New Orleans Set for 'Bittersweet' Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras is approaching and New Orleans is trying to recover its pre-Katrina lock on the celebration. But this year's attendance is sparse so far, the floats are fewer and festivities lack the flamboyance of the past.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And, finally, dear listeners, some good news from New Orleans. Mardi Gras is back.

(Soundbite of Mardi Gras music)

There goes a marching band, following Mardi Gras floats down Canal Street last night in New Orleans. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates is there to send us reports next week, and last night, she sent us this.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Alex, I'm at the mouth of the French Quarter, where, as you can hear behind me, Mardi Gras has begun in earnest. The big stuff won't start until this weekend, but the first parades have started. They are smaller than usual. They are more sparsely attended than usual. The floats are fewer than usual, all because of Katrina. We're going to be looking all next week on the effect Katrina has had on Mardi Gras, and how New Orleans is doing six months after she roared into town.

CHADWICK: New Orleans is coming back, Karen reports. At least, parts of it, anyway, but it's slow. Everyone has to figure out the basics, like just getting a business running again.

GRIGSBY BATES: Alex, my producer, Shareem Miraji(ph) and I walked over to Mother's the first morning we were here, for one of the restaurant's legendary breakfasts. We were greeted at the door by the volunteer ambassador and resident historian, Chucky Stevens, who says he's been a regular of Mother's since 1953.

Mr. CHUCKY STEVENS (Volunteer Ambassador and Resident, New Orleans): The longshoremen come here and eat, unload the ships and load the ships. Thirty-five cents, you got a plate of red beans and rice and a vegetable.

GRIGSBY BATES: A place that feeds longshoremen is not where you'd go for an egg-white omelet and artificial-sweetened coffee, although you can get those here. The portions at Mother's are huge: great, skinny mounds of buttered grits, piles of crispy bacon, and big slabs of ham with sweetly caramelized skin. Beneath the wall of signed photos of Marines, not movie stars, owner Jerry Amato says, post-Katrina, he's still short on staff.

Mr. JERRY AMATO (Owner of Mother's): Well, my cooks are living in the FEMA trailers in the parking lot, and without them, I couldn't have reopened, but that was the only way I could get them in here, was to give them a place to work, and, actually, for the first two weeks we were open, I put them up in a hotel across the street. Three weeks. It wasn't while they were open.

GRIGSBY BATES: Jerry says the clientele at Mother's has changed a lot since Katrina. The tourists who used to come over from the fancy hotels across the street are gone.

Mr. AMATO: You know, there were so many locals, and then there were so many convention people. There's no conventions. I mean, most of these buildings are full of FEMA people. They come in. They want to eat lunch and leave, you know, and we're a little bit more laid back than that.

GRIGSBY BATES: Mother's visitors aren't the same, and neither is Mardi Gras. Jerry Amato says a smaller Mardi Gras is better than nothing at all, but Chucky Stevens says the city should have reconsidered hosting the country's biggest block party.

Mr. STEVENS: It's not a good time this year, because everybody don't have a home. They's living in hotels, and we have the policemen and the firemen, they're living on cruise ships. The cruise ships are getting ready to leave, and we don't have no one, the tourists, to come to Mardi Gras. There's no place to go. There's no place to sleep, and that's my opinion.

GRIGSBY BATES: But there are tourists here, albeit fewer than usual, so it's not everybody's opinion. The party has started, and we'll continue to bring it to you until the bittersweet end.

(Soundbite of Mardi Gras music)

CHADWICK: NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates in New Orleans. She'll be back with us from New Orleans on Monday. And my co-host, Madeleine Brand, will return next week as well.

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