They handed us a suicide pill. A parachute. “The panic button.”
“What’s in it?”
“Take it if you need it. If you’re on a bad trip or you get overwhelmed. It will chill you out.”
The panic button was enclosed in a red Valentine’s heart. I put it in my pocket, and boarded the Zeppelin.
To Carefully Avoid Salvation
Mardi Gras is not what you heard. Not: beads for tits, Bourbon Street, a few days of orgy, drinking like pledges. Let me clarify.
The tits come out for free. Beads are a currency that rewards bravado and bonds new friends.
Bourbon Street is not a destination. It’s an obstacle, a black abyss of the soul. The party there is dull, it chaffs like a high school handie. For velvet look elsewhere. Let the streets guide you.
Mardi Gras lasts for a month. You mustn’t race. Pace your indulgences, for the devil is patient and difficult to bed.
As for booze, booze is the first door. There are nine more doors to go through. Every door is covered by mirror, and the other walls are mirrors too. You can break through but don’t get cut. Those who fall behind are in danger of redemption.
City Shuts Down
For Mardi Gras season all of New Orleans shuts down. You don’t bother going to work or you come late. You tell your boss you were hung over, and your hung over boss gives you king cake.
You can’t get anywhere. There’s a different parade every day, sometimes several, and street parties. No one keeps track. Just leave the house without expectations, see what you find and where you end up. That is NOLA in an ethos, and in Mardi Gras the ethos is praxim.
Businesses don’t run. They’re missing half their staff, their inventory is across town. Sure, you can place the order but maybe just call me back, okay? Look, our guy can’t get through. Baby, it’s Mardi Gras.
But where is the slacking? No one is slacking. Our city doesn’t grind to a halt because everyone’s wasted. It halts because they’re all working so damn hard (while wasted). There are costumes, floats, parties to create. Songs to rehearse. This is not a drill, friends. You can walk down St. Claude in a bear suit any day of the year. This costume has to be special.
Plus you’re hustling.
It Starts with Krewe du Vieux
The first parade of any note and the real start of Mardi Gras season is Krewe du Vieux. A Krewe is a crew and Vieux Carre is the correct French name for the French Quarter.
The Krewe du Vieux parade rolls with hand-pulled and mule-drawn floats and impolite humor. It starts in the Marigny, the ward I call home, and goes directly through the French Quarter, lighting the city on fire. This was January. We made our plans weeks before. Collective hypomania.
Many floats are political statements. The statement is: politics are fucked. Any company, personage or stereotype is fair play for satire. So is any sex act. Pizza Slut menus. A bumper sticker of a cockroach and “Krewe du Vieux 2013: Proud to Crawl Home.” A kit of birthday candles stamped as “backup generators” with the power company logo. Thirty men dressed as marijuana fairies.
Everyone in the crowd is in costume, and I use “costume” here specially. People have dedicated closets of costuming supplies. Vaults. Elsewhere I’ve been to Carnival balls with $1,000 tickets and the clever bespoke costumes dripping from the wealthy were not so grand as these. It takes eleven months to plan a proper costume. When you started you were still hungover and had ashes on your forehead.
Krewe du Vieux was a hard night, my first introduction to the pace. Everyone wanted to barhop, partyhop. They wanted more than the Vieux could feed them. I was sober and I was exhausted.
The human penis is the de facto mascot of Mardi Gras. Cocks everywhere. Probably real live ones too, but draw your attention to the bus-sized, cock-shaped parade floats in multiple parades. To your left please note a gentleman dressed as a cock; to your right three men with artificial-penis, erection-capable codpieces on their costumes. They each devised different mechanisms for springing the erections; some have sound effects.
I saw Chewbacca’s cock.
On the balcony above one Frenchmen Street restaurant stood an imposing (but smiling) statue of veined, engorged manhood. Yes, where families will see; and I only added that because I know some readers aren’t from around here. In NOLA, it wouldn’t occur to even ask—of course kids will see.
Vaginas are a fine motif, but not the same way. For whatever cultural or patriarchal reasoning you care to imagine, the yawning portcullis of the papier mâché vulva is not as striking an image as the disco stick. Cocks are easy to operate; the vagina has to maintain some of her mystique.
(Although the vagina figurehead still made a great addition to at least two parade floats—big enough for dancers or Krewe royalty to pass through in full costume, of course.)
Penis shaped candies, penis images, bubble-blowing penes, penis waterguns and the implied penis of euphemistic costumes rule the day. Mostly circumcised; what’s up with that, NOLA? And yes, there are cock throws.
“Throw” is the correct local terminology for what you call beads. Except beads are only the lowest echelon of throw.
Fancier beads are better—large, unusual, or patterned beads. And better yet, strings of flags or dolls or coins or anything else unbeadlike. Still worn as beads, obvs.
Above that, throws get very diverse and unique. I’m looking at a pair of perfectly forged, yet satirical Superbowl tickets even as I write this. My roommate and I could have successfully scalped them for a few hundred dollars (apiece) to an unsuspecting tourist—but what a waste of two throws!
Cups are a popular throw. People will beg for cups. They’re “just” reusable plastic cups, but what’s printed on them is what counts.
Doubloons are top shelf. Folks will fight over doubloons. But the winner turns around and shares them with everybody present. Don’t get me started about Shoes.
My fetish is things that glow. If a throw lights up, I want it. I arrived at the first parade wearing fuzzy flashing LED bunny ears (thanks Renee!). On that fertile hill I founded an empire. Glowing rings with plastic gems, flashing necklaces, glowstick bracelets, the list goes on. Once activated they usually run until the battery dies, giving them a tragic half-life that makes them fatal and brave. My best: a lazer gun (sic) that not only lights up when you pull the trigger, but makes a variety of space noises, too.
The Economy of Throws
Throws are earned. To get your throw you must make eye contact with the person on the float, you must wave your hands and call to them. Begging is better. Funny comments, better yet. Rude comments: never.
It helps if an enthusiastic local yells that this is your first Mardi Gras, but don’t yell, “It’s my first Mardi Gras!” yourself. Have some dignity.
Ladies, there really is no market for showing your breasts. If you enjoy showing them, please do. Some women (and men) spend the whole day in a state of virtual undress, with a dash of body paint or some well-placed decals to lend parody of prudence.
But promiscuity and throws share the same economy. You will never successfully buy sex with beads—most people aren’t prostitutes and real prostitutes want cash. But if someone wants to be taken they might accept beads as an excuse. Wrap yourself in the history of Catholic stricture: you would never do a thing like that, but it was out of your hands.
(The mask exists for a reason.)
Throws interface with other currency, and we successfully bartered throws for pizzas, drinks and numerous other transactions. Everyone is in a spirit of generosity—it’s less a matter of wanting pizza and offering beads, than a matter of freely offering beads to people who have too few, then freely being handed dinner by the same people.
Rule: never pick up “dead” throws that are lying on the ground. Don’t debase yourself.
Counterrule: unless it was specifically thrown to you and it hit the ground. Pick it up. You can’t catch everything.
All these rules are unwritten, and if you ask what Mardi Gras is all about then you’re asking the wrong question.
Unlike any other holiday, Mardi Gras doesn’t have some alleged deep meaning. Not everybody can dig a holiday with a meaning. Not Christian? Christmas kind of blows. Native American? Thanksgiving not so great. Most holidays belong to someone.
Mardi Gras has no owner. It has a feeling.
It isn’t a Catholic holiday—the Church preached against Carnival and its excesses for centuries before tacitly accepting it. The reality is that 40 days of religious sacrifice is hard, and in agricultural times the last 40 days of rationing your winter food supply were going to be tough whether you added a spiritual meaning or not. By God and by Nature, you’re about to walk the coals. Do you want a drink first?
Mardi Gras sweeps you up in sensations with no greater meaning. And yet, in that ocean of experience, you do find meaning—clear meaning. This is our life, this is our existence, it cuts us and it feeds us, it is good and bad. We let go and move our bodies, because tomorrow we may starve.
You get to give Mardi Gras your own meaning. Some don’t want any meaning and that’s good too. It isn’t about that. It’s about the touch. It’s about the sting. It’s euphoria without comment.
We Carried the Music and the Music Carried Us
Our krewe had two handymen, a chaplain, the krewe pharmacist, our den mother/vixen, a New Zealand prophet and more new friends than I ever thought I could bond with over carrot cake and beer.
We started at 5 am. Eggs and alcohol. Full costumes.
We recreated the Zeppelin from a Led Zeppelin album. The side of our float had an actual guitar that folds out like a bar. Inside was a beer keg and all the fixings for making mixed drinks. We had water, food, and whatever we needed for our safety and relative comfort.
There was a jam box.
It was not light, it was not easy to push. There was mist and rain and sun and bar stops. Dancing in the street, staring at the river, napping on each other’s shoulders.
We carried the music across New Orleans. We carried the music and the music carried us.
Three hours after midnight it was me, a fire, the fallen angel and the team leaders. We were the ones who made it.
I have been ridden by gods but that day I was possessed by a city. We all got possessed.
I got home at 4 am. I looked at the ceiling, I felt the room buzz, I felt the city breathe.
I felt the city breathe, and I slept.
My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.