New Orleans might be the capital of hospitality. Residents are vocal in their warmth, greeting everyone who passes at length, with eye contact. Couple that with the food, the cocktails, the music… and just about anyone would feel at home. Or at least at the home of their cool-but-unreliable uncle.
Hospitable, but also unknowable. If someone tells you they understand New Orleans, that person is wrong. Not totally wrong: everyone knows—and typically loves—their New Orleans. God bless them. I felt the same way.
The longer I spend here, the less I feel I get it. It’s a European city, a Caribbean city, a poor city. A rich city. A city where slavery wasn’t as terrible as it was elsewhere. A city that was the hub of the slave trade. It is not an American city, even though it technically is. It is definitely a wet city. It is a party town. A college town. Super gay-friendly. An up-and-coming city. A violent city. A gritty city.
I’ve given up on getting it. That said, and regardless of whatever contradictions wove the fabric of the city, there is one thing about New Orleans at present, the best clue I have, one crumb of evidence that makes me feel like if I can’t wrap my head all the way around it, I can understand at least a part of it.
Here it is:
Parade season in New Orleans runs nine months a year.
The city marches in parades in every month of the year except July, August, and September, at which point it’s too damn hot to walk outside anyway.
Carnival season just wrapped up this past Tuesday, Mardi Gras day. Mardi Gras is not just a day; it is a season. The first krewe (mystic krewes are the social groups who throw parades… again, you can see why I’ve given up on understanding or explaining New Orleans…) marches on the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Catholic holiday, the day the Wise Men visited baby Jesus.
That’s another thing. Mardi Gras season is based on the Catholic calendar but is purely hedonic and atheistic. There is no God here on Mardi Gras, just the guys with bullhorns hollering at the thousands of revelers on Bourbon St., who in turn either ignore or openly mock those guys’ attempts at party pooping.
Parades reveal the ideologies, values, and resources of the krewes who throw them. That means they run the gamut, from Endymion (“Mardi Gras’ Main Event” in their words… if you want my opinion on Endymion, all I have to say is this: Pitbull was the star of their 2016 Endymion Extravaganza) to ‘tit Rex, a krewe that rolls mini, shoebox-sized floats. Krewe du Vieux is a smash hit on our side of town, a group that specializes—no, focuses single-mindedly on—politically-themed double entendres (my favorite this year was “The Besh is Yet to Cum” float, smashing chef-cum-douchebag John Besh for his restaurants’ tolerance of sexual harassment and abuse). St. Ann’s on Mardi Gras Day was wild fun… a people’s parade full of absolutely elaborate homemade costumes, many elaborate and truly beautiful.
This is me scratching the surface. I don’t know the entirety of parade season. No one could—it’s too much, too widespread. But parade season is like a translucent vein, an slicing angle of quartz giving a view into the history, the heart, the soul of New Orleans.