NEW ORLEANS -- The decorations on the houses in my neighborhood -- and people in my neighborhood are wickedly dedicated decorators -- have gone from green and red to purple, green and gold, the annual signal of the transition from "your" holiday season to "ours". The transition started weirdly early, because Mardi Gras ends up on Feb. 5 this year: the neutral grounds (median strips) in neighboring Jefferson Parish were occupied by grandstands for the Carnival parades two weeks before Christmas.
So there's definitely craziness in the air. The malign kind is year-round: the Mayor went on local television this week to boast about his international name recognition, and explaining that sometimes he says off-the-wall things just to keep his name before the public. But the benign kind of craziness begins on Jan. 6, Twelfth Night, when the first beads are thrown from a streetcar commandeered by a group of early celebrants. This past Saturday night in New Orleans, the real thing began. By "the real thing", I mean the Mardi Gras that you don't see represented in the ads for Bud and the "Girls Gone Wild" vids. It's the Carnival that locals remember being taken to as children -- yes, it's for children, sometimes -- the Carnival that's primarily for and about locals.
Krewe de Vieux (pronounced "crew duh voo") is the only parade with Carnival floats that still marches through the French Quarter (two other Quarter parades, Barkus and St. Anne's, have marchers -- canine and human, respectively -- but no floats). KdV's floats are small and handmade, pulled either by humans or horses, unlike the larger, tractor-pulled floats in the later, bigger parades. The Krewe always hires the best street brass bands in the city, so the music is irrepressibly danceable. And the parade is satirical and raunchy.
This year's theme, "Magical Misery Tour", allowed for multiple swipes at local targets wrapped inside Beatles references. So "You Never Give Me Your Money" was a float dedicated to the late-paying Road Home program (supposedly to compensate homeowners for the flood damage caused by beached federal levees), and the White Album was represented by a float that generated shock, until you remembered who owns the rights to the Beatles catalog.
The marchers threw or handed out largely hand-made or hand-painted (or hand-printed) souvenirs, as well as a fine supply of Chinese beads. The parade actually started in the Bywater neighborhood, snaked through the adjacent Faubourg Marigny, and then into the Quarter -- three riverside neighborhoods of related historic richness and ascending economic richness. In the first two, crowds were three or four deep, and you could walk up to the floats, engage with the riders, and get pushed back by the swiftly passing tubas. Up in the Quarter, the crowds are deeper and more raucous. Many folks I know manage to get a double dip, seeing the earlier, more accessible version, then trotting up to the Quarter for the wilder finale.
But what amazed me was the sight of the folks leaving after the parade passed. Knots of two, three or a dozen, walking down the streets energized and electrified by the anarchic spirit of what they'd just experienced, the benign craziness that, while it's in control of the street, seems to be timeless and endless, and, once having passed, seems like a strange, lovely fever dream. People were walking briskly (it was freezing), smiling, talking, laughing, through the streets of a city lately left for dead. You could have fooled me.