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There's some discomposure behind the mask of Creole calm in New Orleans: Those heading to Mardi Gras this year will find the city taking psychic stock of itself after upheavals the past few years.

A controversial casino finally opened _ and abruptly closed. A crime crisis was made worse by some police behaving worse than criminals. The unease can be especially acute this time of year, because the Carnival season _ which begins Monday and ends on Mardi Gras, Feb. 11 _ is itself undergoing changes faster than some of its participants can handle.

To many New Orleanians, the real Mardi Gras is as endangered as the Louisiana coastline. This year, more than ever, the intrepid visitor who wants to experience the true local festival _ rather than diversions organized by the tourist commission and beer companies _ needs some inside information.

The most crucial change is the continuing effect from an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the City Council in 1992. This law ignited a firestorm of resentment and retaliation when it was applied to the exclusive and secretive "krewes" of Carnival.

A krewe is a private club that holds a Mardi Gras ball and often stages a parade. When space on parade floats was seemingly defined as a public accommodation by the new law, the krewes of Comus, Momus and Proteus canceled their parades rather than open their organizations to the public.

Newly formed krewes rushed to fill the empty parade slots, some successfully, others with embarrassingly slapdash processions. The unease continues as more krewes fold and others teeter on the brink of bankruptcy or suffer internal division as a result of the ordinance.

It's debatable how far New Orleans has climbed out of the abyss of crime that seemed to taint it. In well-traveled areas around Mardi Gras time, visitors usually have to fear only accidents of intoxication. But there's no question that fear of crime has affected parade attendance _ which in turn affects krewe members' attitude over spending thousands of dollars to stage a parade.

Another way Mardi Gras is changing is in the loss of meaning of the name itself. Although Carnival is several weeks long, Mardi Gras is one day only and always a Tuesday. The date changes every year; in 1997, it's Feb. 11. Many college-age celebrants, most interested in Bourbon Street revelry, come for the weekend before, never realizing that those nights pale in cultural importance compared to the following Tuesday. Yet some revelers leave before Mardi Gras; others find their stamina gone by Tuesday, sleep in, and miss much of the big day.

Traditional Mardi Gras begins early. The marching clubs are out at dawn, some parties begin by 8 a.m., and the Zulu parade begins rolling at 8:30 a.m. Locals have to work the next day, so some are heading home by mid-afternoon _ just when a few oblivious visitors are waking up.

Of course, New Orleans is not the only city to ponder how much power a private group should have in deciding who marches in a parade, nor the only vacation city to face a menacing crime rate. But this, along with what appears to be desperation on the part of the city to increase tourism no matter the consequences to local life, makes Carnival connoisseurs grim-faced with apprehension. The striking, old-style, papier-mache parade floats are giving way to slick fiberglass, and many predict the next step will be parades sponsored by Gulf Coast casinos and beer companies (commercial sponsorship is now illegal). Fans of Mardi Gras fear the transformation of a local ethnic festival with unique customs into a corporate-controlled PR event.

But even if the Mardi Gras locals love is fading into history, it isn't gone yet. What follows is advice on discovering the real Carnival.

The best advice: Participate!

One simple truth: The more time you spend on Bourbon Street, the more you miss the real Mardi Gras of balls, parades and masking. Here are some ways to enjoy it like a local (area code is 504).

HAVE A BALL _ Purists maintain that if you pay to get in, it's not a true Carnival ball. Ignore that and buy a ticket to one of these open-to-the-public parties:

The legendary Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club holds its Coronation Ball four days before its parade, on Feb. 7 at the Ernest Morial Convention Center (for information: 827-1661).

The Krewe of Endymion's Extravaganza (Feb. 8) is so large, it's held in the Superdome (736-0160). Expect to leave with garbage bags full of souvenirs. Headlining this year: Little Richard.

Orpheus throws its Orpheuscapade Feb. 10 at the convention center. With local boy Harry Connick Jr. at the helm, musical celebrities are highlights at this ball (822-7200).

Earlier in the season there are offbeat gatherings:

The irreverent Krewe du Vieux (945-6823) holds its "Vieux Doo" on Jan. 25 at the New Orleans Music Hall. Dress is either very casual, very funny or very lewd. Many of the city's best brass bands provide the music.

The premiere gay krewe, Petronious (525-4498) presents a tableaux ball on Feb. 2 at the Theater for the Performing Arts. Mostly private, with invitations coveted across the city, the ball now sells a few tickets. Black tie or long gown is required, and you may wear either, whatever your gender.

RIDE A FLOAT _ There is nothing comparable to participating in a Carnival parade: After a few hours of crowds at your feet begging you for beads, you'll feel like Caesar on a triumphal march.

Two krewes set aside "memberships' for visitors. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars for dues, costume, ball invitation and beads to throw to the multitudes. The Krewe of Ponchartrain (241-9444) parades on Feb. 1, the Krewe of Tucks (837-1310) parades on Feb. 8, and Bards of Bohemia (524-6165) rolls on Feb. 10. The superkrewe Orpheus (Feb. 10, 822-7200) will offer the most sensational ride, but it'll cost more than a thousand dollars for a night's fun.

DISGUISE YOURSELF _ Carnival fanatics say that the essence of Mardi Gras can be experienced only from behind a mask.

On Mardi Gras, the Bourbon Street Awards (noon at St. Ann and Burgundy streets) is the most-famous costume contest. Participants from private tableaux balls show off spectacular head pieces and costumes _ and other contestants wear barely any costume at all. The Mardi Gras Maskathon contest is more family-oriented. It's held at noon in the 600 block of Canal Street (527-0606).

The top parades

Even with some of the premiere krewes in hiding, parades are still central to Carnival fun. Here are the top parades beginning the week before Mardi Gras. Times given are for the start; it usually takes at least two hours to reach Canal Street, which borders the French Quarter. All parades feature "throws" _ beads, cups, doubloons and other tokens _ that will become favorite souvenirs.

BABYLON (Feb. 6, 6:30 p.m.) and

HERMES (Feb. 7, 6:30 p.m.) are, with Rex (below), the last parades to carry on the tradition of 19th-century-style, papier-mache floats. The themes are drawn usually from history, literature or the classics (rather than from the movies or other pop culture, where most krewes find inspiration). Look for flambeaux, the traditional torch-carriers who risk burns every season to light the way.

ENDYMION (Feb. 8, 5 p.m.) is an excuse for a vast celebration in which everyone living near the parade route seems to hold a party. The floats are huge, and the costumes of the king, queen and court are spectacular. A national celebrity is invited to be grand marshall; this year, it is David Schwimmer, of Friends. Most important are the Endymion throws! Paradegoers exult under a deluge of beads, cups and doubloons.

BACCHUS (Feb. 9, 6 p.m.), like Endymion, is generous with its throws, and a celebrity is invited to lead the parade _ it will be comedian Tom Arnold this year. A few mega-floats to watch for every year: the Bacchagator and the Baccha-Whoppa (a whale). When King Kong passes, it's a rite for spectators to throw beads at him.

Earlier, MID CITY (1:30 p.m.) is a charming, low-key procession, with floats covered in colorful, reflective foil, unique among Carnival parades.

ORPHEUS (Feb. 10, 6 p.m.), founded by Connick in 1994, was an immediate hit with its well-designed floats and celebrity riders.

ZULU (Mardi Gras, 8:30 a.m.) is many people's favorite parade of Carnival, not because of its floats, which are sometimes uninspired, but because of its participants, who are very inspired. Outfits of the king, queen and court are sensational _ and a contrast to the funky grass skirts and black-face of the float riders (yes, both white and black riders wear black-face). The Zulu coconut is the most coveted throw of Mardi Gras but is given out only to a lucky few.

REX (Mardi Gras, 10 a.m.) is the premiere parade of the season, for not only is Rex himself the official King of Carnival, but the parade can be astonishingly beautiful. Floats are scrupulously hand-painted in a century-old style, and throw cups reproduce the design of each year's official "proclamation" of Mardi Gras.

The secret side of Mardi Gras

Some Carnival social clubs seek no publicity for their parades, yet they offer some of the day's most glorious sights.

THE SOCIETY OF ST. ANNE (Mardi Gras, Feb. 11) is a bizarre marching club whose members, although as devoted to secrecy as Freemasons, wear some of the most spectacular costumes of the day. Many members are artists, and each parade is likely to produce wild visions of French aristocrats, Babylonian warriors, Aztec gods, Venetian noblewomen and Greek satyrs. On Mardi Gras morning, members march with a brass band on Royal Street, take a break on Canal Street to greet Rex, and end up on the banks of the Mississippi River.

MARDI GRAS INDIANS (Mardi Gras, Feb. 11) aren't Native Americans but African Americans who dress up in nearly hallucinogenic versions of Indian costume as members of such neighborhood "tribes" as the Wild Magnolias, Creole Wild West, and Guardians of the Flame.

Although these plumed and beaded wonders are famous, the Indians remain resolutely private and independent, and they prowl the streets in defiance of parade permits. Tourists will find some of the Indian neighborhoods forbidding, but a good place near the Quarter to find a few tribes is along N Claiborne Avenue (under I-10) down river from Canal Street and especially near Orleans Avenue.

Freelance writer Thomas Brown recently moved from his beloved New Orleans to New York.