“Mardi Gras is not for children.”
I’ve had quite a number of friends — intelligent, well traveled people, some of who have actually been to my hometown of new Orleans, though not during the Carnival season — make this claim casually, as if it were common knowledge. And, sadly, I can’t even blame them; common knowledge its exactly what it is. If you visit the always historic and often notorious French Quarter during the celebration, you’ll see tons of frat boys packed like douchebag sardines yelling at an equally foreign group of young females to show their tits for beads. Which, more often not, they do. What you won’t see, gay subculture aside, is actual Mardi Gras. The Carnival most tourists know is just Spring Break South with beer in the streets and limited, split-second nudity.
Try and imagine what it’s like to be a local and see this. Imagine your town’s most cherished tradition, one which utterly defines the culture and attitude of the city, therefore one which was in this case already plenty decadent and free, giving way to this kind of idiocy. it’s one thing to be a snob about your local custom tourists don’t know about, quite another to have it replaced, in the minds of your countrymen, with a tradition that’s not only wrong but a complete antithesis. Think of a Veterans Day parade with Japanese flags Fasting on Thanksgiving. Valentine’s Day, sure, I know that, that’s when you stalk some girl and slash her tires when she calls the police.
It’s not that tits don’t belong at Mardi gras. I’m a straight man. Like Jello, there’s always room for tits. And the holiday as it’s observed in NOLA absolutely has a history with boobs — one that doesn’t go back as far as the other traditions, sure, but it’s there. Actual Mardi Gras has these things called parades, which are a lot like like yours except that the floats are prettier and the marching bands funkier. Also, we’re unique in that we throw things to the crowd from the floats, which encourages audience participation. Beads are only a part of it — there are all manner of useless trinkets.that aren’t supposed to be redeemed for anything; the idea is simply to see how much crap you can accumulate. You’re from Real America, you should free able to understand that concept.
Anyway. Those parades used to be held in the French Quarter, moving right down those streets you’re currently pissing on. As the population outgrew the narrow streets laid down centuries ago, however, these parades left the Quarter in search of slightly newer neighborhoods with more breathing room. At the same time the Quarter, like many other areas of urban America, started to decay. Jazz bands were replaced by Rock and R&B show bands, burlesque clubs with titty bars. Decadence became Bourbon Street’s calling card. And locals who found themselves in a den of vice started asking to be flashed and giving out the coveted beads as payment.
All well and good, but it was never intended to replace the traditional Mardi Gras festivities — and indeed it hasn’t, not outside of the Quarter. Try calling out “show your tits” to someone at a parade and watch the NOPD come over to have a little talk with you. As the city’s oil revenues dried up in the 80s, however, tourism became the new cash cow, and Bourbon Street became a parking lit for assholes drinking way more than they’d ever been able to in their lives. “Show your tits!” replaced ‘”Throw me something, mister!” as the main demand of the day. And when the Girls Gone Wild video series discovered this phenomenon around the time of Hammer pants, they filmed it, and it exploded.
It’s still not Mardi Gras. Going to Carnival in New Orleans to see tits is like going to London to see Big Ben. Oh it’s there, and it’s impressive, but it’s not at all the point.
This brings us back to the children. Actual Mardi Gras is full of them. In fact, the parades that are the backbone of the celebration are among the first memories of any New Orleanian. They don’t involve tits per se — it’s more like a pretty rowdy family reunion crossed with a working-class costume ball and a particularly drunken block party. Things are going on for damn sure, but your child isn’t seeing most of it. He’s too busy stomping on the foot of that old lady so that he can get a plastic cup embossed with a parade krewe’s logo, or some of those beads, or some pirate doubloons “minted” by the krewe, or a bouncy ball or a giant novelty toothbrush or God knows what else. You know those Shriners with the dour faces that throw impossibly hard bubble gum at kids while driving goofy little cars? We have those too. And clowns. Cotton candy and popcorn vendors in the street. There’s not only a parade just for kids, there’s one for puppies. It’s a funnier Halloween where Mom and Dad also get to have fun for once.
There’s also a number of traditions unique to the celebration, unique to American life, even, some of which date back to the Civil War. I won’t bore you with the history of New Orleans Carnival; local historian Arthur Hardy, whose Mardi Gras Guide has become a beloved annual institution, has an excellent basic history he trots out every year for noobs. It’s pretty impressive — the flambeaux torches, the debutante balls, the krewes themselves (each of which has a distinct personality), the myriad of throws, the entire Afro-Caribe sub-subculture of Mardi Gras Indians, the classic R&B anthems of the celebration recorded in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the celebrity kings ranging from Louis Armstrong to Will Ferrell, the way the Catholic Church pulled a Christmas and added Ash Wednesday as atonement and Lent as punishment for what is essentially a pagan bacchanal. The Lundi Gras celebration. The Boeuf Gras. The Zulu Coconut. Don‘t know what these are? You’ve never been to Mardi Gras.
You may be thinking, “Hey, I don’t care about all that culture shit.” We understand. You’re here to drink and yell real loud and hit on cute people and do a bunch of things in the street they never ever let you do in Butt Fuck, Wyoming or East Jesus, Iowa. We get it. Confining people like you to the French Quarter actually serves our purpose. But guess what? You can get drunk anywhere at Mardi Gras, and hook up with actual women to boot, ones that will let you look at their whole body if you demonstrate some basic humanity and personality. Hell, you might actually get to touch a girl, or even have sex with one. And while you’re doing that, you’ll be participating in a real cultural experience unlike any other in the world, one that also involves great music and food and people. You can go home and tell your bros about that. That’s all the thanks we need — if you’ve ever done Mardi Gras like a local, spread the word. Some copies of Mardi Gras Guide would be a good start, but you may have trouble tracking them down, because those old prejudices remain — when, some years ago, Hardy tried to get WalMart to carry the incredibly tasteful and informative publication, and was told that the box giant wasn’t interested in dirty magazines. And you can understand why. After all, Mardi Gras is not for children.