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Memory Mambo

Mardi Gras is canceled this year. So say the authorities.

It’s happened before, many times in fact. Mardi Gras was canceled in 1918 and ‘19, during World War l. (And coincidentally, during the Spanish flu pandemic.)

Then again it was tossed between 1942 and ‘45 for World War ll. Then again in 1951 for the Korean War. Then again, in 1979 when the New Orleans Police union went on strike.

That one happened anyway, in ‘79, though because…people. It was five years before I would move to New Orleans, but it was my older brother Richard’s third year in New Orleans for Carnival. I was in high school and he used to bring back beads for me and I was both mystified and confused by it all.

What was this thing, this place, about?

He also brought back Meters and Neville Brothers records and they changed my world view. Listening to the “Cissy Strut,” “Dancing Jones,” “Washable Ink” and “Vieux Carre Rouge” blew my mind. It was inevitable that I would end up here. And so I did.

That year of the strike, 1979, was as peaceful as any celebration could be, despite no police presence. My brother and his friends, they created some gang or posse or krewe or some such thing, anointed his friend Danny as their “King” and they pushed him around the city in a wheelbarrow while he waved a stick in the air.

A true reign. Times were much simpler then.

When I finally did move to New Orleans, in the summer of 1984, the Neville Brothers played every Wednesday night at Sheila’s Australian bar at the World’s Fair. (Or I guess its proper name was the Louisiana World Exposition.)


 The day rate for the Fair was $17, which locals found astounding and offensive. But at 10 p.m. every night, the gate fee dropped to four bucks. I was usually standing at the gate by 9:50 every Wednesday night. I rushed to Sheila’s, sat on the floor with my legs crossed in a room with about 40 other people and washed my sins away listening to the Brothers.

I was under the mistaken impression that this is what life would always be like in New Orleans. The Neville Brothers playing every week in a near-empty room just for me and a few other people and just for four bucks. Obviously that didn’t turn out to be the case. But it was the summer of my life, newly reborn and baptized into New Orleans, forever changed.

Iko Iko and all that.

But this year, we must sit it out. It’s important and correct. So that most of us are still alive to celebrate again the next year. Parades and floats, bands and beads, wheelbarrows and sticks. Whatever it takes. But we’ve got to get there together.

“Canceled,” it turns out, was, in 2020, the fourth most popular Google term search in America after “rigged,” “stolen” and “Karen.”

OK, I kind of made that up, but I bet I’m close to the mark. I remember a time when rigging was something you did before you went fishing. Now, it seems, it’s a lifestyle choice.

And pity any child named Karen.

But enough of all that. There are serious issues to address here.

Me, I’ve seen enough parades to last a lifetime. Went through three ladders when my kids were young. Finally left them on the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground after a parade several years ago to pass them on to the next generation.

But I feel bad for the kids this year. Me, I’ve surely seen the Bacchasauras 30 times over the years. Rode the painted ponies in Acadiana for eight years. Been arrested a coupla’ times and woke up in the morning with strangers a time or two.

It is what it is and, wistfully, was what it was. This is the winter of our discontent.

No doubt, thousands of revelers will still fill the streets of the city, like ‘79. There’s really no actual way to “cancel” Mardi Gras. It’s a day and a date and New Orleanians have an intractable and inscrutable means by which to revel.

At least most folks will be wearing masks. Not likely CDC approved masks, but it’s a gesture.

So happy and safe Mardi Gras to you all. Be careful, be safe and remember: Show your wits at every opportunity.

Because that’s all we’ve got left.

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