Monday, February 23, 2015

Post Mardi Gras reflection (not Lent-related)

Growing up in SC, I always considered Mardi Gras to be an exotic holiday – a day of absolute indulgence.  College buddies who road-tripped to New Orleans to celebrate this floating holiday had a cachet that nobody else could match.  To have taken days off from school on an unsanctioned holiday, attending the ultimate festival of pure decadence in the US – that was the mark of a serious hedonist.

When I arrived in New Orleans as a budding anthropologist in the late 90s, I decided that my best approach to this festival was an analytical one.  I would observe the rituals associated with Mardi Gras, allowing myself to enjoy it while maintaining a safe distance from the frenzy.

I looked at the ritual in terms of the symbolic redistribution of wealth between the elites elevated on the floats and the commoners below.  I considered the rites of passage necessary to gain entry into secretive organizations.  I observed the psychological changes involved in the masking behavior.  I wanted very much to experience the music that was so pervasive in the city, and to mark how it united the culture groups that lived here: the high school bands that take great pride in both sound and display. 

So I joined the crowd as a participant observer, with all of my observation skills engaged….

…and emerged, three hours later, wild-eyed, bead-festooned, ears ringing, reeling from the experience.  I had bloody, scraped elbows where I had ‘defended my position’ (did I really just elbow a little old lady in the face for some 22-cent beads?) and bloody, scraped knuckles

from an ill-advised wade into a scrum for aluminum doubloons.

I emerged a different person, feeling an odd mixture of triumphant elation, exhausted satisfaction, and just a soupçon of shame. And with an absolute determination that I was going to go in masked next time.

See, once you join the crowd, there is no anthropological observer.  There is only the person on the float with the beads (coconuts, plush toys, plastic spears, decorated high heels, whatever) and your competitors down on the ground level with you.  There is no music.  No costumes.  No brightly decorated, themed floats.  No flambeaux (the guys with propane-fueled torches that accompany night floats and to whom you throw spare change).  And no marching bands, except as impediments to getting into perfect position for that next float. 

None of that exists. The only thing that exists is that magical moment when the person on the float makes eye contact with you, chooses you out of all of the crowd, and pulls out a heavy strand of the heaviest beads on the float, and throws them….

…just to the right of where you stand.

Yeah.  That old lady had it coming.

Decadent?  Absolutely.  At every spot along the ten miles of parade routes (those kids who play tuba for the full length are serious rock stars), there is serious drinking taking place.  There is a party atmosphere throughout, an atmosphere that intensifies the closer you get to the French Quarter. (A "boob reviewing stand"?  Really?)

Don't worry.  The video is safe for work.

But there is also an intense family atmosphere, as well.  Kids are protected, with all of the fervor involved in protecting crown jewels (kids are also much more likely to help you score serious quantities of beads, if you have one atop your shoulders).  There are police everywhere, the elite of the nation in crowd control, and they will arrest anyone guilty of wardrobe malfunctions of any sort (well, at least they will on the Uptown side of the parade…).

And what it does for those of us who attend, is it allows us to step away from the day-to-day grind, the stresses of job and community and family.  It brings us together into a vibrating, pulsing, surging, dancing group.  It allows us to forget our individuality for a while.  It lets us make contact with a neighbor…. and hip check her just before the beads land in her outstretched hands.

So next year (in 2016, Mardi Gras will fall on February 9), pick up a flask, grab your muddiest shoes, don a mask, and join the fun.  Maybe you can trade a flask-full of manhattans to a float rider for some glass beads and 24 silver doubloons.

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