I got up about 7:30 on Mardi Gras morning and put on my rugby shirt with the broad horizontal stripes of green, gold and purple, the heraldic colors of Carnival. We live just one door in from Claiborne Avenue, a divided four-lane street on which the truck floats, built on flatbed trailers, assemble each Mardi Gras, and as I dressed I could hear the diesel tractors that pull them lining up and the endless blasting beat of "Mardi Gras mambo, mambo. Mardi Gras mambo...."
While I made the coffee, I looked out the window and across my neighbor’s back yard to see a float with a green, gold and purple rainbow arcing across the top with the words ‘Over the Rainbow’ on it. On the side panel was a green foil countryside with an almost-yellow brick road curving through it. The riders, in tin-man, straw-man and cowardly-lion costumes, were busying themselves by opening bags of plastic beads and other throw-away novelties they’d toss to the crowds on their journey to the Oz that is New Orleans on this day.
Page One of the Times-Picayune carried must-read biographies of Rex, King of Carnival, and his beautiful young consort, and those kept me at the breakfast table longer than usual. It wasn’t until shortly after 10 that I headed out the door to join the fun. It was a beautiful day. The sky was a clear, pastel blue, and the temperature was nearing 70. I put a leash on my dog, Bunkie, who was masking as an aging golden retriever, and we strolled along the parade route. I looked over the floats and the maskers, and Bunkie studied whatever dogs find to examine on the ground.
In dog years, Bunkie is much older than I, and as we neared Nashville
Avenue, he began to slow, so we turned back and ambled homeward along the
grassy median strip; what the locals call the ‘neutral ground.’ It was
peopled with convicts and hippies and Raggedy Anns and Andys who were picnicking
on boxes of Popeye’s fried chicken and Dixie beer, taking pictures, tossing
footballs and frisbees, or just standing around talking, waiting for the
signal to board their floats that should have sounded earlier. Obviously,
there was a delay somewhere ahead.
Back at the house, Bunkie sprawled on the floor. I turned on the TV set to try to get an idea of when the trucks would move. The report was that a tire had blown out on the lead float of Zulu, the first parade of the day. Zulu is a black organization whose members put on black-face, dress in grass skirts and hand down, as their principal "throws," coconuts with "Zulu" sprinkled on in gold confetti. Apparently, it takes some
doing to change a tire on a float loaded with coconuts.
There was a cut to a reporter on Bourbon Street, and of all the thousands of people around him, he had chosen to interview some friends of mine. They were in Roaring 20s gangster getup, and they told the reporter that Mardi Gras is special for them--as they’ve told friends--because they met 13 years ago at the Bacchus parade. "And this
is the product," the reporter said, patting their red-faced 9-year-old son on the head with a little forward push, sending them on their way so he could do another interview.
I turned off the TV set, took a can of beer from the refrigerator and went outside to the corner. Minutes later, just after 11, the tractors in the block ahead began belching to life and crawling away with their cargoes of costumed revelers. Floats rolled by my corner for nearly an hour. Those that had been massed along Claiborne were followed by a column that had rolled south on Carrollton, just a few blocks west. I was standing alone, just enjoying the day and the parade, not even trying to catch anything. But the riders were bursting with pent-up generosity after their long wait and tossing favors to anyone they saw. I caught dozens of plastic bead necklaces of various shapes and sizes and colors, including some of the long strings of fake pearls that girls farther along the route would be showing their almost-all for. I also caught two giant toothbrushes, one pink, one blue; two back scratchers, both yellow; two miniature footballs; four plastic cups with "Mardi Gras 1998" stamped on them; three bean bags in Mardi Gras colors; one toy spyglass, purple, about six inches long; and one real treasure--a Moon Pie.
After the last float had passed, I gathered it all up and brought it home. Why? I don’t know. Pure greed, I guess. We sure didn’t need another grocery sack full of plastic beads in the attic.
Ah, well, I thought, that gave me at least one Mardi Gras sin to repent on Ash Wednesday. It was mighty venial, to be sure, but, then, hardly any of the others are left to an aging college professor. Even on Mardi Gras.
Professor of Journalism, Loyola University, New Orleans