Travels for Two in a Green Ford Escort #5: The Real Story of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The Real Story of Mardi Gras in New Orleans

New Orleans during Mardi Gras is unimaginably strange and weird. Not only did we see both beautiful and elaborate costumes as well as naked people walking around casually, we sensed an attitude and feeling in the air of chaos and abandon. People throughout the city streets were letting it all go and donning a mask, costume or just a new attitude. They didn’t seem to worrying about tomorrow, yesterday or anything at all. It is an intense culmination of the human experience, a full blown, interactive tour of the human psyche acted out and walking around in broad daylight. That may sound a little extreme, but it’s accurate nonetheless. We can’t believe we survived.

During Mardi Gras, we saw a lot of things out of the corners of our eyes that didn’t seem quite real. While working or walking the streets near a parade we also heard the stories, which surely have grown in their telling, of what one person or another saw or heard. We knew these stories might just have a ring of truth though. We had begun to learn that anything and everything goes in the French Quarter for the last five days leading up to Fat Tuesday.

Mardi Gras parades are a great example of the element of the spectacular and are larger, more elaborate and louder than any parade we’d seen before. Some are small with only a couple of hundred members and parade participants; others take hours to pass with literally thousand of members and tens of thousands of people lining the streets. Participants and parade watchers get loud with every one of them shouting, singing or talking at the top of their lungs. In addition, beads, cups, trinkets and doubloons are everywhere – hanging in trees, caught on the sides of buildings, and scattered throughout the streets. Certain pieces are more valuable than others and intense pleading, negotiation and struggling goes on as the best pieces fly through the air. We found it was always best to catch trinkets ourselves, but we could always trade or beg the good ones off a sympathetic parade neighbor.

The best traditional parade we saw was Bacchus, this year led by Nicholas Cage. Bacchus is one of Mardi Gras’ “Super Krewes” and had 25 floats, innumerous bands and hangers on and a true carnival atmosphere. Thanks to advice from New Orleans resident and BootsnAll contributor Craig Guillot (we met Craig through the Website and he was invaluable throughout our stay in New Orleans), we grabbed our spot early in the afternoon and spent hours watching the smaller pre-parades that led up to Bacchus. Thankfully, our friend from Seattle, Jen Rice was with us and along with some good parade neighbors we had a fun, if cold, time. With over 3,000 members, Bacchus was a long and elaborate presentation. Floats included the entire Kong family (giant floats in the shape of King Kong, Queen Kong and Baby Kong), a giant whale, a ‘gator and several double-decker floats that reached three stories into the sky. Given the size of these floats, beads that were thrown from the top decks came at you hard and fast. Sometimes dodging was a better plan than catching.

Our favorite parade was one of the smaller parades that happened the week before the official Mardi Gras celebration. This parade, called Barkus, was entirely devoted to dogs and dog fans everywhere. Naturally, the king of the parade was a bull terrier with a crown on his head while the queen was a robed poodle with her own tuxedoed court of six men to guide her through the route. Overall, more than 1,000 dogs – from the smallest toy poodle in a lacey dress to a Great Dane dressed as Superman – paraded down St. Ann Street in front of our apartment in shopping cart sized floats. Their accompanying owners tossed beads and dog biscuits to the watchers on the sidewalks. Most of the dogs were friendly and in good spirits, though a few of the smaller ones were a little scared by all of the attention. All in all it was one of the most entertaining events we have ever witnessed.

We were also glad for the experience of working at a tourist bar/restaurant during the Mardi Gras season. Although it was exhausting, we made decent money and saw a lot of the strange and weird events that make up some of the best and worst of Mardi Gras. At one point, Deb waited on a table of twelve Elvis impersonators – perhaps the ones we’d seen walking in conversation earlier in our trip. They were getting ready to parade the next day as the “Krewe of Elvis” and wanted some Memphis Barbeque for luck. Jeff, from his spot at the sidewalk window bar, was able to watch all the crazy people, drunken revelers and celebrities that passed on the street. The week before Mardi Gras he saw Gordy Howe of hockey fame and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. And a few days before Fat Tuesday, we were lucky enough to catch a free MTV Mardi Gras concert by No Doubt, Mystical and Britney Spears in Jackson Square. We also caught a live taping of the Man Show on a Bourbon Street Balcony. We watched as Adam Corolla and Jimmy Kimmell taunted an audience of guys with supermodel Nikki Taylor who teased them but DIDN’T take off her shirt. We hope we can see the results of the taping at some point on Comedy Central.

Although we have probably forgotten many of the things that happened, what we do remember could fill pages. Mardi Gras was such a wild and intense experience it will take some time and some serious decompressing before we remember everything. Overall, we think the experience is best summed up by a quote we heard on a Tulane college radio jazz show…

“Things that you have never seen before seem to happen every day in New Orleans.”

We found that’s especially true during Mardi Gras.