Roadtrip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans 1997

It started at one of our coop dinners after much wine was drunk by all. Someone mentioned that Mardi Gras was soon, I said I've always wanted to go, and Dawson said let's go then. So we took the train to Bard on the friday before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), freed the StaWag from the icy walls that had formed around it and then fixing the exhaust pipe that was broken in freeing the car from the icy walls.

We set off saturday morning, swearing by two lane roads. We drove through the Catskills, down through Pennsylvania, and on to the heart of the Appalachins, West Virginia, where we spent the night in a nice old mountain city. The next day, we left W. Virginia, hit Tennessee when we realized that we had MANY miles to go. So we switched to the InterState through Tennessee, touched Georgia, through Alabama, into Mississippi where we slept, New Orleans nearby. We drove Mississippi backroads to the bayou and the eastern edge of New Orleans. We started our New Orleans experience with a large brunch at a local dinner. It was bustling with people looking like they were coming from church. Even though we were obvious outsiders (just about everyone was black and seemed to know each), people were very friendly and we even had a few conversations with the people around us. After breakfast we set out towards the center of town and ended up driving in behind a parade and following it into the heart of the french quarter. We inched our way through crowds and back out of the French Quarter and parked. The area around the French Quarter had the same style buildings, it was just quite run down. To the north of the French Quarter, there were abandoned, collapsing buildings and empty lots. Like a lot of New Orleans, a rough neighborhood.

We wandered around the swarms of people in the French Quarter and ended up by the riverfront. Here the Zulu Krewe (A krewe is a New Orleans social club), the only non-white krewe, was having a fund raiser, with food and a Zydeco band/Mardi Gras tribe, Wild Magnolias. Their music was a combination of funk, soul, and other kinds of music and was quite infectious. The audience were all at least moving to the music. Here we saw the first of the Big Chiefs. The Tribe/Big Chief thing was the poor people's answer to the Krewe's and also as a homage to the Native Americans that helped escaped slaves in New Orleans. A tribe is usually made up of people from the same neighborhood. They started out similar to gangs but have evolved into family-like festivals. Each tribe has a Big Chief, who makes a very elaborate costume that is mainly based on Native American headdresses, beaded breastplates, leggings, etc., but also includes African and New Orleans influences. These outfits are extremely detailed and elaborate and take weeks and thousands of dollars to make. The bulk of the outfit is covered in feathers of a single intense color. The rest is covered with illustrative bead work and mask over the face. All of the Big Chiefs make a new outfit each year. On top of that, often other people, from babies to adults, in the tribe will have costumes on the same theme as their Big Chief's. The tribes parade around the city _all day_. In the afternoon, the meet up and stage ritual battles. These started out in the twenties as real battles between the Big Chiefs with guns and knives, but now they are purely dancing, singing, struting and above all, a competition for the best outfit. This band, the Wild Magnolias was just our first encounter with the Big Chiefs. Mardi Gras is the big day for the Big Chiefs, this band was playing on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday). Later that night, we went to a parade of one of the many Krewes and discovered where all the beads that were scattered about the city were coming from; they throw them by the hands full into the reaching crowds, along with coins, coconuts, and other things.

We ended Lundi Gras by experiencing the tourist version of Mardi Gras: Bourbon Street. Here the event of the evening to for guys to see as many tits as possible by offering beads in exchange for a flash. This seen got quite scary at times because of the sheer speed with which these tightly packed mobs would form. The word that was constantly running through my mind as we walked down Bourbon Street was "lecherous." There were many men who came fully equiped with telephoto cameras, video cameras with bright lights, or just the abundant point-and-shoot. Though I was impressed by the level of honor in these bizarre beads-for-tits exchanges. In all the probably hundreds of flashes that occured, I saw only one instance in which the tit-flasher was touched, and that guy was quickly enveloped into the crowd. I think the guys realized that the women would have to feel quite safe to flash a tightly packed mob of leering guys. On the other end were the women who were not flashing and for the most part they looked like they were not enjoying the scene all that much. I think I can imagine why.

We started Mardi Gras day by finding the place where we thought the Big Chiefs would arrive and found throngs of people. In was the crowds awaiting the Zulu Krewe's parade. So we found some food: spiced turkey necks, jumbalaya, sweet potato pie, beans and rice, and sat in a patch of grass to await the parade. It was then I realized the Dawson and I were the only non-black faces as far as I could see. It made sense, the black Krewe's parade through a black neighborhood. I expected at least some in such a situation. But I felt none. The spirit of Mardi Gras really seems to make people forget about what ill will they were harboring and just get into the spirit of celebration. This parade was also a shower of beads, coins, painted coconuts, and other assorted plastic. The highlight of the parade was when Stevie Wonder arrived on his float as the surprise special guest, throwing assorted plastic, and then stopping to sing a song. I don't think it was anything in particular, he looked caught up in the spirit of Mardi Gras.

At the end of this parade, we saw a few tribes surrounding their Big Chiefs. They were parading through the crowds that had gathered for the Zulu parade. And they kept on going, headed for the main parade strip, Canal Street. After a day of wandering, we headed back to the French Quarter for Mardi Gras night. Bourbon Street had the same beads-for-tits thing going on but it seems that the male contigent had gotten over their voyueristic lust and were beginning to have fun with the situation. For example, one group called out for people to put anything but beads and money into the pile they stood around. Men saw the crowd and assumed it was surrounding another flasher and that the booty pile would go to her. But many stuck around and just got into the ridiculousness of it. Off Bourbon Street was were the more true New Orleans scene was. There were many street musician performing, from those out to make a buck to those who played with great zeal and joy. There were two in particular that we stuck around and watched for a while. The first a trombonist who was incredibly adept and very physical. He played New Orleans jazz kind of music and he could not get away from playing When The Saints at least once. The second guy was a freestyle rapper in a crazy outfit with a big multicolored Cat-In-The-Hat hat. He would ask people in the crowd what their name was and then do a little rap about them. When he got going, he seemed unstoppable. He would manage to throw in all sorts of stuff and all of it in rhyme. The only thing that really stopped him was if someone was slow in giving their name, we had to wait for them. Mardi Gras went on into the night but we had to leave early so we headed out into the bayou, parked and slept.

Now the marathon drive was on. We had to get back by thursday morning at 9am for Dawson's interview and had 1500 miles to go. Even so, we made a few stops. We hit Canton, Miss. and decided to stop in a local grocery store to see what they had to offer. It had all the usual stuff with a few Southern specialties. They had 25 pound buckets of lard, many different kinds of hot sauce for under 50 cents a bottle, pork rinds, a wide assortment of grits, local BBQ sauces and marinaides, and local sodas for 12 cents a can. We stocked up on a few items and set off on the rest of the drive with a hellish drive. We drove all day and through the night. Dawson missed his 9am appointment but made his 10:15, while I was left trying to find parking in Hoboken, NJ. Not too bad once I found Hoboken.

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