Mardi Gras (2)
The build up
More than sixty krewes organize official parades during Carnival, most of them over the two weekends before Mardi Gras itself. Though they’re held all over the city, the biggest ones head downtown and attract hundreds of thousands of people. Following routes of up to seven miles, they can take three hours to pass, their multi-tiered floats joined by the city’s famed high-school marching bands, whose ear-splitting blast °f brass and drums can be heard for miles, along with weirdly masked horsemen, stilt-walkers and, of course, second liners ~ dancers and passers-by who informally Join the procession.
Marvelling at the best floats and bitching about the lame ones is part of the fun, but most people are here to do more than just watch: everyone is here to catch “throws” – strings of plastic beads, fluffy toys, beakers, knickers, tin coins, CDs, whatever, hurled by the towering float-riders into the crowd. Competition is fierce, and the float-riders milk the crowd for all it’s worth, taunting and jeering back at them. Throws vary in worth: bright, cheap strings of beads are the most common, while the customized coconuts thrown by the Zulu krewe are the most prized. You’ll haul most booty at the excessive super-krewe parades, when plastic-bagfuls of fat, shiny beads and a rainstorm of gifts shower the streets.
Visitors who don’t fancy scrabbling on the sidewalk for plastic medallions can pay for places on stands, often linked to a hotel or restaurant, where $10 or so gets you good views and a prime throw-catching position. In the less crowded areas outside downtown, families colonize the sidewalk with picnic boxes, folding chairs and stepladders. Good viewing areas include Canal Street, which sees the densest crowds, and St Charles Avenue, where there’s more of a local, family scene. Remember when staking your place that parades always set off late _ sometimes by as much as two hours. While the free-flowing beer and cocktails (New Orleans is the one city in the US where it’s legal to drink on the streets) help pass the time, be warned: public toilets don’t exist, and during Carnival local bars and restaurants charge noncustomers to use theirs.
After the parades have rumbled past, throw-fever continues citywide – among tourists, anyway – in a ritual whereby complete strangers, already weighed down with beads, stagger through the streets and attempt to get what they can from necklace-laden fellow revellers – showing their tits, dropping their trousers, whatever it takes to get another string of beads. The most frenzied action takes place on Bourbon Street – a tacky strip at the best of times, and sheer mayhem during Mardi Gras – where girls on packed-out balconies tease the baying street mobs below into a frenzy. It’s Carnival at its raunchiest, basest, worst and best. Though the police make halfhearted attempts every now and again to clamp down on these antics, no one can be bothered to get very worked up about it. New Orleanians, of course, who rarely venture into Bourbon Street in any case, leave this stuff to the tourists.