The folks from Mobile will tell you that Mardi Gras did not originate in New Orleans, but as soon as the locals found it the perfect excuse for a prolonged party, they took it over. I’ve sometimes told people that New Orleans and Heaven have several things in common, with “loving a good party” coming toward the top of the list.
Actually, most of the citizens of metro New Orleans have a love-hate affair with this holiday. A surprisingly large number hate it and go to Breckinridge, Colorado, for a skiing vacation at this time. They tell me it’s “New Orleans west” out there right now. And others leave town for the beach or grandma’s to avoid the congestion. But, to be fair, a lot of the locals love it. They take the kiddies and line Veterans Highway in Metairie or St. Charles Avenue in uptown New Orleans and catch beads and other throws from the floats. They overflow the Quarter and Canal Street, they wear all kinds of masks and disguises, and they do things they would not want anyone back at home to know about.
Riding a float is a funny thing. The rider has to purchase all his own throws. Everything he or she flings into the crowd has been purchased with his own hard-earned funds. The average, I’m told, is $1,000 per rider. As a rider throwing away your good money, you wear a costume and a mask so no one even knows whom to thank. At the end of the route, you climb down and get in your car and go home.
The people catching the throws fight over them. Some of the necklaces are fairly nifty and would cost you, oh, perhaps fifty cents each in one of the ubiquitous Mardi-Gras-supply stores that pop up for the season. Most of the strings of beads go for a couple of pennies each. At the end of the evening, you gather your treasures into a grocery bag and get in the car and drive home. You dump them out on the dining room table and stare at them for a day or two, then put them away and try to keep down the nagging questions–like what am I going to do with this, why did I want them anyway, and what was the point of all this in the first place.
An insurance agent was telling his story in the newspaper the other morning. He said a divorce court judge convinced him to give up on Mardi Gras. When his wife found out he was riding a float and throwing away good money, she figured that if he had money to toss to strangers, he could increase her alimony. Her lawyer pulled him back before the judge. To his utter surprise, the judge ruled that life in New Orleans requires that its citizens participate in Mardi Gras, that it’s perfectly normal and not extravagant at all, and the money was well spent, and he threw the case out. That’s when the agent said the foolishness of the whole thing hit him. Ever since, he has hopped a Southwest Airlines flight and left town for somewhere. Anywhere.
They call today–as I write this–Lundi Gras, meaning “fat Monday.” Parades go on all over the area today, tonight, and of course tomorrow. The radio newscasts at the top of the hour are mainly about the parades, whether it’s going to rain, who’s king and queen of this krewe. Then, they “take you live” to the French Quarter where the announcer is bellowing into the microphone in order to be heard about the din of the crown. “It’s wild here in the Quarter,” he calls out. “We’re on the balcony of the Royal Sonesta Hotel overlooking Bourbon Street. It’s wall-to-wall people, back to back partying, and everyone is having fun–drinking and laughing and partying and getting naked.” Yep, that’s what he said.
That sure sounds like my idea of fun. Yessiree.
In fact, living in this city since 1990, I’ve met a lot of people who rue the years they wasted with this kind of foolishness. One said, “I spent money I did not have to impress people I did not know, doing things I knew were wrong. I almost ruined my health, lost my family, and damned my soul.” Another said, “You wake up with a headache, a hangover, and an emptiness inside the size of Montana–and I would say to myself, ‘There has to be more to life than this.'”
So many of the party people remind me of the fellow who when he found out he was lost doubled his speed. By drinking more, spending more, indulging more, maybe they’ll find what they’re looking for that way. But they never do.
It all reminds me of a wonderful line from “The Wiz.” My wife and I witnessed this delightful adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” a few years back on a hillside in Richmond, Virginia, along with 7,000 other picnickers. Until that time, I had never seen the original Judy Garland story, so I enjoyed this freshly, somewhat as a child would, I imagine.
The best line in the play went to the cowardly lion. The tin man is explaining that he used to be a regular lumberjack but he got hold of an enchanted ax, one somebody had put a spell on, and as he was splitting wood, it slipped and cut off the first leg. “So I got me one of tin,” he said. Then it slipped and cut off his other leg. “I got me another leg of tin.” Then the ax cut off his arm, and he got an arm of tin. And so on. Finally, the lion says, “Man, did you at any time think of getting you another ax?”
I’d like to ask my neighbors who live to party–and the myriads from your city who fly in for the “fun”–did you at any time think of getting you another ax? The one you’re cutting with is destroying you. It takes all your resources to mend the damage it’s causing. Eventually, it’s going to destroy you and my guess is it’s already hurting a lot of people you love.
Drugs. Alcohol. Destructive people. Ungodly living. Greed. Chasing the almighty dollar. All enchanted axes destroying the one weilding them.
At one point in the play the cowardly lion asks, “What good’s a brain, and what good’s a heart, if you ain’t got no courage?”
It takes courage to quit something destructive. Courage, you remember, is doing the right thing against great odds in the presence of great fear.
You might have to do what the insurance agent does and get out of town.