I recently talked about Mardi Gras with Millie Ball, former travel editor of the Times-Picayune. She’s also a former Carnival queen (and, for real, the only one in New Orleans history to marry her king!).
Lea: This year Mardi Gras is February 16. With the pandemic still going on, how New Orleans is dealing with it?
Millie: There will be no parades this year because of Covid. New Orleanians are resilient though, and there still will be Mardi Gras cocktails and king cakes. And people are decorating the fronts of their houses to resemble floats! Some have even have hired float designers. There are official maps. and websites like the Krewe of House Floats. It sounds like an idea that will stick, even after the pandemic.
Tell me about a typical Mardi Gras celebration.
Well, Carnival, with a capital C lasts from the 12th night after Christmas (January 6) through Mardi Gras, 40 days before Easter. Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday,” the last bash before Lent begins the next day, Ash Wednesday. Carnival parades start two weekends before Mardi Gras.
Most New Orleanians are fluent in Carnival-speak. For example, a cousin would tell me, “I’m riding Chaos, fourth float, second position, neutral ground side.”
He’s a member of a men’s krewe, a private club called Chaos, sponsoring a parade and/or ball, and will be the second masked or costumed person on the fourth float, left side if you’re walking in the same direction as it “rolls” (another word) through the street. If he were on the right, he would say he’s on the “sidewalk side.”
New Orleanians call all street medians “neutral grounds.” Streetcars run on the neutral ground of St. Charles Avenue, which is part of the traditional route of Carnival parades. We always refer to the left side of the float as the neutral ground side even on streets where there is none.
I think I got that. What about getting throws from floats?
“Throws,” are the generic name for the beads, stuffed animals, toys, doubloons, plastic cups and whatever is big that Carnival season that members buy to pitch to the crowds, called “revelers.” Friends and family members tell you where they’re riding in a parade so you’ll know when and where to scream their names, your arms outstretched to snap them up.
Can’t they just give them to you in advance?
That’s no fun. Someone could have given the “throws” before the parade, but it only really counts if you catch it at a parade. If “riders” or costumed “maskers” on a Carnival float, want to let a friend know which float they’re on, they’ll give the details so that friends can scream their names and the maskers will throw them all sorts of stuff.
There are a few exceptions to advance gifting — coveted throws like decorated coconuts from the Zulu krewe, creative purses from Nyx and glitter-covered shoes from Muses.
Where’s the best spot to see the parade?
I like watching parades along St. Charles Avenue near Napoleon Avenue. But many pack Canal Street, and afterward the French Quarter.
Regarding the pandemic and the house floats, New Orleans seems to take hits and build back better, to borrow a phrase.
Yes, New Orleans was hit by a fire in 1788 that flattened 80% of the French Quarter. A yellow fever epidemic in 1853 killed 8,600, and 41,000 more between 1817 and 1905. And of course there have been multiple hurricanes.
On Aug. 29, 2005, levees broke under the weight of Hurricane Katrina and flooded New Orleans for miles between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. The disaster killed about 1,500 people in Louisiana. Some in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere said our city shouldn’t be rebuilt. Parts of the city are below sea level, and they deemed it doomed.
But New Orleans came back.
New Orleanians don’t quit. Three months after Katrina, Ricky Graham, a popular playwright-actor, opened “I’m Still Here, Me!” The show ran a year. Audiences cheered when he walked onstage wearing a hat shaped like a roof covered by a blue tarp. Now he has a socially-distanced Mardi-Gras musical comedy called “And the Ball and All.”
What about other New Orleans festivals going on?
Come anytime, and you’ll find a festival; there usually are 135 annually. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the most revered — and crowded.
He compares Bourbon Street to Mardi Gras — “Both are spontaneous, bottom-up phenomena, without organizational element ….We’re a place that celebrates pleasure and turns a blind eye.”
So fun all year, even in a pandemic?
Yes. Frenchmen Street is where to go for local music. Many of the clubs have been closed during pandemic. But we still wave white handkerchiefs in celebration, whether it’s at a concert by New Orleans’ “Queen of Soul” Irma Thomas, a winning Saints game, or as part of a second line, which refers to anyone marching or dancing behind the first line of family or members of an organization and musicians playing as they walk. The tradition started with funerals of African Americans. We’re just masked and more careful.
The French Quarter is the year-round center of celebration, yes?
Sooner or later everyone ends up in the French Quarter, walking on replacements of those streets laid out by slaves and convicts. A riverfront park is underway, and when finished it will be walkable from Bywater to Canal Street. One of the longest riverfront parks in the country.
But let me give you a real insider tip. If a stranger approaches you on the Moon Walk (named for former Mayor Moon Landrieu) beside the Mississippi River in the French Quarter, and says, “I’ll bet you $5 I can tell you where you got your shoes,” just call his bluff. Tell him, “I got my shoes on my feet.” And walk away with $5 still in your pocket, and a smile.