Mardi Gras made me hate New Orleans.
I was born in the Crescent City, and growing up there, the holiday got worse every year.
As a young boy, I didn’t understand the allure when, on Mardi Gras morning, my parents would wake me up before dawn, pile us into the van, drive to a parade route, curse about the lack of parking, finally park miles away from the parade, walk miles to the parade with folding chairs and full ice chests, set up, and then sit there.
My brother and I perched, freezing, at the top of a sitting ladder—do they make those any more?—and halfheartedly shouted, “Throw me something mister!” for beads and trinkets that I didn’t care to take home.
We’d wrap up after lunch, pack everything away, and fight traffic back to the suburbs. I always received my folks’ postgame “wasn’t that fun?” as an ironic taunt.
Elementary school opened my eyes to how thoroughly parents could embarrass their children on Mardi Gras. Most of them (not mine, thankfully) treated Fat Tuesday as the one day where they could do everything they told us not to. The phonies.
News broke one year that the city was forcing Mardi Gras krewes—the year-round clubs that build floats and put on the parades—to integrate. What dismayed me most is that I hadn’t realized until then that the krewes had been segregated! Which century did this town live in?
Natives always spoke of the Old World flavor of New Orleans, and apparently they meant it. The greens, golds and purples of the season couldn’t mix, and a city with many horribly ugly racist moments in its past had continued to institutionalize what it disavowed. The hypocrites.
In middle school and high school, Mardi Gras moderately reined in my hostility toward my parents annually humiliating their children; now it was our turn. At best, though, Mardi Gras ran like an ongoing loop of Adam Sandler’s “I’m So Wasted” sketch; crossing lines just to say that you did is empty calories.
The Mardi Gras of my senior year in high school sealed it. Up before dawn and gearing up—not with parents, but partners in crime—we rushed uptown to the three blocks where all the kids from a handful of high schools came together.
It was a grey morning in which the windows of heaven were cracked open so that a cold, slow drip fused the skies and the streets into roughly the same substance. For warmth I clung to a girl that I genuinely liked but didn’t love, which made me sad every time I was with her. I wanted to go home, except that I was already there.
Within the next four hours, the roads had turned into a communal vomitorium. Most of us had scuffled with police (either they were harassing us, or we were harassing them). One friend’s car was impounded for drug possession, and another bud, drunk, got into a fistfight with his own dad, drunk. A win for humanity.
I felt like I hadn’t slept in days, but I got back to the house at 3 p.m. I napped angrily but was awakened by a friend asking if I wanted to go out that night. (This was the guy whose car was impounded earlier in the day; he of course needed a ride for the evening.)
I shouted into the receiver, “I’m getting the hell out of here!” hung up, and went to college in New Hampshire.
But here I am in 2013 hosting a Mardi Gras party (which, by the way anyone in the community is welcome to attend; just lemme know).
I love Mardi Gras, and I love New Orleans. Why the change?
Say Anything with confetti
I told myself while living in New Orleans that it’s so hard to be a saint in the city, but I was really a Pharisee. If I make myself feel superior by judging people doing supposedly bad things, that’s just as bad a thing, no? Even if I wouldn’t want my kids to do everything that’s ever been done at Mardi Gras, Carnival isn’t really a bad thing.
Through no one’s fault, and because of my parents’ hard work and care, I enjoyed a very comfortable childhood. If Mardi Gras was about blowing off steam and resting well, I didn’t feel the need. I do now.
While I’m sure that by most standards my life is still incredibly privileged, I’ve faced enough struggles—and in pastoral ministry and walked alongside many more—that seeking rest and relief from cares are valuable.
(Here’s a fun and potentially weird-seeming Christian fact about Ol’ Jim: I consider myself to be a “sabbatarian,” i.e., one who practices keeping regular periods of rest. For various theological reasons, I don’t do the stores-closed-on-Sunday thing, but I believe that it is pleasing to God when we rest gratefully from our labors. It’s a gracious command for us.)
So, a city that builds an annual party season into the calendar and shuts down everything for a week in the clog days of February? Unbelievably awesome. That I’m given the time to spend hours upon hours standing around, drinking something frosty, talking to people, and catching worthless beads? Sure beats working in the mill. And I can dress up? Sign me up.
At liberti Collingswood church services last Sunday, I talked about how we ought not to treat one another from a functional perspective. We aren’t created to be consumers of other people, using friends, family, and co-workers to gain social capital, fun, pleasure, money, sex, and so on. Relating to people as people re-humanizes us.
Mardi Gras serves no practical, productive function. It’s John Cusack in Say Anything, with confetti. Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is also subversive in a healthy way. It will never be Mardi Gras: Brought To You By Microsoft. You can commoditize Mardi Gras but not control it; it can’t be centrally sponsored and controlled. How many fun things can you say that about?
Not only that, but Mardi Gras is strikingly egalitarian. Thankfully, racism is not the only note in the Fat Tuesday brass band. Everyone in the city does Mardi Gras, and it’s open to all.
I recall Bruce Springsteen saying he loved the Jersey shore because it’s for everyone. It’s not the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard; if you’re a teacher or a police officer, you can still take a week or two there in the summer, and maybe someday get a little place not too far from the sand.
It’s the same with Mardi Gras; we’re in this party together—which is why Mardi Gras always looks kind of bizarre. Last month, I was back in New Orleans for a weekend and grabbed a table at the Carousel Bar in the French Quarter, a nouveau cocktail type of establishment where they fart in the general direction of “mixed drinks.”
Sipping something with my dad, I marveled at the people at the bar as they glided by. (The Carousel Bar actually has a rotating, carousel bar in the center of the lounge. You should take the plunge and do a similar D.I.Y. at home.) There, old people, young people, costumed people, fat people, skinny people, dark people, light people all bellied up together.
By contrast, when I went with Emily a couple weeks ago to the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company (cocktail bar) in Center City, I left resolving to hit the gym and make sure that the cucumber slices I put on my eyes at night were organic.
Fat Tuesday takes that diversity and cranks it up to 11. Exclusion comes in different guises, but Mardi Gras has junk in the trunk with a bumper sticker that says, “We’re all people, after all.”
In its best expressions, Mardi Gras doesn’t serve as simple escapism, either. Traditionally, New Orleanians party on Fat Tuesday, knowing that right around the corner is Ash Wednesday mass, and the beginning of Lent, which commemorates the suffering of the world as reckoned through the suffering of the Son.
It’s an all-out party that persists not in the forgetfulness of death but rather in lament and defiance of it. It’s also a foretaste of heaven: sinners coming together and having a party.