Curious George's Mardi Gras Questions

After my last post on Mardi Gras, one reader e-mailed me with a ton of questions!

> As I’ve never been to Mardi Gras I am curious they consume
> much alcohol and what is the drink of choice?? What do they eat and
> what are the favorite dishes?? How much is a room overlooking the
> parade for a day or a week?? What is going on at 7a.m. in the
> morning?? Do they eat breakfast or do they not and just consume more
> tomato-spice-and celery beverages?? These are all questions that MUST
> be answered somehow!! yours truly…george

And Meps answers…

Yes, there is a heck of a lot of alcohol! Since they do not have open container laws, it’s all out on the streets, legally. Mostly, people are walking around with huge plastic cups full of beer, hurricanes, or daiquiris. They even have daiquiri drive-ins, where you can drive up, get a huge alcoholic drink in a plastic cup, and drive away. It’s sort of like an alcoholic Slurpee (TM). The driver is not *supposed* to be drinking it, but what’s to stop them? Surprisingly, Louisiana’s alcohol-related traffic fatalities are not that much higher than other states.

On Mardi Gras day, we saw evidence of lots of barbecues, so the food is mostly southern fare. The folks in some of the poorer neighborhoods don’t have backyards, so they either put the grill in the front yard, or, if they live on a boulevard, sometimes they even set it up in the median! I suspect those are families where some members live on both sides of the street, so it’s convenient to all that way. Every party also has a king cake — it’s the last chance to eat king cake until the following Epiphany, on January 6th.

Rooms around the French Quarter aren’t that expensive during Mardi Gras, but all the reservations are usually booked over six months in advance. You can get a room at the Parc St. Charles on the parade route for $200 on Monday, February 27th (Lundi Gras) — the same room on Tuesday night is only $100. According to an article just released in Smart Money magazine, right now, the hotels are hit or miss. Those that are housing recovery workers are booked and can charge (the government) whatever rates they want to. The rest are offering substantial discounts to lure tourists back to the city, since tourism accounts for $5 billion per year in business and 81,000 jobs.

At 7:00 in the morning on Mardi Gras day, people are getting out to the parade routes, because the Zulu parade, which has the best costumes of all the parades, starts at the ungodly hour of 8 am. There are restaurants in the French Quarter where you pay $200 to hang out and eat and drink all day. They start with a breakfast buffet, drinks, then lunch buffet and drinks until the end of the day. If the restaurant has a balcony, you take turns standing out there, tossing beads to people who will show you their naughty bits.

At midnight on Mardi Gras day, police on horseback followed by street-sweeping machines literally sweep everyone off the street, and the following day, Ash Wednesday, everyone recuperates. School and work do not resume until Thursday. It is truly a local holiday, with everyone getting at least two days off work.

The OTHER holiday season

“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…twelve drummers drumming…”

Usually, by the time the twelfth day of Christmas, also known as Epiphany, rolls around, we’ve had as much of the holidays as we can stand. We kicked off the holidays with Thanksgiving, and since then, we’ve stuffed ourselves on cookies, fruitcake, and spiced nuts, and we’ve drunk way too much eggnog. We’ve had parties and exchanged presents and had low productivity at work. Now, after New Year’s, it’s time to cut back on everything, put our noses to the grindstone, try to keep our new resolutions. In short, it’s time to practice an ascetic lifestyle.

But imagine, if you can, that today is the kickoff of the holiday season. After today, there will be rounds of parties with too much food and alcohol, live music, dances, and parades with outrageous and exorbitant costumes. For about seven weeks, houses will be decorated with lights and wreaths and colorful banners, and children will look forward to a couple of days off school. And imagine that when it is all over, it will be time to practice an ascetic lifestyle.

I’m describing the Carnival season, as it was and still is, in New Orleans.

Mardi Gras is not a one-day event, it is the culmination of a whole season that begins on the Epiphany, January 6th. Today, in New Orleans, the mayor and heads of the Rex and Zulu krewes officially kicked off the season with statements, live music, and king cakes. I counted over 55 parades on the 12-day schedule, fewer than previous years, but still more parades than any other city in the U.S. has all year. The floats survived (is that why they’re called “floats?”), and the New Orleaneans who man them are still as special and amazing and different as they were in 2004, when I lived there. After what they’ve gone through, they’re even more amazing.

I have a friend who’s raising money for the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic, a unique not-for-profit organization that provides medical care for musicians. The t-shirts he’s selling say it all: “New Orleans: Bent, but not broken.”

I saw two sides to New Orleans in the news today. On one side, the Phuny Phorty Phellows will commandeer a streetcar at 7 pm tonight on Canal Street. They’ll have a big party aboard and share two king cakes, one for the men and one for the women. The man and woman who find the two babies hidden inside the cakes will be the Boss and Queen of the krewe.

On the other side of the news, they they identified the body of Barry Cowsill, a member of the band that inspired the TV show “The Partridge Family.” He was last heard from on September 1st, and he probably died from injuries sustained during or after the hurricane.

I’ve been thinking that the rest of the country needs to learn about Mardi Gras, and how to celebrate Carnival season. It’s not just a New Orleans tradition — the holiday is celebrated throughout Louisiana. One little-known fact is that Mobile, Alabama has an even older Mardi Gras tradition than New Orleans.

As a matter of fact, let’s lobby our elected officials and make Mardi Gras a national holiday. Not only so we could have parades and celebrations in every city, but to give us a chance to remember the thousands who were lost in Hurricane Katrina.

One of the symbols of Mardi Gras is the comedy/tragedy symbol, also used to represent theater: Two masks, one happy and the other sad. For months, in New Orleans, all we saw was the sad face. Now that Carnival is here, I’m starting to see signs of the happy one, too. Let’s all smile as we celebrate Mardi Gras, wherever we are.
Comedy and tragedy masks

Update on the Beans Gang

When I posted that last piece, I really wondered what had become of Dave and Simon and all the wonderful Monday night bean-eaters. Luckily for me, the Internet is a small world.

Simon read that piece and used the “comment” feature to give us a quick update — the storm blew him to Austin, Texas, about 450 miles from New Orleans, where he’s starting over. He also let us know that Dave had landed in Illinois.

A few days later, an e-mail from Dave appeared, entitled “Moored in Champaign.” His mother, who lives outside Champaign, Illinois, opened her house to 11 refugees. In the weeks since the hurricane, they’ve rented a couple of houses there, where the kids are in school and several of the grownups are working in a local chocolate store. According to Dave, “I’ve still got work from existing clients, which I’m very thankful for. Now just to find the time to start working again (being a refugee is a lot of work!).”

In response to my offer to replace the crockpot, Dave wrote, “As far as I know, the crockpot and rice maker are OK.”

A couple of paragraphs from Dave’s update give an inside glimpse at the refugee experience:

In addition to the work, we’ve also received a lot of charity. FEMA has given us some money, as has the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and Champaign County Public Aid (food stamps). We’ve also got a host of public services being offered for free to us here in Champaign-Urbana (as they are to evacuees everywhere). And then there’s the font of cash, gift cards, clothes, food, etc. we’ve been receiving from family and friends. Wow. It’s really been amazing, this outpouring of support from everyone from complete strangers to close friends. As traumatic as this all has been, the love, kindness and generosity we’ve experienced has been downright inspiring and deeply touching. We feel profoundly appreciative. Thank you all.

So we are settling in here and trying to make the most of being here. We all miss our home very much. We want to go back as soon as it is safe and practical to do so. Ana still has her job at Tulane and they sound like they are determined to re-open in January. If so, we’ll probably be back by then at the latest. Our house fared very well in the storm, considering some of the experiences of others we know. I’ve attached a picture taken on Thursday of last week by the intrepid David Martin. You can see the waterline on the garage door. Thankfully, it didn’t get high enough to damage our main level (where most of the red beans and rice congregating happens). We have likely, however, lost some personal, irreplaceable things which were stored on our ground level. We hope to go back to New Orleans for a couple days soon to recover a few things we didn’t bring in the evacuation. We also want to try to arrest the mold growth as best we can.

Home of red beans and rice

Dave Martin, who took the photograph of the house, commented that he was currently in New Orleans dealing with “floody mattresses” in his “poo stained” house. Lucky for us, he was inspired to write some beans lit (or maybe it’s no-beans lit) a couple of weeks ago:

Totally unauthorized beanetry to be sung to the tune of “The Old Cotton Fields Back Home”, more or less:

After this damp hiatus
Dave’s beans shall again cause flatus
and I will cross a sea of crestin’ foam.

Cause when the crockpot is a hummin’
them folks’ll all be comin’
to Lapeyrouse from wherever they may roam.

When Brad’s rice cooker is poppin’
well on Dave’s door we’re knocking
cause y’all all know New Orleans is our home

It all comes down to that concept of home. Your home is in your community, and the folks who return have to reconnect with their community. All over the country, people are wondering why New Orleans residents would return to such a place, where nature has destroyed the infrastructure and may do so again, as evidenced by Hurricane Rita. It comes down to community, which requires people to live near each other: How can you get together for Monday night supper when your friends have been blown all over the country?

From exile in Austin, Simon commented, hopefully, “Someday there will be Monday night beans again. :)”

I was hopeful, too, that someday I can make it back to New Orleans for a bowl of beans with Dave. After reading the following paragraph from him, I’m certain of it:

Of all the things I miss about New Orleans, it’s my friends I miss most. And the center of gravity of my longing is our weekly red beans and rice gathering. I know many others miss it too. To me, I won’t really be home until I’m crocking up a pot of beans again and opening the door to greet my friends on a Monday night.

The Best of Beans Lit

Another Monday has come and gone. Still no message from Dave Cash. I could cry.

The night before Hurricane Katrina came ashore, I sent a tongue-in-cheek e-mail to Dave, in New Orleans. The subject line was “World’s largest bowl for soaking beans” and the text read: “If the whole city fills up with water, you could soak a LOT of red beans! Good luck with the storm — we’ll be thinkin’ of you and the Monday night gang.”

Looking back at the message, I cringe at my attempted humor. Even with the warnings and predictions, we all thought that the storm would bring only minimal damage to folks like Dave.

We met him at a birthday party in New Orleans. We’d been nervous and unsure, not knowing anyone at the party. The only other private party we’d been to had involved a lot of drinking, and someone had thrown his (not-quite-empty) daiquiri cup on my head. But Simon and Kalleen put on a low-key, fun celebration, with Lebanese food and a Mexican pinata. Guests took turns hanging upside down from Simon’s inversion table, with much hilarity.

Finally, they brought out two birthday cakes, ice cream cakes from Dairy Queen. Then Simon looked over at Dave, with whom I’d been chatting, and looked abashed. “Oh, sorry about that, Dave,” he said. Dave just smiled. “It’s OK,” he said. “I’m used to it.”

Dave Cash is a vegan, the only healthy-looking person I’ve ever met who eschews all animal products, including dairy products and eggs. (Most vegans I’d met were teenaged girls who live on peanut butter and celery.) At Simon’s party, Dave invited us to his house for red beans and rice. “I do it every Monday,” he said. “Give me your e-mail address, and I’ll add you to the invite list.”

The following Monday, the first e-mail arrived. The subject, “Red Sea’s Cleft Wide,” made no sense to us, but the salutation, “Hello, Hungry Person!” got my attention. The message included the time, address, and directions. At the bottom was the recipe for the beans.

What makes the weekly invitation special, and the reason we asked Dave to leave us on the list when we left New Orleans, is something called “beans lit.” Friends and participants in the weekly dinner send poems — limericks, haiku, songs — and Dave publishes one of them each week with the invitation.

The first invitation we received was especially fortuitous. It included a piece by Mike Hahn entitled “The Ballad of Bean Night,” and it actually explained Dave’s tradition:

(to the tune of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” with apologies to Paul Henning and props to the late, great Buddy Ebsen)

Come and listen to a story ’bout a man named Dave
and the celebrated legend of the weekly feast he gave.
He came from Californy went on down to New Or-leens,
where his roommate Chris started cooking up beans.

Red beans and rice that is. Big Easy style. Nice and spicy.

Well, afore too long Chris moved outa town,
But Dave up and said “I think I’ll stick around”.
So he loaded up a pot with his special recipe
and started serving beans out for absolutely free.

No cost that is. Gratis. Everybody’s welcome.

Well the next thing you know Dave’s got a million friends
And folks might think this is where the story ends.
But the legend carries on, to everyone’s delight,
Beans are on at Dave’s place every Monday night.

Bean eatin’ and jawbonin’. Come on in and set a spell.
Take your shoes off.

Y’all come back now, y’hear?

We later found out that Dave had been doing this, every single Monday, for almost ten years. It’s not a potluck, although people occasionally bring a salad or some wine, and Dave never asks for money. Over the years, he’s built a small community around the weekly dinner.

At the time, the three-person crew of Cayenne was no stranger to red beans and rice, since Brian had discovered a 10-minute mix made by a local food company, Louisiana Fish Fry. He loved the stuff and could have eaten it every day. When I provisioned the boat for long-distance cruising, I tucked dozens of packages of it into every locker and crevice.

On that first Monday at Dave’s, I felt like I’d found an oasis in the middle of the desert. For me, the boatyard where we lived was a lonely place. I couldn’t converse with the men who worked there, all of them sexist, racist, or both. The people I ran into at the grocery store and the post office were from east New Orleans — black folks with their own social structure, not interested in friendly banter in the checkout line.

Suddenly, I discovered a whole new group of New Orleans people: People who were open-minded and liberal. We stood around the kitchen, grousing about politics and the war, and the conversation drifted to music, psychology, and books. It was an old kitchen, functional but not beautiful, with a long table along the wall for the crockpot and rice cooker. An open cupboard held dozens of multicolored handcrafted bowls, and there were plenty of mismatched spoons for everyone. A shelf over the beans held bottles of hot sauce, the variety looking like a grocery store display.

Dave explained that Monday beans is a tradition in New Orleans; in the old days, women who worked on plantations did laundry that day. The beans would simmer on the fire all day and be served up with minimal fuss in the evening, when the laundry-workers were tired. The same technique worked for Dave, whose beans simmered all day in the crockpot while he worked, too.

Barry and I tried to start a similar tradition in Seattle, while we were refurbishing our house. We sent out an e-mail invitation, cooked up a mess of beans and rice, and waited expectantly. From the message I sent Dave, the first week wasn’t much of a success:

“Well, it was a total bust, here in Seattle. We sent the e-mail out over the weekend, but nobody got it until Monday morning. Since Seattlites are notoriously un-spontaneous, nobody showed up! I think we’ll have better luck next week. We might be a bit tired of red beans & rice by next week, since we’re gonna be eating the leftovers ALL week, at EVERY meal.”

On week two, luckily, some of our Seattle friends came by. That inspired my first Seattle-based beans lit:

Way up here in Seattle we thought
We would cook Dave’s red beans in a pot
All the chickens are glad
And the cows are not mad
Now we hope our friends come eat a lot!

But my attempts were nothing like the real, New Orleans-based beans lit. We had asked Dave to leave us on the list, so every week an invitation appeared in our e-mail box. The first one of 2005, by someone named “Dapper Dave,” read:

I have never been one to believe in a higher power. However, after I started reading and writing Beans Lit. I started getting a glimmer of belief. How could it be just coincidence that “beans” rhymes so conveniently with one way of pronouncing “Orleans”?

A couple of months later, Dave was desperate. He had no submissions from his friends, and was forced to write the following himself:

I sure wish I had some nice penneds
From my bean-eating, scribbling friends
But alas I have naught
So I whine in this spot
And hope this sad word drought soon ends

This was so successful (or so awful) that Dave subsequently received five new submissions, including this winner from Tom McDermott:

One night, when low on his means,
Hunter Thompson came over for beans.
He smashed all the glasses
offended the lasses
then wrote up all of these scenes.

A few weeks later, McDermott had me on the floor, laughing:

One week when they tired of rice
Dave and Ana served red beans and mice
Their guests were appalled
Overwhelmingly galled
But both their cats thought it was nice

Laundry, one of the two cats, made a guest appearance in this poem, one of the last we received:

Laundry is in a quandary; she knows not what to do.
Should she stay with Dave and Ana, or start her life anew?
Eight more lives of eating cat food is an outlook horribly bleak
Compared to being able to eat red beans and mice once a week.

Not all the poetry rhymed. Dave Martin provided this lovely haiku:

How can seventeen
Syllables suffice to praise
The glorious bean?

Most folks wrote about the beans, this piece, from Dapper Dave, gave a different perspective:

From “A Liberation Manifesto from Friends of Oppressed Grains”:

Too long has a certain delicacy been called “red beans and rice”, for red beans would be nothing without the support of the noble rice grain. Red beans are totally dependent on rice to be edible. Not so rice, which is a delicacy when combined with many of the world’s finest foods. Demand that from now on this dish be referred to as “noble grains of rice with a few red beans”!

My favorites were always the ones by Mike Hahn, who Dave called “the father of the beans lit and the no-beans lit.” Hahn invented something called a “beanerick”:

A beanerick is a poem of five lines
With a-a-b-b-a ending rhymes.
Its strange sounding name
Derives from the claim
That at Dave’s we eat beans, not limes.

Hahn’s inspirations are varied, and he juxtaposes some weird stuff:

Hieronymus Bosch was uptight,
So he painted all the wrong sights.
Remove the sordid and doomed,
replace with tasty legumes,
For a Garden of Beanly Delights.

Not all of Hahn’s stuff was beanericks, as this piece illustrates:


I THINK that I have never seen
a poem as lovely as a bean.

A bean my hungry mouth does seek
to probe its form with tongue and cheek.

A bean that looks me in the face
And promises delightful taste.

A bean I measure head to head,
A prolate spheroid cloaked in red.

Upon whose bosom spice has lain,
That spark synapses in my brain.

Like all beans past and those to come,
To nourish us it will succumb.

For poems are made by fools and queens;
But only God can make a bean.

Dave only took a few Mondays off from red beans and rice each year. He had a stock message for those times when he was out of town:

“Regretfully, I must inform you that our usual Monday night beans and rice dinner will not be happening tonight. Unless you hear otherwise, we’ll be back at it next Monday. So keep your spoons sharpened and come see us soon!”

But Hahn was so inspired last year that he raised the bar. In addition to submitting beans lit, he also started writing no-beans lit, pieces Dave could send out on the rare occasions when supper was cancelled:

When Bean Night goes on hiatus
Dave emails to update the status
And his trusty bean pot
Stays stone cold, not hot
Cause he’s resting his bean apparatus

On August 22nd, we received the usual invitation with a subject line of “Rock Bridge O’er Tides” and a short poem by Rachel Watts. The following Monday, I didn’t expect to get an e-mail from Dave — I figured the power was out and he was “resting his bean apparatus.” But four Mondays have gone by now with no message to my in-box, and I wonder and worry. Where is Dave? Has he lost his computer and his e-mail list? Where are the rest of the folks who get together on Mondays? Will we ever receive another message?

I’m sure this is not the end of the tradition, and I’m keeping my spoon sharpened. Someday, I’m sure Dave will return, and the beans will bubble in the pot. Then Monday nights will again be like this (from David Martin):

‘Twas steamy and the garlic cloves
Did waft and tittle down by Dave.
All famished were bohemians
And auto mechanics raved.

Dave serves the beans on Banks, my friends –
these meatless beans they have no match.
knock and they will let you in:
there’s no doorknob but a latch.

Dave takes his kitchen knife in hand,
takes out the fixin’s he has bought,
not reading from some recipe
he chops into the pot.

And as a chopping there he stands
the red beans soaking e’er the same
the beans get spilled and get spilled good
a-burbling o’er the flame.

Two by two they’re through and through
Dave’s kitchen on a Monday night.
He leaves them fed and it is said
he does that very right.

Oh have you eaten Dave’s red beans,
vegan legumes: his fiendish ploy?
O Mondilicious-day! Callooh! Callay!
Dig in now don’t be coy!

‘Twas steamy and the garlic cloves
did waft and tittle down by Dave.
All famished were bohemians
and auto mechanics raved.

You can find Dave’s recipe on the recipe page of our site, under Red Beans and Rice from Dave Cash.

The Cajun Food Crisis

I was lying in bed last night, thinking about the devastation of New Orleans. Our five months there, just over a year ago, seem like yesterday.

Suddenly, my thoughts turn to mustard. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake.

What does this mean to the distribution of Zatarain’s Creole Mustard, my favorite condiment in the whole world? What about Tabasco? And Louisiana Fish Fry products? Will there still be Luzianne tea?

Forget about the strategic oil reserves. We have a Cajun food crisis.

The destruction of New Orleans’ infrastructure means not only houses are gone, but jobs. The people who worked in those factories, who lived paycheck to paycheck, have no paychecks now.

Where Barry and I lived, in a boatyard in an industrial zone, was surrounded by black neighborhoods. To the west were tiny houses, black folks trying to move up the ladder. To the east, on the other side of the canal, were vast tracts of subsidized rentals with weedy lawns and abandoned cars. We came face to face in the grocery store, the gas station, the post office. These are not people who could load their cars and flee north. They are the ones who were left behind, because they couldn’t afford a car or a bus ticket to get out.

I wonder what became of Darren, the young black felon we met at Mardi Gras. We’d made the mistake of parking in a desolate spot, and he followed us to our car, high on drugs and drinking Thunderbird out of a paper bag. He showed us his scars — knife wounds, bullet entry and exit holes. He badgered us for a lift across town, but we refused, afraid we’d never be able to shake him. When the hurricane came, I doubt anyone would give him a ride.

These people can’t leave New Orleans and make a fresh start somewhere else. It’s been their home for generations. There are vast networks of siblings and cousins and grandparents, people who gather for barbecues, parades, and birthday parties. You can’t just pick that up and move it to, say, Peoria.

Lying there in bed, thinking about the upcoming mustard crisis, I thought of a way to help.

What we need to do, as a country, is help New Orleans reconstruct their economy. Forget tourism. When New Orleaneans finally go home, it’s going to be a smelly mess of garbage and rubble. Instead of jazz funerals, there will be mass burials. These folks won’t want visitors for a long, long time.

Instead, they’ll need to rebuild their factories and export stuff. Blues, gospel, and jazz music. Cajun, Creole, and Southern ingredients.

So run out today and buy a Henry Butler CD — poor Henry’s really got the blues now. Pick up some Zatarain’s Jambalaya mix, which we’ve seen for sale as far away as Alaska. Replenish your supply of Tabasco, Crystal, or (in our case) Melinda’s XXX hot sauce. Check your local grocery store for blackened spice mix, marinades, gumbo file, cornbread mix, and dacquiri mix.

This Monday, and every Monday, serve up red beans and rice to all your friends. Take up a collection for the relief effort. And remember: The more New Orleans products you buy, the more jobs you make.

All on a Mardi Gras day

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.
barryfriends.jpg barryfriends.jpg tokenboobs.jpg

Three Mardi Gras Virgins Go to a Parade

“Take a look at this, guys,” I said one afternoon, a couple of weeks ago. “The Gambit Weekly has previews of all the Mardi Gras Parades.” Each entry included a map of the route with a list that included the theme, king, queen, number of floats, and an item called “throws.”

I started reading the entries out loud, avoiding the “family-friendly” ones and selecting the more outrageous ones to entertain my two male companions. “We could do this one, Cleopatra. All the women on the floats are female,” I announced with a grin.

Brian perked right up. “I’m there!” he said. And just like that, we were off to our first parade.

Well, maybe not just like that. We decided to take Peepcar, in case parking was a problem. With a car that small, you know you can always pick up the front end and scoot it into the space. First, we had to contend with hideous traffic and bad New Orleans drivers. Pouring rain, dark, wet pavement, lame windshield wipers. We got a little lost near the parade route, so we stopped at a MacDonald’s for directions. The employees were all busy, but there were a few kids hanging around. An ebony-colored 7-foot tall giant with 1/4-inch diamond stud earrings told me the best place to watch the parade was in front of Wal-Mart. I was trying not to stare at his gold bicuspids.

Back at Peepcar, we folded Barry up and stuffed him into the back seat again. But a block later, another stop beckoned. Since Louisiana doesn’t have any open container laws, New Orleans is full of daquiri shops, many of them drive-ins. We walked into a cross between a Wendy’s and a bar. Behind the counter was a whole row of alcoholic slushy machines, with labels like “Hypnotic Chill” and “Hi-Octane.” The three girls ahead of us looked to be about 17, but they all walked out with 24-oz larges.

I tried asking the lady behind the counter (in a place like that, is her job title “bartender,” or “slushy barrista?”) to describe some of the flavors. She just shook her head, “I’ll give y’all a taste. I don’t want to sell you nothin’ without you tastin’ it.” What was she thinking? If I tasted all 16 flavors, I’d be in no shape to continue driving! As it was, I had to overcome twenty-plus years of conditioning just to get into a car with three open containers, my medium-sized amaretto-pineapple safe in the passenger’s hand.

A few blocks later, it was apparent that we were on the parade route by the cars and mobile toilets parked by the side of the road. We parked at Wal-Mart and sat in the car for a while, steaming up the windows in the rain and making inroads on our daquiris. By the time the parade started, we hardly noticed the drizzle, we were so warm inside. The downside was that Brian kept having to leave the parade to find a bathroom.

At first, there were just marching bands and junior ROTC groups. Standard parade fare that we’ve seen in other cities. But then came indications that we weren’t in Kansas any more.

First, there was the queen herself. She sat on a throne in full regalia, about 10 feet up, in front of (not under!) a decorative canopy. The rain poured over the canopy and onto her miserable head, and the poor thing shook and shivered with possible hypothermia. If she spent thousands of dollars and many months having her costume created, she was certainly regretting it now.

And then there were the floats. The rain was nothing compared to the beads that showered down upon us. Metallic, shiny beads in green, gold, and purple. Huge strands of fake pearls that hung down to our knees. Red, blue, pink beads, some shaped like dice or hearts. Translucent chokers in yellow, green, blue, and pink. We smiled and waved at the nice ladies, and they buried us in beads. Every one we caught, plus some we picked up from the street, we put around our necks.

And still came more beads, children’s toys, and baggies of peanuts. Brian caught the eye of several of the ladies, who elected to give him special gifts. One handed him a purple-and-red stuffed pig. Another waved him over to give him a 5-foot-long snake in green and gold with a purple mouth. I caught a purple hippo and a plastic scepter. One of the strangest items was the Sheriff Harry Lee refrigerator magnet — he’d recently had a gastric bypass operation, and the magnet showed a normal-sized version of him wearing hugely oversized pants.

When the parade was finally over, you could hardly see our raincoats under all the beads. If we stooped to pick up another strand from the street, there was a risk that all the weight would simply topple us over. It was impossible to get into the car with them on, and all three of us struggled mightily to get them off. Fortunately, one of the best throws was a large zipper-topped Mardi Gras bag, into which we piled them all. When we returned home, I couldn’t resist weighing them — 21 pounds of beads and toys. Ain’t it wonderful what Mardi Gras does for the Chinese economy?

Happy Mardi Gras!

Living in New Orleans is like living in a foreign country. They even have a huge holiday that the rest of the U.S. doesn’t recognize: Mardi Gras, when all the businesses are closed and the city becomes one big party. We hadn’t planned to participate, but how could we not? Since last week, we’ve seen five parades, had beads thrown to us in the French Quarter, and seen flashers in Bourbon Street. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, on Mardi Gras day itself?

To get you in the mood, here is a little photo essay of our Mardi Gras experience so far. Check it out!

What a haul! Our first parade, Cleopatra, was a bit disappointing, but the “throws” were great! We came home with 21 pounds of beads, 5 plastic cups, a purple pig, and a 5-foot snake.

After taking our photo (above) New Orleans’ finest posed willingly (with Brian’s snake) on the other side of the camera.

Our next parade was Babylon. We parked ourselves across the street from the Pearl (the site of Margaret’s Dad’s first beer) and settled in for the real thing. Unlike Seattle parades, they do not have pooper-scoopers after the horses.

The King of Babylon. Pretty cute, and a lot happier than the Queen of Cleopatra. But then, it wasn’t raining on his many-thousand-dollar costume.

Babylon bead-throwers. I think somebody was flashing, because the guy in the middle is shaking his finger and going “no-no!”

The Chaos parade had more royalty, more horses, more bands, and funnier floats.

On Sunday, we wandered through the French Quarter. Bourbon Street was overflowing with people these guys could toss beads to, including plenty of flashers.

The biggest parade, on Sunday night, was led by Bacchus, also known as Elijah Wood or Frodo. He was having a total blast, like any 20-something kid, throwing beads and making eye contact with people.

As you can see from the hands, everyone in the crowd went crazy over the chance to get beads, cheap plastic cups, and the occasional stuffed toy or rubber chicken.

The Bacchagator was one of the crowd’s favorites. This was built on two flatbed trailers, so it was almost half a block long.

St. Augustine’s high school and their rival went head-to-head in a sort of “battle of the bands” on Canal Street. This student’s whole family went nuts, including his father and uncle, both alumni.

By 10:30, some of the junior high marchers were getting a little tired.

But we were still having a blast!

On the way home, we took in some lovely Mardi Gras decorations and stopped for a midnight chat with a New Orleans native. Stay tuned for more after Tuesday!

You can observe a lot just by watching

I write this sitting in the middle of an industrial wasteland. To my right is the boatyard, where workers and do-it-yourself owners spend their days grinding and sanding and fabricating things out of noxious materials. Our corner is quieter than most, since our closest neighbor, the classic Chris Craft Jerilane, just spends her days slowly rotting into oblivion.

To my left is water. About 75 feet away is the far shore, strewn with litter. Broken concrete, rotten pilings, and at least one sunken boat make it look forbidding to the casual observer.

But I am no longer a casual observer. I have spent hours sitting on deck or in the cockpit, and I have been rewarded.

I have become a birdwatcher.

At first, I spent my time looking across the larger waterway, towards the noisy gypsum factory. But my eye was caught by huge flocks of birds, moving northward in the evenings. Thousands of them would find a thermal, circle to gain altitude, then cruise across the sky to the next one. I couldn’t identify the birds, and I could only guess that they were returning to Lake Pontchartrain after a day of Gulf fishing. Once, when we went sailing, I saw even larger flocks over the lake, so vast that they stretched across a third of the horizon. I was hooked.

The next thing that piqued my curiosity was the meadow. On the other side of the water, above the debris, is a screen of wild bushes and grasses that have gained a toehold on the concrete. Just beyond is a large field, bordered by a tall fence, with wide locked gates and concrete driveways to nowhere. Near the water’s edge are bollards the size of my car, and there’s an electrical transformer, its wires clipped. An abandoned shipyard, perhaps?

But not abandoned at all! One day, a couple of songbirds came and perched on the wires and serenaded us as we worked on the boat. Chubby, with yellow tummies, their song sounded like “Sweetie, come here!” Once they had gotten my attention, I saw that they shared their human-free meadow and the abandoned building next door with swallows, crows, and other small songbirds. With my binoculars, I watch a group of them trying to land on a utility wire. At first, they all try to land on top of each other at one spot on the wire, before sorting themselves out and perching evenly spaced. But when it’s sorted out, they sometimes leave one odd guy a couple of yards away, as if he has BBO (bird body odor).

My favorite birds to watch are the water birds who fish here in our slip. There are pelicans, herons, ducks, and (I think) grebes. A cute little brown and green fellow comes to visit every day, sometimes catching minnows only a few feet from the boat. We call him, “the little green guy,” but he’s probably a green heron. Three or four ducks come by every evening, including one white one. Maybe he’s a domesticated duck who escaped and is now enjoying the free life! His quacking sounds so much like happy laughter, I laugh out loud when I hear him. The other day, I had the stereo on, and I heard him singing along with Joao Gilberto’s “O Pato” (“The Duck”).

Today, as I write this, I have seen and heard hundreds of birds. A flock of seagulls goes one way, and a flock of ibis goes the other. A pelican uses the wind to fly sideways to his chosen spot before gently drifting down for a landing, making hardly a ripple. He’ll certainly make a big enough splash the next time he catches a fish!

One tern goes by in each direction. Left tern and right tern? A songbird sings in the meadow, and further away, I hear jays and crows. Swallows flit by, their flight reminding me of a strobe light.

On the opposite shore, a long line of black ducks with white beaks paddles by. Each one pops his rear in the air for a while, resurfacing like a cork. I can’t hear them, but with binoculars, I can see their beaks moving and can imagine them quacking. A grebe goes the other way, his body cleverly hidden below the water. It seems like a major struggle when he decides to take off and fly away, and I can imagine him thinking, “Aw heck, is flying really worth the bother?”

I take out the binoculars to slowly scan the far shore and catch sight of one of our regular visitors: A black-crowned night heron. He sits on the rubble along the shore during the day, his beak down, snoozing, hardly moving except to preen. His black and white and gray feathers are elegant, and he seems proud of the long white crest feather on top of his head. Watching him, I am reminded that there is beauty in the most unexpected places. It is worth looking twice and never being “just a casual observer.”

Sailboat Cruising in New Orleans: Don't Bother

On my first visit to Seabrook boatyard, I was overwhelmed by the number of huge sport fishing boats. They sprawled like white whales all over the boatyard, dwarfing 44-foot Cayenne. Over the months here, I’ve grown accustomed to — and bored by — them. My eye searches for the more interesting sailboat masts among their mile-high tuna towers.

But even the sailboats I see are not much like Cayenne. There seem to be two types: Local racers, and cruisers passing through. That lack of local cruisers was a big hint — one I overlooked.

A couple of weeks ago, after two exhilarating daysails, we took our first overnight sailing trip to Madisonville. We sailed across the lake under clear blue skies and then motored up the Tchefuncta river. Our mooring was in a pretty park, where live oaks draped with Spanish moss hung almost over our decks. A couple of lively pubs were right across the street. Even the noisy bridge traffic and four a.m. garbage trucks didn’t mar the novelty of spending the night someplace other than Seabrook.

A few weeks later, when all three of us had gotten snappish, it was time for another trip. But where? The Gulf is too far — we are 70 miles from the mouth of the river. Back to the Lake. Slidell, perhaps? Brian studied the chart, but there wasn’t enough detail. I found him staring intently at his computer, where he’d pulled up Microsoft Streets and Trips. It was easier to use than the pricey Softcharts he’d just bought, and at least it showed the pubs.

I read the Coast Pilot and didn’t find much except a dry listing of the shipyard facilities. That information was suspect, as we’d received a much more colorful description of the same shipyard via e-mail from our friend Steve in Seattle. He said it was, “…a truly pleasant place. The grass was roughly waist high, hiding the scraps of steel that threatened to turn your ankles, and the numerous poisonous rattle and water snakes. The water was medicinally sulphurous; I’m sure the odors killed any incipient cancers….If you do cruise the Bayou, watch your keel. The ecologically disposed cars and refrigerators will bang up more than the paint.”

We turned to the folks at West Marine for advice. “Where do folks go cruising around here?” we asked. “They don’t.” “Have you ever sailed to Slidell?” we asked. “No, why would you?”

It then dawned on us that there weren’t any other destinations, besides Madisonville, that met our three-part criteria for a perfect sailing destination: Electricity (for heat), scenery (no gypsum factories), and a pub. Madisonville had misled us, like the blind man feeling an elephant’s tail and saying, “An elephant is like a rope.”

Yesterday we went out on the lake and put about forty miles on the boat, a simple daysail across the lake and back. We got it out of our system, temporarily. But please, God, let us get out of Seabrook and someplace where there are pubs and scenery. As long as we head south, we can live without heat.