Last week, on Ash Wednesday, we had lunch at Venezia’s on North Carrollton Ave. I was fortunate to be seated in such a way that I could see through the front window across the restaurant. Somewhere between the fettucine and the check I noticed what appeared to be an entourage, headed by trucks with blinking lights, making its way up Carrollton toward Canal Street and beyond. Then came something I would have never expected to see, the Rex king’s float, being pulled through Mid-City. That was followed by Boeuf Gras and a menagerie of other floats including those from Zulu, Proetus, Sparta, Bacchus and more. This procession reminded me of a grand finale, like Rex leaving his ballroom floor, of one of Carnival’s 2021’s finest moments, the Floats in the Oaks.
Borrowing from the concept of City Park’s Christmas-time Celebration in the Oaks, the idea of having various krewes donate a float for display, had moved from conceptualization to implementation at warp speed, beginning in November with a Covid-caused declaration that there would be no parades.
What I liked most about “Floats” was that it gave people a chance to pay attention to the design rather than just pandering for beads. Some krewes put a lot of thought, mixed with a lot of history, into their floats. Others do not. But the good ones deserve attention. Here was a pageant in which it was the people who were moving and the floats that stayed stationary. Yet it worked. The moment was made extra lively by the various dancing groups that were performing their numbers along the way. Truth is, without the dancers, the exhibit might have been too motionless.
“Floats” was a major success story though we might not see it again if, hopefully, the krewes need them to roll in a real parade next year. More likely to make a comeback is the season’s other great spontaneous, success story, the ritual of decorating houses like floats. Carnival needed this to bring the celebration to the neighborhoods. There was a time when several parades went through neighborhoods: Freret, Mid-City, Pontchartrain, Alla (in Algiers); now the routes have been standardized: St. Charles Ave (except for Endymion which goes along Canal) and Veterans Boulevard.
Making the houses into an attraction opens the way to different ways of celebrating. There can be block krewes hosting porch bands and parties. The parades are great, but the house floats showed us a new way to expand Carnival. To have great cities you need to have great neighborhoods. Porches are important social spots for gathering and camaraderie. Never underestimate the unifying power of step-sitting.
On Mardi Gras afternoon I drove up Royal Street through Marigny and the French Quarter and then along St. Charles to the Carrollton intersection. That I was able to drive that route on Mardi Gras is itself an indication of the scarcity of activity on what is usually a day bulging with crowds. Yet along the way there were scattered masked groups; one in which each member represented a plague from the past. Along St. Charles, clusters of weary revelers sat on the neutral tossing throws toward slow moving vehicles that were in line for viewing the mansions in costume.
At one point there was a guy with a top hat and some sort of sparkly jacket. He had set up a table, holding a cash jar, near the curb. A sign said he was selling jokes, $1 a piece. In the interest of research for this blog I pulled together a dollar’s worth of change. So that our Carnival season may end with a smile, here (paraphrased) is the joke:
A man is taking a tour of a science museum. At one point the guide shows him a rock from an ancient asteroid. According to the guide, the rock is “690,000 and four and a half years old.” “That’s amazing,” the man told the guide, “how do you know the exact number?”
“Well,” the guide explained, “When I was first hired, they told me the rock was 690,000 years old. Since then, I have been working here about four and a half years.”
Maybe I should have asked for a $2 joke.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 9:30 A.M. SUNDAYS.WYES-TV, CH. 12.
Listen to Mardi Gras Beyond the Beads, a seasonal podcast covering the ins and outs of the Carnival season: MyNewOrleans.com/beyondthebeads