The city of New Orleans probably could exist without Mardi Gras. But there really wouldn’t be much point.
Tuesday is Fat Tuesday — or in French, Mardi Gras — and that means one of the longest Carnival seasons in living memory wraps up today in New Orleans.
But Mardi Gras is only the last day of a pre-Lenten season the locals call Carnival, a season which, depending on the lunar calendar, can last from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, as it has this year.
Mardi Gras Day features two main parades. The Krewe of Zulu rolls in the morning. The Krewe of Rex rolls in the afternoon.
As anyone in New Orleans will tell you, parades in this town don’t march. They “roll.”
It’s not a casual choice of words.
But there’s a lot more to Mardi Gras than just Mardi Gras. Because in truth, there’s more than one.
There’s the tourist Mardi Gras, the one that visitors treat as a hall pass to act out all their Animal House fantasies — until some NOPD cop reminds them, at times rather forcefully, that even New Orleans has its limits.
There’s the high-brow Mardi Gras, the one that drips and reeks of money and privilege, the one into which you can only be born, or maybe buy your way into. This is the original Mardi Gras, the one first created by and exclusively for the city’s well-to-do. Entry into this world is by invitation only.
Then there’s the “other” Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras of neighborhoods and second lines and Mardi Gras Indians, likw the one pictured here. The Mardi Gras of tambourines, feathered “flags” and gilded coconuts. The one that has given Mardi Gras most of its traditions, most of its energy and most of its identity.
The black Mardi Gras.
To truly understand that one, you need to understand what goes on in New Orleans the other 50 weeks or so of the year. This is a city in which race and class entwine around one other like a pair of snakes, strangling the hope from thousands who call “the NOLA” home.
If your wallet is thinner than a pizza crust and your skin darker than a paper grocery bag, New Orleans may not have a whole lot of use for you.
These days, for the most part, New Orleans is too gentile and sophisticated to tell you that to your black face, but it manages to get the message across, just the same.
Those too long on the receiving end of that message seek shelter from the pain wherever they can find it — the pew of a church, the bottom of a liquor bottle, the smoke from improvised crack pipe. Others just take out their rage and frustration on one another. The courts, the cops and the coroner keep score.
It was that way long before Hurricane Katrina, and in to many respects, little has changed.
So from whence, then, comes all this exuberance, all this energy and creativity, all this celebration?
Undearneath all the joy is a lot of defiance.
When the originators of Mardi Gras forbade black folks from showing themselves on Canal Street or St. Charles Avenue when those wealthy and for-whites-only krewes were on parade, the folks in New Orleans’ black ghettos created their own Carnival, in their own neighborhoods.
In place of silk and rhinestones, their “costumes” might have been made from burlap and bedsheets, turkey feathers scrounged from a butcher shop and bits of broken glass. Instead of linen tablecloths, fine china and soup tureens, there were barbecue grills, paper plates and gumbo pots.
They hit the streets and they did their thing, without sheet music, route maps or parade permits from the police department.
In so doing, they built a folk culture unique in America. In spite of poverty, in spite of prejudice, in spite of everything.
Things are a bit more organized these days, the “suits” a lot more elaborate and wildly more expensive. But the energy, the passion, the pride, the musical genius, are all “same as it ever was.”
And people from all the world converge on New Orleans every year to get a taste of it.
Those in charge of drawing tourists and conventions to New Orleans will tell you that Mardi Gras is America’s ultimate celebration of life — that’s true, and if you live along St. Charles or Napoleon Avenue avenues or in the Lakeview district.
if you live on Washington Street or Jackson Avenue or LaSalle or in the Tremé, or any of its equivalents in the Ninth Ward, you don’t celebrate life. You celebrate in spite of life.
Mardi Gras is how black New Orleans gives the finger to life.
Proudly, loudly, and sometimes even with a smile.
That is the spirit that will propel New Orleans today, and get it through the other 364 days of the year.
And the year after that.
And the year after that.
That is how this city rolls.
A TASTE OF MARDI GRAS
If you can’t be in New Orleans to enjoy Mardi Gras Day in person, you can still get some of the flavor of the event via the Web.
A dozen parades will close out Carnival 2011 — four in New Orleans and eight in its suburbs. The two major parades of the day — and the ones you’re most likely to be televised outside of New Orleans — are Zulu and Rex.
Zulu always rolls first, at 8:15 a.m., followed by Rex at 10 a.m.
By far, the best radio station to hear the music of Mardi Gras is New Orleans’ own WWOZ. If you have a Mac, just open your iTunes, look under the Library menu and click on Radio, then pull down the Jazz stations list. That’s where you’ll find WWOZ. If you don’t have iTunes, or just want to see everything the station is up to, go to the WWOZ Web site.
Naturally, they’re also on Facebook and Twitter (isn’t everyone?).
Their studios are located in Louis Armstrong Park, site of the old Congo Square, where slaves would get together on Sundays to sing, dance, share stories and briefly forget about their servitude (the French gave their slaves Sundays off).
The Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, nola.com, has Paradecams that stream live video of Mardi Gras along St. Charles Avenue through the Garden District, as well recorded video of earlier parades.
It also carries the entire parade schedule for every day of Carnival. Something to remember for 2012.
Some TV stations around the country, including PBS stations, broadcast Mardi Gras Day parades live, of only for 30 minutes to an hour or so. Check with stations in your area or look for live Mardi Gras broadcasts from New Orleans on your favorite search engine.
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