Mardi Gras (3)
It’s Monday morning, the day before Mardi Gras. You’re staggering under the weight of beads, and though a small voice tells you that you’ve lost it, mostly you believe that you look really cool. You’ve yelled yourself hoarse at the parades, danced till dawn for nights on end to the best live music on earth, swigged too many local cocktails and stuffed yourself on crawfish and gumbo. You’re secretly yearning for some rest before the big day. But as any partygoer worth their salt knows, the fun is only just beginning – Lundi Gras is one of the most feverish days of the season. From mid-morning, the city’s top musicians, most of whom will have been gigging till daybreak for the past fortnight, play at Zulu’s free party on the banks of the Mississippi. At last you can lie down for a bit, close your eyes in the sun and doze off to some down-home R&B, blues and jazz. Grab a plate of fried chicken and a cold beer, and you’ll find that life doesn’t get any better. At 5pm, it’s time to leap up again and rush off to see Zulu’s king and queen arrive by boat, at the Canal Street Wharf. Don’t ask why you have to do this; you just do. When they’ve safely disembarked and waved at you, their subjects, everyone heads around the corner to the Plaza d’Espana, where, in a formal ceremony, unchanged since Rex first flounced onto the scene more than a century ago, the mayor hands the city to the “King of Carnival”. The ensuing party – whiter than Zulu’s, with more families and tourists – continues with music and fireworks, after which people head off to the Orpheus parade or to yet another evening of live music.
The fun starts early on Mardi Gras itself: walking clubs, made up of local musicians, writers and sundry lowlife, stride through uptown on ritualized bar crawls. Meanwhile, the Mardi Gras Indians prepare for their afternoon standoffs. The Zulu parade, scheduled to set off at 8.30am but usually starting much later, heads from uptown to Canal Street, the float-riders daubed in war paint and dressed in grass skirts. The Rex parade, dominated since its debut by the “Boeuf Gras”, a colossal, blue, papier-mache bull, hits Canal Street in the afternoon.
Ironically, by the time Rex arrives, most people are through with the official parades. The wildest parties are going on in the French Quarter – which is teeming with masked locals, bead-strung tourists, tit-flashing teens, strutting drag divas, and banner-carrying Baptists preaching hellfire and damnation – and the Faubourg Marigny, where the artists and creatives dance (literally) to a different drum. Though it’s best to do as most people do, and drift spontaneously through the maelstrom, there are a couple of high points to know about. The Krewe of St Anne walking parade, a surreal procession of the most extraordinary costumes, sets off from the Marigny, a low-rent, arty area downriver from the French Quarter, weaves through the Faubourg Marigny and arrives in the Quarter at about noon. Anyone is welcome to prance through the streets with them; you’ll fit in best if your costume is risque, fancy or creative. Meanwhile, the flamboyant gay costume competition known as the Bourbon Street Awards gets going at noon. This is one for the spectators, really, unless you’re a drag queen who has just happened to wander by in a twenty-foot- high sequinned ensemble. Late afternoon, everyone heads to the Faubourg Marigny Street Party, which is ablaze with costumed dancers and drummers in a scene as irreverent and skewed as you can imagine. The fun continues throughout the streets and bars until midnight, when mounted police sweep through Bourbon Street declaring through megaphones that Mardi Gras is over. Don’t think they’re joking. Many bars do stay open later, but most people, masks askew, are drifting off home by lam. Like all good Catholic cities, New Orleans takes Carnival very seriously. Midnight marks the imminence of Lent, and repentance must begin.