By Samedi Gras I was exhausted by new experiences, so I puttered around the house a bit, worked in the garden, and “made groceries.” In the supermarket I saw one of the downsides of Mardi Gras – people running around buying things, wanting to make sure they got to the parades on time or had enough food for their parties. The stress was probably measurable – I feel certain that I had not seen people in New Orleans move this quickly before. (In general, this city makes me feel like such a New Yorker – even in slow mode, I am zipping past people on the sidewalks).
Around four-thirty or so I biked off to Midcity to meet a friend at Delgado Community College and City Park, where the Endymion parade was launching. Midcity is in the center of the New Orleans landmass, and is functional and middle-class rather than historical or cool. City Park is huge – one of America’s largest urban parks – and unpopulated, making it feel like Cunningham or Van Cortlandt Park in the Boroughs of New York. Delgado Community College looked a bit like a high school. I saw a sign offering $15 one-hour massages at the College’s Massage School, which seemed like a promising idea.
By the time I arrived, the crowds were huge, but of a different sort from what I had seen previously. Endymion’s Midcity route is completely different from other parades, and the crowd is much more middle-class families. Each one stakes out a little area for themselves, often with orange plastic tape or fencing, bringing chairs for the adults, ladders with specially adapted bench seating for the little kids, and coolers and coolers worth of food. It is as if they recreated their suburban neighborhoods along the parade route. They stay within their property and make the acquaintance of the enclaves on either side of them. And the Saturday afternoon timeslot offers leisure to set up and sit around doing not much but eating and gabbing about family, giving the whole a kind of Fourth of July picnicking at the park kind of atmosphere.
Since my friend was single and had no family here in New Orleans, he had joined for the day the family of his supervisor at work, which adopted me for the day as well. The family was from St. Bernard parish, known locally as “The Parish” and having a reputation for blue-collar people who are very obvious – sort of the Queens or New Jersey of New Orleans. It is true that the accent I heard was different – louder for sure, the vowels with a Southern flavor but much more staccato and crisp. And did I say louder? It was a bit of a parody of the “ugly American” accent. But that is not something I am ashamed of. I was treated as an honored foreign guest, and was plied with food as if they believed I had not eaten in weeks. I ate my first King Cake of the season, something I had looked forward to with relish: the well-baked King Cake is one of America’s most admirable confections. It is not much more than a giant Cinnabun with less cinnamon and more sugary frosting, but it is deliciously simple and served only at Mardi Gras, and I have a soft spot for dishes that point to the mystery of recurrence in time. Inside each cake is baked a figure of a baby; the person whose piece contains the baby is supposed to provide the next cake. I have heard that the baby has some kind of Christological meaning, but I merely pass that on and do not vouch for it. Everybody wanting to hear the foreigner’s opinion on Mardi Gras, and by the way they asked you could tell they were quite certain that I would be impressed. Nor were they wrong. But two separate family members also asked, “In New York City you must have big parades, no?” I tried to explain to them that even though we did have parades, in fact we had nothing in the least bit similar to a Mardi Gras parade. I could tell from their faces that they had heard this answer before, but still didn’t quite believe it and planned on asking the next New Yorker they met the same question.
The parade’s scope was astonishing. Endymion is one of the “Superkrewes,” with 2,500 riders on
gargantuan floats – one, the “Captain Eddie S.S. Endymion,” a segmented float made up of three or four sections of Mississippi Riverboat, preceded by Endymion with a horn and followed by the Father of Waters as rivergod pulled by an alligator, was 200 feet long if it was an inch (and perhaps quite a bit longer). When you factor in the marching bands – who might well be the numerical majority of the parade – the number of people involved in the parade becomes quite astonishing. The floats were prepared with the greatest care and had mostly mythological-cultural themes, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” led by Bottom in ass-ears, or “Pharaoh’s Dream” with Egyptian men in colored coats. My personal favorite was the Vergilian (Homeric) “Gate of Horn and Ivory,” which as a theme for a float in a public parade is simply astonishing.
The Krewe of Endymion takes pride, as the story goes, in the throwing virtue of its members, and I was
impressed. They must have all been pitchers and quarterbacks in high school. The riders launched necklaces, footballs, frisbees, and cups hundreds of feet into the crowd, and dumped materiel with an enthusiasm and frenzy that was hard to imagine. The crowd, as usual, soaked it up spongily.
When the parade was largely passed, I went with my friend downtown to the Mayor’s viewing stand at Lafayette Park, where a friend of his was watching the parade. We hopped on our bikes and headed downtown, easily bypassing most of the parade. Since the parades have so many marching bands, it stands to reason that they must move slightly slower than walking pace, to allow troubles to be resolved and the bands to march and play without getting separated despite whatever troubles may have to be resolved (from tying shoes to getting a drink or going to the bathroom – special trucks follow along with Port-o-potties, called here Port-o-lettes). On our bikes we moved quickly, especially as we were rolling, now at night, through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States.
Downtown we saw more of the public image of Mardi Gras: drunk people from Dallas and Houston fighting local children and old women for beads. The drinking, coupled with the formidable throwing powers of the Endymion Krewe, made for a certain amount of danger. The Krewe kept firing beads into the crowd like lasers, up four stories into balconies and to specific receivers in the crowd. At times these beads or even bags of beads scored the faces of people who were drinking or chatting, or smashed into their beverage hands, splashing alcohol everywhere. It being Carnival, it was hard not to find this funny, though it sometimes made the victims a bit angry. We talked with all our neighbors in the crowd, funneled our beads to little children and women without them, and in general had a fine time. When the parade ended, we made our way past mountains – mountains – of garbage slowly being raked up by Hispanic workers, and biked on towards home.
But the evening was not done. I got in touch with a friend from college, who was originally from New Orleans but currently living in Brooklyn. She had returned for Mardi Gras, and I got together with her at the Columns, a venerable 19th century hotel with a chic bar uptown. With her and her cousin, another New Orleanian in exile (in San Francisco as a hedge fund manager), I got a burst of New-York-style conversation, about books and ideas and music (I call it New York conversation, but in fact it is merely upper-crust conversation; the kind of conversation Tolstoy mercilessly records), especially the books Cadillac Desert and John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. It was fantastic, and completely unlike the rest of the day. We were there for an hour or so, then went home, as it was to be a fairly early morning the next day.