In New Orleans, it’s common to open up a kitchen cupboard to find the shelves stocked with colorful plastic cups accumulated throughout the years. It’s hard to envision a year without Mardi Gras; when you were young, it was like a second Christmas. Except instead of waiting in bed to open your long-awaited presents in the morning, it was an adventure where you had to scream and scavenge for your trinkets.
Living on the West Bank gives you zero parade route privileges, although hopping on the free ferry (or at least it was, during your childhood) made the trip somewhat enjoyable. And luckily for you, your family has many friends on the other side of the river whom you only see once a year at house parties.
When you were very small, you sat in a “parade seat” – a small bench perched atop a painted ladder – though your memory of that is long gone. Now your siblings stand up and cram on the limited space of a bench stool. Your talent is sneaking in between parade lines to catch fallen doubloons or to beg the people on the float for a cute stuffed animal.
Mardi Gras world occupied a place of distant awe in your childhood before it moved to the other side of the river. One day, not long after Bacchus, I was on a walk with my dad and siblings when we discovered floats just out in the open. After some brief conversation with my dad, the only security guard on the premise casually let us in. We explored – finding bags of loot for the taking. We were amazed at just how much stuff didn’t get thrown.
Parades can be miserable. The weather is relatively freezing for the city’s weather at the most crowded parades as if the tourists up north carried some of the cold with them. Your family gets there late, leaving you so far back you can barely see the floats, much less catch anything. A bag of beads hits you square in the face, and while you’re still seeing stars, someone reaches down to grab it. You’re tired, cold, miserable, even hurt, but your mother is having so much fun in this godforsaken warzone, you’re stuck there. Despite that, it’s not all bad. A kind stranger gives you some ice from the cooler to ease your swelling face.
At this point, you remember when you were younger, and your dad took you to a cafe at the top of Saks Fifth Avenue to get some hot chocolate. Only, the minute you drink it, you burn the entire roof of your mouth. You cry so hard, your pretty face paint melts off in the bathroom.
Finally, your dad convinces your mom to let the family catch the then-free ferry ride home.
As the years go by, your parents grow less and less enthusiastic about driving and hiking through crowded parade lines to catch “plastic stuff”. When they sell and donate your life collection of hard-earned beads, you know that childhood is truly over.
But I wouldn’t trade my past memories of Mardi Gras for anything. I believe that growing up with America’s biggest open party in the background has given me experiences unique to my city. Once you get accustomed to the sights of crazed crowds in a sea of litter, the childish wonder in squabbling over beads and watching themed floats go by finds you in the Big Easy.