When a friend of ours told us that she’d hopped in a car and headed for the yearly drunkfest that is known as Mardi Gras, stripped off her shirt and painted her breasts with gold paint, I asked, “How did you get the letters straight?”
That’s me, kind of the pragmatist among the partiers. Which is to say I love a great party, but generally appreciate the kind that does not require the taking off of clothes, the ingestion of drinks named after natural disasters and stepping over the resulting upchucked remains.
So how did I find myself one sunny February day, bedecked with beads and chasing a float down a New Orleans street, yelling at the inhabitants to chuck that spear my way?
The story involves a squawking parrot, a 2:00 am marching band, and a redefinition of what Mardi Gras means to me.
It all started on a rainy winter afternoon, when my husband called me and said, “Want to go to New Orleans this weekend?” Once we settled the fact that gold glitter painted on any of my body parts would not be involved, I agreed.
An acquaintance of his has an apartment there and had offered it to Chris during Mardi Gras. As many locals do, he was heading away from the Big Easy.
After we entered the apartment, I immediately knew two things: 1. This was no ordinary apartment. 2. We were not alone.
Flanking Jackson Square, the Pontalba Apartments were built in 1850 and are the oldest apartments in the U.S. Ours was on the second floor, with a dining room the size of a gym, ceilings that soared forever, a wraparound porch with a view of Café du Monde, the river and Jackson Square. We’d hit Mardi Gras gold.
As I stood taking in our good fortune, I was distracted somewhat by a squawking noise. “Did I tell you about the parrot?” Chris said. Apparently we were parrot-sitters for Dudley as well as apartment sitters. No worries for me, as I left the parrot care and feeding to Chris. Our only issue was the first night, which he seemed determined to spend squawking in 30-second intervals, as he witnessed the nightlife below. But after Chris attempted to feed him and Dudley bit him and drew blood, he calmed down.
Our first night was again interrupted, not once, but twice, by loud marching bands playing directly below our window – at approximately 2:00 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. But we were not the least annoyed. This was New Orleans, after all, where sleep is an abbreviated necessity, if indulged in at all, and where just about anything can happen. And does.
The next day we were treated to a view of Mardi Gras from a local’s perspective, compliments of our friend Charles, who has an apartment there. As an entertainment attorney and manager for The Blind Boys of Alabama, Charles conducts business, spends as much time as possible, and hopes to retire to New Orleans with his wife Caroline as soon as possible.
He took us a local friend’s house on the edge of the French Quarter for brunch, where we all packed into the small rooms, drinking Bloody Marys, while jazz musicians on the front porch entertained us, as anything you do in New Orleans involved music. From there we were off to another party closer to our parade route.
As we drove over there, Charles explained that the picture that most people have of Mardi Gras as one parade attended by drunks and half-naked people, is not the way the locals experience it. They attend the many parades prior to actual Mardi Gras day, and it’s more of a family atmosphere.
After another party in a charming shotgun house, we strolled a short way to the parade route. There we wait. And wait. About an hour later, a truck appeared, and cheers began. Seems no one had remembered to get a power truck to lift the power lines for the floats to pass. By now, the route is lined with couples and families, many of whom brought ladders and coolers. Obviously veterans of Mardi Gras.
As the parade began, the excitement rose and people began yelling right away. Soon the floats were passing by, and we were all yelling for them to throw us beads. And I was right there along with them, yelling and running with the floats for the more coveted items, such as spears and boas.
There were no drunks, no painted breasts, but plenty of the spirit of the true Mardi Gras, with colorfully decorated floats, costumed riders, and general high spirits. After the parade, all four of us were laden with beads and I had a coveted spear. And all I had to flash was a smile to get it.
That afternoon we relaxed on our front porch, as we surveyed the scene that is New Orleans at Mardi Gras time. Across the street couples were kissing while waiting in line for beignets at Café du Monde, protesters declaring that we were all going straight to hell marched along Jackson Square and in front of the river, street performers drew a large enthusiastic crowd. This is New Orleans at its zaniest, and we had a front-row seat.