Mardi Gras is known in most places as a time of the lowest low-down revelry. In New Orleans, Carnival is often complained about as a season of the highest snobbery. It's both, and much in between.
That's clear every Shrove Tuesday in New Orleans by the thousands of adults and children cheering the parades, Louisiana Cajuns and Boston Brahmins toasting each other's health, debutantes enthroned and basking in a glow they'll never see again, college kids mixing with seniors on bawdy Bourbon Street, the small celebrations in quiet courtyards, and the extravagance of exclusive masked balls.
You don't need to look far to enjoy yourself at New Orleans Mardi Gras, which falls this year on March 3. Many let themselves be taken along by the sights and sounds that pass by at every moment, and they go home thinking they've seen it all. But they haven't, of course, and most people could use a Mardi Gras primer. Here are some basics about the season, A to Z.
A Right away: "A" is for alcohol, which fuels much of the celebration. But there are plenty of teetotalers having fun at Carnival and feeling no obligation to tipple _ drunken hordes are just a small part of a citywide celebration.
Balls were for many years the central experience of Carnival, and high society still considers certain balls to be crucial social events. Invitations to those of the Twelfth Night Revelers, Atlanteans, Comus or Rex are great honors, and no casual visitor (excepting heads of state) to New Orleans can expect to receive one. However, other krewe parties are more open _ the supper dances of Endymion (on Feb. 29) and Bacchus (March 1) are so large that they are held in the Superdome and the Convention Center, respectively. Hotel concierges can usually get hold of an invitation; let them know as soon as possible that you'll want to attend a ball.
Carnival season is the result of the early Roman church's attempt to co-opt the pagan festivals of spring. The church realized early on that it could never do away with the debauchery associated with the god Pan, so Christian leaders accepted a certain amount of festivity as long as it was followed by a period of atonement. That period, beginning Ash Wednesday and lasting through Easter, became Lent. And the time before it, from the Twelfth Night of Christmas (Jan. 6) through Mardi Gras, became Carnival.
(The words "Carnival" and "Mardi Gras" are used indiscriminately. Strictly, the first refers to the entire season; the second refers only to the day before Ash Wednesday.)
New Orleans natives take Lent seriously. Wearing your Mardi Gras beads on Ash Wednesday is a more serious infraction of New Orleans etiquette than wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
Doubloons are one of the most popular of Carnival throws. ("Throws" are anything tossed from paraders to parade watchers, the most fa-mous being the cheap plastic beads that everyone seens to be wearing.) Every parade organization
worth its salt mints a newly designed and dated doubloon every year, and the aluminum "coins" are earnestly collected. If a doubloon clangs to the ground, don't go after it with your hands _ you're fingers are likely to be mangled by your fellow spectators.
Other parade throws include plastic cups, key rings, Frisbees, garters, back scratchers, toys and candy. The most prized throw is the painted coconut handed out during the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning. Don't get your hopes up, though; coconuts are very selectively distributed, and many are given to friends of Zulu members seen along the parade route.
Eating isn't as hard as you might think, even with all those people in town. Avoid the French Quarter and sample the eateries uptown, on the lakefront, in mid-city or other neighborhoods. Some moderate and inexpensive local favorites include Mandina's (3800 Canal St.; 482-9179), Eddie's (2119 Law St.; 945-2207), Copeland's (4338 St. Charles Ave.; 897-2325), and the Praline Connection (542 Frenchmen St.; 943-3934). Crawfish and oysters are in season, and how can you leave New Orleans without savoring some crawfish etouffee, oyster loaf, seafood gumbo, barbecue shrimp or a soft-shell-crab po'boy sandwich?
First aid and emergency unit stations are scheduled to be set up at Lee Circle, North Rampart and Canal, and Bourbon and Toulouse, among other locations.
Gold, green and purple are ubiquitous on Mardi Gras, having been the official colors of Rex since the last century. In its 1892 parade, Rex designated the meanings of each: Gold stands for power, green is faith and purple is justice.
Half Fast Walking Club of clarinetist Pete Fountain is one of many marching clubs, those motley costumed groups you see meandering around the streets. Parades have been banned in the French Quarter since 1973, so the marching clubs provide the only "parading" in the old city. Pete Fountain and company amble down St. Charles on Mardi Gras morning.
Indians are one of the most fascinating phenomenons of Mardi Gras. These participants are not Indians, but urban blacks who for more than 100 years have dressed up on Mardi Gras in fabulous interpretations of Native American costume. There are many "tribes," each one corresponding to a neighborhood, and each tribe parades through the streets on Mardi Gras, singing out a mesmerizing call-and-response musical chant. Rivalry among tribes for the most beautiful and elaborate costumes is intense. Indian songs _ Meet de Boys on the Battlefront, New Suit, Fire Water _ reflect the priorities of the day.
The most famous, because they've released records of their music, are the Wild Tchoupitoulas (pronounced CHOP-ee-too-luhs) and the Wild Magnolias. The nearest to the French Quarter that the Indians march will be along North Claiborne (under I-10) between Canal and St. Bernard. Traditionally there is a gathering of tribes on Mardi Gras afternoon at the intersection of N Claiborne and Orleans Avenue.
Jazz is the music of New Orleans, but rhythm and blues is the music of Mardi Gras. You'll hear some songs over and over again. The most famous Mardi Gras recordings are Professor Longhair's Big Chief and Come to Mardi Gras, Earl King's Street Parade, Al Johnson's Carnival Time, and the Hawkettes' Mardi Gras Mambo. Nearly everybody sings Iko, Iko. The favorite spots to hear live jazz, blues, Cajun, and rhythm and blues are Tipitina's (501 Napoleon Ave.; 504-895-8477), Maple Leaf (8316 Oak St.; 504-866-9359), Muddy Waters (8301 Oak St.; 504-866-7174), Palm Court (1204 Decatur St.; 504-525-0200) and Club Second Line (216 Bourbon St.; 504-523-2020).
Krewe is a term used by nearly all Carnival organizations in the city. It was coined in 1857 by a group calling itself the Mistick Krewe of Comus, and in doing so invented Mardi Gras as we know it today. There are more than 60 major krewes (and countless minor ones) in the New Orleans area, from the famous Rex (formed in 1872) and Zulu (1909) to the newer groups like Tucks and Argus. Not all krewes parade, but that is certainly what most are known for. The krewes really start to roll two Fridays before Mardi Gras. Endymion (Feb. 29) and Bacchus (March 1) are known for their spectacular gods and celebrity guests _ Gerald McRaney (TV's Major Dad) is this year's Bacchus, and Kenny Rogers will lead the Endymion parade. Zulu and Rex will parade on Mardi Gras morning. Comus, an all-white organization, refused to honor a city ordinance that would have forced it to integrate and thus will not stage its traditional Mardi Gras evening parade. Also, see "U."
Lost children are a real possibility in the huge crowds. Plan for it: Call 504-826-5136 to locate the "claim" area nearest to your parade-watching spot.
Monday, the day before Mardi Gras, is known as Lundi Gras. Some visitors miss out on much of Tuesday's fun because they were up too late partying the night before. Mardi Gras begins early! It's not unusual for maskers to be up at 5 a.m. to put down a huge breakfast (there will be little time for eating the rest of the day) and begin donning costumes. Zulu begins rolling at 8:30 a.m. Turn in early Monday night unless your stamina is tremendous; in which case, read on.
Ninety-six-hour day _ that's the period of the most intense celebration, beginning the Saturday before Mardi Gras and lasting until the wee hours of Ash Wednesday. Twenty-six parades will roll through the city streets during this "day." Those with fortitude will revel without a pause.
Old Mint, at 400 Esplanade Ave., houses the Mardi Gras museum, the city's largest collection of Carnival costumes, photographs and memorabilia. It's open Wednesday-Sunday; admission is $3 for adults, $1.50 for children. Call 504-568-6968 for information.
Parking: Don't Do It _ that might be the city slogan on Mardi Gras weekend. The meter maids and tow-truckers of New Orleans are iron-handed in the best of times; around Carnival, they are utterly ruthless. There is no parking along a parade route for the two hours before the parade arrives and two hours after it passes by. A convoy of tow trucks is ready to sweep into the Quarter at 5:55 p.m. the Friday before Mardi Gras.
Queens. Nearly every krewe has one, including the strictly all-male krewes _ and during Mardi Gras a drag queen is as close to royalty as any uptown lady with a crown. Gay Carnival might almost be missed amid the general revelry and costuming, but take a closer look near the cluster of gay bars along Bourbon from St. Ann Street to Ursulines Street and neighboring streets. Be prepared for some risque sights, but also for some of the most elaborate, imaginative and certainly funniest costumes in all of Mardi Gras.
Rex, amid all those queens and other pretenders to the throne, is the true King of Carnival. For many people, it's Rex's arrival on Canal Street that signals the advent of Mardi Gras. The parade begins at 10 a.m. uptown and takes approximately two hours to reach the French Quarter. When the royal courts of Rex and Comus meet for a toast at midnight on Tuesday, Mardi Gras is over.
"Show me your _ !" Well .
. you fill in the blank. At Mardi Gras, it's likely to be a normally hidden portion of the human anatomy that is exposed in order to receive a prize of beads. Stay away from Bourbon Street balconies if you don't want to encounter this shouted request and its aftermath.
Toilets are always hardest to find when they are most needed. Bars and restaurants limit the facilities to patrons, and hotels seal off their lobbies to anyone without a key. Portable toilets will be set up along the St. Charles parade route at Lee Circle and Lafayette Square, and in the French Quarter, around the Wildlife and Fisheries Building at 400 Royal St. Also try the Jax Brewery shopping mall at Decatur and St. Peter streets. The facilities here have good accessibility for the handicapped and have baby changing facilities.
Ulysses, a Westbank parade, is a procession few tourists get to see. All major krewes pass by the French Quarter, where most visitors are, but a neighborhood parade is worth a trip. The krewes of Argus and Napoleon roll in Jefferson Parish. The all-female Nefertari parades on the Westbank, and the black krewe NOMTOC (New Orleans Most Talked About Club) sets its route through old Algiers. The Times-Picayune publishes a map of each parade route.
Violence is remarkably absent from the mass of people packed into the French Quarter. However, crime has been on the increase in New Orleans in recent years, and the general good cheer of Mardi Gras doesn't avert that. Leave as many valuables as possible in the hotel safe. Stay away from street hustlers. Be wary of watching parades along N Rampart Street, the last section of many routes.
WWOZ, 90.7 FM, a community radio station, will have extensive programs of Louisiana music, including jazz, Cajun, Mardi Gras Indian songs, and Carnival tunes. WWOZ is invaluable for its announcements of late-scheduled and unofficial events, concerts and parties.
Xenophobic: Definitely something not to be during Mardi Gras. You'll see commoners pretending to be kings, men dressed up as women, blacks dressed as Indians, whites in blackface, blacks in blackface, princesses, Cossacks.
. yes, you. Why not really get into the spirit and a costume? In the French Quarter, try the Vieux Carre Hair Store (805 Royal St.; 522-3258), the Mardi Gras Center (831 Chartres St.; 524-4384), and the mask stores in the French Market. The Metairie Fabric Shop (800 Metairie Road; 833-6209) is Mecca for serious maskers.
Z could stand for Zulu, the first parade on Mardi Gras morning, but let it represent Zzzzz, the first thing you'll want to catch the minute Carnival is over. Rest up _ Mardi Gras 1993 is Feb. 23.
Thomas Brown is a free-lance writer living in New Orleans.