Before Mardi Gras day arrived, we had seen five parades, experienced Bourbon Street, and even eaten a bit of king cake. But that wasn’t enough for me and Barry, so with some local tips on where to go and what to do, we threw ourselves headlong into Mardi Gras itself.
At seven am., we were already heading out for Zulu, the traditional black parade. They had much more energy, more spunk, than the rest of the parades. There were fewer “throws,” so the crowd went crazy over silly things like plastic cigars from the “Big Shot” float. The most prized item is a hand-painted coconut, which brings good luck to the recipient. We saw a number of them carefully handed from the floats, never thrown. And the costumes were by far the best, from grass skirts to elaborate feathered headpieces, and everyone in blackface.
Now that it was Mardi Gras day, the costumes were out on the street, not just in the parades. Two men shambled down the street wearing huge piles of Spanish Moss. A girl in a candy-striper’s uniform with bubble-gum pink hair took photos with an expensive camera. The Jefferson City Buzzards, the city’s oldest walking club, meandered along the parade route in elegant costumes, exchanging paper flowers for kisses (I got one of those!). The mayor was even wearing a top hat when he rode by on horseback.
In the black neighborhood where we parked, there were barbecues on every block. Not in the backyards, but in the front yards, right out on the sidewalk. Some had even set up in the grass strip in the middle of the street — tables, smokers, coolers, and all.
Walking into the French Quarter, we ran across some Indian “tribes” on their way to the meeting place. There’s an informal competition to see who can come up with the most elaborate beaded and feathered costume for their “chief.” So the tribes marched along under the freeway, chanting and drumming in street clothes, with one person carrying the headpiece, one carrying the armpieces, one carrying the breastplate, one bearing the standard. The chiefs themselves looked tired just from walking around in the leggings.
The costumes and spontaneous parades in the French Quarter were overwhelming. One parade was led by a woman in a wheelchair named “Queen Colleen.” Another was called the “Krewe of Woo-Hoo.” Another one went by with a brass band playing “When the Saints Come Marching In.” There were outrageous costumes, like men wearing nothing but beads and underwear, or two gay men dressed up in tuxedoes with wedding veils. But there were also courtesans in 17th-century gowns. Everyone wearing a costume encouraged photos, and there were plenty of topless women who wanted their pictures taken, too.
The scene on Bourbon Street was beyond insane. Every 2nd story balcony was packed, and the flashing went on both above and below. Also above and below the waist! Signs read, “Huge Ass Beers to Go” and “Jesus Saves.” Besides the Christians and the police, I think we were the only sober people there.
We wandered down to the riverfront, a bit of peace and quiet next to the French Quarter. A fellow with a trumpet serenaded us; we could barely see him in the thick fog. After a bit of respite, we caught our breath and dove back into the madness. But as afternoon faded into evening, the parades ended, the really good costumes went home, and the scene was dominated by the reek of alcohol and trash and the sight of bare flesh and trampled beads. We didn’t stay for the traditional midnight clearing of the Quarter by police on horseback, but headed back to the boat to have a drink and celebrate our safe return.