Mardi Gras translated from French means Fat Tuesday. In New Orleans it is both a season and a day. The celebration is a ramp-up; parades and parties start shortly after New Years Day and continues for over a month. Activity increases in intensity until the culmination on the Tuesday before Lent.
Mardi Gras Day, that final Tuesday, is the biggest party day of all. It is a daytime event that starts early and ends early. Some locals pride themselves on starting the party at a very early hour, say 6:00 AM. Most of the party is over by 5:00 PM. Parades go on all day.
One of the most mysterious parts of Fat Tuesday is the Mardi Gras Indians, African-Americans who dress up like American-Indians. Supposedly they do not actually “parade; ” they just appear, usually in poor African-American neighborhoods, unannounced, to do symbolic battle against other “tribes” of “Indians.” The Indians are men that have spent a year or more sewing their own costumes.
I had never seen a Mardi Gras Indian on Mardi Gras Day. The only time I ever saw these MG Indians was at a funeral for one of them back in 2015, which we learned about from the local alternative newspaper. I took this photo at that 2015 event.
The first parade of Mardi Gras Day is Zulu, run by the elite of the New Orleans African-American community. Zulu starts at 8:00 AM in an African-American part of the city but soon joins the usual parade route through Uptown New Orleans.
I was in New Orleans with my wife Tootie and her sister Kathryn. We of course wanted to see the Zulu parade, but also wanted to catch a glimpse of Mardi Gras Indians, if possible. Maybe if we bicycled into that neighborhood we might see an Indian? We would have to put on our costumes as well. Mardi Gras is much more fun if one dresses up, “masks.”
Driving a car in the city on Fat Tuesday is pretty much impossible so a bicycle can be quite handy. We were staying in our friend’s upstairs guest apartment near Louisiana Avenue and Magazine Street. It was 6:15 AM as we put on the sheep outfits that Tootie had designed and constructed.
We had three bicycles, two of which our friend graciously allows us to store permanently in New Orleans under her house. Mardi Gras beads were draped over her fence.
We decided to start in only partial costume, and add the fluffy sheep fur later in the day.
On our way bicycling to The Hood we passed through the much wealthier Garden District where at 6:45 AM we stumbled onto this impromptu appearance of the New Orleans Baby Doll Ladies; already dancing through the cool morning, accompanied by a loud and raucous brass band.
Led by this guy.
We crossed St. Charles Avenue and bicycled on into neighborhoods areas I have hardly ever visited. I had felt scared to go in these African-American neighborhoods but it all seemed welcoming on Mardi Gras morning. At 7:15 AM I followed Tootie and Kathryn up Jackson Avenue as people were staking out their spot to watch the Zulu parade.
All was great except we had two problems. We did not see Mardi Gras Indians anywhere, and both Tootie and Kathryn felt somehow incomplete without an entire Sheep costume. We hurriedly biked back to the apartment to put on the full costume.
We were disappointed in not seeing any Indians, but the full Zulu parade awaited. We biked back to a spot on the corner of Jackson Avenue and St. Charles. The parade had about forty floats and lasted almost three hours. The parade organization is over a hundred years old and continues to mock those who mock African-Americans, circa about 1910. Black doctors and lawyers in blackface and wigs of fuzzy hair with jungle attire like grass skirts. They toss coconuts from the floats. Only in New Orleans.
The St. Augustine Marching 100 is the most famous high school band in New Orleans and is from the city’s most prestigious historically black high school; Catholic and all boys.
The Zulu parade was immediately followed by the Rex parade, run by some of the city’s white social elite. We were hungry and only stuck around for one or two floats.
There would be about four more hours of parades on St. Charles Avenue, but we wanted to skip that and bicycle the three miles past the downtown high rises to the French Quarter.
There is a restaurant we like at the far end of the French Quarter, near French Market and Esplanade Avenue. It is called St. Cecilia and luckily it was open. They had a limited menu for Mardi Gras Day; Tootie got red beans & rice, Kathryn and I got quiche. Everybody was in costume.
After lunch we locked the bicycles and walked over to nearby Frenchmen Street in Faubourg Marigny, then back to the French Quarter. There were no organized events, just general crazyness.
This eleven second video taken on Frenchmen Street pretty much sums it up.
Leave a Reply