Brandy On New Orleans

Brandy Pigeon

I Could Never Cease to Love

By Brandy Pigeon

If I ever left New Orleans, moved away to some other city in some other town, this would be the time of year I'd be the most homesick. If you've never experienced Mardi Gras; I'm not sure I'm a talented enough writer to describe in words to you what it is... or more accurately, what it feels like. If you've "done Mardi Gras", even once or twice, you know it's more than boobs and Bourbon Street; but if you've spent your life here, and count the number of Fat Tuesdays you've enjoyed the way people in other places count birthdays, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. I've been thinking about what Mardi Gras means to me personally, and to our city and culture, and I've come to realize that even though it's a group experience, and it's pretty much the same parades and festivities year after year; somehow this culmination manages to be personal and ever changing at the same time. 

When we were kids, we determined the success of each parade by the number of Schwegmann brown grocery bags full of beads and trinkets we'd accumulated. For example: "How was the parade? I filled two Schwegmann bags full to the top!" To a little kid, one bag was the norm, anything above that... a really great haul. Stuffed animals and plastic toys were always much welcomed lagniappe that added to the overall efforts of the day, and on those rare occasions where you could reel in some over the top trophy, like a huge plush doll or giant plastic toothbrush, you'd have kids from all over the neighborhood checking out the prize and envying your jackpot. That's what Mardi Gras is about to the pre-teen group... how much stuff you got, how good that stuff was, and of course the discussions and debates over your costume. Everyone knew a kid in a costume would get more beads than a kid the same age in streetclothes; but after many experiments and through much trial and error, we discovered that rainbow wigs and large head pieces were definitely more noticeable from the floats, and would inevitably attract more loot from the riders. I bet if a stranger looked at our family photo albums, they'd assume they were looking at Halloween pictures when they saw the snapshots of my brother and I dressed like clowns with huge hats and big red lipstick circles on our cheeks. I'm not sure how they'd rationalize the fact that we were sitting in the middle of the streetcar tracks running down St. Charles Avenue at seven in the morning eating Popeye's fried chicken; but that's what we were doing. And we loved it.

I have such wonderful memories of those times. Getting up before dawn, and having my Gram painting up my face with her Mary Kay rouge or Avon lipstick. Normally I'd be in trouble if I were caught playing in her make-up; but not on Mardi Gras morning. It was all for the cause. We had to look the part, and if that meant wasting some of that precious China Red lipstick, so be it. We'd pack up the car and head to the parades while it was still dark outside. Our first piece of chicken usually came before the car was even parked. As the sun came up, we'd join the crowds on the neutral grounds. After my brother and I found "the perfect spot" we'd set up our site with pride; like the square of grass and metal streetcar lines was prime real estate we'd been fortunate enough to get to first. We'd spread out the blanket, set up the ice chest, and make sure our grocery bags were free of ripped handles or tears, and were ready for filling. We'd sit there for hours waiting for the police sirens; that on any other day meant someone was in trouble and the police were going to handle it; but on this day - Mardi Gras - those same sirens meant the parade was close. Sounds that normally sent a sense of dread to filled us all with excitement. We'd spend the time before the parade tossing beads back and forth... practicing our catching skills. We'd drink Cokes we normally weren't allowed to be gulping on a Tuesday morning, play with kids we'd never met before, and go through our "wish list" of specialty throws we'd hope to get our hands on; the way kids in other cities went over their list to Santa Claus. I'm not sure we ever even realized that in every other town in the country kids were saying the Pledge of Allegiance and beginning just another Tuesday in their elementary schools. We were just glad we weren't doing that. We had business to take care of; it was the grand finale of the Mardi Gras season. No more parades after today. This was our last chance for an entire year to yell "Throw Me Somethin' Mister" and have pieces of plastic fall from the sky into our hands, like shiny little prizes from heaven; and we were ready. 

In high school and college, the Mardi Gras experience was something completely different. Even though I spent those years on the same neutral ground, on the same streetcar tracks, it was no longer hip to dress up like a clown or a princess; no - when you're a teenager you go as your everyday totally cool self. Jeans, tee shirts, and hooded sweatshirts were the costumes donned by my friends and myself. I could only walk two blocks away from my family; but you can be sure I got every inch I could. Even though we weren't supposed to care about how much we caught, we all managed to load our necks down with beads. We now gave the stuffed animals we caught to any nearby kid we could find, and even though we would never have admitted it to our friends, we all still got that adrenaline rush when we heard the sirens. It was a different experience as a teen; but it was still a lot of fun and was still about being together, hanging out, and making memories. The first rose I ever got from a boy was at a parade. It was a red silk rose he'd caught off of a passing float. It was rumpled and a little bit wet; but it was a rose nonetheless, and I can see him sweetly handing it to me as he stood there in his blue Jesuit High School sweatshirt. We held hands for the rest of the parade, and later that evening, at a local hamburger joint, he asked me to a sweet sixteen party he'd been invited to. At that moment, that wet, shriveled, silk flower might as well have been a dozen long stemmed roses. And once again, the background to a beautiful memory consisted of a marching band blaring, dancing in the streets, and people waving their hands insanely at a moving mound of blinking light bulb covered paper mache being pulled by a tractor, as plastic beads rained down on the crowd. Ahhh, bliss.  

After college, I did Mardi Gras from the other side... I was a rider. My best friend and I rode in the Monday night mega-parade, Orpheus. The first time he and I rode together was awesome. I had never had so much fun. Being a spectator at a parade is fun; but being a rider is totally different experience. It's like a completely different version of Mardi Gras. The day of the ride began with loading up our throws on the float. We hung our beads carefully on giant nails imbedded into the float walls, stacked up cases and cases of plastic cups, and prepared our standing room only spaces, for the long night ahead. Four or five hours before the parade even began, we put on our multi-colored satin costumes, cut the fingers off the polyester gloves we were given, and carved out holes for our eyes in the plastic masks we'd be wearing during the ride. Afterwards, we headed off to a huge meeting room where we were joined by hundreds of others who were dressed in the same neon satin tunics, for a pre-ride gathering. From an escalator looking down into the crowd, it looked like someone poured rainbow confetti all over and it was scattering throughout the enormous room. And as strange as it may sound, it was beautiful. After the captain of the krewe gave his pep talk; which sounded much like a football coach gearing up his team for the big game or even a military leader rousing his troops, we all headed out to the street to board our floats. Each float was numbered and covered in paper flowers, glitter, and lights. They were like individual chariots all decorated and ready to take to the streets to be shown off to the throngs of adoring fans. We climbed on, found our spots, tethered ourselves to the side, and waited for nightfall so we could begin our much anticipated journey. 

Rolling down the Avenue, we threw brightly colored beads and trinkets to the thousands of people begging for them. While trying to accommodate the masses, I realized this must be what it feels like to be famous. Movie stars must become accustomed to having crowds of adoring fans screaming for them; but for the average person, this was a high like no other. Unless I unexpectedly stumble into motion picture stardom, this is as close as I'll ever come to celebrity; and it feels great. My friend and I toss our throws over the side and soak up the moment. I watch him as he dishes out plastic necklaces to the sea of onlookers. Even though we're indulging in alcoholic beverages, the adrenaline coursing through us keeps us fairly sober. One of the highlights of being a rider, is getting to throw to your friends and family. Luckily, the majority of our personal fan base were at one location. As our float neared the well-lit yellow house with the wrap around porch on St. Charles Avenue, we prepared ourselves for some serious unloading of the beads were waist deep in. The tractor pulling our float came to a stop in front of the packed house, and my friend and I began throwing the goods we'd set aside for this moment. We threw like we were on a sinking ship feverishly bailing out buckets of water. Homemade signs bearing our names in magic marker were waving, the densely packed crowd chanted to us, and looking ahead at the sea of people was like looking through a who's who scrapbook of our lives. Moms, dads, grandparents, friends, coworkers.... they were all there. There to see us riding, to cheer us on, and wish us well on the miles that still lie ahead of us. And even though we'd seen the majority of them earlier that day, and would see them again in a few hours; we threw to them, and blew kisses, and called out to them like we were being deployed off to a far away land and wouldn't be returning for many years to come. Once the tractor let out a belch of black smoke and kick-started us into moving forward again, we waved goodbye and the ride continued. After we could no longer see the glow of that particular Victorian gem on St. Charles, we took a short breather, sat back and giddily rambled on back and forth about who we' seen and what we'd thrown and even laughed about near mishaps and costume troubles. And there it was... another snapshot frozen in my psyche forever. He and I sitting in a swamp of beads, drinking out of huge squeeze bottles, wearing hot pink sheaths, laughing and hugging each other, as the colored light bulbs flashed on and off of our anonymous masks. Power lines drooping overhead, fellow riders stumbling around us as the tractor jolted forward, crowds below begging for our wares, and the sound of music pouring from the speakers behind us. Unforgettable.

At the end of our magnificent journey, we rolled into the Convention Center full of the same adoring crowds we'd seen on the parade route. The only difference was that these revelers were wearing tuxedos and beaded ball gowns. The cavernous hall was decorated with satin banners and spotlights shone on us as the emcee atop the huge stage, announced into his microphone what our float represented. We threw the remains of what we had. Our feet were now secure on the floor of the float, the beads we stood on for hours were gone, the nails that held our "pearls" were empty, and the cardboard boxes that were full of sleeves of plastic cups, were now empty and strewn about the plywood floor. We had completed our mission. We threw it all. We were tired, our arms were sore, we had a few cuts and bruises; but we were excited to be here. The ball was where we would meet up with the rest of our friends, eat finger sandwiches and cheese cubes, and dance to the live bands performing 'til dawn. 

My friend and I rode numerous times over the years. He even organized an entire float which was filled with our friends and family members. We made tons of memories during these rides. Flat tires, broken axles, television crews, celebrity guests, and numerous other situations arose during our future Lundi Gras escapades. We faced the good and the bad with the same determination and zest. Even when things didn't go as planned, everyone had a good time; and we created memories we'd be able to look back on for the rest of our lives. In fact, it was on Orpheus Monday that I learned I'd be delivering my own future Mardi Gras reveler. In 2000, on the morning of what had become our annual ride, I realized I was pregnant. Telling your husband you're pregnant while he's unloading beads onto a float, is definitely something that only happens in New Orleans! A year later, on Orpheus Monday, while standing on the steps of that same St. Charles home, holding my then three month old daughter, the float we were all there to see stopped in front of the house, as it had done for years, and my friends riding on the top deck of the float unrolled a huge banner for everyone gathered to see. Painted on the canvas was a marriage proposal for a dear friend of mine, who accepted the offer after she noticed her boyfriend was kneeling next to her holding up a ring. Only in New Orleans could someone propose to his true love from the side of a float. 

Now that I have a child of my own, my Mardi Gras experience has changed once again. Now, my daughter looks forward to parades the way I did when I was her age. For her, it's all about filling her bags; which, believe it or not, are brown paper grocery bags. They're not from Schwegmann's, that grocery chain closed years ago; but they work just the same. She comes home from each parade and assesses her night's work just as we did when we were kids. The cycle starts all over. I dread the day she wants to walk two blocks away from me to be with her friends; but I suppose I'll have to suck it up the way my mother did. This part of life is unique to New Orleanians. It's a family event much like Thanksgiving or Easter. It's a time when we all gather and spend time together doing something we love. When I see pictures from Mardi Gras in magazines, or read articles out-of-town journalists have written, I sometimes feel like an outsider. Like the photos they've snapped or pieces they've typed out are about something else from somewhere else. My memories don't consist of Bourbon Street balconies and topless tourists, so when I see Mardi Gras depicted that way, it seems like false advertising. I know those things happen, otherwise where would the photos and stories come from - it's just that the traveler's brochure always seems to be missing the best parts of the season. That aspect of Mardi Gras has certainly made it popular worldwide for decadence and excess; but that is such a small part of what Mardi Gras truly is for so many. It's a family thing. It's about seeing friends and loved ones, it's about parents creating memories with their children; of course it's a reason to throw a party, but who ever accused New Orleanians of needing an actual reason to celebrate? As a local and a native of the city, I try to tell people from other places how much fun it can be to travel here for Mardi Gras as a family. I think we all should. God knows we need the tourism, and we are always ready to show the world our Southern hospitality. So let's get the word out. Let's show the world all that we have to offer. We live in the greatest city in the world, let's show it off. New Orleans isn't perfect; the crime has to be gotten under control, the rebuilding needs to be quicker, and the crooked politicians have become legendary - but the citizens of this community have got to find a way to rise above those things. We have to show the nation that we're better than our faults, we need to show outwardly what we already know inside... that we have great culture, and values, and deep roots in this city. We have a commitment here to family and a pride in our heritage that is increasingly rare in other parts of the country. We need to celebrate those qualities and let the world see why we love it here so much. Let the people in Oregon and Delaware and everywhere in between, see why we're willing to stay planted and raise families and build buildings in a city that's ten feet below sea level. They may think we're just nuts; but if they could get even a small sense of what life is like down here, maybe they could grasp why we won't let it go. So when you head out to the parades over the next week or so, look around, soak in the moments, notice the family on the blanket eating fried chicken, and remember why Mardi Gras is really important to you and this city. Maybe if we remind ourselves of how great the Mardi Gras season can make us feel, we'll pass that feeling along, and who knows... maybe one day we'll read a huge article in TIME Magazine about New Orleans Mardi Gras being the best family vacation destination since Disney World. But; until then, have a safe and happy Mardi Gras. Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler!

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