The term “parade” brings certain things to mind: marching bands, dignitaries and beauty queens waving from the back of convertibles, decorated floats featuring characters from story books, cartoons or holiday rituals. But “parade” as it relates to a New Orleans parade is no such affair, particularly in connection with Mardi Gras.
The kickoff for the Mardi Gras parade season in New Orleans is mounted by Krewe de Vieux, about which, more in a moment. Far more than a four-day weekend, Mardi Gras in the Crescent City is a season of lowered productivity and enhanced consumption that arrives on Epiphany and departs with the arrival of Ash Wednesday — hence Fat Tuesday for Mardi Gras, followed at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday morning with the NOPD patrolling the streets with bull horns, announcing in no uncertain terms, “Mardi Gras is over.” After all, it is now Ash Wednesday. Not content with a mere two-and-a-half weeks for Shrovetide, the French colonials wisely decided an extended period of revelry was needed to gird themselves for the deprivations of the Lenten season.
Mardi Gras parades occupy a continuum of size, spectacle, and themes. A brief taxonomy of parades is offered here for context. While this classification may be as technically compromised as Melville’s attempt at cetology, some perspective enables a proper appreciation of Krewe de Vieux’s place in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Only Rio can exceed this New Orleaninian excess, having the advantage of being in the most non-Calvinistic country on the globe. New Orleans puts up quite an effort, but it is only the most non-Calvinistic city in a nation that considers Adam Smith a theologian.
The Carnival parades of New Orleans come in several types, with various hybrids and transitional cases. This is a city notable for the ambiguity of its boundaries, be they geographic, hydrologic, or social. Even the biological distinction of race was first shown to be something of a fallacy here. As you can now appreciate, staying on topic with a subject based in New Orleans is a task as straightforward as the course the Mississippi takes through the city.
The largest parades are put on by krewes — secret societies of the upper class, with membership on an invitation-only basis, such as Krewe Rex, Krewe Thoth, Krewe de Vieux. Their themes are generally innocuous, and any humor is gentle enough for consumption by kindergarteners. My first Mardi Gras featured a parade with individual floats that presented cartoonish homages to the various sciences — geology, biology and astronomy were all honored.
These floats are large vessels, pulled by farm tractors, with krewe members perched well above the crowd, the better for distributing “throws,” which include beads, stuffed toys, plastic cups, fake coins, and other trinkets that commemorate the krewe and year. Most throws are produced by Taiwanese masters of plastic injection and molding technology, who offer every imaginable color and finish, including translucent objects filled with various sparkles and inclusions that surpass the visual effects obtained by gelatin desserts in the 1950s and 60s.
There is an oddly ritualistic character to the throwing of these prizes. Often, an individual krewe member will make eye contact with someone in the crowd, then pass judgment on whether the spectator is worthy of an unusual object, a garden variety strand of beads, or nothing at all. The thrower may even recognize the recipient, but it’s not mutual, as all krewe members wear masks and costumes that range from absurdly comical to somewhat menacing. Ancient Egyptians, animated skeletons, contemporary politicians, and robed mystics are common archetypes. In addition to throws offered as rewards, it’s not unheard of for a krewe member to make a toss with such force and quantity of payload as to present a threat of minor, but temporarily painful, injury. In this way some grudges are settled anonymously, but other malicious intents are probably also fulfilled. This lends a bit of danger to the proceedings, and gives one a feel of the Rabelaisian dynamic at work beneath the jovial appearances.
Every few years, true tragedy strikes a parade. It’s not unheard of for a viewer to be run over by a float that has stopped temporarily and suddenly resumed its progress, the result of an ill-advised attempt to retrieve a gaudy bit of plastic from the path of the wheels. At least those crushed by a juggernaut were seeking to supplicate a deity. Each time and place has its occasions for frenzy.
Among the traditions of Mardi Gras there are several smaller to medium scale parades that are intended for an adult audience — “adult” being defined as one with an interest in the satirical, ranging in tone from ribald to scatological. These parades may have smaller floats, such as those of KdV, which are mule drawn or human powered, or may be human powered only, such as the mostly walking parade of Krewe of St. Anne’s, which winds through the Bywater neighborhood on Mardi Gras morning. The largest of these more sophisticated parades is put on by the Krewe of Muses, a woman-only outfit, but one that has a number of co-ed “sub Krewes” that collectively contribute certain stretches of a parade. Muses has the most well known sub-Krewe, the Krewe of the Rolling Elvi. Imagine several hundred Elvis impersonators on two-cycle scooters with brigades in white, black, and red-studded jumpsuits and fake pompadours. Riders often improvise systems for beer consumption, including six-packs mounted between handlebars that have a delivery tube for the driver, a “hands-free” nod to safety that preceded Bluetooth earpieces by at least a decade. Hilarious for the enormity and noisy nature of their contingent, the Rolling Elvi emit the biggest cloud of scooter exhaust outside rush hour in downtown Hanoi.
KdV is most well known for it lampooning of the politically correct, the high and mighty of commerce, and the sacred, in both the spiritual and cultural sense. The theme for 2016 was billed simply as “XXX” in acknowledgment of the thirtieth instance of this parade. This seemed broad enough that there might be some dilution of strength due to wide ranging subjects for the individual floats and innuberable sub-Krewes, including Krewe of C.R.U.D.E., Krewe of Underwear, Seeds of Decline, Krewe of Spermes, Krewe of Drips and Discharges, Krewe du Seuss, and Krewe du Mishigas (also known as Krewe du Jieux). Your correspondent last attended this event in 2010, when “Stimulus Package” presented an eclectic and forceful commentary on the economic collapse and the political establishment’s response. One could have not imagined the variety of sadistically sexual onslaughts to which the bankers and brokers subjected poor old Uncle Sam.
The celebrity honored at the head of this year’s parade was Big Freedia, a gender ambiguous musician who is one of the originators of that particularly New Orleans dance music known as “Sissy Bounce.” Bounce is the dance genre that features a particularly vigorous shaking of the derriere in time to an emphatically uptempo beat. In terms of physical intensity, think of burlesque tail-shaking as high school football and bounce as a late round NFL playoff game. Freedia rode her float in regal splendor, with a sizeable gold crown, an animal print robe, and a scepter. Her white sweater added a graceful touch, and was a necessity, given the temperature in the mid 40s at the start of the parade and a considerable breeze. The moisture-laden air of the Gulf is quite effective at robbing heat from a body, and it is typical for weather this time of year to feel a good ten degrees colder than what’s indicated by a thermometer. Seasoned participants rely on layering to deal with these conditions; it’s rightfully considered bad form to defeat the effect of suitable parade dress by donning a ski parka as a top layer.
Peering over the considerable mob that had collected on lower Decatur Street, I did manage to take in the proceedings as the various sub Krewes, marching groups, and bands proceeded along the route. By this time, the throws were few and far between, which was to be expected, as later parades that provide less entertainment more than make up for the quantity of plastic memorabilia put in flight along their paths.
Notable were the number of floats and walking participants who addressed the topic of Confederate monument removal. One gang walking the route had identical “Take Me Down” costumes. The best float on this topic featured an easily recognizable likeness of Mayor Landrieu rendered in Paper Mache on his back, laconically regarding his nether regions, which served as the foundation for a ridiculously large and slightly tilted column of the Doric order with fluted shaft. If phallic humor is not your thing, your time would be better spent on dinner at Antoine’s or Commander’s Palace than a spot on the route of KdV.
This wasn’t the sole effort devoted to the mayor by KdV’s designers this year. Another notable entry featured the mayor and the sheriff of Orleans Parish in “Mitch and Marlin Make a Porno.” Happily, this entry offered more laughs than the typical Seth Rogen movie. The clever souls of KdV had somehow pasted the Mayor’s face onto a still of an adult movie and projected this from an illuminated screen, giving the effect of a paused wide-screen television. Drips and Discharges also included the mayor in their phallic version of purgatory. An anthropomorphized penis stood before the leaping flames. Various occupants were depicted, along with the moral affront that lead them to limbo. Mayor Landrieu’s sin: erasing history; the Dalai Lama’s sin: loving peace, the Donald’s sin: being a dick. My personal favorite was the inclusion of the Oregon militia for the sin of forgetting snacks.
The most technically proficient float was “Alien Invasion” which featured an eye-catching illuminated flying saucer that had beamed down a mustachioed crew wearing LED adorned sombreros. Krewe du Jieux crossed the political spectrum to feature the Bernie Bagel Circus, which encouraged all to “Spiel the Bern.” Another local political entity, the “Sewerage IN Water Board” called out to all to engage in a frequent ritual of New Orleans life in the local vernacular with notice of a “Berle Order.” For sheer delight and surprise, the pedal powered Krewe du Seuss provided a series of wonderfully Goldbergian contraptions that seemed to defy basic physics. The whimsical mechanics were matched by the phosphorescent fur coverings that adorned both machines and marchers. The good doctor would have been touched.
The bands interspersed among the sub Krewes and marching squads offered high quality accompaniment ranging from traditional brass band to gritty street funk. While the big high school bands (themselves showcases of considerable talent) usually march with the big parades, the artistic bent of the KdV rank and file assures an exuberant sound track for the evening. Gaps between parade components often provided space for impromptu dance parties to break out for a few minutes before the procession resumed.
And then, like so much that is special about New Orleans, the moment had passed. We were left with confetti, bits of paper, strips of satin and glitter from the ephemeral costumes of the occasion. While the mobs took to the open bars of Decatur Street, creating a hopeless backlog of thirst, it was good to remember that a block away would be the accommodating bartenders of French Market Place. In a city that, like its river, is eternal and constantly changing, carnival time was back again.