Jan 15, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
My daughter, Ruby, celebrated the big 0-3 a few days before Christmas, and I don’t know if it’s a developmental milestone or what, but ever since, she’s been seemingly compelled to make up some sort of song to accompany nearly every facet of her life.
Sometimes it’s appallingly cute, such as her little ditty, “I love Mommy! I love Daddy! I love my dog, Loki, and I love cheese!”
Sometimes it’s kind of annoying, as was the case with the classic serenade from the backseat, “We’re in traffic! We’re not moving! Mommy’s getting mad! Why are we not going? Mommy doesn’t know!”
Sometimes it’s just a little too much information: “I have to go potty! I have to go potty! No, it’s just gas! No, it’s just gas!”
But every so often, she comes up with a song that’s not only catchy but also unintentionally wise beyond her years. As we got ready for bed the other night, she started singing a song that included the names of everyone in our family, plus most of her friends from day care. The song was admittedly repetitive, but it had a good hook, and a great twist at the end. “It’s not David’s Mardi Gras! It’s not Chelsey’s Mardi Gras! It’s not Mia’s Mardi Gras! It’s not Ava’s Mardi Gras!” The song went on and on, and right when I was about to go from charmed to impatient, she threw up her chubby hands and belted out the conclusion: “Mardi Gras is for everyone!”
If there’s one thing I’d like outsiders to know about New Orleans … well, it would probably be that New Orleans is neither still under water nor completely back to normal and that we don’t need their blessing to rebuild in any case. But if there are two things I’d like outsiders to know about New Orleans, it would be that and the fact that Mardi Gras really is for everyone. Mardi Gras is not just for frat boys peeing in our alleyways. Mardi Gras is not just for drunk tourists puking in our gutters. Mardi Gras is for families and children, for teenagers flirting with being grownups, for toddlers wild with glee over stuffed animals, for parents with tired shoulders.
But on another level, one that didn’t even occur to me until I lived in Missouri, Mardi Gras here is not just for the social elite.
In St. Louis, which is in many ways a very similar city to New Orleans (humid, historic, overwhelmingly Catholic), the Veiled Prophet Ball and Veiled Prophet Parade were for many years that city’s answer to our debutante balls and Carnival traditions, with the Veiled Prophet, always a socially prominent businessman whose identity was kept a secret, choosing a Queen of Love and Beauty to reign over that year’s debs. The ball was televised, and the vast majority of St. Louisans who were not well-off enough to be invited watched at home. A parade followed the ball.
But by the late 1970s, there was controversy and extreme uneasiness over the ball and the parade, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the Veiled Prophet’s costume was eerily reminiscent of a Klansman’s. Though the ball continues to this day, it is no longer televised, and the parade has been turned into a Fourth of July celebration under the Gateway Arch and renamed to delete any reference to the Veiled Prophet. (St. Louis does hold a Mardi Gras celebration of sorts, though I personally don’t think you can celebrate Fat Tuesday on a Saturday –– to say nothing of the fact that there’s usually still snow on the ground up there.)
At my previous job at the University of Missouri Press, we published several books about the Veiled Prophet, and one of the authors, upon hearing I was from New Orleans, asked me if I’d been a debutante. “Oh, no,” I replied, laughing. “My parents were artsy hippies. I’m not deb material.”
“Ah,” he said. “So you just scramble in the gutters for the doubloons they throw?”
“Well, sure, I guess,” I said. “I love parades.”
I guess I’m just naïve or too steeped in the racist, classist ways of this city, but the notion that Carnival could be offensive because of the role that the social elite play in the celebration never occurred to me.
Maybe he was right, and maybe we’re just too dumb or too drunk down here to notice, to grasp social nuances like that, to be offended by the significance of begging for worthless trinkets from the elite. But I tend to think that he was the one who didn’t get it.
We like to have fun down here. We love a good time, an excuse to celebrate. We understand that to have parades, we need both riders and crowds, and we understand that we all have a role to play to continue a tradition that is a hallmark of the city we all love with our whole hearts. We all work together to make it happen, whether we’re masked and raining beads down on the crowd or standing on the neutral ground waving our hands and screaming ourselves hoarse. It’s not an Us versus Them thing; it’s just Carnival.
And Mardi Gras is for everyone.