When New Orleans natives discover you're a visitor to Mardi Gras — especially if you're media — they want to make one thing completely clear: "PLEASE go back home and tell folk the Mardi Gras they see on TV, with the drunks and the flashers, that's NOT our Mardi Gras!"
Jay Banks is a member of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, New Orleans' oldest predominately black krewe. He wants everyone to know that Mardi Gras for homefolks is a family affair. Until he was old enough to journey to the corner of 12th and St. Charles Avenue on his own, he would walk there with his family to stand in the same spot, with the same folks, every year.
"It was a reunion, you see. It still is," Banks says. "Katrina moved me out of my house, but she won't be keeping my family from going to its same spot this year." So when he marched by with his Zulu brothers, he knew where to look for his relatives and friends.
It's the same across the non-touristy parts town. In the Garden District, neighbors pitch canvas canopies curbside and set up barbeques and coolers. They're sharing drinks and catching up while their children play on the grassy median and scream for throws from the floats. On side streets, porch parties are in full swing, as residents sip and wave to passers-by and offer cold drinks, gumbo or cheese and crackers.
There's plenty of drinking, but away from downtown and the French Quarter, drinks are ancillary. Even without beer in go-cups, and lethal tropical concoctions in coconut husks, everybody still has a good time.
Sitting in the Zulu clubhouse in the city's historic Faubourg Treme the other day, in a room lined with carnival photographs of past Zulu presidents, Banks tries one more time to break it down:
"Mardi Gras is inside every New Orleanian. It's part of who we are. If we're scattered across the country, or the globe, like we are right now, there will still be Mardi Gras in some form, wherever we are. Even Katrina can't stop Mardi Gras, because Mardi Gras is its own force of nature."
—Karen Grigsby Bates (Correspondent, Day to Day)