The Lenten season is soon upon, which means there is one last chance to kick out the jams this Fat Tuesday, wherever you may be.
In college, six of us got together and rented a motor home and drove to New Orleans for the big event. Mardi Gras coincided with Spring Break so we had the whole week. I had made some t-shirts to celebrate the occasion, bringing a dozen or so along to share with Kappa Sigs at the Tulane chapter house where we parked the Winnebago. It was a week of debauchery highlighted by a night at Tipatina's listening to the Neville Brothers, with special guest the Rebirth Brass Band, eating crayfish etouffee between sets. The Kappa Sigs weren't too interested in the shirts, but we found some lovely ladies who were, letting us enjoy a few cheap thrills. Ah, those were the days!
It is an odd celebration, especially with all those ghoulish Mardi Gras floats and the way mothers will claw each other's eyes out for the beads and other trinkets the krewe members toss out, draping the beads around their small children. We wanted no part of that. We had a jug of vodka and orange juice that we shared between us, and made our way down to the French Quarter.
The image I remember most was some evangelicals purposely dragging huge crosses against the stream of pedestrians on Bourbon St, enduring the abuse that came with it. I guess they knew what was coming at midnight, which took us by surprise. Platoons of cops on horseback, motorbike and eventually on foot with baton clubs in hand, kicking everyone off the streets as Ash Wednesday descended upon the Big Easy. At first we thought it was a joke, but when we saw those batons start being used, we quickly made our way down the allies and back over to the Garden District. The only problem with those fold-out beds is that we were too drunk to pull them out, and just ended up crashing on the sofas of the chapter house.
The Carnival dates back to medieval Europe. It made its way to America with the first French settlers. The first secret society was established in Mobile in 1703, but New Orleans stole the show and made it into their own in the 1730s. The secret societies transformed into krewes, riding in on their garish floats.
New Orleans had long been a bit of a pirate town. Blacks had more social mobility than they had in other parts of the antebellum South, but it wasn't until after the Civil War that they formed their own krewes like the Zulus, who have since been upstaged by the "Mardi Gras Indian Nation," which includes the Wild Tchoupitoulas and the Wild Magnolias. My Indian Red goes back at least as far as 1947, but it was Dr. John who made the song famous. It references quite a few of the tribes.
We never got inside one of the private parties, not that we expected to. You could see the well healed krewes come out on their balconies on Bourbon St. from time to time to look down on the teeming mass below and toss out a few beads. The plastic white pearls were the most coveted. You really had to marvel at what some persons would do to get them.
It's all kind of a fog now, but I like to drift back, especially to that night at Tipitina's, and hear the Neville Brothers reprise the Mardi Gras Mambo, originally sung by Art Neville and the Hawketts.