New Orleans Mardi Gras parades are like nothing else you've ever seen before. Technically, "Mardi Gras" (Fat Tuesday) really only refers to the day before Ash Wednesday (February 9 this year), but the Carnival season leading up to it commences at Twelfth Night (January 6) and continues all the way up to its climax on Fat Tuesday (February 8).
Even if you abhor crowds, it's worth it to see at least one full-blown Mardi Gras parade. You'll be standing on a sidewalk with thousands of other people, listening to the bands and finding it impossible not to jump up and down, if you're too hemmed in to dance. As the floats pass by, the entire crowd starts to roar, as the float riders toss beads, doubloons, cups, and other parade souvenirs to folks on the sidelines. You've never seen such a scramble for plastic beads in your life, but it doesn't take long before you get into the spirit of things and try to catch as many goodies as you can. (At some parades, you can get hand-painted coconuts, spears, condoms, dog biscuits, and so on. More about some of that later.)
The organizations who make all this happen are called Krewes. There are many, many Web sites out there that explain the history of the krewes, their names and origins, and so on. Suffice it to say that some of them have been putting on Mardi Gras parades since the late 19th century. They spend the rest of the year raising money for the parades and floats, the fancy-dress balls and parties, the costumes, and so on. Each Krewe member pays a membership fee (which ranges from a few hundred dollars to several hundred) for a costume, the throws (the stuff they toss to the crowds), tickets to the Krewe ball, and so on.
Each Krewe has a name (Rex, Endymion, Zulu, Isis, and so on), and each individual parade during Carnival season is sponsored by a Krewe. Oftentimes, a Krewe will invite a celebrity to be the Grand Marshall of its parade. This year, Sean Astin (Sam from "Lord of the Rings") is the marshall for the Bacchus parade. Last year, Elijah Wood held that honor, and he will ride in this year's parade with Sean.)
(By the way, Elijah and his sister have two Bearded Collies. They rock!)
These days, almost all of the parades roll outside of the French Quarter, since the big floats have a lot of difficulty navigating the Quarter's narrow streets. However, a few parades that are smaller in scale, without the larger floats, still roll within the Quarter.
Jody and I always plan to be in town for our favorite parade, the Mystic Krewe of Barkus parade. Barkus is an official New Orleans Krewe, and its parade rolls right through the French Quarter. It's the one Mardi Gras parade for dogs and their owners, and it's just a hoot. (It's also a very family-friendly parade, and some people bring their dogs to watch it as other dogs march in it.) Proceeds from the pre-parade ball and parade registrations go to the LA SPCA (and perhaps some other dog rescue charities as well).
Barkus gets bigger and better every year. This year, the parade theme was "Hairy Pawter and the Sorcerer's Bone," so a number of the dogs and the people were dressed as characters from "Harry Potter." One of my favorites was the dog dressed up as Fluffy, the three-headed dog from "Sorcerer's Stone," with two extra stuffed heads. There were dog dragons, a number of dog Harry Potters with glasses, big dogs, little dogs, purebreds, mixed breeds, and... one pretty Beardie girl! My friends who live in the city were there with their miniature Dachshund, Chester. Chester looked very handsome in his jester collar in Mardi Gras colors (purple, gold, and green).
Oh, yes -- they do throw beads and goodies at Barkus parades. I usually catch a pretty good supply of beads, and have also caught dog biscuits (including one covered with green glitter), squeaky toys, rubber and plastic footballs, and other goodies as well. This year, Greg even caught a red-white-and-blue football from the Coast Guard "float." Considering he spent 12 years in the Coast Guard and Coastie Reserve, it seemed fitting.
A couple of years ago, I caught a rubber dog poo at the Barkus parade. I laughed like heck, tucked it into my purse, and immediately forgot about it.
About a month later, I had to fly out of Portland on my way to Phoenix. I went through Security, and they determined that nothing I was wearing was dangerous to the safety of the flight. So far, so good.
The inspectors saw nothing wrong with my carry-on, but they did feel the need to go through my purse. The inspector who examined my purse looked at the PDA and cell phone, the car keys, and so on. Satisfied but not finished, he continued to dig deeper. Out came the collection of highlighters, the feminine products, the one or two matchbooks, and... the rubber dog poo.
The inspector looked at the poo, then at me, then at the poo again. "Thank you. You may go." I might have been imagining this, but I thought I saw him wipe his hand on his trousers after he left me to restuff my bag.
Raining on My Parade
Jody and I were window-shopping on Royal Street last week (Greg was already off on his own mercantile-therapy adventures), when we saw a number of costumed folks emerging from the Court of Two Sisters across the street. Transfixed, we stopped to take in the scene, as more and more people in increasingly magnificent costumes came out of the restaurant entrance and proceeded to assemble a parade right in front of us. There were Vikings, Kings and Queens, goddesses, brides, '20s gangsters, hippies, monks in habits, courtiers with plumed hats and velvet cloaks, elegantly dressed modern ladies and gentlemen... and the one thing they all had in common was that they carried full wine glasses. Many of them wore grapevine wreaths, or had grapes fastened to their costumes or shoes. They even had a small brass band.
It turns out that this was the parade for the unofficial Krewe of Cork, the wine-lovers' Krewe. One of the members handed us Krewe of Cork beads, which had wine bottles and a Krewe medallion on them. (I've heard that there's a rule that you may not throw things to the crowd before the parade rolls, but apparently there's no such prohibition against nicely handing stuff to a few people.)
We watched as the Krewe members set off past us down Royal Street. No sooner did they all start rolling than the skies opened, and a horrendous monsoon of a rainstorm pounded down upon our heads. We pulled up our hoods and ducked into a doorway under a balcony. We couldn't help but feel worry for the Krewe, though -- all those plumes were ruined, the velvets soaked and weighing down their wearers. Some of the brides were carrying parasols, but even they wouldn't have had much protection. What a shame!
That's the chance the Krewes take with the capricious late-January weather, though. Parades sometimes do get postponed because of rain. (To the locals, this means another day of redirected traffic and blocked-off streets.) Because the Carnival season is shorter in years when Lent comes early, there are fewer opportunities to reschedule parades due to bad weather, so people keep an eye on the weather reports and hope they can still roll.