The Greatest Mardi Gras Ever
ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION
Mardi Gras was on Feb. 28 10 years ago in 2006. The late date was fortunate because the Katrina-battered city needed every extra day it could get to prop itself up for the celebration it needed to have. Since March 3, 1699 – the amazingly coincidental date when Frenchmen first camped out in what would be Louisiana territory on a date that happened to be Mardi Gras – there had been 306 celebrations of some sort each year in the city. Mardi Gras 2006 was the most important of all. It wasn’t about partying, economic development or tradition; it was about a city believing in itself again. This year, 2016, is the 10th anniversary of Carnival’s finest moment.
Ray Nagin had been oblivious to the television cameras in the back of the room. The mayor had gone to Atlanta where one Sunday night he spoke to a group of displaced New Orleanians. One woman told of her woes and added that the city should forget about having a Mardi Gras while so many people suffered. With the TV camera closing in, the mayor agreed. That night his comments led the 10 p.m. news back in his city. The next morning the radio talk shows were abuzz. A few days later an overwhelmed Nagin said he had changed his mind, saying that he had been “outvoted” by the tourism industry, which never had the power to override a mayor. Nevertheless, the point was made.
Throughout the city the chant was heard – folks wanted Mardi Gras. There was concern that if we celebrated too hard the rest of the world would think we didn’t need help; others argued that if we didn’t celebrate, the world would see the city as lifeless. Most of all, folks said they just needed Carnival; including the Krewe of Zulu, whose voice resonated in the black community by assuring that it would be strutting on Mardi Gras.
For most krewes the task wasn’t easy. Some didn’t parade; some combined with others to create hybrid parades in which many floats had blue tarps – the roof material seen around town that had become a symbol of the rebuilding.
On the Saturday before Mardi Gras weather played havoc, so much so that the krewe of Endymion has to postpone, deciding to make the logistically challenging move of parading behind Bacchus the next night.
Lundi Gras went smoothly with Rex, Tabasco magnate Paul McIllhenny, arriving by river to take reign over his wrecked but regal empire.
With fireworks splashing overhead, Rex looked out from Riverwalk toward the towers of downtown. Only six months earlier there had been the frightening howl of winds whipping through the canyons of buildings. On this night there was the echo of drumbeats.
Zulu led the activity on Mardi Gras morning, being true to its commitment to parade. The real test though would be Rex, who took seriously his title as “the King of Carnival.” If any parade had to be at full stride it needed to be this one. The challenge was formidable. The Rex den had been battered by the high waters. Some of its old floats are built on wagon beds that still have wooden-spoked wheels. If there’s a profession that’s in short supply, it’s wheelwrights capable of fixing such damages. Rex organizers searched the nation to find who they needed.
Celebrating a theme of “Beaux Arts and Letters,” Rex turned onto the street and presented a beautiful, full capacity parade. There would be no water stains or mold marks in the kingdom of Rex.
Like a charge of peacocks, the Society of Saint Anne added more color to the French Quarter, as its hundreds of maskers sauntered their way from Bywater toward Canal Street.
Within its ranks lies the true spirit of Carnival, which cannot be detained and is easily unleashed. Just as in 1979, when a very tense strike by police caused all parades to be cancelled, Mardi Gras, the day itself, could not be denied. Celebrating hard was more than an escape – it was a mission.
Overall, the crowd was a little smaller than usual, partially because some hotels hadn’t reopened and partially because many people still thought New Orleans was underwater.
Instead, the city played in the sun. Adding to the splendor was the weather that peaked at 76 degrees and a cloudless sky.
That night Rex and Comus continued their meeting of the courts ritual before their invited guests and a TV audience. Carnival reached its final moment as the monarchs left the court.
I, meanwhile, was challenged to find out if there had ever been a Carnival day when the weather was better. Maybe I could check old records, I thought, having conceded that this search was beyond Google capacity. But then I realized that the weather had been perfect and perfection couldn’t be improved upon. Add to it the emotional lift given to a city that so recently had been flattened and this was, no doubt, the greatest Mardi Gras ever.
Ash Wednesday and its somber message could wait. The spirit of rebirth had captured the day.