mardi gras magnetism
This IS the meaning of life!
--From a sign on a Mardi Gras float in the Krewe of Mid-City parade. Their theme this year was “Rode Hard and Put Up Wet,” and their floats had blue tarps covering their bottom portions, to hide where they’d been flooded.
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The challenge of Mardi Gras is the challenge of life itself—how to see it all, really see it and experience it, in a finite amount of time. Every year, I promise myself that I’ll stay up all night on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday) so that I can be awake when Tuesday dawns. Every year, I give in and snooze for a few fitful hours, but part of me is alert and hovering above the bed. I’m too excited to fully relax into sleep.
Mardi Gras is the only day of the year when I bolt out of bed as soon as I hear the 6:30 alarm. For on that day, I want too much. I want to catch a Zulu coconut from one of the black men in black face that parade uptown. I want to see a Mardi Gras Indian in their new suit of hand-sewn beaded panels and feathers stretching to the sky. I want to drink champagne with my breakfast king cake. I want to march with the Jefferson Buzzards as they wind their way from tavern to tavern. I want to join my fellow costumers under clouds of confetti and swirling banners so that we can second line together into the French Quarter.
Bob just wants his coffee. How lucky to be Bob!
It kills me that I can’t be everywhere at once, to witness the many ways that the townsfolk step into their buzz. From the gaudy to the dangerous, the passive to the manic, everyone wears the party somehow. This is why Fat Tuesday is so compelling to me—for one day, a Tuesday no less, everyone is committed to being happy. People who don’t want to be happy know to stay home. Even the Christians who protest the debauchery in Jackson Square, angry though they seem with their bible handouts and microphones, they too are revelatory in their righteousness.
Artists often prefer to portray painful human emotions rather than the pleasurable ones. But as much as we can learn from the emotions on the sour end of the scale, bliss reveals her own secrets. What do people carry with them as they stumble through their day? What makes their eyes light up? Who follows who, and what do they hope for? What do they say when two giant penises walk by?
I will never see all of it, but I can try. And the question that repeats itself every morning—do I join the parade or should I simply watch?—reaches a frantic urgency on Mardi Gras day. Either way, I have to decide quick or I’ll miss it. If I want to watch, Zulu rolls at 8 am. And if I want one of their coconuts, I better arrive early to get up front. If I want to parade, I need time to smear on body paint and adjust strap-on wings and glue finishing touches onto a headdress and lace up knee-length boots. The longer it takes me, the more magic I miss.
Because of the special significance of this year’s Mardi Gras—the first chance for our city to really celebrate since the storm—my franticness hit an all-time high. Not only was I compelled to costume, but my costume had to be outstanding. This is why Bob and I were up until 2 am on Lundi Gras. Not because we were out listening to music or getting drunk, but because we had to rivet metal plates together and affix wings to the back of my costume. Never mind that I didn’t know how to work with metal—not aluminum, either, but galvanized roof flashing. Never mind that Bob was sick of crafting costumes. I had a mission and no one was sleeping until it was completed. (Our friend Julie, who we’d invited over for a Lundi Gras slumber party, got bored watching us and went home to bed.)
My mission began in late October, when we returned from our evacuation to find the city in ruins. As we drove through the darkening streets to our house, it became clear that we were alone. Windows were still boarded for the storm. Doors flapped open on their hinges, with no one to secure them shut. Abandoned cars and discarded refrigerators lined the streets. Feral animals lurked in the piles of trash. Night fell, and no lights shone to combat the darkness.
Of everything we saw, the refrigerators got to me the most. And it wasn’t even the blocky appliances themselves, but the magnets still hanging to their doors that sunk a sad pit in my gut. How could I not compare these tiny relics to the residents of New Orleans who were also forgotten and left behind? The first magnet I took was a gold ceramic angel. She fit perfectly in my hand, so as we wandered through the damage, my nervous fingers had something to hold onto.
The farther I wandered, the more magnets I found. Everywhere I looked, something begged to be saved. Not only did I find more angels, but I found cartoon characters, poems, photos, and ceramic fruits and vegetables by the truckload. Even the banal magnets for banks and drugstores, pizza joints and insurance companies seemed significant. Would these businesses ever exist again? Who would remember them?
I cleaned the magnets—many of them crusted with dead maggots—and put them in a shoebox. They weren’t for me to keep, so I waited until Mardi Gras to show my neighbors what I found. My costume would have been much easier to make had I simply glued the magnets to my getup. Instead, I needed to wear metal so I could return the magnets from where they came—to the streets.
So I didn’t see the Zulu parade this year. I didn’t catch any Mardi Gras Indians either. Instead, I spent much of Mardi Gras morning figuring out how to ride my bike without all my magnets falling off. But we made it to the French Quarter to join the other costumers. Many of them wore blue tarp or red tape. They had water wings and inner tubes, just in case the flood water were to rise again. One group dressed in prison jumpsuits had a sign announcing themselves as the Federal Emergency Masturbation Authority. As always, there were showgirls and cowgirls, voodoo dolls and rag dolls. One could go blind from the wigs and the headdresses and the visions from the sea. From the turbans and the titties to the warriors and the kitties—everyone played their part.
I planned to give the magnets to other costumers, to everyone else who cared enough about the city to venture the streets looking ridiculous. But I found that after keeping these magnets for months, I didn’t want to give them away indiscriminately. At first, I limited myself to other people in metal costumes, so the magnets wouldn’t get lost during the day’s chaos. I zeroed in on bicyclists and people in wheelchairs. As well, I gave a tomato magnet to a girl in a giant Campbell’s soup can, and a cluster of grapes to her friend in a metal cage painted as a bottle of Absolut. I had too many magnets to keep up the rigorous search, though, and by the day’s end, anyone who wanted a magnet got one.
I can only hope that my magnets made it safely to their new refrigerator homes, that they’re back to work holding up grocery lists and baby photos. As for me, I’ve decided to keep the Mardi Gras spirit alive throughout the year so I don’t have to cram everything in one day. Hence my decision to start a costume business with an emphasis on incorporating recycled materials. We’ve got 35 years worth of trash down here, and someone’s got to do something beautiful with it. Stay tuned, dear readers, stay tuned…
See Mardi Gras photo postings below. From "Where every man is king..." to "Shrimp Cocktail." Happy Lent, y'all!