Blog Post

Gilded Coconuts@Mardi Gras

It was Super Tuesday yesterday in the rest of America, but in New Orleans it was Fat Tuesday. The day before Ash Wednesday. That meant parades, throws, krewes, Zulu and Rex. If you know NOLA, you know what I mean. Parades all day. Everything (I mean everything) closed at night, people with coolers of food and beer everywhere in the streets, parties and more parties, and then, at midnight, the police on horseback shooing away the tourists and other revelers. And lent begins.

The parades: Ken, ever the party-lovin guy, played the front line, right there as the two-storey-high floats rolled by. I could catch a glimpse of him through the crowd sometimes, shouting for beads, clapping in time to the marching bands. About 90% of the beads in the photo above are courtesy of Ken?s front-line efforts. And this picture is only a fraction of what he caught.

I?m more a second-line kinda gal. I love being in the scene from the sidelines. I like the panorama better than the close-up. I stayed pretty much out of throw-range, but loved leaning against the light post (my spot) at a nice intersection where I could watch both the main parade and the people-parade, amateurs who spent the year, it seemed, making their own costumes. My fav was ?the white guy,? a person of indeterminate race who had painted every inch of himself as white as my Mac, his gums were even white, matte white. White-Out white. He wore wings that were also griot-skeletal, angel and masque of death. Even his sunglass lenses were painted white. That?s Mardi Gras.

For the first time, maybe even the first time ever in my life, I started to understand games from these three days at Mardi Gras. I like competitive sports. A lot. But I?ve never really ?gotten? board games or card games or video games or massively multiplayer online games . . . what?s the point?

Standing on my street corner, I realized pointlessness is the point. Of games. Of accumulating a gigantic pile of worthless beads. Where else but in NOLA during Mardi Gras do you beg and whine and shout and plead for the ?good beads,? basically plastic cheapo beads that might exceed the regular plastic cheapo beads because they have plastic amulets, or weird heads, or alligators, or some other do-dad bit of nothingness that gives them value incommensurate with their material worth. Pearls of great price, so to speak.

Gilded coconuts. Those were the main attraction in the Zulu parade which, for my money, was the main attraction of Mardi Gras. The Zulu krewe hand-paints coconuts (real ones), gold and sometimes black and sometimes with decorations of one kind or another, and then pretty much hands them out or gently tosses them to front-liners on the parade route. (One tossed from a second-storey float could just about kill you so the mode seems to be the quiet hand off.) One gal in the front line had made this long contraption, a pole with little basket on top, and painted with pleading words ?Coconut, please, please!? Some people traded beer for coconuts. My favorite was the people with the truck selling street food, with their cardboard sign, ?Will Trade Chicken-on-a Stick for Coconuts.? We were near the end of the three-hour parade route. One of the krewes was pretty hungry. The Chicken-on-the-Stick guy went out with one chicken-stick in each hand and returned with two gilded coconuts, held aloft as proudly as an Olympic medal or an Oscar.

The frenzy over the gilded coconuts made me realize that a great thing about parades, as in many kinds of non-gambling games, is that there is triumph and success and skill and luck outside of normal capitalistic values. It?s not workaday work. It?s not achievement in the normal market-driven sense. It?s success without any dollar signs on the ?S??s.

How much is a gilded coconut worth? As the ad says, ?Priceless.? Although, in game world, priceless may actually be the right answer. What is the price of a few hours with pals playing Liars? Dice? (Thanks, Anne.) What is the price of many hours becoming one of the masters of World of Warcraft? (Thanks, Doug.) What is the price of a gilded coconut in the Zulu parade at Mardi Gras, 2008?

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I probably won?t blog again about New Orleans so I want to end this posting with an encomium to New Orleans. It?s an amazing place and everyone, all the NOLA natives, said this Mardi Gras was beginning to feel like pre-Katrina NOLA again. Person after person (one nice thing about being a second-liner is you talk to a lot of people passing by) said that, since Katrina, the city has been bent in half, the way you bend after a sucker-punch to your solar plexus. This year, finally, people were beginning to stand tall again. Many, many, many people (some said thousands) who had been displaced out of NOLA by the devastation of Katrina were back for Mardi Gras. It was like a huge family reunion and the air was thick with joyous return. A reunion feel is like nothing else, because it isn?t now, it isn?t then, it?s the space where past and present come together, briefly and intimately, and then part again. The reunion feel was everywhere. The crowds had returned, the hotels were at 90% capacity, there was energy and sparkle. Promise. Of course the devastation of the lower Ninth remains. Unspeakably and that devastation is still palpable too. (Keep sending checks, keep volunteering! Don?t forget NOLA?our National Treasure of a city still needs all our help!) But even there, in the Ninth, amid so much tragedy, recovery is starting to happen, wants to happen.

Everywhere in the city there was, palpably, a wanting to trust and believe again.

At one messy moment in the parade, during Endymion, with a float stalled and horses getting nervous, and the crowd growing restless, the police kept a jovial, controlled, light-hearted order. Two bands were facing off, mean-faces on, the rhythm sections going at it, like in Drumline, and the police kept it fun and light and let it be a fabulous moment, inside the edge of control while still edgy. It was a display of confident force by the NOLA police quite the opposite of SWAT-team macho crowd-control over-reaction. Really impressive.

During Zulu, I said to one friend I met on my second-line street corner, ?The police do an amazing job of crowd control at Mardi Gras. It?s too bad they didn?t do as good a job during Katrina.? My new pal, a rail-thin young man in a jacket big enough for two of him, told me how his family lost everything in Katrina, but that the police and the fire department had not abandoned them. They tried to help. They lost people trying to help the endangered and drowning citizens but it was all just too much for them and, often, they just could not get to the people who needed them and many of them lost everything themselves in the storm. He said the media tried to blame the NOLA police and fire departments to divert attention away from the deplorable job FEMA did and the even worse job done by the US government as a whole. (At the airport, on the way to the restrooms, there?s a timeline of Katrina: American Airlines was flying people in and out of NOLA free three or four days before the federal government sent in the army or the national guard. Appalling.)

In any case, my street corner pal said his family is rebuilding. He has a job working in a hotel. He?s glad the tourists are returning. ?We?re coming back!? he shouted, and then he left our second-line street corner to push through the crowd to the front-line where he?d have a better chance of snagging a gilded coconut. I hope he caught one.

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1 comment

Carnival time in New Orleans

by
Sarah Carr, Times-Picayune
Tuesday February 05, 2008, 10:32 PM

From the raucous and the rebellious to the sweet and the sentimental, costumes ruled the day

Usually when the Roussell family of Edgard stakes out a spot along
St. Charles Avenue in the wee hours of Mardi Gras morning to watch the
Zulu and Rex parades, the space is ample and the people are sparse.

Not so this year.

By 7 a.m., as Quentin Roussell fried up eggs and bacon a few blocks
from the intersection of Jackson and St. Charles avenues, where the
parades converge, families that did not already have their tents and
grills set up were mostly out of luck.

"It's
more crowded this morning than usual," said Dora Sylvain, a member of
the Roussell clan. "Most people wouldn't normally start coming until
around 8."

Carnival regulars said the warm, dry and breezy weather helped draw
out more parade gawkers, coconut seekers and costumed revelers than
they had seen during the last two Mardi Gras celebrations. In New
Orleans, the temperature reached a high of 79 degrees, tying a record
set in 1957.

Strong winds injured two guests at the Hotel InterContinental when a
flagpole fell, and the blustery day caused more than a few skirts and
capes to fly up unexpectedly. But overall, the breezes added energy to
the day, which also appeared to be free of the violence that marred
some earlier Carnival parades.

Throughout the region, from the piney woods of Folsom to the wide
suburban boulevards of Metairie, residents and tourists found their own
ways to celebrate south Louisiana's signature holiday.

Crowds and costumes

On the north shore, clowns and dragons joined school buses and
antique cars as the Lions Club and Mystic Krewe parades rolled through
the narrow streets of Covington. In Jefferson Parish, where parade
organizers also like to boast of their family-friendliness, officials
reported crowds of more than 1 million along the Krewe of Argus' route
through Metairie.

"It's bigger than last year," Jefferson Parish Carnival director
Karen Wood said. "We are so thrilled with the weather, the turnout, the
floats."

While no such numbers were available in the city, Carnival regulars
were impressed with the crowds. Chris Kirsch, the leader of the
costumed Skeleton Krewe, said he thought people were drawn outdoors by
more than the fine weather.

"I think we're cherishing what New Orleans is right now," he said. "And Carnival is a big part of that."

While Carnival has had an almost defiant, we're-going-to-make-it
flavor since Hurricane Katrina, the throngs in the streets Tuesday
seemed to strive for something more than simply to endure. Instead, the
mood reflected a desire to move forward with spirit, creativity and
aplomb.

One woman near the Uptown parade route was dressed as a pink house,
a bright reference to the home rebuilding and recovery project led by
actor Brad Pitt in the Lower 9th Ward. She wore a pink leather jacket,
tent shaped skirt, and angular pink hat.

A man in the French Quarter, who dubbed himself "Woody Johnson: New
Orleans Repopulation Czar," had other plans for rebuilding the
still-struggling city. In business cards, the czar, who had images of
sperm affixed to his back, promised to "stand up for New Orleans, come
to your neighborhood, and spread the seeds of change."

As eager parade viewers waited Uptown at 8 a.m. for the first signs
of Zulu, famous for its hand-decorated coconuts as well as its
tardiness, an early morning appearance by clarinetist Pete Fountain's
Half-Fast Walking Club helped the time pass more quickly. The smells of
bacon, burgers, red beans, hot dogs and fried food filled the air.
Colorful strands of beads draped several leafless trees. Two college
students dressed as pregnant nuns strode purposefully down St. Charles
Avenue. Vendors dragging carts of stuffed animals, jester's hats and
inflatable toys already appeared weary.

Feathers and finery

For Hussein Kirkland, a Mardi Gras Indian from the Black Feathers
tribe in New Orleans, Tuesday was the culmination of hundreds of hours
of work. He spent two to three hours a day, nearly every day for the
past year, working on his costume.

It all came together Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., when he stood
resplendent -- if hot -- awaiting the other members of his tribe at a
house near the intersection of North Villere and Frenchmen streets. As
the spy boy for his gang, Kirkland wore a large hat made of black
feathers with a few red ones poking out of the top, a feather tunic
with a handmade bead and jeweled pendant design, and shoe and arm
coverings made of black feathers.

An engineer for an oil rig, Kirkland adjusted his costume to cover
an exposed shoelace. Kirkland said the history of the Indians -- a
"culture coming down from segregated times when black people weren't
allowed to go to Carnival," as he put it -- is part of what moves him
to participate.

Black people "had their own Carnival, and they have second lines. I
don't do second lines. But I do this, and I do it for New Orleans."

As other members of Black Feathers began to arrive at the home of
the Big Chief, they shouted out "Pretty!" to each other, admiring the
time-intensive work that went into the costumes.

A couple dozen blocks uptown and a world away, Mayor Ray Nagin took
part in another Carnival tradition. As the float of King Zulu Frank
Boutte stopped in front of Gallier Hall just before 11 a.m. Nagin,
dressed in a brown American Indian outfit with a white feather
headdress, offered a rousing toast.

"We are your loyal subjects and we salute you today and tomorrow!" Nagin said. "Hail, King Zulu!"

Boutte returned the gesture: "Hail to the city of New Orleans!"

Then the Zulu king, at the mayor's request, did a little dance.

Offbeat, on target

In the bohemian streets of the Faubourg Marigny, revelers wore
costumes of all stripes, some which took months to prepare, and others
only hours -- or minutes.

For many, recycling was key.

Pam Tripp, an artist from Waveland, Miss., started planning her
costume Saturday, after many stores had closed. She made do with what
she had, cutting the handles off shopping bags and threading them into
the holes of a skirt. With tattered plastic bags floating out of her
skirt and a few poking out of her hat, she dubbed herself the "Wal-Mart
White Trash Queen."

Geoff Stewart, a member of the Skeleton Krewe, also relied on
creative re-use. Threaded onto his shirt and around his wrists were
actual animal bones: turkey legs, beef ribs and oval-shaped bones from
a pig.

"I like the way real bones rattle," Stewart said.

Greg Cowman pulled an image of the Mona Lisa off the Internet and
used a graphics program to create an outfit that placed himself inside
the famous portrait. He framed the image, cutting out spaces for his
head and arms, and strolled down Burgundy Street.

Throughout the French Quarter and the Marigny, an assortment of
political costumes took jabs at various local luminaries. Leading
targets were U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who awaits trial on 16
corruption-related charges, and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who has been
beloved by satirists ever since his telephone number appeared in the
phone records of the so-called "D.C. Madam."

The Big Sleazy Fish Market, a collaborative effort by several
friends, took a few brainstorming sessions, according to local Jane
Johnson. But the time was worth the laughs: Plastic, painted fishes,
stored on ice, were offered up for sale, each with various selling
points and prices.

There was the "Eddie Jordan croaker" for $3.7 million, a reference
to the amount a jury awarded to a group of the former Orleans Parish
district attorney's employees. There was the "Sen. David 'He did her'
Vitter bonefish," priced at "$300 an hour." And there was the "FEMA
flounder," with a recommendation to "top with FEMA trailer formaldehyde
sauce," offered on the cheap.

And then there was the "Britney & Jamie Lynn Spearsfish (putting the 'ho' in Tangipahoa)," listed simply as, "Priceless."

Staff writers Darran Simon, Mary Sparacello and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.

Sarah Carr can be reached at scarr@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-394

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