The first time, if memory serves correctly, was 1982 or maybe 83. When I experienced Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) for the first time. We (Martha and I and daughter Heidi) had attended weekend parades beginning in1979 after moving to Hattiesburg, Mississippi but we couldn’t make it for Mardi Gras itself because of work and school. (Unlike New Orleans, Hattiesburg and the University of Southern Mississippi didn’t close down for Mardi Gras, although a few years later the University did start cancelling classes for the day.) Then in 82 I met my friend Ricky and for the next five or six years the two of us spent every Mardi Gras in the city, arriving sometime around 7:00 in the morning and getting back to Hattiesburg sometime between 2:00 and 5:00 the following morning.
I believe it was our (mine and Ricky’s) third Mardi Gras when I went to his house, log cabin, to pick him up at our scheduled departure time of 5:00 AM and found him sitting at his kitchen table, a half-empty bottle of Jack in front of him, already drunk, insisting that he had to take the bottle with him for the two hour drive. After all, he said, slurred, he was not the designated driver.
The Zulu parade rolled from somewhere in midtown (It was never revealed exactly where it started.) at 8:00 and usually turned from Jackson Avenue onto St. Charles between 9:00 and 10:00 making its way slowly to Lee Circle (a not totally forgotten monument although it was truly a shameful relic of the old south but I will still miss it the next time I visit the city) and on to Canal Street and on to Rampart and the City Auditorium. (If you go to New Orleans, you autta go see the Mardi Gras (you have to sing this part) … You can see the Zulu queen down on Rampart and St. Claude …) The Rex (King of Carnival) parade rolled on Napoleon at 10:00 turning on to St. Charles shortly thereafter. It would not reach Canal until early afternoon.
Some years Ricky and I were fortunate enough to find the Half-Fast (say that halffast!) Marching Club led by Al Hirt and his trumpet. They had a human-powered wagon dressed up as a bandstand where they sat and played when they weren’t walking or drinking in one of the many bars they passed on their never constant, never published route that terminated at Al’s Bourbon Street club. More often than not, when we found them, we would second-line with them all the way to the terminus.
And once there, we generally joined the debauchery in the French quarter, never making our way back out to Canal for the Rex parade. (I never saw that parade until after Martha and I moved to New Orleans in 1995.) The party in Bourbon Street continued until midnight when six of New Orleans’ finest began sweeping Boubon street from Esplanade to Canal, six abreast on horseback, announcing through their bullhorns “Mardi Gras is over. Please go home.” That didn’t mean bars and other establishments had to close (they never do in New Orleans) but only that if you were found loitering on Bourbon after that you would be arrested. Somehow, Ricky and I (who alternated driving year-to-year with the car owner being the ‘designated driver’ that sometimes had no meaning) always managed to get back to Hattiesburg without killing ourselves or being arrested. There were a couple of years when daylight beat us home.
Ricky got married in 1987. We (Martha and I) moved to Springfield, Missouri the same year. When we moved back to Hattiesburg a year later Ricky’s wife frowned on the Mardi Gras tradition so we never went back. Beginning in about 1990 I went alone for a few years but it wasn’t the same as when it was Ricky and I. (In about 1993 Ricky, purposely or accidentally, not sure it was ever determined which, poured methanol in his coffee instead of the usual ethanol (both always available in his laboratory), and was found dead in his apartment the next morning.)
In 1995 Martha and I moved to New Orleans and for two years experienced Mardi Gras first hand. We had the upper half of a double on Louisiana Avenue just a block from St. Charles. The first year we lived there we saw (there was a time I could count accurately but that memory has now faded) over fifteen parades that rolled along St. Charles beginning on the Friday night eleven days before Mardi Gras and culminating in the Rex parade followed by the truck parade on Tuesday afternoon.)
Our Mardi Gras started between 7:00 and 8:00 when we ventured out with our quart jug of bloody marys wandering along St. Charles towards downtown until we reached the lower end of the Avenue where we were sure the Zulus would pass. After that parade we were back at home for a morning nap until about noon when, a second jug of marys in tow, we ventured back out onto the Avenue to await the Rex parade. Rex was followed haphazardly by a ‘truck parade’, a free-for-all, rag-tag collection of flat-bed trucks, each sponsored by a different group or small organization. By mid afternoon we were shot. However, after another nap, I (notice the singular pronoun) would trek back downtown to Bourbon to experience once more the evening’s debauchery!
The last year I experienced Mardi Gras was twenty-one years ago today and I still miss it! In the summer of 1997 we moved into a 4th floor apartment right on St. Charles avenue. We anticipated watching parades from our balcony during Carnival 1998. Alas, the best laid plans, etc. Life got in the way and prevented us from seeing, experiencing, Mardi Gras without even having to walk out our door (although, undoubtedly, we would have been down on the street most of the time but, unlike any previous years, our bathroom would have been only steps away). We departed New Orleans for good in January 1998 only a week or so after twelfth night when the Funny Forty Fellows (or Funny Farty Fellows, was never sure which) charter a streetcar and ride along St. Charles formally inaugurating, initiating, celebrating the Carnival Season.
I hate that I missed the party at St. Elmo’s and elsewhere in Bisbee Saturday night. Stomach issues. It was obviousy (from pictures that friends posted on Facebook) a fun party. Hopefully next year will be kinder.
“Throw me something mister!”
“Show your tits”
Happy Mardi Gras.