Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 15

[This entry was originally dated February 20, 2006]

Dear Folks,

Well, a LOT has been happening! And I’m sorry I haven’t written for so long, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking of you all and trying to remember things to tell you.

We started off Carnival last weekend (Feb 11) with the Krewe de Vieux Parade (as in Vieux Carre), a wonderfully bawdy, satiric parade of local artists and cranks which starts out in the Faubourg Marigny and wends through the French Quarter until it reaches Canal Street (or wherever they decide to stop). This year’s theme was “C’est Levee!” and included such floats as “Mayor Nagin’s Wet Dream” (which was pretty much what you can imagine), “Buy Us Back, Chirac!” (a desperate, fat mime pleading with France to rescind the Louisiana Purchase) and “the King’s Float” with a special seat of honor for Michael Brown, who was unfortunately “out to lunch”. The real king was Walter Williams, creator of “Mister Bill”, who lives down here and who’s been making “Mister Bill vs. Hurricane Sluggo” shorts for years. One wonders why President Bush was so surprised by the failure of the levees, when even a lousy little lump of clay predicted it...

There were lots of brass bands, beads, chocolates (for our mayor’s in “chocolate city”) and kazoos flying through the air, and a splendid time was had by all, despite the fact that it was actually COLD: this winter’s been unusually mild, but now the damp wind is coming in every now and then, just to make us appreciate the seventy-plus degree days more. Oh, and I heard New York had a record snow-storm last week. Gee, that’s too bad...

We also attended, and in fact participated in, the second walking parade of the season in the Quarter, that of the Krewe of in wine. A long bibulous lunch at the Court of Two Sisters was followed by a long, bibulous parade, and then a long, bibulous party afterwards... what can I say, some hangovers are simply unavoidable. We were all costumed as various kinds of wine: Bill went as Dom Perignon (in a monk’s robe) and myself as the Veuve Cliquot (in a widow’s veil and black gown ) but were eclipsed by the Taxi Cab-ernets (a couple dressed as two complete yellow cabs), a gaggle of Blue Nuns, the wine fairies (in grape leaves, butterfly wings, and very little else) and my favorite, a collection of disciples all offering various suggestions of, “What Would Jesus Drink?”

There have been other parades elsewhere in the city, although the whole season’s somewhat curtailed: this isn’t the knock-down, blow-out Mardi Gras of years past, so much as a lean, stream-lined version for locals. However, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t had our share of spectacles. Which leads me to the big news of this posting...

We’ve ridden on our first float! So, for all of you who may be interested in doing such a thing someday, here are the rules:

1. If you want to ride on a Mardi Gras float, be prepared to spend some time, and some money. These things don’t just “happen”. In fact, I think a lot of people elsewhere still believe Mardi Gras is put on by professionals. In fact, it’s a very grass-roots thing. The krewe we rode with last Saturday (Feb 18) was the Mystik Krewe of Shangri-La. Started by a group of hard-nosed, insouciant “broads” from St. Bernard Parish, this Krewe makes its own costumes, does its own fund-raising, this year loaded its own beads (which, for the record, weigh a ton when you’re talking about that amount) and works its collective butt off to put this whole thing on. Mardi Gras is indeed a gift the krewes give to the city, and the joy with which it’s given is truly amazing.

2. Be prepared to get tired. We got up at 5:30 AM to shower, feed the cats, put on our costumes, pack up our beads in the van, and arrive at the loading area by 8 AM. Each float gets loaded with what seems like an impossible number of beads (you can barely move), plus assorted stuffed animals, throw-cups, drinking cups, food (for the riders), daiquiris, water, toilet paper (yes, there are toilets) and cameras. We all got settled on our float by about 9:20 AM, at which point we rode uptown by a back route to the parade launching point.

3. Be prepared to wait. We got to the launching-point by 10 AM and then spent the next two hours hanging up our beads (for ease of throwing), arranging our float, and listening to the Marine Corps Band, which was setting up directly across from us and gave us a rousing rendition of “That’s A Plenty” and “Swing Swing Swing”. I’ll bet these guys love the chance to play anything other than Sousa marches! And I’ll bet they’re also glad they’re not in Iraq!

4. Be prepared to get dirty. You wouldn’t think it, looking at those beautiful, gaily-painted floats, but all that gay paint is ingrained with however many years of dirt, drinks and sweat it has absorbed since that particular float has been in existence. No, they don’t make a whole new set of floats from scratch every year. The big krewes (like Rex, Bacchus and Endymion) have new themes each year, and attach new decorations to their old floats accordingly. This is very often a whole year process, and the end product each year is unique. The lesser krewes, however (like us) select from an assortment of floats stored out at Mardi Gras World across the river, with generally festive decorations like “Alice in Wonderland” and “Santa Claus”. We, for example, got the “Beauty and the Beast” float, so half our riders were dressed as “Belles” in peasant gowns, and half (including Bill and me) as “Beasts” in velvet doublets. Very pretty. But those floats are seriously grubby inside, and once you’ve nailed all your “throws” up (see below) and tied everything down, your hands pretty much feel like you’ve been recycling old newspapers. Memo to self: next ride, bring Handi-Wipes.

5. Be prepared to work. Every if you’re not loading your own beads, you still have to arrange them all for ease of throwing. Here’s how it works. The beads come in twelve-strand bundles, tied up with paper tape. You want to keep them in those bundles for as long as possible, because once they get unbundled they tend to tangle up like fishing line and you end up with a big glittery football of about fifty strands, which you have to heave over the side in a lump. The way you avoid this is you hammer heavy-duty nails into the wooden railing in front of you, and then hang your beads on those nails. Then, IN THEORY, you can grab a batch or two at a time, tear off the paper tape, and start throwing. This actually works in practice for about the first half of the ride, after which you’re madly grabbing up anything you can lay your hands on and flinging it...your glasses, your watch, small riders...into the melee.

6. Be prepared to feel like you pitched in the World Series. Which brings us to the parade itself. Okay, you start rolling, and you start hearing those cries of “Throw me something, mister!” and “Beads!” and “Over Here!” and you’re flinging this stuff out like stevedores. Some things are just inevitable. You WILL get sore. You WILL miss some targets and your pretty beads will land in the gutter, in the trees, on the top of cars, and on top of your fellow riders. And you WILL clobber at least a few people. Bill beaned a little kid right in the nose with a handful of beads, after which he felt so bad all he could do was throw more beads at him. Some children cry. Some people start to look a little dazed. But every once in a while you get someone whose catching skills are truly awesome. They’ll stand there, you wing them a handful, and bang! It’s snatched out of thin air. Must represent years of practice. That casual snatch. I don’t want to get too symbolic about all of this, but that gift of catching miracles on the fly is truly something to see.

7. Which brings me to my last point, which is: Be prepared to choke up. Well, maybe not always, but on this parade we certainly did. The thing is, Mardi Gras really IS a family event...a community event, to which tourists are invited only as an after-thought. New Orleans’ reputation as just a binge-drinking Gomorrah should have been laid to rest by now, but apparently the media is still poised to portray us as X-rated and racially divided. Well, all I can say is, on our ride I saw hundreds of black and white hands raised to us, hundreds of happy children and adults of every race and every background reaching up for gifts of beads and joy...mothers and fathers, children in strollers, families balanced on ladders, babies in chest cozies, grandparents, the whole spectrum...having the time of their lives, as were we. It was about fifty degrees outside. It was windy. It was drizzling. There were only a few bands, and some of the floats looked a little moth-eaten. But the crowds were still out there, yelling “throw me something” as if it were a cheer, and yes, it WAS a cheer. It wasn’t a spectacle of an “elite” throwing favors to a “mob”. It was a wonderfully silly event staged by hard-working people FOR hard-working people, and I hope everybody out there who caught something realized that what they were catching were really prayers. I think they probably did.

So that’s all for now. There’ll be lots more parades and parties to come, and I promise to tell you all about them, or at least as much as I can remember! I’ll also be writing more about the politics down here, which is actually changing (a little) and about the politics up in Washington, which may change someday as well. Meanwhile, I’m going out to catch some more beads!

Laissez les bon temps rouler!




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