I can hardly believe Mardi Gras in New Orleans is tomorrow. I grew up in the “Crescent City,” the City That Care Forgot.” From an early age I knew it was a special place, especially each year at Mardi Gras. Always a city of extremes contrasts — terrible crime and poverty in one neighborhood and immense wealth in adjacent neighborhoods — it was during Mardi Gras that people temporarily cast aside these glaring disparities and their cares to once again revel in the magic of seemingly endless parades, garishly but brilliantly painted and decorated floats, bands, and extravagant costumes.
I loved it when I was a kid. Every year on Mardi Gras day, “Fat Tuesday,” my family would pack up a picnic lunch, always containing Mom’s delicious fried chicken. We’d head for the wide and world-famous St. Charles Avenue where we’d watch first the King of Carnival, Rex, and his parade, followed by a couple of hundred truck floats filled with costumed families having a ball throwing beads and trinkets to the assembled crowds.
It was invariably quite cool, bordering on cold most Mardi Gras Tuesdays over the years that I remember them, and that would include most years from when I was a small child through college. After college, I left the city for good, but I miss it a lot. Who wouldn’t? I think most people who’ve been there would agree it’s totally unique among all U.S. cities.
The anticipation and excitement was always palpable as I waited along St. Charles for the arrival of the Rex Parade, the highlight of a tradition in the city that goes back to the first parade in 1857. I’d be standing along the street along with thousands of others, many of them in costumes. It was always thrilling to hear the first sounds of drums in the distance. A police car with flashing blue lights would appear, clearing the way for the floats.
I’d have my hands stuffed in my jacket pockets to keep warm. Then the floats would start passing and hands would go up imploring, “Throw me something, Mista!” (Back in the 60s almost all of the carnival krewe members were men, but that unfortunate situation is totally different today). Krewe members constantly reached into their bags for beads and trinkets to toss to noisy and boisterous parade-goers. But most of the stuff was pretty junky, but hey, it was free.
The most coveted “throws” were and probably still are, the commemorative doubloons or aluminum coins which each krewe minted in limited quantities. I remember how thrilled I was when I was 12 and somehow managed to nab one of the first Rex doubloons ever given away. I remember people would dash toward the sound of doubloons clinking on the pavement. The quickest way to be sure someone didn’t grab it before you did was to put your foot on it and then bend down to retrieve it. I won’t even guess how many fingers were smashed in the frenzy to get a doubloon. I was spared fortunately because they weren’t THAT important! Some lucky ducks managed to snag them as they were still airborne. I think that happened to me once. What memories! [In retrospect these many years later, this all seems quite foolish and absurd, but it was fun at the time].
But the real treat from parade going was seeing the colorful and laboriously designed paper mache floats, which were lighted up at night. The pandemic, however, has crushed a lot of the joy out of carnival season this year. Last November it was announced there would be no parades. This cast a momentary pall of gloom over this Mardi-Gras-crazy city. Hundreds of float builders, designers, decorators and painters were laid off. But that wasn’t the end of it, as The New York Times article linked below can attest. A few ingenious citizens got together and decided in lieu of parade floats, they would get the word out that they were hiring those laid off artists and float builders to decorate and create floats at their homes and in their yards. Three thousand people are participating. And thus a generations-long tradition continues. This is a perfect example of the spirit and determination of New Orleanians who are proud of their city and Mardi Gras celebrations. It wouldn’t be New Orleans without them.