Notes from New Orleans: Mardi Gras Morning

Get up early, put on the pirate's outfit and go see Pete Fountain. Well, I accomplished two of those worthy Mardi Gras goals.

Pete Fountain — still the sweetest Dixieland clarinet player — was a joy to see just after sunrise.

He's 77 years old. Lost his house to Katrina. Missed last year's parade because he had shingles. But here he is — by tradition since 1960 — opening the day's festivities with his Half-Fast Walking Club, playing the morning's first music.

Fountain's krewe rolled off in search of St. Charles Avenue, the day's main parade route. I noticed St. Charles referred to on the Web site of a local restaurant as "possibly the most beautiful street in America."

Since the site also mentions the streetcars and the "misty oaks" of St. Charles, I know that's a pre-Katrina description. The live oaks took heavy damage in the storm. And the electric streetcar line — which runs along the wide expanse of grass between traffic lanes — is far from being ready to roll.

At the moment, though, St. Charles has got to be the most picturesque street you can find.

Tree limbs are festooned with Mardi Gras beads, tossed high in the air. The neutral ground, elsewhere called the "median," is crammed with plastic chairs, folding camp chairs, Canopies, tables, coolers, grills. On Monday I saw a La-Z-Boy recliner that appears to have a permanent spot. Small forests of stepladders wait for moms and dads to arrive with their kids. The hardware stores sell these wooden ladders ready-made and brightly painted; they have a rectangular box on top, so the little ones have a high and safe viewing perch.

And why not rent your own portable toilet for the parades? Put it in your driveway and invite your friends over. I found one on a street corner, padlocked, with the renter's name attached. Easier still? Put one up into the bed of your pickup and get an early parking spot.

I like to walk the street early in the morning and pick up strands of beads that would otherwise be crunched under feet and tires (locals are disdainful of this collection practice and call it "bottom feeding.")

But you can catch all the beads you want in the air if you go to enough parades. People bring shopping bags and backpacks. Beads and cups and small plush animals — and some quite collectible small treasures as well — all shower from the floats.

The riders pay for their own "throws." The best ones I saw came down from the floats of the Krewe of Muses and the hands of its 668 masked riders (all women). Another parade had 30 floats and more than 2,000 riders.

The cleaning crews set out immediately after every parade. "Trusties" lent out by the jails for the occasion help out, wearing garlands of beads.

P.S. This morning I figured all was safe for the day when I saw a New Orleans police officer — who was using his car to help block off a street — playing solitaire on his computer screen.

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