Mardi Gras did not seem like it would be my kind of holiday. It is characterized, in popular stereotypes, by three things: beads, beer, and breasts. As a teetotaler, I do not drink beer. As a person of taste, I am disinclined to cover myself in plastic beads. And while I am theoretically pro-breasts, I feel no particular need to see them publicly displayed from second-floor balconies. Making the prospect even less appealing, my apartment is in the heart of the French Quarter, a place with unpleasantly high quantities of debauchery even in the off-season. (A man peed on my house the other week.) Mardi Gras promised to be a loud, messy spectacle, the worst of New Orleans magnified and multiplied. I had friends who were leaving town to escape it. They seemed wise.
I also quickly began to realize what everyone from here knows already: it is not just a single day, “Fat Tuesday.” It is Carnival Season, a month-long celebration beginning in early January on Twelfth Night and lasting through Ash Wednesday. We are not talking about an afternoon of unusually heavy drinking by a throng of tourists on Bourbon Street. We are talking about over 50 parades, an influx of visitors that multiplies the city’s population by four, and a billion dollars in Mardi Gras related spending. A few weeks before everything descended into chaos, local news reported that the sewage department had extracted 92,000 pounds of leftover Mardi Gras beads from the city’s catch basins. I honestly did not understand how that many pounds of Mardi Gras beads could end up in the drainage system. I would soon understand.
The season started quietly enough. A week into the new year, a small parade by the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc celebrates Joan of Arc’s liberation of Orléans (the old one) in 1429. This year’s parade featured 10 Joans on horseback, and a special visit by French officials from Orléans itself. Because I was not around to see the Joans pass by, I was temporarily able to maintain the delusion that the city was still operating normally. I went about my days as planned, continuing my usual routine of pretending to be an extremely serious person.
Soon, however, it became impossible not to notice changes. As I was standing in line at the post office, I realized that half the other customers appeared to be mailing king cake boxes. Then I realized that the postal workers themselves were eating king cake.* A woman with a king cake asked me if I was wearing purple because of Mardi Gras. “But Mardi Gras isn’t for another month,” I replied. (Fat Tuesday was scheduled for Feb. 13th, and this was around January 10th.) “No,” she said. “It’s here.”
It was. Within a day or two, construction crews began to appear on St. Charles Avenue downtown, near the building where Current Affairs has its offices. They started erecting bleachers and decorating them in the official Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold. Every day, a new set of bleachers would go up along the sidewalk, to the point where it became impassable to pedestrians. Then, a crew showed up in front of the Current Affairs office building itself. An enormous set of bleachers was built, complete with a private entrance door and a built-in bathroom. I asked the building’s landlord what was going on. He told me that when he originally purchased the place in the 1970s, he had deliberately chosen somewhere on the parade route, so that he could always get a good view. Every year, for over 30 years, he had built a viewing stand where friends and family could come and watch. I asked him whether it was worth going to all the trouble of building this thing, at a cost that must have run into tens of thousands of dollars, just to watch Mardi Gras parades. He told me I would need to wait and watch for myself.
I did not need to wait long. A few nights later, the first of the big parades came rolling past the front door of the office.
I had known, in a basic way, that New Orleans parades are different from other cities’ parades. I have been a number of times to “Mardi Gras World,” which is not a Mardi Gras themed amusement park, but a workshop that offers guided tours showing how artists make the elaborate papier-mache and fiberglass sculptures affixed to the floats. At the beginning of the tour, visitors watch a 15-minute video about Mardi Gras. (Because I take everyone who visits me to Mardi Gras World, I have seen this video about nine times.) In it, local commentators boast that New Orleans parades are special because (1) they are very big and (2) the krewe members who ride on the floats throw things at the audience.
These claims had never impressed me very much, although the floats in the workshop and accompanying storage depot were magnificent. For one thing, I have seen big parades. For another, the additional element of “throwing things at people” did not strike me as spectacularly innovative. And the “beads, cups, and other trinkets” that I was told would be thrown at me did not seem like items I would have a special interest in catching. I was keen to see the floats, which are kept locked away in dozens of secret warehouses around the city throughout the year. But I thought I had probably gotten a good 85% of the experience already just by looking at the few of them that are kept on display at Mardi Gras World.
I had not gotten 85% of the experience. I had gotten, at best, about 2% of the experience.
I was still in the office when the parade began to file by around 7p.m. But it was difficult to stay in the office for long: some of the loudest high school marching bands I have ever heard came by at full blast, foreclosing the possibility of getting any further writing done. I went outside onto the viewing structure, and watched as band after band filed by, punctuated by torch-bearers, cheerleaders, and riders on horseback. The floats themselves were gargantuan and elaborate, shaped like food items, animals, celebrities, New Orleans houses, and the head of Cleopatra. There were ships, Greek temples, and jungle scenes. The 10-foot high animals included a zebra, a rabbit, a frog, a pelican, and a flamingo. When I saw the first of the floats gliding into view I finally appreciated what I had read in Lyle Saxon’s Fabulous New Orleans, when he spoke of what they seemed like to him as a child around 1900: “filling the street as they did, and lumbering over the rough pavement, the great glittering masses seemed as incredible as though the very houses were gliding past.” You didn’t have to be a child to feel as if you were watching buildings move through the streets. Many of the floats are double-deckers, with staircases and bathrooms, and some have many segments linked together. (In 2012, one of the krewes debuted a 330-foot long float that told the entire history of a bygone local beach.)
The parade is made of floats, but it’s also made of pretty much everything else, and it takes hours for all of it to get down the street. On my first evening, in addition to the dozens of decorated floats, all of the following came streaming along over the course of several hours: approximately 40 marching bands, each with accompanying color guard, what seemed like several thousand baton-twirlers and cheerleaders, cowboys on horses who tossed roses, convoys of dune buggies, dancing pharaohs on stilts, Elvis impersonators on scooters, zoot-suited washboardists, mermaids, gangs of clowns, women dressed as magnolias, military cadets, 30 or so Marie Antoinettes, Chinese dragons, a jazz pianist, a battalion of flight attendants dancing using those light-sticks you guide in airplanes with, 50’s girls in poodle skirts, vintage fire trucks, a conga drummer, and several dozen more things I’ve forgotten. I did not even know there were that many sousaphones in the world, let alone that they could all fit into one street. The parade seemed as if it must have stretched the entire length of the city, and I kept puzzling over the mystery of how they could possibly line everybody up at the start.
But what I was truly unprepared for was the object-throwing. Each float has a dozen or so masked riders, with huge bags of Mardi Gras beads and other knick-knacks, which they throw to the audience. I did know this, of course, because I had heard it nine times in the video at Mardi Gras World, which says that New Orleans parades are “audience participation events.” Yet until the first float actually passed by where I was standing, and the audience started pleading and squealing for throws as beads rained down all around us, I did not quite grasp the projectile-based aspect of the enterprise.
What is surprising, and indescribable, is the sheer scale of it. Each rider is tossing something every couple of seconds, so when a float passes by, dozens of necklaces start flying through the air. It is like being in a hailstorm of Mardi Gras beads. Sometimes they throw huge handfuls of beads, or even bags. And while beads are the most common, plenty of other items are thrown. I saw glow sticks, stuffed sharks, masks, full-sized hula hoops, inflatable baseball bats, light-up fairy wands, novelty eyeglasses, rubber balls, koozies, plastic swords, floppy velvet pimp hats, bracelets, candies, dolls, medallions, sunshades, lightsabers, pom-poms, commemorative cups, and feather boas. The Cleopatras threw glowing headbands that flashed “CLEO.” One rider was tossing huge plush ponies.
I had not gone out with the intention of trying to catch anything. As I say, beads don’t suit my style. (If they were tossing cravats, that would be another story.) But non-participation is not really an option. First, if you’re not wearing beads, the people around you will question you about it. Three times in three days, when I went out to the parades, somebody said to me “Is the lack of beads by choice?” and draped me in a string of beads. But even if you can elude your fellow attendees, there’s no escaping the riders. Within the first ten minutes of the first parade, I got hit in the head fairly hard with a flying clump of beads. By the end of it, I had about a dozen sets of them round my neck. Getting into the Mardi Gras parade spirit is not optional: a child came up to me, handed me a bag, and demanded I start catching whatever I could from the floats. Not for him. For me. He refused to let me be a spectator.
You get caught up in it fast. People are clamoring for the beads with outstretched arms, begging the riders to throw them something, and at first you can’t really figure out why. After all, there are plenty of beads to go around. They’re all over the place. After a float goes by, all the ones that missed their targets litter the street, and it would be easy to go and pick a few up if you felt naked in your beadlessness. But once a set of beads hits the ground, it’s as if it’s dead. The point is to catch them, and it quickly becomes a game. They all seem crazy at first, screaming for throws, and many of the objects themselves seem like cheap novelties, if you describe them or see them out of the context of the night. But during the parade, you slowly turn into one of these maniacs yourself. At first you think “What the hell do I want a bunch of beads and a squishy football for?” But then someone near you will get something really cool, a glow-in-the-dark necklace or a decorative shoe, and you, too, will find yourself waving your arms and screaming. And when the guy next to you catches the thing you wanted, you will be devastated, and you will scream even louder and flap your arms even more wildly when the next float moseys across the intersection spraying beads and cups in every direction.
The city is so committed to this practice, by the way, that extensive measures have been taken to ensure that litigiousness and safety regulations do not interfere to stop it. The Krewe of Zulu has long been known for flinging decorated coconuts from its floats, which have occasionally injured passersby. The possibility of flying coconuts leading to a lawsuit nearly led to the cancellation of the coconut-tossing, until the Louisiana legislature heroically intervened and passed a law immunizing krewes from legal liability for injuries sustained from objects thrown from parade floats. After the law was passed, a woman attempted to sue Zulu, claiming she had nearly lost an eye after being beaned with a coconut. She cited a variety of injuries resulting from the incident, including a “loss of interest in Mardi Gras.” But the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the claim, noting that the injured party had made no attempt to catch the coconut or take cover, and rejecting her insistence that she “did not see it coming.” The rule is: be careful.
The hailstorm of objects produces an almighty mess. The whole street is lined with beads that people failed to catch. Nobody who sees it can doubt the story about the 92,000 pounds of beads in the sewers. What’s astonishing is that it was so few. The beads simply take over the city. After the parade, the street is so thick with them in some places that you can’t see the pavement. On my way home, I have to get off my bike and walk it because I can’t ride through the beads. A police car has to navigate carefully around an impassable pile of them. The Italian restaurant next door put barricades on its plate glass windows to protect them from flying beads. Some trees get so many of them tangled in the branches that you can no longer see any leaves; they are just bead-trees. (The beads, colorful and whimsical as they are, actually cause serious problems. The Wikipedia article on “environmental impact of Mardi Gras beads” makes for disturbing reading: they cheaply made and contain toxins that get into the water supply and pose risks to both marine life and local children. But nobody seems much concerned by this.)
I leave the first parade stunned. Never have I seen so much effort put into the production of something so fleeting and purposeless, something that exists entirely to provide a temporary burst of joy. So much work is put into constructing floats that will roll only once. Millions of dollars have been spent on an event in honor of—what, exactly? That’s a bad question, though: there’s no “because” to the parade. The parade happens because it happens. That’s how traditions work: they aren’t “justified,” they just evolve. We do what we do on Mardi Gras because it is what we do on Mardi Gras. But my God, what a thing to do.
By the time I cycle home from the office, it is nearing midnight. The parade has finally passed, and the streets are a wreck. Dozens of street-sweepers collect beads and other refuse. A huge vacuum passes down the street slurping up bead-piles. Bags, beer cans, and food waste are everywhere; it looks as if the city garbage collectors have spent a month or two on strike. Aside from the noise of the vacuum, the sweeping, and a few men with leaf blowers, the whole street has gone empty and silent. An hour ago, thousands of people were watching dozens of dancers, bands, and rolling replicas of Egyptian artifacts pass by. Now everyone is gone, with no sign of where they went. When I get home, well away from the parade route, my block is completely empty, save for the Viking sitting on the corner. (But the Viking is always on the corner.) It’s hard to believe that what happened even happened. What the hell did I witness?
And that was just the first of the major parades. There were still about a dozen more to come. In the office the next day, a woman who works in the building asked me what I had thought of the previous night. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” I said. “Oh that? That was just Cleopatra. Wait until you see the rest.” Sure enough, things continued to escalate. The parades got longer, more elaborate. As we got deeper and deeper into Carnival season, it seemed like marching bands were coming past my office window every hour. (Louisiana high schools might not rank particularly well on academic metrics but if they measured schools by “Loudest Marching Band,” this would be the #1 state in the nation.) The weather was not always favorable, but one remarkable aspect of Mardi Gras parades is that they do not get rescheduled if it rains. These parades have been meticulously planned for an entire year, and if a storm comes, there is no backup plan. They will either roll and stay dry or roll and get wet, but either way they will roll.
I should emphasize just how far this principle is carried. One afternoon, there is a major downpour. It is raining so hard that I don’t want to cross the street and get lunch. Yet soon enough, right on schedule, a marching band with 16 sousaphones is standing outside the office building blasting “Sweet Caroline” at thunderous volume in the middle of the storm. I peek outside to see people screaming and dancing in the street. They are drenched. Some of the marchers are wearing ponchos, many aren’t; I keep wondering how they can even play their horns without them filling up with water. I ascend the parade stand with an umbrella, to see the street full of marching bands, dancing girls in skirts, and huge floats, as the roads begin to flood and lightning flashes. Hundreds of people in ponchos are watching and squealing for beads. A passing float instantly tosses me a heart-shaped purple pillow that has “Happy Mardi Gras” embroidered on it. The pillow is instantly soaked. “Everyone in this city is a lunatic,” I think to myself.
It is partly because my office is on the parade route, but my days begin to be defined by these spectacles. I can’t escape them. Every time I return to my bike after work, someone has inevitably put a string of Mardi Gras beads in the basket. They vary considerably in size. Sometimes they are like tiny curled-up worms. Other times, getting them out is like extracting a reticulated python. One day, I returned to the bike and there were no beads in the basket. There were, however, three commemorative frisbees and a beer-soaked teddy bear. (I took the poor sozzled bear home and thoroughly laundered him. Clean and fresh, he now sits on my desk.) As I was riding home, I heard a clattering noise coming from my spokes. Sure enough, they had a string of turquoise beads tangled in them.
Attempting to work in the evening proved impossible. The shouts from outside made it seem as if something fascinating must be going by, and the fear of missing out kicked in. Usually, something fascinating was going by. One night, I popped out and saw: a series of enormous rubber duck floats in a long line, men in bathrobes with pipes riding in motorized armchairs, 100 Prince impersonators wearing Purple Rain trenchcoats, and a series of Lady Godivas on horseback wearing body-suits. Without signaling to the float riders to throw me anything, without wanting to get anything, over the course of 20 minutes I was pelted with: a plush “Krewe of Nyx” crown, a huge string of beads, a toy sword, four plastic strawberries containing reusable shopping bags, a bag of feathers, and a flashing headband that says “NYX.” The “super-krewes” are even more elaborate: one night the office is shaken by a full-volume authentic train whistle, and I go outside to see the entire block filled with a multi-part float designed to look exactly like a steam locomotive with several carriages. Another float is a full-scale model of a steamboat, bobbing along as if St. Charles Avenue is the Mississippi River. An eeriness is added to all of this by the fact that float riders are all wearing masks, as required by law. Being passed by a steamboat is not like seeing a ship of people, then, but a ship of ghosts or goblins. No matter how much you may try to rationally remember that people in masks are just people in masks, seeing someone’s face is so important to recognizing them as fully human that the riders really do seem otherworldly.
On the first few nights, I try to take some pictures. I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing, especially because nobody anywhere else in the country is paying any attention to it. Here I am, watching the most elaborate spectacles I’ve ever seen, and they’re not on the news, and it feels afterwards as if I have dreamt them. With the camera, I try to record as much of it as possible, in order to remind myself of what happened and convince myself it was all true. Yet after photographing the first two parades, I realize that my attempts to document it are completely failing. When I look at the pictures afterwards, they don’t show the event I was at. They show something with flatter colors, smaller crowds, fewer throws, less majestic floats. And that’s not because my memory is romanticizing the events. It’s because the camera is lying; it just can’t pick up the experience of the thing. The sense of the size of a float is conveyed by what it feels like coming towards you, and since a photograph doesn’t record that feeling, it doesn’t show the size of the float. This is a situation in which a picture isn’t worth a thousand words. A picture is worth zilch. A picture is counterproductive, actually, and gives a misleading impression of what occurred. I have a hard time accepting, at first, that there’s no way to share this with anyone outside the city. I don’t want to keep this treasure all to myself, I want to tell people about it. But I can’t, because the moment it crosses out of the city limits, via photo or text, the magic disappears and the carriage turns back into a pumpkin. I realize that every attempt to convey what is occurring to people outside will fail; all the photos will look like the disgusting Bourbon Street Mardi Gras of the popular imagination, and everyone will think I’ve gone raving mad. Try to take Mardi Gras out of New Orleans and it melts in your hands.
On Mardi Gras day itself, I wake up early. I do not expect to be as excited as I am, but for some reason it feels like Christmas did when I was a kid. I’ve spent the past weeks getting progressively more and more carried away by the Carnival spirit. I’ve started having dreams about the druids and goddesses and knights and aristocrats that ride by my office every night. When I’m lying in bed preparing to go to sleep, I can hear the marching bands, and I feel as if my thoughts themselves are being translated into that blaring music, hundreds of immaculately uniformed musicians honking on trombones and pounding on bass drums.
I just feel so good on Mardi Gras morning. I don’t know what it is, I am peculiarly aglow. Partly, I am enthused by the prospect of potentially seeing Mardi Gras Indians, the African American “tribesmen” who spend a whole year decorating elaborate colorful feathery costumes to parade in on Mardi Gras. Partly, I am just excited to put on my own costume—a British royal guardsman outfit, of the type worn by stone-stiff Buckingham Palace sentries, complete with fuzzy black bearskin hat and elegant red coat with brass buttons. I had been told that on Mardi Gras, you get to be anything you want to be. Well, this is what I want to be.
Still, I am a bit nervous. Perhaps my costume is inappropriate. It has nothing to do with New Orleans, or Carnival, after all. It is just a ludicrous outfit that I happen to want to wear. People may think I look silly, though. What if I look silly? Looking silly would be mortifying.
Emerging from my front door in full military regalia, I instantly realize I do not look silly. Or, if I do, I am far from the silliest. I am immediately confronted with an elderly couple in yellow clown suits. Walking downriver to meet my friends I ran into princesses, skeletons, dinosaurs, cavemen, pirates, and Blues Brothers. Everywhere there are painted faces, feathers, glitter, wigs, tutus, and flowers. By the time I reach Marigny Street, where we are supposed to start the day’s informal “costume parade” (it is more like an inebriated amble), block after block is occupied by thousands of masked revelers. Men are dressed as women, women as men. A lot of beards have been dyed bright colors and have sparkles in them. I see Vincent Van Gogh, Divine, the entire cast of The Life Aquatic. People are dressed as local businesses. (Not brands or mascots. The businesses themselves. A woman passes by who looks like Gene’s Po-Boy shop. I mean she really does look like Gene’s Po-Boy shop.) A man is dressed as a gigantic eyeball, wearing a hat with tiny eyeballs dangling from it, and carrying a long staff with a medium-sized eyeball suspended on the end. Bicycles have been turned into elephants or giant sailboats. A wrestling ring on wheels wanders down the street hosting comical lucha libre matches. One group of people is dressed as a shoal of shimmering koi. Another group are in matching pig-suits with bulbous girths. The work that has gone into the costumes is often incredible, with handmade sequined robes and enormous bouffant hairdos that look as if they took hours upon hours to complete. I can’t seem to find the ends of the crowd, it just spreads out infinitely in every direction, with more and more people showing up constantly. My friend Tom is shirtless, masked, covered in glitter, wearing gold lamé leggings and carrying a scepter with giant golden orbs on it. He cannot stop dancing, as a result his scepter keeps shedding orbs. He is some kind of space prince. He looks sublime.
The whole crowd meanders back up into the French Quarter, dazzling passersby. People play the drums, they fool around, they drink and play and get silly. A thunderstorm was forecast, but it’s warm and sunny. “God smiles on Mardi Gras Day,” Tom tells me. Perhaps, though I’m sure some years the thunderstorm shows up and everyone dances in it. Thousands of us wander through the city feeling incredible. I keep seeing new costumes I hadn’t noticed before, and they only get more elaborate as we approach the “Bourbon Street Awards,” a costume contest held next to the gay bars on Dauphine Street. There, men have taken their costumes to the next level: a 15-foot-tall space shuttle, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, a King Neptune with aquatic creatures suspended all around him, a towering muscular Hercules. You could name any object, profession, or fictional character and I could find them within a one-mile radius.
My senses feeling somewhat overwhelmed, I am on my way back to my apartment for a break and a bit of lunch when I run into my friend Murphy, a street musician. Murphy and I wish each other a happy Mardi Gras. He has been out since 4am, playing for tips. He is relieved to see me, because he needs a bathroom break, and asks me if I can watch his guitar and his tip box. I agree, and dutifully stand guard over the tip box as requested. In a few moments, a woman comes up and asks if she can take a selfie with me. Remembering that a Buckingham Palace guard is not supposed to speak, I say nothing. She takes the selfie anyway, and puts a dollar in Murphy’s tip box. I realize that I have been mistaken for a street performer.
Naturally, I continued to stand still next to the tip box. More and more tourists came up to me to take pictures. I said nothing and did nothing. They took their pictures, and left some money. Children came up and poked me, trying to get me to move. I remained stone-faced. People tried to crack me up with jokes. I did not laugh. Women took pictures kissing me on the cheek, or even occasionally on the lips. I made every effort to conceal my approval. Eventually, Murphy returned and I informed him that I had made him a bit of money during his time in the lavatory. We decided I should stick around, me posing as a human statue and Murphy playing the guitar, to see how well we could do. The tourists kept approaching, kept snapping pictures, kept leaving money. Occasionally they abused me; a drunk man put a marshmallow in my ear, and one couple saw my tall hat as an opportunity to play a game of ring-toss with Mardi Gras beads. But generally I remained composed, and the dollars kept flowing into the box.
In a few hours, Murphy and I made several hundred dollars together, and somewhere in the far recesses of Facebook and Instagram, there must be dozens of photos of tourists’ selfies with me. I had been told that my Mardi Gras day would be special, that something unexpected always happened to make it extraordinary. I would not have bet that this would involve a stream of women giving me money for the privilege of kissing me on the cheek.
You may still think Mardi Gras sounds terrible. It is crowded, noisy, wasteful, ridiculous, and intoxicated. And, as with everything in New Orleans, there is a dark side as well. On the final day of the season, just as the last parades were passing by, a man was shot and killed a block from the route, and five more people were shot a few miles away in the Lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans remains one of the most violent cities in the country, and even the good feelings of Mardi Gras don’t disrupt the cycle.
You can also choose to be appalled by the wastefulness and aimless pleasure-seeking. Sociologist David Redmon, who has called attention to the labor conditions in the Chinese factories where Mardi Gras beads are manufactured, seems to see the whole holiday as a depressing spectacle of aimless indulgence. In his Beads, Bodies, and Trash: Public Sex, Global Labor, and the Disposability of Mardi Gras, he writes:
I’m sitting on a curb surrounded by broken beads, trash, and puke, looking at the street littered with scraps of paper that read “Made in China” as dangling beads drape the trees above the gutter next to me. The discarded beads are reflections of an element of carnival culture that I’ve been documenting for several years: the disposable economy of Mardi Gras. Each year, revelers travel to New Orleans to participate in nudity and public sex primarily on Bourbon Street. Like the affirmative pleasures they seek, the plastic trinkets they adorn themselves with are eagerly acquired and readily discarded, abandoned into the streets as the beads transition into the next phase of their journey. Sitting here, amidst the remnants of a disposable economy, I suddenly feel a sense of clairvoyance as my perception shifts, and amidst the trash and confusion, I start to see these plastic beads with a new historical, material, and somatic understanding. All these beads, just hours ago prized for their exchange value, tossed to generate glimpses of flesh and sex, are now worthless, discarded objects stomped on by revelers and left for retrieval by sanitation workers.
Certainly, thinking about it that way can quickly spoil the fun. Yet I don’t think Redmon is as “clairvoyant” as he suggests. For one thing, he seems to have deliberately sought out the most unappealing side of Mardi Gras: the “boobs on Bourbon Street” part of it. Most beads have nothing to do with sex or flashing. They’re thrown from parade floats, at family-friendly events. They may be “disposable” but in order to suggest they had “exchange value” one has to ignore the real Mardi Gras, where the fun of the beads is that you don’t have to do anything for them except try your best to catch them.
Observers like Redmon, who honestly seems like the last person you’d want to spend Carnival season with (“Hey Dave, isn’t this fun?” “I guess if you think disposable commodification built on alienated labor is fun.”) are missing the point entirely. What’s special about Mardi Gras is precisely how de-commodified it is. Yes, there is a lot of waste and garbage. But one reason for this is that people aren’t thinking in economic terms. They’re not trying to calculate value for money, they’re just trying to have the best possible time. So the floats are far more elaborate than could ever be rationally justified, and far more beads are thrown than anyone could ever wear, and far more hours are spent making a costume than will ever be spent wearing it, because Carnival is a season to indulge the side of ourselves that isn’t rational or sober or restrained. It isn’t about profit, it isn’t about gain—corporations are forbidden from sponsoring or advertising on floats, and the krewes are all nonprofit voluntary societies. It’s just about letting loose, dressing up, and eating cake.
There is also a strong egalitarian spirit to Mardi Gras. The usual social hierarchies are suspended for a day, as everyone plays and dances together without their professional identities visible (Tom, my space prince friend, is a lawyer, but you would have never known it if you saw him that day). But there’s also a satisfying balance of the “individual” and the “collective”: every person is dressed differently from every other, yet nobody is superior to anyone else and they are all part of an organic whole. It’s a kind of “socialistic individualism,” where each individual is unique and yet there are no marks of status or rank. I like it in part because it addresses the question of how egalitarianism is compatible with recognizing individual differences. It shows how being “equal” doesn’t mean being “the same”; the right-wing view that equality means uniformity is a mistake. On Mardi Gras, there is anything but uniformity or sameness, and yet all are valued participants in a collective enterprise.
We can believe then, as I do, that the conditions under which Mardi Gras beads are produced in China shouldn’t be ignored, and that all beads need to be non-toxic and biodegradable. But Mardi Gras itself, the real one rather than the one of sociologists’ disgusted and contemptuous vision, is a beautiful human phenomenon. It’s quite clear, seeing it, that it could only come about through evolution: you can’t organize something like this overnight, it exists because it has been gestating in New Orleans for 150 years. The parades are as lavish and long as they are today because krewes have been competing with one another for decades. We are seeing the end result of a tradition, and as so many traditions die out around the globe, this is one that actually seems to get stronger every year.
I am not saying that Mardi Gras is any kind of social model to emulate, though I do wish other cities would take the production of joy as seriously as New Orleans does. But it does show some qualities that I think are fundamental to the good life, or at least the kind of life I want to live. The feelings of being amazed by what other people can do, and having fun with strangers, are precious and increasingly rare in a world of competitive individualism and a loss of social cohesion. Mardi Gras, for all its decadence and chaos, shows how a community can celebrate being alive, and reassures us that everyday magic and mystery have not yet disappeared.