Mardi Gras has come and gone again. Visitors to Mardi Gras think the local folks provided the greatest free party on earth, just for them. I guess in a way that is true, but the locals look forward to this time to have fun themselves. Each year New Orleans natives eagerly await Mardi Gras season so they can show off the costumes, and the decorated floats they have labored on all year long. On the big day itself, they will “pass a good time”–all for their own benefit. Visitors are welcome to watch and even participate in the fun once they loosen up enough.
The big carnival crews such as Rex, Bacchus, Endymion and Comus arrange for professional artist like Blaine Kern to produce for them–at great costs–spectacular floats. The locals and visitors alike, who line the streets yelling “Throw me something mister,” are thrilled as these works of art pass on the street in front of them.
Invariably, first time visitors to Mardi Gras insist they are not going to demean themselves by shouting and waving their hands seeking cheap favors made in China from people in costumes and masks pretending to be royalty, gods and goddess, story book characters or some mythical creature. This demure attitude lasts for about one parade. By the second parade, one will see their visiting friends flailing their arms franticly, screaming at the top of their voice “Throw me something mister,” and stepping on little kids’ hands to retrieve cheap trinkets that have fallen to the street.
But for me, the most fascinating events of Mardi Gras are the Truck Parades that roll only on the special day. They get larger every year. These parades are populated by hundreds of floats imaginatively created by ordinary folks in neighborhoods all over the city and its suburbs.
My family and I were once privileged to ride in a Truck Parade. This was only after we paid our dues and joined a neighborhood group. We had to agree to meet regularly to decide our theme, construct complicated costumes, and to decorate the flatbed truck the organization had purchased long ago–for this purpose only.
The logistics of being in a Truck Parade are mind boggling. The average number of people, adults and children, that will ride on a flat bed float on Mardi Gras is about forty. Each person is expected to provide the beads and trinkets they will throw during the parade. You order your “throws” by the gross, e.g. a hundred gross of this and two hundred gross of that, early in the year. Each rider also buys special, more costly throws that will be given to their friends, family and special persons on the parade route. Sometime well before Fat Tuesday cases of “throws” from China arrive at the group’s headquarters (one of the member’s homes).
The theme for each year’s parade and the division of labor is hammered out at early meetings. This can be a process requiring delicate political skills. No Robert’s Rules of Order here. Our organization had been in Truck Parades over many years; therefore, our meetings went smoothly.
After weeks of discussion, the group decided we would be leprechauns. The women went to sewing many green costumes with silver spangles. We men created large shamrocks from plywood and attached them to our float. During the process of decorating our float, we determined the flatbed truck was too short to accommodate all of us. At our local trade school I had just re-honed my welding skills, learned in the oil fields of Venezuela. Although we had electricians, carpenters, and plumbers in our group, I was elected to weld an extension on the end of our truck. By then we had attached much flimsy plywood and paper mache decorations to our float. I damn near burned up our laboriously created work of art when sparks from the arc welder ignited some paper mache. Fortunately, I extinguished the fire quickly and survived the wrath of the rest of the krewe.
On a Mardi Gras Truck Float, every person is assigned a space on the rails of the truck that is about the width of a commuter airplane seat. Each rider is expected to prepare his space and arrange his throws in such a manner to allow him to throw his prizes with ease to the bellowing crowds as the float rumbles past the masses of people. Old timers willingly give advice on the most efficient mechanics of preparing throws for delivery to the excited revelers along the parade route.
At the break of day on Mardi Gras day, the four of us arrived looking like leprechauns and carrying hoards of throws to board our truck float. We also had to provision ourselves with food and drink for the day long sojourn through the streets of Jefferson Parish. We brought soft drinks and sandwiches. Most of our companion leprechauns fortified themselves with hard booze and cases and cases of beer. Riding in a truck parade is not for the claustrophobic, because there is no getting off the float once you board until you are returned home late in the day.
Of course, potty facilities are of paramount importance on a float. Due to the amounts of beer consumed during the long day the Pot-Delight, which was well disguised with painted shamrocks, receives an unprecedented amount of use.
We chugged off, diesel fumes from the semi pulling our float engulfing us, to join the hundred-and-twenty-five other floats that form our parade. The captain of our organization assembled all of us in a large parking lot and assigned us a number. Our driver, well experienced in this procedure, deftly put us in our proper position. Then, we waited and waited for the parade to begin. Hot coffee and cocoa for the kids and long underwear under our leprechaun costumes kept us warm on this chilly morning.
Horns blasted as the hundred-and-twenty-six trucks orderly moved, out towing their carnival revelers. We followed in the wake of the elaborate floats of the Mystic Krewe of Argus as we rolled onto Veterans Highway. Most of the members of Argus were local politicians. Needless to say, their organization did not lack funding.
Once on the major artery of Veterans Highway, we encountered a sea of humanity. Voices with a thousand different pitches implored us with the magic words, “Throw me something Mister.” Our truck horn blasted warnings to the anxious hoards to stay clear of the truck–all to no avail. Arms fully extended, young and older filled with Mardi Gras mania crushed near to the sides of the truck. I feared a child might get accidentally thrown under the wheels of the slow moving vehicle that had to “stop and go” the entire parade. By the grace of some providence, nothing bad happened, even though the process of stopping to throw beads to the crowd, then slowly lumbering on in line behind the other semi-pulled flatbed creations carrying their Disney Characters “Mickey or Minnie”, Pirates, Sailers, human-sized shrimp and crawfish, was a slow one.
Strangely enough, I could recognize folks I knew as our Truck Float plowed through the sea of people. It also astounded me that I could differentiate between interesting and more ordinary faces. Of course, the more interesting and young deserved my special trinkets. I found it uncanny that I could be pick out special people in crowds of tens of thousands. Veterans of truck parades on our float confirmed my observation.
This Mardi Gras was cold for New Orleans–in the forties. Once, we had friends visit from North Dakota. Before they came, they asked about the clothing to bring. I told them the weather could call for anything from Bermuda shorts to foul weather gear. My Northern-winter-accustomed friends protested that forty degrees would not be cold for them. They soon thought otherwise when damp cold winds drifted across Lake Ponchartrain on to their ill-protected bodies.
While we kept warm with long underwear beneath out costumes, some of our Truck Krewe supplemented the long underwear with vast quantities of booze.
Our long cold, day ended when our driver returned us and our float to its vacant lot, where it would await redecorating next year. Our throws were completely depleted and so were we.
Riding in the truck parade proved to be a most interesting experience, but I have found that watching parades less taxing than riding in one.