. I still have that string of beads, somewhere in the mess I call my home.

I wouldn't mind going someday, even though I am a non-drinker. I think I would just find a comfy streetside seat, watch, eat good food, kibitz and catch the occasional string of beads. Then I would pretend to be Roman Catholic and go to Ash Wednesday service.

Thanks for the wonderful post!

The Observer

Anonymous said...

What is not clearly mentioned in te story is Bacchus King John Larroquette was actually protected the Paiges on his King's float with his own body. The Paiges are 9 to 12 year-old boys that are selected by the Captain of Bacchus to ride with the King.

when the bullet started flying, he huddled them together and used himself as a shield.


Ann T. said...

Dear Bacchusrider,
Wow! As I wrote, I missed that gunfight by about six blocks.

I always liked the Mr. Larroquette. Now I admire him. Thanks for letting us know!

Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear Bob G.
I have to see the mummers. I went to Philly one time, had a great time, but obviously I missed something wonderful!

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
Somehow Mardi Gras opens up New Orleans to be generous to all. People who won't look at you the rest of the year smile and say hi. And it does spread out--I love hearing that it does!

Thanks for commenting!
Ann T.