I’ve wanted to live in Louisiana most of my life. It’s a free country and I could have moved here anytime, but I didn’t arrive until after Thanksgiving 2009. The Saints were undefeated. People were excited to not be losing and harbored dreams of going to the Super Bowl. And the weather sucked – colder than in decades.
I’d timed this move so that I’d be here for Christmas with my family and have time to make some friends before Mardi Gras. I’ve learned that this is not the dress rehearsal, this is my one and only life. I’ve learned that my perspective on life defines my experience of life. I’ve learned to try new things, embrace the unknown. I’ve learned that the only things I really value over time are the people in my life and my experiences. So, although I was alone for most of the Mardi Gras season, I didn’t wait for my fears to pass or for a time when I knew more people or more of the city, I just dove in and attended over 25 parades. I believe the number is 27, but it’s hard to say anymore after a steady diet of floats and beads.
The season kicked off early with the Krewe de Vieux and Buddy D. unofficial parades. Now that the season is over, I think the Buddy D. parade was my favorite. Unfortunately, it probably won’t happen again unless the Saints go to the Super Bowl again. I loved it for its hometown, homegrown, private joke aspects, but I loved it over the others for the thousands of manly men in black and gold drag, supporting their Saints by wearing dresses in the streets and lipstick on smiles of pride and hope. There was something so fun and free about the way the men celebrated their love for Buddy D. (the deceased local sportscaster) and the warriors of the Saints team. Everyone was in such good spirits and feeling happy just to be going to the Super Bowl.
The most powerful parade was the Saints Victory parade, another parade that won’t be repeated unless the Saints go to the Super Bowl again – and win. 800,000 people flooded the streets, not for great beads or warm temperatures (that’s for sure), but to be there, be a part of the city’s greatest moment in recent history (maybe even not so recent) and show their appreciation and gratitude for what the team had accomplished. It was a “you had to be there” kind of moment as it was the energy (and size) of the crowd that made it so unique. Perhaps someone else can think of another time that many people gathered to say thanks to a small group of mortals, but I can’t. The lunar landing had 3 separate parades in the U.S. Maybe if you combined all three…? Who knows. All I know is that I was blessed to have been there.
I’ve been comparing leaving Los Angeles to leaving a bad relationship after staying a few years too long. It’s not that there’s something inherently wrong with L.A., it’s that what made sense to me didn’t make sense to others there, what mattered to me didn’t matter to others there and vice versa. In other words, “It’s not you (L.A.), it’s me.” Maybe spending night after day after night standing on a curb watching floats go by and young women dancing while catching beads and listening to bands wouldn’t be fun for someone else, but it was like a whirlwind romance with someone familiar for me. It was like falling in love. And there were days I didn’t feel like getting all my winter layers on and standing alone for hours, but then I’d hear the helicopters signaling another parade rolling down St. Charles (instead of signaling crime and/or media like they did in Hollywood) and I’d jump up, get dressed, fill a to-go cup and be sad if I’d missed more than a float or two.
I’ve always told people that in Louisiana, there are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet. I may have started most of those parades alone, but I rarely remained alone. Families, college kids, neighbors, and other lone revelers of every shade, class and age all included me in their festivities. Those who weren’t friendly were at least polite. Once, a nice young man tried to sell me pot but never stopped saying, “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” even after I gave him my first name.
Many of the Saints were in MANY parades so the victory party lasted from Sunday after the Super Bowl thru “Dat Tuesday,” the day of the victory parade, to Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnival. Drew Brees, the Saints’ Quarterback, was both Super Bowl MVP and King of Bacchus. Locally, those titles weigh about the same. The Lombardi trophy became like the Mardi Gras mascot, hoisted at times by Sean Payton or Saints owner, Tom Benson, or it’s likeness incorporated into some of the floats. Drew Brees appeared on both Ellen and Oprah and was greeted with “Halftime (Stand Up and Get Crunk)” for his entrance. For those not in the know (still?), The Ying Yang Twins’ Crunk song is the traditional half-time song of the Saints. It is also the song to which we locals yell/sing, “Who Dat? Who Dat? Who Dat? Who Dat? Who dat sayin’ they gonna beat them Saints?” It’s the national anthem of the Who Dat Nation. You can be part of the Who Dat Nation, too. All you have to do is love the Saints like you mean it. Download the song, practice your Who Dats and get ready to cheer for the Saints at every game (except when they play your hometown – we get it what it means to love your hometown team no matter what).
Crowds were at an all time high and crime went down over 30% from last year. Most of the additional crowds were fairly local tourists coming in from Mississippi and Alabama, Northern Louisiana and other nearby areas. Practically all of the tourists, be they from near or internationally far, reported having overwhelmingly positive experiences. They were especially impressed with the people, with the culture and attitude, the Who Datitude.
Throughout my life, when people asked where I’m from, I longed to cut out the long story about home being where the heart is and just claim Louisiana as my own. But, like being a true redhead, it’s something I thought you had to earn through birthright (because you get hazed throughout childhood) and though generations of my family were born on this soil, I was not. That said, I consider Lucille Ball a “true redhead” though we all know she wasn’t born that way. Over this last few weeks, many people asked where I was from. I’d tell a short version of a long story that ended 5 blocks from where we stood and many people cut to that same chase I keep hearing, “Welcome home.” So many, in fact, that I began to tell less and less of the long story. Now, I’m down to, “My family’s from here, but I just moved here in December.” But that’s only if they ask where I’m from. If they ask where I live, I live here, end of story. I don’t know that I’m a Lucille Ball yet, but I suspect that I’m the only one whose making these distinctions anyway.
My mother told me a story about being at LSU when coach Dietzel had a squad of guys called the “Chinese Bandits” and that at Mardi Gras, they dressed up with Chinese hats and ended up using them like funnels to catch beads. I can honestly say it was the first time I realized how deep football ran for my mother and for how long. It was also eerily familiar. I’d painted my face for college games, etc. never realizing my mother would have even THOUGHT of doing that. I also saw my mother catching beads just as I had. I realized that I’ve not so much jumped into the unknown in moving here as begun walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, plugging into some current that has run through me all this time, has even defined me at times.
I’ll feel like a true local one day, but I will be a local who knows what a glorious thing it is to be a local here having been a local in other places. When I watch videos or see photos of the parades, I swell with gratitude that I was here for this, less than a local, but more than a witness or a tourist. I’m so glad that I showed up for all of those parades, so glad I made this move and so glad I had amazing timing in choosing 2010 as the first year of the rest of my life.
And it’s still far too cold but it should be 70 by the weekend.
Here’s favorite moments from about 25 parades.
And, if you just can’t get enough, here’s the Krewes of Pontchartrain, Sparta and Pygmalion on February 6th
And the Krewe of Thoth parade on Valentine’s Day.