Just tell people you are taking the kids to Mardi Gras — this year Feb. 24 — and you will see eyebrows raised as high as Mount McKinley.
I took my children ages 10 and 12 to New Orleans during Mardi Gras season a few years ago and we watched all or part of six parades. We traversed the city via car, taxi and on foot, and even covered several blocks of the French Quarter and there wasn't a bare breast in sight — unless you count the orangutans at the Audubon Zoo. We eyeballed people decked in costumes from the regal to the ridiculous but we examined not a one that would elicit a moral rant about the end of western civilization as we know it.
We saw firsthand what New Orleans officials have been saying all along: Mardi Gras is mainly a family event. The spring break debauchery associated today with Mardi Gras does take place, but it is more or less relegated to a six-block area of Bourbon Street.
"The misconception among many is that Mardi Gras is a drunken orgy. That is totally wrong,'' says Arthur Hardy, local Mardi Gras maven and publisher of Arthur Hardy's Mardi Gras Guide. "Mardi Gras is a time for kids and for grownups who can act like kids in a nice way. The nudity that takes place stays mainly in the French Quarter, but with cable and the Internet that image has spread like wildfire."
We had no occasion to cover our kids' eyes while we watched parades from two different locations, uptown on St. Charles Avenue in the city's famed Garden District, and downtown on lower Canal Street.
Mardi Gras parades are primo for kids who like collecting stuff, especially beads chucked from floats. We arrived home with 41 pounds of beads. (Be prepared to pay extra for overweight luggage unless you're driving.) We also brought home two dozen plastic cups with the name of parade-sponsoring krewes on them. Our loot list also included a couple dozen metal doubloons, stuffed animals, toy spears, Frisbees, a couple of footballs and some gadgets that looked like they should be in Happy Meals.
Ready to watch a whole day of parades on the Sunday before Fat Tuesday, we parked ourselves on a curb near St. Charles and Jackson avenues an hour before the first parade was scheduled to pass by.
We were positively giddy when we spied our first float. And when we grabbed our first string of flying beads, well, it was like we discovered gold.
First timers may wonder if they will ever catch anything. They soon learn it is easy, and women don't have to show anything but their eagerness. The beads will come to you. If you're not careful you might get bopped on the head or in the gut by a pair of wildly flung beads or stuffed toy. Or they may fall into your hands. We had beads grabbed out of our hands then offered right back to us.
By the time the third parade came by, our 12-year-old decided she would sit it out and watch. But she discovered that it's hard to sit anything out as the beads are coming at you.
There was a lull between the third parade, the Krewe of Thoth, and the fourth, the famed Bacchus. Not wanting to lose our prime spot, we passed the time by snacking and chatting with the folks around us. Bacchus began rolling by us at about 6 p.m. and the electric lights on the floats made this perhaps the most dazzling of all the parades we saw. Yet after 20 of 35 floats had passed, we'd had enough. With the parade still in progress, we headed back to our car, bags of beads and other throws in hand.
We decided to skip Monday's parades, but on Fat Tuesday, we headed for Canal Street.
We arrived in time to catch the last half of the legendary Zulu parade. Since it was in progress we could get no closer than the rear of the throng, six rows deep. After Zulu ended, the crowd dispersed and we moved to the front by the barricade separating people from parade. An hour later came Rex, the King of Carnival, and within no time we were surrounded by another six rows of humanity.
We stayed in New Orleans two days after Mardi Gras, a good idea for those who wish to get a taste of the city in its normality. Though much of the city is still struggling with the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the tourist areas bustle.
We enjoyed the Audubon Zoo, especially the carefully re-created Louisiana swamp complete with a Cajun house floating on water. We indulged in beignets, the powdered-sugar coated French doughnuts at Café Du Monde, and checked out a few of the city's smaller museums. And we drove home with beads. Lots and lots of beads.
Michael Schuman is a freelance writer based in Keene, N.H.