– by Michael!
I am not from around here.
I mean, I’m from Alabama, and I currently live in Mobile, Alabama. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and that’s just four hours up the road. How different can it be, right?
Well, in February, I am reminded that those four hours might as well be four time-zones. There’s a pretty massive cultural difference between Mobile and Birmingham, between Coastal and Central, and that gulf (pardon the pun) is nowhere (or should it be “nowhen?”) more obvious than during Mardi Gras.
Growing up in the Catholic school system of Birmingham, I at least knew what Mardi Gras was, unlike a lot of my friends. Every year we would do something small to celebrate the last couple of days before Lent, and it would usually involve a cinnamon roll topped with green sugar and enthusiastically labeled as a “King Cake.” (This makes my New Orleans friends shudder.) One year somebody “accidentally” swallowed the baby and caused a huge ruckus, but ambulance or not, I’m still convinced it was just a ploy for attention.
In general our Mardi Gras moment lasted for maybe half an hour in grade school, and even less in high school – at that point we just ate multicolored donuts in home room. Whoo Mardi Gras!
Here, every school is out. For an entire week.
This is not, mind you, a Spring Break substitute. They still get Spring Break. They just also get a Mardi Gras break.
It’s a big deal here. Downtown shuts down, as do many businesses outside of downtown – in fact, some of my friends were appalled last year that I had to go to work on Fat Tuesday! To them, that was like going to work on Christmas Day! Some people shell out outrageous (to me) sums of money to purchase or rent formalwear or costumes for lavish balls and parties. Some people get together with groups of friends to make or upgrade massive parade floats. And almost everybody flocks downtown to attend the parades, which start in January and continue, increasing in size, scope, and frequency, up to Fat Tuesday itself.
While we are far from parade aficionados, Joanie and I have found there to be a delightful spread in the overall experience of the parades. For instance, our very first Mardi Gras parade featured surly overweight women in cheap masks riding atop cheaper floats throwing moon pies, beads, and ramen noodles at the crowds below.
Astute readers will have noticed the preposition above. I said “at.” Not “to.” These were not being tossed in jubilation, but rather hurled with facial expressions that often made it seem as though these were being flung in judgment of the unrighteous, and that the throwers themselves wished them to convert to lightning.
Seriously, these women looked very angry at the fact that they were in a parade.
One of them almost gave Joanie a black eye with a pack of Ramen. One of the gentlemen standing near us persuaded us not to discard the snack, because “if you cook that up with a scrambled egg and some Tabasco, you got a great meal!” I am unfortunately unable to verify this assertion at this point in my life’s history.
I will presumably be unable to verify this assertion AT ANY OTHER POINT in my life’s history.
Another time last year we had the remarkable experience of seeing a mounted police officer riding through a McDonald’s drive-through. This had nothing to do with Mardi Gras itself, of course, but when else do you see a gal on horseback grabbing a McFlurry?
We also saw the parade featuring Vera and Dean, the fire-breathing dragon floats that are really just too cool for words. For this particular parade we were in the company of several good friends, including my younger brother, and both the people on the floats and the people around us were far more happy to be there than at the previous parade – particularly when the dragons themselves made an appearance. I did not think that I would ever find parade floats to be honest-to-God awesome.
I was wrong.
I was so wrong that I still have a string of Vera-beads dangling from my rear-view mirror.
(Side-note – you hear all this garbage about self exposure to get beads. I have been to Mardi Gras in multiple cities at this point, including New Orleans, and have never seen anybody with beads insist on viewing inappropriate amounts of flesh as a prerequisite for distributing the gaudy little things.)
But I think that the most memorable parade experience for Joanie and I was at one of the parades this year, during which we were next to a couple of women who had brought their young children to the parade. One had a baby in her arms who was probably less than a year old – obviously a crawler, but not much of a walker – and she was feeding him with a bottle as we waited.
Point of order: the bottle in question was a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola.
I am not a parent. I have a pretty low opinion of those who seek to pass judgment on other parents without having had those particular burdens and joys themselves. But I think I’m safe in saying that pouring dark soda down the throat of a child whose feet are still smaller than my thumbs is probably a really bad sign.
During the parade, she almost dropped the child trying to snag a moonpie from its careening vector overhead, and when she realized that she wasn’t catching any beads (probably due to the same troublesome infant) she asserted to her friends, “I best show them a nipple. Maybe they’ll give me some beads then.”
What a great example!
And the piece de resistance was the moment when she began to do the cute-parent-walking-the-toddler thing with her child… over the side of the safety rails while there were still floats going by.
People die this way, lady.
But there’s also so much good stuff going around. Funnel cake and street-meats galore, friends you haven’t seen in ages and friends you just made, beads and moon-pies flying through the air. Mardi Gras throws you out of your box and into the wild world of All Those Other People, whether they are throwing beads, riding dragons, or endangering their children, and as Joanie and I prepare to leave the Gulf Coast and move on, I’m very glad to have met and befriended this marvelous holiday.