Lifestyle, Travel

Travel: Box Seats at Mardi Gras

It’s Fat Tuesday! And since it’s obviously too late to book a last-minute fare and head for the Big Easy, we suggest you shop now for next year.  And not just because the Saints won the Super Bowl

By SékouWrites
Photos by Zave Smith

I love New Orleans.  True, I’m new to the love affair, but it’s passionate nonetheless.  It began when I looked out my plane window to see the wide expanse of green water that surrounds New Orleans.  From this vantage point, I couldn’t help but get a better sense of the delicate balance between concrete and tides that exist in the city. And it was this sense of yin and yang, the polarity of opposites that thrive in New Orleans, from its culture to its geography, that I found most compelling.

Just off the plane, I saw that the richness of New Orleans culture was evident even at the airport, where the gift shops displayed books full of authentic cajun recipes, CDs of New Orleans music, and jars of heat-and-eat crawfish across the aisle from an airport bistro that served unusual local fare, like delicious oven-hot oysters topped with melted cheese.

The city rhythms and the wonderful madness of Mardi Gras made themselves apparent as soon as my taxi exited the infamous I-10 Expressway.  Distant sounds of revelry, swirls of color, and the occasional pedestrian smiling with liquor-induced gaiety were everywhere.  There happened to be a parade that evening, and although I couldn’t see or hear it, I could certainly feel it.  Downtown traffic in the French Quarter was literally at a standstill, and at the driver’s suggestion, I walked the remaining blocks to the hotel with my luggage in tow, incredulous that this was normal but already enjoying the adventure.  Inside the dark opulence of the International House, I was again reminded that I had entered another world when the bartender at Loa Bar asked me if I wanted my rum and coke to go and served it in a plastic cup so I could keep my sips mobile.

And thus began the nearly one-week trip that gave me a lifetime of memories.  It’s absolutely not possible to cram all my New Orleanian experiences into a single article, so to give you some modicum of insight into the depth and breadth of New Orleans, I’ve revisited a grade-school trick.

Over the next few days you’ll be reading my A-Z guide to Mardi Gras, and you’ll soon see what I came to know: You just can’t deny the soul of New Orleans.  Yeah, yeah, I know that’s what they say in the commercial, but, trust, it’s true.

mg-costumeA is for accuracy.  Don’t just go to New Orleans. Live it.  There’s nothing in the world I’ve ever experienced that is quite like riding atop a Mardi Gras float and tossing beads to the hordes of people clamoring for them.  If you get to Mardi Gras, you may have to beg, borrow, and steal (Zulu charges $1,500 per person), but get yourself on a float!  And why accuracy?  You’re going to need it.  Like you, I once thought catching Mardi Gras beads was all about chance.  And, yes, every once in a while you might happen to be standing in the right place at the right time to catch a strand or two, but mostly, the throwing and catching of beads is an intimate, one-on-one affair.  I know it seems illogical, but when you throw beads you’re actually throwing them to one specific person in that sea of upturned faces, and that one person is looking right at you, waiting.  Trust me, you’ll be upset if you miss your mark and your intended target’s disappointment will be brief but palpable.  That said, practice throwing for accuracy.  You’ll thank me later.

B is for blackface. Yeah, so, about the aforementioned float riding.  I happened to be on one of the Zulu floats (Paul Bunyan to be exact), and as you may or may not know, each Krewe (see K) has a costume that its float riders must wear.  The Zulu costume happens to be blackface.  Now, before you get bent out of shape, let me explain.  When the Krewe of Zulu first started its parade through the black neighborhoods, they couldn’t afford costumes for the thousands of people in their parade, so they improvised by using what they could find (wigs, grass skirts, and black shoe polish) to create a unique look.  These days, the face paint is done up to look more clown than minstrel show and the fact that the costume is embraced so lovingly—revered even—by the locals made it feel like an honor to don the garb.  I just wouldn’t try it outside of New Orleans.

C is for coconuts. As in gold coconuts.  Each Krewe has a signature thing to toss, or in New Orleans speak a “throw.”  And no throw is more distinctive and original than Zulu’s gold-painted coconuts.  What was once a nod to budgetary constraints is now one of the most sought-after throws of Mardi Gras.  These days, however, the coconuts are gently handed out, not thrown.  It’s dangerous, you understand.  C is also for Café du Monde, home to some of the best beignets (French donuts) you’ll ever eat. 

D is for drinks. Did I mention that all bars in New Orleans offer drinks to go?  I did, didn’t I?  Moving on.  D is also for Dooky Chase, a cajun/creole restaurant that opened in 1941. It has all the down-home flavor you could imagine, courtesy of Leah Chase, the spicy spitfire of a chef who still holds it down in the kitchen. She has hosted everyone from George W. Bush to Bill Clinton at her famous restaurant.  During Mardi Gras, Dooky Chase is even more special, opening late at night to play host to attendees of the Bunch Ball, one of two African-American black-tie affairs that occur during Mardi Gras, well away from the tourist hot spots.

E is for Endymion Parade. Last year, I saw this parade, which had the theme “Tales of Sleep and Dreams.”  Just to give you a sense of scale, there were 24 monstrous floats in this one parade with more than 2,400 people in costume slinging throws. Endymion is reported to have thrown millions of beads and other throws in 2009 alone. Hard to fathom, isn’t it?  By the way, Kid Rock was Endymion’s special celebrity guest.

F is for floats. There are a number of floats per parade.  They are huge tractor-pulled rigs of complex design and multiple platforms, with hooks and shelves for storing beads, and, in our case, a DJ on the top level.  Usually the King and Queen of a Krewe ride in the first float in a particular Krewe’s parade.  At the beginning of the route, the float is quiet and overflowing with bags of beads and trinkets to throw.  By midday, most of the beads have been thrown and the bead tossers can move around freely.

G is for Gallier Hall.
If more people knew that you could get box seats at Mardi Gras, I’m sure attendance would skyrocket.  No, you don’t have to sit on the curb and fight for a little elbow room.  You can have box seats right behind to the mayor, complete with a bar, food, and—this is critical for first-timers—inside space to sit and get away from it all.

H is for The Hubbard Mansion. A swanky black-owned bed-and-breakfast.  Owned by a husband and wife team, this home away from home is off the beaten path but close to everything you want to get to.  With quaint old-style rooms and a detached duplex, Hubbard has become the place to go for a few A-list celebrities who shall, of course, remain nameless.

I is for International House. A luxury boutique hotel with dark, seductive rooms located two blocks from the French Quarter, the International house was created by local real estate developer Sean Cummings.  Actor Hill Harper is one of the primary investors in International House, which is said to be New Orleans’ first boutique hotel.

mardigras-12J is Joyce Montana.
Ms. Montana is the widow of Tootie Montana, the big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe.  Tootie’s costumes, like all the Mardi Gras Indians costumes, were handmade and took at least a year of daily effort to create.

K is for Krewe. It’s an organization that puts on a parade and or a ball for the New Orleans Mardi Gras season.  Krewes are also social groups that communicate and interact all year long.

L is for Lundi Gras Celebration. An outdoor daytime event during Mardi Gras, it’s held at Woldenberg Park on the Mississippi River the day before Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras Day).  Musical guests and some of the major characters from Zulu show up to take pictures, like Mr. Big Stuff and the Zulu king and queen, positions which people have to campaign to be elected to.

M is for Mardi Gras Indians. In the Mardi Gras tradition, these are African-American revelers who dress up for Mardi Gras in costumes influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel.  Far from just playing games of dress up, these “tribes” are an integral part of the community—so much so that becoming one of the primary characters (like big chief) is considered as much a social pedigree as, say, being elected to local office.  The Mardi Gras Indians don’t walk in the parades but instead have their own celebrations in neighborhoods around the city.

N is for Nagin. At Gallier Hall, we were seated right behind Ray Nagin, who was the mayor of New Orleans at the time.  Nagin enthusiastically announced every float as it came rolling by.  Truly, Mardi Gras is a city-wide affair.

O is for Orpheus Ball, aka Orpheuscapade. It’s a black-tie affair held inside the New Orleans Convention Center, which is where the Krewe of Orpheus ends its parade.  The Krewe of Orpheus was cofounded in 1993 by Harry Connick Jr. and his father, and their star power means that they get lots of celebrity requests to participate every year.  To wit, the cast of Reno 911! had a float to themselves in last year’s parade.

P is for parades. I never knew that multiple parades travel different routes though the city.  Some happen during the day, some at night, and most Krewes have arranged it so they are the only parade to occur on a given day.  The Zulu parade begins early in the morning and is the only one to start and end in a predominately African-American neighborhood.

Q is for the queen of Zulu. One of the many characters elected annually by Zulu to represent them.  The Zulu queen and king make their public debut amid spectacular pageantry and dancing during the annual Zulu Ball, which attracts literally thousands of attendees every year.

MG World3
R is for rehearsal
, as in Mardi Gras Indian rehearsal.  I was privy to a practice for a Mardi Gras Indian celebration and there’s little I can compare it to.  Packed tightly into a small bar, there must have been close to a hundred people swaying, singing, dancing, and chanting.  At random intervals, representatives of different tribes would take to the floor and lead a call-and-response type of singsong.  The evening felt like a cross between a séance, a hip-hop rhyming cipher, and a church service.

S is for Steve Harvey. Last year, The Steve Harvey Show broadcasted live from New Orleans leading up to Mardi Gras.  It was stationed at the W hotel on Poydras Street, which is one of our faves, too.  S is also for Second Lining, a New Orleans tradition that began as a celebratory dance behind a funeral procession and now refers to the practice of spontaneously jumping into any parade in progress and dancing along with it.  Fun, for sure.

T is for Treme. This is a neighborhood of New Orleans with historical significance.  Once an undesirable area, it has slowly been transformed into an African-American mecca.  UPTOWN previously profiled one Treme couple, Adolph and Naydja Bynum, who quite literally own a whole block of this beautiful neighborhood.  Read the story here.

U is for underhanded throw.
This is the throw you should perfect if you get to ride (and toss goodies from) a float.  I elected to throw overhand, like a quarterback, and my arm was angry for weeks.

V is for Victory.
Speaking of my overhand throws, the pain was worth it.  After my first few moments on the float, I made a conscious decision to throw to the people way out on the fringes of the crowd below.  The folks who didn’t want, or couldn’t get close enough, to have a fighting chance for beads.  I was well-rewarded for my efforts through a series of pantomimed thank yous and enthusiastic thumbs ups from the people I threw to.  My fave?  There was a kid standing dejectedly on top of a RV that was parked inside a fenced parking lot, way behind the Mardi Gras enthusiasts crowded on the sidewalk.  To get the distance I needed, I had to throw him a whole bag of beads like I was aiming for the end zone of a football field.  He lit up like it was Christmas.  Best moment of the parade.

W is for Woldenberg Park.
It’s a park on the Mississippi River where the Zulu’s annual Lundi Gras Festival is held (see L).  The park has beautiful views and is also close to a cute shopping center called Riverwalk.

X is for Xenophobia. As you know, xenophobia is the fear of the unknown, and on my way to New Orleans, I braced for the drunken madness that’s always associated with Mardi Gras.  I was more than pleasantly surprised to find my fear completely unfounded.  Just like an airline offering first, business, and coach travel, the level at which you choose to experience New Orleans is completely up to you.  From the highest end possible to an adventure that is more common, Mardi Gras is best experienced, and judged, for yourself.

Y is for Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe.
Darryl Montana, aka Tootie, served as big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas for a number of years—a fact that gave him quite a badge of honor.  While in New Orleans, I got to visit the late Tootie’s home and found that a full 50 percent of the house was dedicated to the various ornate costumes worn by Tootie during Mardi Gras celebrations.  From hand-sewn jewels to elaborate layers of feather-festooned headdresses, the costumes are a wonder to see up close.  Even more when you consider how much time, energy, and money it took to create them.  Tootie designed every single one of his annual costumes and they are still intact.

Z is for Zulu’s anniversary.
Last year, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club celebrated its 100th birthday.  To say it was quite an affair would be an understatement.  The Zulu Ball was massive both in terms of size of the venue (the Convention Center) and the number of people who attended (thousands).  Zulu is a significant social organization for African-Americans in New Orleans similar to, let’s say, Jack and Jill or college fraternities.  Many of its all male members have gone on to greatness locally and nationally, like jazz great Louis Armstrong, who once served as Zulu king.


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