Mark Twain was 23 when he first attended New Orleans’ Carnival (the celebration lasting from Jan. 6 through Mardi Gras Day —the day before Ash Wednesday also known as Fat Tuesday). He wrote to his sister that “an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”
No place does a party like New Orleans, and Carnival is the granddaddy of those parties. The festival is expected to pump more than $300 million into New Orleans’ economy this year; Mardi Gras is today, Tuesday Feb. 28.
I was only four years older than Twain when, as a 27-year-old new transplant to New Orleans, I first experienced Carnival. And I’ve just spent the last six days reliving some of those days from 27 years ago. I began watching this year’s inaugural evening parades on Wednesday, when I stood on the same St. Charles Avenue balcony I occupied in 1989.
I remember the first all-nighter of my life, live music at three clubs, beignets at dawn and (although I’m not Catholic), morning mass at St. Louis Cathedral.
Carnival in New Orleans at Age 27
What a difference the two experiences were for me.
The first time I did Carnival, I had recently moved to NOLA to be a news reporter for the peculiarly named Times-Picayune newspaper. The next six years unfolded as among the most magical, maddening and momentous of my life. Carnival was at the heart of that experience.
My first New Orleans apartment was a cavernous, two-story space carved out of a pink-and-white gingerbread Victorian, a half block off St. Charles Avenue — the primary Carnival parade route — in the city’s historic Lower Garden District. Long before today’s smartphone apps pinpointed where the parade was along its multi-hour route, my friends and I would amble the few steps to St. Charles carrying “go cups” legally filled with our alcoholic libations of choice, and estimate when the parade would arrive.
Those friends taught me the byzantine ways of the historical holiday. Among the things I had to learn: why a decorated coconut is among the most prized acquisitions during the season (coconuts historically have been the sought-after throw of the beloved Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, which originally adopted them when its riders could not afford beads to throw) and to avoid swallowing “the baby” in Carnival’s best-known delicacy, King Cake (the “baby” is a hidden trinket in the cake that designates who’s responsible for supplying the next cake).
Beignets at Dawn
While other memories have grown fuzzy, I still recall that first strand of beads tossed to me by a masked stranger who spent thousands for the privilege of riding a 20-foot float and throwing beads to throngs in the streets. I remember the first all-nighter of my life, live music at three clubs, beignets at dawn and (although I’m not Catholic), morning mass at St. Louis Cathedral.
Even in my late 20s, attending close to three-dozen, often multi-hour parades — as many as four a day — required a Herculean effort. And I generally didn’t miss a single one. So, it’s hopefully not difficult to understand why someone at the beginning of her adult life would have thought she’d found Xanadu and would never, ever leave. Instead, once my previously promising career faltered and my first marriage failed, I left New Orleans and built a new life in a new city.
Returning to Carnival at 54
Flash-forward 18 years.
After my second career took a nosedive during the Great Recession and I struggled to reinvent myself at 50, New Orleans came calling again. A business shift in the 175-year-old Times-Picayune left hundreds of friends and former colleagues unemployed and shattered. So when its citizens fought back against the dismantling of the newspaper that had helped the city survive the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I returned from 1,700 miles away to join the fray. The city I left disillusioned decades earlier welcomed me back, and helped me crawl out of my midlife hole.
So after a 27-year break, I decided it was time to return for Carnival, this time staying with friends who live a few blocks from my first apartment in New Orleans and those first Mardi Gras memories.
Unlike my earlier Carnival seasons, I haven’t tried to attend every parade. Like many of my boomer friends, I’m drinking less than I used to.
I’ve also reflected more on what actually happens at Carnival and how things have (and haven’t) changed.
What Hasn’t Changed and What Has
Its glut and wildness are easy to condemn: This year, 68 Carnival parades will roll throughout the New Orleans metro area, involving more than 1,000 floats, 600 marching bands and more than 135,000 participants traversing more than 300 miles. The city actually measures the holiday’s success in part by how many tons of garbage it hauls away.
The nation was just reminded of the tragic consequences that can come from excess in the extreme: A drunk driver plowed into spectators along a Carnival parade route Saturday night, injuring 28.
There’s also the continuing issue of inequality. As a news reporter, I covered the 1991 passage of legislation that legally desegregated Carnival. While many longstanding and new organizations now admit more women and people of color than ever, a few old-line krewes (the parading organizations) simply stopped parading, rather than open their ranks. And many of the krewes continue to be made up almost exclusively of white men.
The Undeniable Power and Joy of Carnival
But against the garish, even venal backdrop, the past 27 years have also shown me Carnival’s power to bring New Orleans together — and to revive those who revel in its extravagance.
“To encapsulate the notion of Mardi Gras as nothing more than a big drunk is to take the simple and stupid way out,” my former colleague and friend Chris Rose wrote in his bestselling One Dead in Attic: After Katrina. “Mardi Gras is not a parade. Mardi Gras is not girls flashing on French Quarter balconies. Mardi Gras is not an alcoholic binge … Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”
It was a good lesson at 27, and remains one at 54. Happy Mardi Gras.
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