The sound was deafening. Thousands milled in the streets, on the sidewalks, hanging from trees, and sitting in balconies. This was Halloween on steroids. THE most outrageous costumes I ever saw were parading before me. Feathered headdresses 5-feet high, semi-naked people with bountiful body paint, a man dressed as a crystal ball reader, complete with table and chair wrapped around him, a woman dressed as a crystal chandelier, were only a few examples of what I saw. Alcohol was plentiful, even at 9 a.m. I plugged in my earplugs … the level was over 100 decibels for sure. Brass bands marched feet from where I stood. I was in the midst of a full-blown Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
I hadn’t intended to find myself in the middle of this. I came to New Orleans to assist my daughter’s move into her new house. But it seems the duty of a resident of New Orleans is to ensure that visitors experience this holiday, (that seems to span six weeks), at least once.
Folks in NOLA take their parades very seriously. People prepare for their parade for the entire year. Very club like, a major social sense of camaraderie fuels the effort. Over 41 parades are scheduled in the city, each with its own theme. We saw the Muses parade, which snaked through the street, some floats three stories high. Laden with costumed people, the riders threw beads, stuffed animals, hula-hoops and all manner of container-delivered schwag from China. And … many parades have a signature object that is usually hand-painted or decorated. In the case of the Muses, it was a shoe that glittered with festive sparkle. As a float drifted by, people started yelling, SHOE, SHOE, SHOE. To be the recipient of this shoe is apparently, a coveted experience.
Suddenly, I felt something strike my forehead. While I was assessing the damage, my son picked the object up off the ground. THE SHOE! I had intercepted the shoe with my head. People cheered. The egg forming on my head was testament to my inadvertent effort.
The next day we attended the Nomtok parade, a more neighborly one on the west bank of the Mississippi. By 6 a.m., people were already setting up a 5-mile tailgate party, with crawfish boils, barbeque and plenty of liquid refreshment. High school bands, buffalo soldiers on horseback, high steppers and an amazing array of glittering and feathered majorettes were featured here.
The final day of my parade going, we saw the St. Anne’s parade, heavily supported by the Rainbow coalition, and ended the day with the Zulu parade, which featured feathered riders, and the coveted signature item, a decorated coconut. I happened to be the recipient of a coconut as well, but in a different manner this time. (No head involved.)
As I approached my Zulu parade viewing spot, I noticed a tall man with his back to the parade. He seemed to be caring for a young man in a wheel chair. As I looked at his face, he radiated a sense of boundless serenity. He had the kindest face I have ever seen on a human being. He was calm and in command of his space, even though immersed in a throng of celebrating humanity. He spoke to people, and as a tall man, he was the recipient of coconuts, which he distributed to those of us around him. A former member of the Zulu parade for 30 years, he was now retired from it.
Coming back to my daughter’s neighborhood on the Mississippi ferry, I allowed the different images of Mardi Gras to flow through me. Flashes of color, sparkle, flowing silks, all manner of dancing, the sounds of bands and moving DJs floated past my mind’s eye. But, the strongest enduring memory is that of the kind face, looking over the crowd with a smile, hope, and love for all of humanity.