by Elias Keller
Mardi Gras isn’t a thing in New Orleans: it’s everything. Thanksgiving and Christmas don’t even compare: the only holiday near Mardi Gras’s parade route is Halloween, and only because New Orleanians lust for any reason to wear costumes or almost nothing at all. You can try to abstain from the revelry, but if you’re in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is fundamentally inescapable, although it should be noted that many New Orleanians don’t care for Mardi Gras. Nonetheless, attempting anything like normal life on Mardi Gras Day (“Fat Tuesday”) is just ludicrous. Most everything (except bars, of course) is closed; travel by anything but foot is futile; and trying to transact any business except that of life-or-death at a hospital is unheard of. The only way to escape Mardi Gras is to leave the city entirely, which is exactly what I did this year.
I moved to New Orleans almost two years ago, so this was my second Mardi Gras. Last year I swallowed my distaste for noisy parades and watched some of the gaudy spectacles on St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street—which I found boring, repetitive, and wasteful with regard to the plastic beads and “throws” (small trinkets) tossed from the floats to spectators. But I did enjoy more intimate parades like Krewe du Vieux and its bawdy, satirical floats mocking current events and politicians—and adorable ’tit Rex (“teet,” as in petite), a procession of miniature floats in the Marigny. And on Fat Tuesday I woke dutifully early to costume up for St. Ann’s parade in the French Quarter: by nine a.m. I was in the midst of a wild kerfuffle of feathers and fake eyelashes with adults and children.
“It’s too much glitter,” a little girl with a face full of it whined to our truly fabulous costume master.
“Honey, there’s no such thing.”
This year I decided to skip all that jazz and spend parade season in my native Philadelphia. Which is why my Fat Tuesday was just a cold, damp Tuesday in February. But as my day plodded on, I kept thinking about Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Not that I really missed plastic go-cups of alcohol, or King Cake, or bared boobs for beads on Bourbon Street. And I was happy to have evaded the overlong run-up to Fat Tuesday. Carnival season lasts about a month in New Orleans and during that time a total of seventy parades rolled. But now the big day had arrived and I was a thousand miles away, where Mardi Gras means nothing, as it does everywhere in this country except New Orleans. Which is what I’d wanted. Except suddenly there wasn’t much joy in escaping the inescapable.
Life in New Orleans certainly takes some getting used to, and the city smashingly confounded my monocultured expectations that it would mostly be like Philadelphia. But I say this, by and large, as a good thing. And take it from a Northern curmudgeon: Southern hospitality is very real and very lovely. New Orleans especially is an exceptionally welcoming city: few places so warmly blur the boundary between natives and transplants. As such, everyone who lives in New Orleans is as entitled to Mardi Gras as anyone else—and certainly more so than the tourists. I’m deliberately using the word “entitled”: tourists skim the cream of the city, but residents have to deal with the persistent, ahem, challenges of actually living in New Orleans. The pace is swampy when it comes to getting things done. Public utilities and transportation are laughable. Corruption, ineptitude and waste in governance are the only things that are actually reliable. Police rarely come when called, which sounds like an exaggeration until you experience it yourself. And the crumbling streets themselves would make the Oregon Trail feel like a sleek superhighway. It’s not really anarchy, but sometimes it sure feels like it.
Then again, another way of looking at these challenges is that they arise from the relaxed vibe of New Orleans that makes it, truly, “The Big Easy.” Despite its oft-hellish weather, high crime rate, and sweeping blight and poverty (largely kept out of view of free-spending tourists)—New Orleans is a jubilant city. It might get washed away any day, right?—so residents live in the moment, enjoying life rather than grinding away to see how much they can accomplish and how fast. I’m reminded of something the poet May Sarton wrote about New Orleans’s high ambassador, Louis Armstrong: “Something shone from that man, a rare thing, a real joy. It is becoming exceedingly rare among artists of any kind. And I have an idea that those who can and do communicate it are always people who have had a hard time.”
This feeling is always present in New Orleans, and Mardi Gras is its most public and concentrated expression. The vibe on Fat Tuesday is equal parts indulgently selfish—“Do whatcha wanna” is the day’s mission statement—but also joyfully communal. Holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving are celebrated with our family and friends, but Mardi Gras in New Orleans is celebrated with everyone. There are private gatherings, of course, but Fat Tuesday really takes place outside, on the bumpy streets that host one unified, citywide party that’s pageant, parade and pow-wow all rolled into one and dusted with glitter.
Maybe that’s why my Fat Tuesday, cold and damp with a dusting of only plain white snow flurries, felt sad and empty. I didn’t feel relief at avoiding the madness back “home”: actually I did everything to remind myself of it, even watching one of Treme’s accurate Fat Tuesday episodes. But Mardi Gras isn’t something to be celebrated in abstentia—you’re either in or you’re out. More to the point: tourists may have paid to enjoy Fat Tuesday, but I had earned it as a resident of New Orleans. It was mine for the taking, gussied up in feathers and fake eyelashes and too much glitter and way too many beads, but I hadn’t claimed it. Instead, there I was, a thousand miles away, finally knowing—how does that song go?—what it means to miss New Orleans.
Elias Keller has published short fiction in the 3288 Review, Atlas + Alice, Oblong, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Wordhaus, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, and elsewhere. He is a Philadelphia native and currently lives in New Orleans. www.eliaskeller.com.
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Passionately Ran, Compassionately Fed.