Archive for March 8th, 2011

The celebration of Mardi Gras is an episode that never becomes stale to the people of the city, however monotonous the description or even the enumeration of its entertainments appears to strangers. –  Grace King

Today is Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday”; in other parts of Christendom it is referred to as Shrove Tuesday.  Its name is derived from the fact that it is the last day before the solemn fasting season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and was thus celebrated in Catholic countries with the feasting, drinking and general tomfoolery which eventually grew into Carnival (itself derived from the Old Italian carne levare, “taking meat away”).  As we discussed before, the Carnival season begins on January 6th and ends on Fat Tuesday, and though there were parties, feasts and celebrations all through that time they were especially frequent in the last few days, culminating in the grand party on Mardi Gras.

In New Orleans, Carnival is the season of balls and parades, with the largest number in the preceding week (during which there is a parade nearly every night and even in the daytime on Saturday and Sunday).  But on Mardi Gras, all normal activities cease and the city is thronged with crowds of merrymakers and parade-goers; some major streets are given over to parades and many smaller ones nearby are impassable due to crowds, so anyone wishing to drive in needs to plan his route through areas unaffected by parades, then park his car and walk the rest of the way.  Now that I live in a part of the country where the holiday is unknown except as “something they have in New Orleans”, it always feels strange to me to go into town on Fat Tuesday and see businesses open as usual.

Those unfamiliar with New Orleans often fail to realize that there are really two separate and distinct ways to celebrate the day.  The first is of course attending parades; these run through the wide boulevards of Uptown, Mid-City and the suburbs and the attendees are mostly families, groups of teenagers, organizations from out of town, etc.  The attendees are largely dressed normally and most of them tend to remain in one spot all day while the parades pass by.  They usually bring food and ice chests and enjoy watching the floats, listening to the school marching bands and catching trinkets hurled by float riders.  An attractive woman watching a parade always gets the best stuff, including special keepsakes otherwise reserved for the riders’ friends;  a rider who wishes to bestow such a gift will generally catch the eye of the lady, beckon her near the float while it is momentarily stopped, then gently drop the prize into her open hands.  Otherwise, the baubles are hurled hither and yon to anyone who can catch them.

But the other celebration is a different thing entirely; it is confined to the French Quarter (especially Bourbon Street) and is strictly an adult event.  The majority of attendees wear costumes ranging from the elaborate to the makeshift and from the innocent to the vulgar, and it’s rare to see anyone not drinking.  The crowds are so tight that most women either travel in groups or with male escorts because otherwise one can literally be trapped by the press of bodies and unable to extricate oneself easily.  It’s not dangerous really, but an attractive woman needs to resign herself to the occasional grope if she ventures into such crowds alone.  Here as at the parades a woman easily attracts gifts from strange men, usually the nicer “long beads” caught at parades attended earlier in the day but sometimes even stuffed animals or the like.

The quickest way to attract such largesse is, as I have said before, to display one’s mammae; shy ladies are often egged on with cries of “show your tits!” and I’ve often been amazed at the buttoned-up types who will sometimes acquiesce to the repeated urging, caught up in the wild joy of the day.  But what amazes me even more are the hopeless prudes who moan, “how can women expose themselves for plastic beads?”  These lost souls cannot comprehend that one shows one’s tits for the pure enjoyment of it, and the beads are just the spectators’ way of saying “thank you!” Many girls (myself among them) don’t even bother with much of what’s offered, and some go about all day exposed but covered with body paint.  Unfortunately, the pagan debauchery of the holiday also tends to attract egotistical Christian fanatics who can’t resist using the opportunity to call attention to themselves with signs and bullhorns condemning the “sinners”.  C’est la vie.

Carnival season is the busiest one for the whores of New Orleans; not only are there more visitors at this time than any other, but even the locals tend to be in a festive mood and therefore more willing to treat themselves to filles de joie.  But Fat Tuesday itself presents quite the challenge for escorts; it can take a long time to get from place to place and many of the would-be clients are so inebriated by the time they call that they pass out before the girl can arrive.  During the day I eschewed my usual dresses and pumps for jeans and sneakers, and enjoyed running around the Quarter taking in the sights and displaying my charms.  I don’t recall ever getting a good call during the day, but the night was different for a reason which requires a few words of explanation.

Remember, the Catholic Church was always very powerful in New Orleans, and though it was willing to allow the excesses of Carnival for reasons we’ve discussed before, it would not tolerate the sin of such celebration on Ash Wednesday.  So from the very beginning, the city has cleared the Vieux Carré at the stroke of midnight on Fat Tuesday; in modern times, this takes the form of a literal wall of cops moving at walking speed down Bourbon Street, asking people to go home and taking immobile drunks to jail.  Directly behind them comes a massive street-cleaning machine which performs the miraculous feat of clearing literally tons of garbage from the street, leaving scrubbed, wet pavement in its wake; once the cops reach the end of Bourbon they spread out in groups to clear the less-densely-thronged other parts of the Quarter.  And once the revelers reach their homes and hotels, the phones of escort services start to ring and never let up until morning.

Alas, Carnival is not what it once was; Hurricane Katrina accelerated a cultural degeneration which was already underway for years.  Some Krewes (Carnival clubs) now sell seats on their floats to wealthy Yankee tourists, and most of the balcony-equipped buildings on Bourbon Street are owned or leased by big corporations so their guests can look down on the revelers; these package deals usually even include throws so this carpetbagger Carnival nobility doesn’t need to bother with it.  But the die-hard Carnival enthusiast never lets interlopers, whether equipped with bullhorns and placards or with beads and balconies, interfere with his enjoyment of one of the last large-scale pagan festivals left in the increasingly sanitized and homogenized United States.

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