In a major bucket list check off, I took myself to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I attended three parades. Today, I’m going to tell you about two which represent the complete polar opposite in NOLA parade experiences. On the last Wednesday of Mardi Gras season, I was invited to march with the Sirens of New Orleans, an all women’s dancing Krewe, during the Parade of Nyx, which is sponsored by an all women’s Super Krewe. On Friday, I was a spectator for three Super Krewe parades — Hermes, Krewe d’Etat and Morpheus.
It was a good thing that the day before all these events, I landed in New Orleans and took myself immediately to Jackson Square and the museum at the Presbytère, which has an excellent exhibit on the history and significance of New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions. Let me summarize as near as I understand it.
New Orleans Mardi Gras has its roots in 18th Century French traditions of Carnivale, masking, exclusive societies, and the class structure. If you are familiar with the French and the Venetian traditions of pre-Lenten balls, the masks and costumes allowed permission to indulge in behavior that certainly wouldn’t be allowed after Ash Wednesday and probably was sketchy at any other time of year. This tradition, which included elaborate balls and parties, was largely the province of the aristocracy and upper classes. As they roved from ball venue to ball venue, they threw coins to the great unwashed who were lingering on the streets. Thus were the traditions of the costumes and the “throws” developed. In French influenced New Orleans, the upper classes embraced this tradition and wrapped it around exclusive societies called Krewes who mounted elaborate balls and parades during Mardi Gras and met to drink, plan and exclude women, minorities and anyone who wasn’t Old Money in the off season. The custom of throwing coins to the great unwashed evolved into throwing beads and trinkets to spectators.
But like most traditions that exclude people, there was pressure to change and periods of great social upheaval accelerated that. The first to break away were African Americans who, from slave days were required to light parades with elaborate and dangerous flambeaux. After the Civil War, African Americans retook some of New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition for themselves. They formed the Krewe of Zulu which mocked the masks and robes of the White parades by appearing in tatters and Blackface to mount their own parades and turned carrying the flambeaux into an artform. The second big upheaval was Hurricane Katrina. Since then, the vast majority of new Krewes have been women, who were relegated for years to being Queens and consorts to Krewes that would not allow them membership. Along the way, Krewes, especially the newer Krewes started making the path to membership about involvement in charity and service projects rather than about Old Money. That’s one of the reasons I was excited to march with an all female Krewe in a parade sponsored by a female Super Krewe.
The Sirens of New Orleans are a dancing Krewe, which means they dance the entire route. Even on the many occasions when the paraded is halted. So if the route is five miles, they log at least ten miles. All in corsets and mermaid costumes and always with smiles. To keep those ladies dancing, they recruit “mercenaries”, who dress as either sailors or pirates. Our work is to stop frat boys from touching the mermaids, pull mini-galleons with the Sirens’ throws, and keep the mermaids hydrated.
I served. I served as a sailor. I carried the large blue lanterns known as the Blue Balls. And yes, I think about a thousand people called to me: “Hey girl, you’ve got blue balls!” Because that joke has never ever been heard by the Sirens. Another wonderful thing about being a mercenary was being under the orders of Sailor Jerry and Pirate Graham, husbands of two of the Sirens. They gave us the pep talk on our duties and reminded us that everything we do as mercenaries is to facilitate showing New Orleans THE BEST DANCING KREWE IN THE CITY. In other words, in a complete inverse mode from the old style New Orleans tradition, this was a supportive group of men who were making this little bit of Mardi Gras all about the women. Hurrah for the future. Hurrah for our Pirate Kings!
It was a long punishing march. But it was a bucket list New Orleans experience few tourists get to enjoy. I wouldn’t have traded it for the world — even though all I saw of Nyx Parade were the rear ends of the Budweiser Clydesdales in front of us and the stylin’ dance moves of the Sirens behind me.
Given that limited parade view, I opted Friday to be a spectator. I sprang for the private reviewing stand. Best $20 buck expenditure ever! I was opposite the colonnaded hall and reviewing stand with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the NOLA police chief, dignitaries, and Old Money New Orleans with the men in tuxes and the women in fluttery Southern Belle chiffon and dripping with jewels. Across the street where I was, in the cheap seats, it seemed pretty safe, given that we had our own designated porta-potty and a guard at the gate. But then I noticed the group behind me who had brought in two bottles of Malibu, two bottles of rum, and a couple of liters of Coke, were mixing themselves noxious and probably lethal cocktails and pounding them down with abandon. While I enjoyed the parade, I was constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure none of them were close to vomiting up their horrible mixture. Luckily, a few of them passed out under the stands, the rest wandered off, and I was left unstained.
While the Hermes floats were very poetic, illustrating Shakespeare and other literary works, Krewe d’Etat has a reputation for political satire. I thought some of the floats veered into disrespect and bad taste, but they were equal opportunity insulters. For every Hillary, Obama and Bernie dig, there were an equal number of Trump, Kellyanne, Spicey and Ted Cruz slams. For my money, they just weren’t handled very subtlely or tastefully. I think a certain son of the South, Stephen Colbert, needs to be brought in on a consulting gig at Krewe d’Etat to polish off the rough edges.
But griping aside: Can anyone boast a more quintessentially New Orleans Mardi Gras experience than mine? Marching with a philanthropic womens’ Krewe — which is the new face of Mardi Gras organizations — then reviewing three major parade Krewes at about as close a range as I was going to be allowed without chiffon, Old Southern money and a Confederate ancestor.
Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler!
(More photos on Flickr.)