There are 2 distinct ways the city of New Orleans celebrates Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras in French). Last year, I celebrated Uptown style, attending parades on St. Charles from 8 am until 5 pm. This year, I tried the Downtown version of Mardi Gras for the first time, parading my own costumed self around the French Quarter for hours. I’d heard of the gargantuan costume party that is the French Quarter on Mardi Gras Day, of the Drag Queens who bring out their most outrageous creations, the families and groups of friends who dress together as Smurfs or everyone from the story, Alice in Wonderland, of the bared, sometimes painted breasts, but nothing I heard could have prepared me for the spectacle.
There were political statements, mostly about BP’s big mess, and a group of injured Spiderman mocking the Broadway show and lots of versions of Black Swans. There were roaming bands in costume so you might spot a Storyville Stomper dressed as a giant hot dog playing clarinet. There was an older woman standing on her porch yelling, “Tits for beads,” and flashing fake breasts made of stuffed pantyhose she had dangling at her knees. There were impromptu krewes like the Krewe of Condiments all dressed as ketchup and mayo., St. Madonna’s Academy marching to Like a Virgin and the Hair Force, dressed like military and marching to “We can perm and we can tease, we can do it on our knees.” There were people dancing in the streets, bubbles floating through the air and beads being thrown from balconies. Gay and straight, old and young, everywhere I looked was colorful, silly, creative, sometimes beautiful costuming.
I wore my new fuchsia petticoat from New Orleans Party and Costume Shop in the CBD. Longer, wider and brighter than my black and green petticoat, it made me feel like the Belle of the Ball. I donned harlequin fishnets in purple, green and gold with ocean slippers (in case it rained) my parents had bought me years ago for a trip to Hawaii. The fuchsia mask only made it a few hours and stained my face when I sweat but I got lots of compliments on my deep green wig. I hadn’t had so many people take pictures of me since I left my life of Hollywood premieres behind.
There were rumors all week that it would rain but it was hard to find a news report on it. Apparently, if you report rain for Mardi Gras, people change the station to find someone who will say it’s going to be sunny. Fair enough, though, because it’s a widely held belief that, “God loves Mardi Gras,” as it has almost never actually rained on that day.
And just in case you don’t get how big this celebration is, schools are closed, mail isn’t delivered, national chains like Office Depot shut down and sell their parking spots on St. Charles. CBS and Fox show nothing but the parade from 9 am until 2 pm and NBC covers it from 7 am to 3 pm then shows Ellen because she covers it, then they go to news and report on the festivities some more.
Pictures are worth a thousand words so I’ve included many of them as well as a video in hopes that you can get a vicarious feel for what it’s like to walk around a city in total agreement about the fun of fantasy. We spent most of the day on Royal Street with a couple trips to Frenchmen Street and one block of Bourbon Street. Frenchmen Street was a musical gumbo with impromptu drum circles on every corner surrounded by costumed dancers. Because Mardi Gras came so late this year, it coincided with Spring Break and college kids swelled Bourbon Street. While we roamed the Quarter in fanciful costumes, they drank themselves oblivious. While we sang Mardi Gras Mambo, they sang Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer. Everyone has their own version of fun in this town.
I had been excited to join the fun on Bourbon Street but by halfway down the block, I felt like a circus animal getting judgmental stares. I felt… unwelcome. So, we navigated the packed crowd of college kids hoisting hand grenades (a super strong cocktail in a signature green grenade plastic long-neck cup) and wearing beads they bought rather than caught and as soon as we turned the corner and spotted wigs and masks, I felt the open arms of New Orleans culture reaching out for me again.
Oh, and thank you to French Market Restaurant with their giant caldron of jambalaya served in heaping bowls at $5 a pop on the street. Ended up going back for seconds. Yum!