New Orleans There’s just something about reading the rehashed stories every year on the front page of the local New Orleans papers about the surprise of some uptown swell at being named King of Rex and the shock of some debutante at being chosen as the Queen. All of this balderdash we are supposed to stomach as we then read of grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters who were in the Rex Court, Queens and Kings in ought whatever over generations. Their pictures are always the same. The stereotypes are always constant. In recent years, as a mild concession to the fact that New Orleans is a majority African-American city despite all of this elite pretense, there are also stories about the selection of the King of Zulu which actually involves well publicized campaigns and voting, as opposed to the secret society affairs of the old time krewes and courts. The Indians are also having their time in the sun given all of the attention by those in the know and faux Mardi Gras fictions like HBO’s Treme.
I’m for having fun, but the traditional part of Mardi Gras is so not for me and sits at the top of the list of the things that are not my favorite here. Until my son and I started pulling a shift for the regulars at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse every Mardi Gras morning, my most common remark about the holiday was that it was great to have a day off.
Nonetheless, I have to admit that there are some changes afoot that might save Mardi Gras somewhat for the locals and leave the show and the rest of the malarkey for the tourists, who are much appreciated and desperately needed for our service-dominated economy. One big change is that women have increasingly forced their way onto the scene and away from the society and debutante balls. There are women’s krewes now in reaction to the all-male bastions of the old line Boston and Pickwick Club outfits and some like Muses are huge hits. There are lots of women’s marching and dancing groups now, many with huge attitude and some that must give the grand dames along St. Charles Avenue some pause.
In the almost ten years since Katrina, there also seems to be a democratization of the festivities driven largely by young people who want to mask and parade often in their own neighborhoods like my own Bywater where so many of them have flocked since the storm. There is spirit there and even a bit of anarchy, as we saw some years ago in Eris where an unplanned and permitted route ended up with some arrests and hubbub. Krewe de Vieux before the official start of the carnival season snubs its nose at one and all with often ribald results. Societe de Saint Anne in particular has become wildly popular and amasses in Bywater literally doors away from our old home and only blocks from where we live now and is all about anyone who wants to join in and walk the streets toward the French Quarter from Bywater through Marigny.
In these downriver neighborhoods the chances are also good that you will stumble into a random procession of twenty or fifty or a hundred people following a concoction of their own making or perhaps it will stumble into you as a huge great white whale float reminiscent of Moby Dick did on my block this season. Now that people seem willing to seize the streets, they may have a chance over time of pushing the swells off the front line and back to the society pages and the dustbins of history where they belong.
Please enjoy, Billy Bragg’s “There is Power in a Union”