Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

So-called because of the taste in my mouth? Somehow, yesterday I convinced myself that bloody marys count more as juice than as alcohol--and at 10am Mardi Gras morning, they seemed just right. And again after lunch, and of course walking around the Quarter catching beads from balconies, one needs something in one's hand, and I've learned the importance of avoiding mixing my liquors. See, I am mature!

Despite today's foggy, ashy flavor, I am beginning to recollect yesterday's high points. We missed the Zulu parade (it starts at 8am, and not even I am that diehard) but did catch Rex, and lots of beads and cups. Now, of course, the piles of beads are sitting all over my house--on the floor, draped over every doorknob, on the kitchen table--and I have no idea what I'm going to do with them all. I guess add them to the boxes already sitting in the attic. Or maybe actually look into some of the bead-recycling programs around town, places that repackage them for sale to float riders for next year.

Of course, bead crafts are always fun. I've already decorated a toilet seat currently hanging above our actual toilet and made a bead curtain in years past. Now the volume of beads requires much more time and energy (and creativity) than I have anymore. What does one do to top a beaded toilet seat?

Back to yesterday. As the most seasoned Mardi Gras veterans, my husband, son, and I had the honor of escorting a large group of out-of-town (and new-to-town) friends and family members through the sights, sounds, and smells of their first Mardi Gras. We caught beads at the Rex parade, then boarded the bus to head to the Quarter (did I mention we were all dressed--to varying degrees--as superheroes? Capes and masks abounded. Our friends even decorated their mom's wheelchair with purple tinsel garland, and we ornamented our son's stroller with bead fringe).

After getting off the bus, we were hungry, so we stopped by Mother's, a soul food institution on the outskirts of the Quarter. I'd never been, figuring they didn't have anything for vegetarians, but was I wrong! It was one of those blessed places that serves breakfast all day, and I'll gladly eat waffles anytime. As will my three-year-old, who, for the first time all day, was happy. (I think seeing me in a wig wigged him out--he was cranky and whiny all morning, thus my heavy emphasis on bloody marys.) As all eleven of us sat around a round table munching away on po-boys and waffles, with beads, capes, and masks around our necks, I couldn't help but feel a wave of gratitude for good friends, good food, and a wonderful sense of oneness with the celebration going on throughout the entire city. And the waitresses kept calling us "baby" and "darling." Gotta love it.

Finally, we began walking. Walking and walking. We crossed Canal, strolled up Chartres, over to Royal (lots of balconies with people dropping beads on us--my son started screaming and running away, afraid of beads on his head, sigh) and even ventured down Bourbon street. For one block. Then we'd had enough of the crowd, the boobs, and the competing extra-loud stereos blasting out of the bars and clubs. Back to the more relaxed parts of the Quarter. One of the best parts of being downtown on Mardi Gras is seeing and being seen, checking out all the costumes, interacting with the other revelers, trading beads and laughs with all the grown-ups acting like little kids (even as the kids get all serious and cranky, again. Time for a refill of Mom's cup!).

Aw, maybe I'm not being fair to the little guy. It is pretty overwhelming to see the grown-ups acting so silly. And he did get into it, sitting on Daddy's shoulders and sometimes standing by himself in the middle of the street waving his arms for beads or feather boas or little stuffed toys. He especially enjoyed chasing and being chased by our friends, a giant game of hide-and-seek (don't worry, not very hidden), the French Quarter as his playground.

We ran into some of our other friends as we wandered around, made friends with strangers, generally walked until we just plain ran out of steam. By the time the sun was going down, I was feeling as crabby as a three-year-old on Mardi Gras, so we grabbed a cab (a Mardi Gras miracle!) back to our car, then made it home to rest...

...ha ha. Of course, we parents were completely wiped out, so our Darling Son decided that he just couldn't fall asleep (try as we all might). We finally gave up trying, and the three of us ended up eating leftover sandwiches (that Daddy had dragged around all day) and watching the televised Meeting of Rex and Comus, the most boring, pointless, and bizarre part of Mardi Gras day, which we have become weirdly addicted to as a part of our annual celebration. It's a pageantry of the rich folks in town, who elect kings and queens to perform a weirdly stylized ritual wherein they get all dressed up and pretend to be actual kings and queens. They're on the front page of the newspaper and everything, as if their "reign" over Carnival were something significant. Weird, too, how the election (appointment? I don't know if anyone votes for this stuff) runs in families, so the queens are often the daughters and granddaughters of former kings and queens. An example of the musty, dusty past still thumping along in the present. Our son, anyway, was really into the whole idea of kings and queens and kept asking us where their kingdom was, where their castle was. How do we explain it's just grown-ups playing dress-up, and taking it really really seriously? He wanted so badly to see real kings and queens, and maybe we all do--thus the pageantry, the zoned-out viewers in front of the TV.

As a nice counterpoint, we then watched a short documentary about Mardi Gras Indians, who are African-Americans from the poorer sections of town who dress in amazingly detailed feathered costumes and perform their own series of ritualized dances and meetings in the streets. These traditions, costumes, and rituals are also passed down through families, possibly extending back as far as the time of slavery, another example of the past infusing the present. In the old days, they had ritualized fights, with knives and machetes hidden among their feathers, but these days it's all about the fanciest dances, the best costumes, the chanting and singing. It looks a lot more fun than sitting on a throne and waving a gilded scepter at a bunch of rich folks wearing white gloves, I'll tell you that much.

Finally, blessedly, our boy fell asleep on the couch, and Mardi Gras was over. Everyone's experience of this day--this season--is different, and each year is different from the year before, even as we follow our own routines and rituals. Every year is amazing and exhausting. I feel so lucky to live here and excited to raise my son here. Someday he'll remember these holidays as part of his own history, one we build from one Mardi Gras to the next. For now, we're gonna sort out the beads while I add some Alka-Seltzer to my afternoon tea.

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