Monday, February 27, 2006
Mardi Gras Memories
This Tuesday is Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday or Carnivale depending on your locale and upbringing. This year all eyes are on New Orleans as it tries to emerge as a water-logged phoenix from the flooding of Katrina.
My one and only visit to The Big Easy was 18 years ago when I was but a newlywed. I had come home one day with my first bonus check from my first real job and my wife asked if we wanted to go to Mardi Gras since it fell on President’s Day weekend and she would only need to burn two days of vacation. Feeling flush, I said sure.
Then she told me how she tried to make reservations at the Days Inn in Metarie, but had dialed the Dauphin Hotel in the French Quarter by mistake. They had just had a cancellation for a king suite facing the street and we snagged it. I later found out that people make Mardi Gras reservations at this hotel upon check-out for the next year and it sometimes takes years to get upgraded to a street-view.
That sort of serendipitous naivete would work in our favor the whole trip. One morning we were strolling past Brennan’s and I popped in to see if they had a table. They were booked, but gave me a reservation for the next day. It turned out to be the most fantastic dining experience of my life. Eating at Brennan’s is more than a meal. It is a three hour lesson in culinary superlatives ending of course with the original and best Bananas Foster on the planet.
We collected a trunkful of beads without exposing any body parts on either of us. My wife had to explain why some of the balconies would only throw beads to me and not her. I had to tell that the technical term for what the guy was doing on the table at Pat O’Briens was not “mooning” but “flashing”. A Pat O’Briens hurricane is 5 ounces of rum with enough fruit slush to make it go down completely unnoticed. There were people with 4 or 5 empties lined up on their table. We were barely able to stagger back to the hotel after one.
We ate beignets at Café DuMonde. We had mufulattas, and jambalaya and gumbo. We saw celebrities. Buster Poindexter was there and "Hot, Hot, Hot" was the unofficial theme song, even though it was cool enough for my yellow jacket. Nothing screams MTV in the 1980s better than Adam Curry in full TV make-up.
We saw costumes and parade floats unlike any anywhere. The parades were endless, running all times of day and night throught the entire weekend. Each float was more spectacular than the last.
We were surprised by the number of families there in full costume. We had been prepared for a wild orgy of debauchery, but if you just wanted to have a good time, that worked too. There were evangelical groups trying to save souls that were noisier and ruder than any of the more exotically dressed partiers and at least as entertaining.
When Katrina hit, everybody poured out their hearts and wallets to help the victims. I made a modest effort myself. Now the money is running out and people aren’t back in their homes yet. Even though they are more somber than in the past, the parades and festivals are going on with the gallows humor that gets people through tragedy.
New Orleans will survive. It always has. But you can't step in the same river twice and I will always remember the wide-innocence I had when I saw big muddy Mississippi and the Crescent City that sits in its shadow.
Laissez le Bon Temp Rouler!