What REALLY Happens at Mardi Gras
As one of the Cleopatra floats rolled by, I extended my hands and tried to box out the competition. I wanted those damn beads. All of them. As many as I could get my hands on. I wanted to hoard them with a Scrooge McDuck-level of avarice. Why? That’s not important. All I knew was at this point, I was pure id, and all I wanted were those beads. Maybe another beer, too.
The crowd waved. We yelled. I took stock of my competition–children on the right, some sitting on their dads’ shoulders. That’s no good. On the left? A throng of pretty girls, likely from nearby Tulane or Loyola. They’d get some attention, too. But at least I was tall. And at least I was drunk in public. And that had to count for something, right?
The people on the float wore bright costumes and masks, some not dissimilar to those bird-nosed plague masks. One of them tossed a handful of beads in my general direction. I reached out, but I missed them by this much. They hit the pavement by my feet with a heartbreaking clatter, and, seeing as they were right there, I bent down to pick them up.
That’s when I caught my tour guides, staring at me like I’d committed some kind of cultural faux pas.
“If you don’t catch them, leave them” said one, “there’s a code.”
He was right. There’s an entire code and culture to this holiday that you’d never know if you just went by TV shows and movies. Quite the contrary. Mardi Gras is (or “Carnival”), in fact, nothing at all like you’d expect.
But I should back up a second. Let me ask: what do you think of when you try to imagine Mardi Gras? To be blunt–do you think of women flashing everyone for beads? Hurricane and hand grenade cocktails served out of yard-long novelty drinking vessels? Crowds? Vomit? I know you do. I know this because everyone I told about this trip asked me about one or more of these (the concerned look on my girlfriend’s face when I returned with a gross of beads was some kind of wonderful). But here’s the thing–you can find all of this during Mardi Gras only if you go looking for it (specifically, one street. And you know the street I’m talking about). And if you don’t believe me, consider this: if the only way to get beads is by exposing yourself in public–where do the beads come from in the first place?
Here’s what happens during Mardi Gras: you watch parades. Two in a row, usually. If it’s during the day time, then you head home, and rest up (or, keep drinking. Your call.) Then you come back out for the evening parades. And that’s it.
But it goes deeper than that. Way deeper. And if you don’t know a little bit about the history, the culture, and–of course–the “code,” then you’ll be picked out as a tourist in a heartbeat.
If you’re a football fan, you might have heard that Drew Brees was named the King of Bacchus in 2009. If you’re not from New Orleans or have never attended Carnival, then you have no idea what this means. But this is very, very significant. Allow me to explain:
The Mardi Gras parades are hosted by clubs known as “Krewes.” Some of these Krewes have existed for well over 100 years. The Krewes–each with fantastical names like Bacchus, Cleopatra, Sparta, Chaos, Muses, etc.–vary in terms of popularity, population, and, almost assuredly–power. Every parade starts with the “King” or “Queen” of that particular Krewe, followed by their court, followed by other floats that typically represent a set theme for the year. For Drew Brees to be named the King (#1 float) of Bacchus (one of the three largest, most popular Krewes) was akin to, say, the star QB of a huge regional high school getting named homecoming king, but multiplied by infinity. For Drew Brees to accept that honor in the year the Saints won the Super Bowl? That’s about as big as it gets.
How can you join a Krewe? Easy. Just pay the dues (which can be several thousand dollars a year) and wait a few years or more until you get yourself off the waiting list. Think of it almost like a country club.
Now, depending on the size of the Krewe and the dues charged, understandably, some parades are more crowded and popular than others. Put another way, if each Krewe was a metaphor for a Major League Baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays would be marching on day one. Meanwhile, the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, Cubs and Giants would be marching on the final day. Crowds are accordingly heavier in the final days of Mardi Gras.
So what exactly do these Krewes do? They build huge, elaborate floats, and they throw all sorts of swag at you. What kind of swag? Well…
…for one. Yep–this is where your beads come from. Every float on every parade will throw beads all along the some four-odd miles of the parade route. If you’re a child, a pretty lady, or a tall person, you’ve got a better chance at catching them. Now, there’s a definite hierarchy to the bead system: the larger the baubles, and the longer the string–the better. Bonus points if you get something truly unique (I caught a much coveted strand with chili-peppers on it). Specific Krewes will also make their own beads. On my first day, we saw the Krewe of Oshun chucking old Bacchus beads from 2009. Again, to use the baseball metaphor, this would be like the Pittsburgh Pirates handing out “San Francisco Giants–2012 World Series Champions!” for their fan day. Very poor form.
And everyone wants them. Everyone. It sounds a little silly, but when you see grown men and women making Calvin Johnson-esque grabs for these things, you can’t help but compete. Especially in the later parades, when each person riding on a float is likely to have spent thousands on plastic beads, only to essentially shovel them out into the crowds for a stretch of four miles.
As for acquiring the beads themselves, there’s a very strict set of unspoken laws here. These include:
- After the beads are thrown from the float, feel free to keep any that you can catch.
- If you miss any beads–leave them where they lay (the sound of plastic clattering on the pavement quickly becomes the most heartbreaking sound you’ve ever heard)
- If beads land in the trees–leave them. They usually stay in the tree all year
- Anyone picking up beads from the ground is probably a tourist
- It’s sort of ok to pick up dropped beads if they’re really, really cool or really, really rare. People will usually look the other way for this one. Usually.
- The closer beads are to the center of the street, the more verboten they are (let’s just say that the folks riding in the floats don’t have port-o-johns on the float. They have more of a tube into the streets. Consider yourself warned).
Now. Can you exchange these for a quick flash of a lady’s unmentionables? Eh. Sure. I guess. But really only around Bourbon Street. During my visit, we mostly kept ourselves in and around the (beautiful, breathtaking) Garden District. There were kids and strollers and everything. Meanwhile, a little closer to the French Quarter, we did see one woman do this. This led to a family across the street complaining to a nearby police officer. After all, their kids were right there.
Not what you’d expect, huh?
So, each parade is run by a Krewe with, let’s say, 16-26 elaborate floats. But there’s a good amount of space between each float. So what fills up the time in between? Everyone from shriners in tiny cars to (literally) world-class marching bands (such as the much-celebrated local favorite St. Augustine’s) to dance troupes and everything in between.
Some of these groups, however, have risen above the fray to achieve a cult-like status in the city. One such group are the usually-pudgy, oft-mustached gentlemen known as the “610 Stompers” (610, of course, being an offshoot if Interstate 10). These gentlemen are so popular that they appear in calendars, crosswalk warnings to look both ways, and even in Halloween costumes. Their motto is–seriously–“Ordinary men. Extraordinary moves.” They treat dancing the way that Andrew WK treats partying. The whole concept is so marvelously hysterical that it makes me want to quit comedy.
I asked my tour guides what one would need to do to acquire one of the Stompers’ official baseball shirts. Again, with the look of disdain like I farted in church:
“You have to join the Stompers. There’s an audition and everything. You can’t just buy a shirt.”
The Stompers are, unequivocally, the most popular group that marches in these parades, but they’re not alone. I have it on good authority, for instance, that when parades stall for any amount of time, impromptu dance parties are known to break out with the Pussyfooters. I don’t know if I’m actually allowed to print that.
The Go Cup
Now, even though Carnival isn’t the Girls Gone Wild kind of hullabaloo you thought, that’s not to say you shouldn’t stay well lubricated. Luckily, the road soda is something of a way of life in New Orleans. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to The Go Cup.
Go Cups are essentially the Holy Grails of New Orleans. If you’ve never been, allow me to explain: you can drink beer anywhere you want in New Orleans, as long as it’s in a can or a plastic cup. Businesses acquiesce to this by keeping their bars fully stocked with plastic Go Cups (not “To Go” cups. You order a beer to go, or a beer in a go cup. Don’t confuse those). And why wouldn’t they? They make a sale without losing a seat at the bar. Not only that, but heavens, does this make the temptation for a bar crawl a terrible thing.
So keep this–all of this–in mind when I say this:
Mardi Gras is just standing around watching parades.
It’s actually sipping on an ice-cold beer at 6 in the evening in 70-degree weather, making a play for more beads than your friends. The Krewe of Oshun isn’t throwing very many, but hey, Cleopatra is next, and they’ve usually got some generous floats. At one point, you go to make a grab, but you see a little girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders right next to you, so you let them get it. Next time. Whatever, that was a small, stupid strand that wasn’t even purple, green or gold, anyway. Just then, you see the Stompers coming down the street, and the crowd becomes noticeably more energetic. The Stompers are stone-faced, serious, and sweating to some familiar 70s funk tune, with an army of “reserve” dancers walking behind them. Right around then, you drain your Go Cup, and head back into the bar for another. Later on, you’re headed over to Frenchman Street (where the best live music in New Orleans is) for some tunes. Before then, maybe a cheap appetizer at one of chef John Besh’s restaurants. After all, this is New Orleans, “Where the celebrities are chefs and trombone players,” says one of my friends.
Now, that’s the schedule for just one day. Imagine that for 10 days spread out over two weeks.
It’s magical and exhausting and nonstop and in many ways, it’s ruined every other event and every other city for me. And even worse, I’ll never be able to properly enjoy a regular parade ever again.
My advice to you? Don’t rely on a vicarious article like this. Go see it for yourself firsthand.
And stay away from the French Quarter.
Brian Cullen really, really enjoys robots but doesn’t understand how they work. He also enjoys drinking beers, and has a pretty solid understanding of how that works. You can read about his musings about both on Twitter @BucketCullen.
Brian would trade all his beads to see Danielle Fishel prove him correct in Topanganza! Our Predictions for ‘Girl Meets World’ and got deeper into this N’awlins thing with You the Man, Drew Brees.