I was sober this Mardi gras as part of my year-long commitment to sobriety. Everyone was very concerned for me about how it would be without alcohol; how difficult it would be to just drink water (I don’t drink soda) while everyone else was in their own giggling, tipsy world. But it really wasn’t a big deal. I was armed with some cans of Lacroix for Nyx and Muses, had some fancy french soda during Orpheuscapade, and drank coffee and kombucha while I watched Zulu and wandered the quarter in the afternoon (I know, the kombucha sounds pretty crunchy-granola, but I think it’s a good beer substitute).
While some of the magic, experienced through rose colored glasses (i.e., drunk goggles), was lost, most of it was still there. And it was the most alert and energetic Mardi Gras (MG) day I’ve had to date.
If you’ve never been in New Orleans during Mardi gras (MG) season (yes, it’s a season, starting on Epiphany/January 6th until whenever Mardi gras lands on the day before Ash Wednesday), it’s hard to understand what I mean by “magic.” Magic doesn’t mean this place suddenly becomes Disney world. There’s still community violence, traffic is worse because of float transportation and extra tourists and the actual parades themselves, and there are, of course, no shortage of MG assholes: the krewe of chad, the ladder people, the ‘this is my zone’ fools, the people who will step over their grandma to get that one throw, not to mention the historical and contemporary racism/classism that continues to show up in krewe royalty, parade themes, and parade throws.
Racism and classism are part and parcel of mardi gras, so I won’t pretend the magic eliminates it, but I would say more barriers than usual are broken during the season…an excited, sharing, complimentary spirit manages to rise to the top of all the typical (and extra) foolishness, that allows people to cross race/class/nationality/age lines, if just for a moment.
When folks have an abundance of liquor/drinks on the route and your cup is empty, you’ll likely find someone filling your cup back up, sharing something from their coolers, offering you some of their food at a shared table during a ball.
When folks take the time to acknowledge one another’s creativity in their costume, their wig color, their headpiece, their makeup, their hot-glue-gunned-with-mardi-gras-beads clothing accessory—they don’t hesitate to fawn all over you, take pictures with you, ask you where you got it, how you did it, how they can do it…they may even help you fix your makeup/costume/headpiece if it starts to fall apart, because someone around has a safety pin, a bobby pin, extra glitter, extra glue, or expertise in saving smudged/sweated off makeup.
When you make friends with the strangers standing around you over the shared frustration of a stalled float/bad weather/the entitlement of a nearby member from the krewe of chad.
When people (do) share their space on the parade route or make space for you to get a better angle on a float when they find out you’re from out of town or it’s your first Mardi Gras.
When the crowd around you comes to your assistance when you tell them you have a friend on float 7, at the top, in position 8, and her name is [whatever]…because the voice of one person shouting in a sea of yells inevitably gets lost, but the collective voices of the ten people around you chanting the name of your friend gets amplified all the way to the top of float 7, and it becomes a group victory when the person in position 8 hears their name, sees you, and throws you that shoe/purse/plunger/coconut, etc..
When your hand/eye coordination is suddenly perfect, because you have one shot to catch that throw, or risk losing it to the person next to you, or risk getting hit in the head with it, or because the only way to handle those massive bags of beads krewes insist on throwing without opening and separating them first, are to catch them, and to revel in the glory of that perfect catch while feeling that lingering burning in your fingers from when those fat beads make contact with them.
When people become unusually affectionate and physically close—partly out of necessity, partly out of drunkenness, and partly because of the magic. Where uptight officials and “professionals” let loose and glitter/glam/costume-up. Where hugs suddenly abound–displays of warmth through non-sexual touches on the arm or shoulder, hands reaching out to help when you lose your balance trying to catch something too big for you.
When your Mardi gras day feels like speed dating, because you run into dozens of people you hadn’t planned on seeing and have successive 5 minute conversations, exchanging compliments on each other’s costumes, asking where they’ve come from, seeing where they’re going, and then making plans to see each other post-festivities.
It’s all of these things that make Mardi Gras “magic.”
And like alcohol/soda/sweets/meat/whatever, come Ash Wednesday, that attitude of sharing food, space, care, compliments, support, aid, and positive energy, seems to be one of the things we give up and leave behind. Picking it back up the next year, when king cakes start showing up in the office (after Epiphany). Then the excitement begins anew, and we remember that in order for Mardi gras to work we all have to collectively (tacitly) agree to participate in very specific and dedicated ways, and get on board with blurring (some of) those dividing lines that would ordinarily separate us on a typical day.
Until January 6, 2019…