Spreading Joy At Mardi Gras
When my friend Kendra asked me to ride krewe with her on a Mardi Gras float I was unsure. We sat at the dining room table of my Seattle apartment one chilly fall night, cradling our wine glasses, polishing off a second bottle of red.
“What about the crowds?” I asked. I hated crowds and had always sworn off Mardi Gras because of them.
“You’re above the crowds on the float,” she assured me.
Kendra, a New Orleans native, rode Krewe of Tucks the year before Hurricane Katrina. Now, 10 years later, she wanted to ride again. Krewes are social clubs that organize Mardi Gras parades, their origins lie in New Orleans secret societies and early city politics. Some are huge: Endymion and Bacchus are festivals unto themselves. Others are niche, like Krewe of Barkus, which is for dogs. Krewe of Tucks, formed by Loyola graduates in the late ’60s, is known for its irreverence, sense of humor and toilet-themed throws. To ride you have to be invited, or ask to be invited, by the krewe.
“How much does it cost?” I asked.
“You pay to ride and then you buy your own beads,” she explained. “You could easily end up spending a thousand bucks or more on beads.” I reached for another bottle of wine. “You don’t want to be cheap with beads,” she advised. “If the crowds don’t like what you throw they’ll throw them back at you. And if you run out before the end it’s embarrassing. It happened to me.” I poured more wine.
“Look,” she said, standing up, grabbing an imaginary string of pearls and throwing them to an invisible parade goer, “think of it as spreading joy.”
I told her I would sleep on it and the next week I mailed in my deposit check. When, I wondered, would I get another chance to throw a thousand of dollars worth of costume jewelry to perfect strangers?
Carnival is a celebration of spring dating back to the Greeks. The Romans turned it into a Bacchanalian orgy. In Renaissance Europe it was a time of aristocratic banquets, masked balls and parades. For Catholics all over the world it is the last blowout before Lent. In New Orleans it is high camp: 12 days of parties and parades culminate into Mardi Gras celebrations where people dress up in costume, wear masks, get drunk and dance in the street.
It is a shared experience of excess that transcends racial and economic boundaries, flipping everyday problems the bird by saying: life can’t be that bad if I am having this much fun. Even the modest Mardi Gras celebration that New Orleans put on six months after Katrina, before hotels had re-opened, before there was even garbage service, boldly showed the world that the Crescent City had survived its near-death experience and was ready to ride again.
We arrived at the parade starting point on Napoleon Avenue, in New Orleans’s Uptown neighborhood. The mid-morning March sun was already hot, hiding behind a haze of humidity. Brightly colored floats lined the street. A high school marching band practiced hip-shaking New Orleans brass band classics. The Laissez Boys to our right, with their wheeled armchairs, prepared for the parade, bloody marys in hand.
The float was a replica of a casino, and our throwing spot was directly above the “shot wheel” painted on the side. I was already sweating under my purple, gold and green Mardi Gras vest as we began hanging our beads on metal hooks, getting them ready for easy throwing. We had ordered most of our beads online and had them shipped to us. We had bags and bags of them. Some made of large “pearls,” others small, and some made of the tiniest “pearls” of three or more colors braided into a twist.
The day before we had stopped at Mardi Gras Imports to pick up specialty throws for people we really liked: strings of rubber ducks, stuffed snakes and spears. We also had the much sought-after Tucks-branded throws: sunglasses with toilet seats for frames, plungers and toilet brushes. At noon we began to roll. “Rock the Casbah” blasted out of the speakers above us.
Who should I throw to? Everyone yelled for beads but I wanted to be more discriminate in my throwing so I wouldn’t run out. At first I only threw to children. Their eyes would light up when they caught a toss. One man pointed to his child sitting on his shoulders, so I threw her a string of gold beads. Then she handed the beads to her dad. Obviously parents were pimping out their children to get more for themselves. I stopped throwing to children and started throwing to people who didn’t have many beads. I saw a woman sitting on the ground who seemed to have no beads at all and I threw her a strand of silver globes. She smiled and immediately squirreled them away into the bag of beads at her feet.
Eventually I gave up on a strategy and began throwing to anyone who looked nice, friendly or interesting. Someone I would want to hang out with at home. One woman looked dejected, her friends were having fun than she was. I made eye contact and tossed her a double-twist. Her eyes lit up and she gave me a big smile. An electric instant between two strangers! Like I’d given her the best surprise gift ever.
Fling, fling, fling!
The float turned onto St. Charles Avenue and headed downtown. Purple and gold beads hung in tree branches from previous Mardi Gras parades. We passed grand Garden District balconies filled with bead-adorned revelers holding champagne flutes and screaming, “Throw me some beads!” People knew what they wanted and would ask for it. One reveler locked eyes with me and pointed to the string of rubber duckies he wanted. What could I do but oblige?
We continued moving towards downtown, crossing streets named for the Greek Muses: Terpischore, Thalia, Erato, Clio. The crowds grew bigger after every intersection.
The crowds always wanted more: more doubloons, more double twists. “You got any plungers left?”
When the crowd got too demanding I would sit down, hidden from the crowd by the wall of the float, take a breather and a few gulps wine from my sippy cup.
As we neared downtown I realized I’d been throwing beads too sparingly, I’d been too picky. By Lee Circle, the halfway point, I still had bags and bags of throws left. I began throwing by the fistful.
Fling, fling, fling!
Entering the downtown business district the crowds were thicker and barricades appeared. I could no longer make eye contact; I had lost my human connection, but I had way too many beads left. I threw like my life depended on it, like I was on the sinking Titanic and jettisoning ballast would help me to survive.
We turned onto Canal Street, with its colonnade of Royal Palms. At Chartres Street, the entrance to the French Quarter, the ride was over. I was hot, comfortably drunk and disoriented as I left the float. I still had three large bags of leftover beads.
Not knowing what to do with them I walked down to the sidewalk and set them on the pavement. People would love them, I thought. But nobody noticed. People walked around them. They were just like the other beads, broken from throwing, strewn all over the sidewalk that nobody would pick up. Without the human connection on the other end, without a person spreading joy from the top of the float, they were just beads. Plastic. Joyless. Made in China.
A notebook, a camera, and a penchant for exploration have been in Mark’s knapsack from a young age. A business consultant in Seattle, Mark travels as much as he can get away with and writes about it on his blog, WilderShores.net.