Minutes into last year’s Mardi Gras, a white lady idling beside me asked if I was with the band. We’d been queuing for the Bywater’s St. Anne parade, a couple hundred bodies crammed a few blocks from the French Quarter — the city’s oldest and most historic neighborhood. We stood dressed as paupers, princesses, astronauts, pilots, jedis, pimps, popes, cops, geishas, wizards, firemen, basketball players, the Cash Money crew, and any number of unimaginable things. It was a little out of this world, and a little sexy, and a little absurd.
Then there was the band. They cheesed as we parted the crowd. The musicians sipped from borrowed flasks, motioning over heads for tokes. Some of them stood in suits, and some of them stood in sportswear, and they were black, and I was black. This was what we had in common.
I told the lady I wasn’t with them. “No, I’m not,” I said. She nodded and smiled, but she still didn’t get it. It was a conversation I’d repeat all over the Quarter for the rest of the day.
When most people think of Mardi Gras, they’re thinking of Fat Tuesday, but the culminating celebration isn’t Carnival in itself. The last few weeks of February house an assortment of parades, with multiple routes and Krewes assembling minor constellations. There’s Muses in Uptown. There’s Central City’s Zulu parade, snaking through the Business District and into Mid-City. There’s Barkus, the dog parade, parallel to Louis Armstrong Park. There’s the Red Beans and Rice parade, and Orpheus, and Bacchus, and Chewbacchus; and those are only some of the more prominent gatherings. They exclude the private Mardi Gras scattered throughout the city. Porch stoops and cul de sacs are where the holiday is truly constructed — at least until Fat Tuesday, when the streets are filled with brass and the social boundaries are loosened. Every other house is an open-house and the evening drips with possibility.
Mardi Gras reached the States in the 17th century, shepherded along by Louisiana’s occupying Frenchmen, but over generations and blood shed and municipalities gained and lost, it became the state’s main-stay, celebrated by freed slaves, Native Americans, Italians, Cubans, Hondurans, and white folks alike. It is a tradition born of diversity. And, at least in New Orleans, it’s a very black holiday, despite a chunk of the population’s willingness to ignore that fact beyond its acknowledged parameters.
My first year in town, in 2016, I told myself I wouldn’t forget that. I figured I’d approach the day with the solemnity it had garnered. Then, around seven that morning, someone offered me a sangria. I figured one wouldn’t hurt. Then I drank a six-pack of Modelo. And then a pineapple margarita, and another one after that, until I was wolfing shots from house to house, stumbling along the parade line until it’d overtaken me entirely. Halfway into the afternoon, in another part of the city, a woman offered me her mojito before before she vanished into the crowd, and her go-cup — the vessel for New Orleans’ open container policy — became my go-cup, and I took what I was given. From then on, the evening became translucent, an entity outside of myself. The memory turned impressionistic, becoming clearer as the days went on. About a month had passed before I reconstructed, through hearsay, where I’d gone, what I’d done, and why.
Immediately after Donald Trump’s inauguration, but before the new administration’s gap in executive orders, New Orleans fell into a steady rhythm of shutdowns and protests. The Women’s March spilled into and around the Quarter’s borders, followed by a bunch of other, smaller marches in tandem. A few days after the big one, I ended up getting my haircut, and I watched a crowd shuffle through the window in the chair, and my barber observed that what we were experiencing wasn’t new, just that “You ain’t gotta be a nigga to be treated like a nigga no more.”
Every American city cultivates its own underclass. The rules of that system remain unique to the city in question. But New Orleans’s history of repression is sprawling, aided by an addiction to incarceration, legalized segregation, and rampant gentrification. Now it seemed the distance between the comparatively privileged protestor, and the majority living without, had thinned even more than ever; but, despite that thinning, its rift had been illuminated. And even if most of the locals couldn’t take time off to march in the streets, or boycott the gigs responsible for feeding their children, they’d feel those policies directly, stacked on top of the local ones, until they’d rocked the walls of their lives, forcing them to adapt yet again.
A few days after Trump’s travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries in January, a group materialized on Facebook for a protest at City Hall. For the next few hours, stuck at my job, I watched the crowd balloon wider and wider, until it’d spilled across my feed. When I finally made it downtown, at least half of the crowd has dispersed, but some folks still loitered, sipping water and making conversation. A pair of families had actually pitched tents on the lawn by the building. Parents watched their kids crawling all over the grass. Some women in hijabs watched beside me. Eventually, I asked what they thought about the rally. Two of the women were dark brown, and another one was black, and they smoked, grinning over their cigarettes, exchanging a pair of glances.
“The city marches for its weddings, and it marches for its deaths, and on the eve of codified national inequities it pulls people onto the streets — because the town is a tough one.”
One woman said it was “nice.” Another nodded loosely. The other woman, in skinny jeans and a sweater with the word RESIST inscribed on it, said the endeavor had gone “about as well as could be expected.”
We watched the parents pitch their tents, until they fell, and they pitched them again. A handful of black men in orange jumpsuits assembled to pick up the trash around them. The men gawked at the families, until they finally couldn’t shield their laughter, stabbing soda cans and plastic bags up and down the road. Here were my barber’s words coming full-circle, across Duncan Plaza, by one of the city’s most official entities: even directly outside of City Hall, or maybe especially there, “You ain’t gotta be a nigga to be treated like a nigga no more.”
The night before this year’s Fat Tuesday, I stood in line at the fish market, and the lady in front of me notified the dealer that she wasn’t going out — it was just too dangerous. A few evenings prior, there’d been a triple shooting in Uptown, on the same afternoon as a bomb threat at the Jewish Community Center. The evening of Endymion, moments after my partner and I vacated our spot on Orleans Avenue, a drunk in a pickup truck plowed his way through the crowd, injuring 28, and effectively ending the evening.
Days later, the morning of Mardi Gras proper was the hottest on record. Waiting for the St. Anne parade, more than one person shed a layer from their costumes. I’d chosen not to wear one this time around (settling on a Westbrook jersey from the city’s All-Star game the weekend before), but before I could lament that, the drums rang through the back of the crowd, and then the horns blared, and so did the whooping, and all of a sudden the mass began to roll.
We rolled through the Bywater and into the Quarter. We rolled downtown, convening with other parades at the intersections. And then our parade split, until one became six, and those six dipped into two more still, and our steady little groups evaporated into multitudes. On our way through the city, metermen slipped between percussionists, and tourists collapsed from heat exhaustion, and day-workers filmed from rooftops with their phones. Somewhere along Toulouse Street, I ran into some guy dressed as a monk, and before I could apologize, he waved me off, repeating the mantra that’d passed its way through lips all over the city: everywhere else, it was just another Tuesday. That, he said, was no small thing.
New Orleans stands as transient as any in the country. Most people come to the city knowing full well that they have no intention of staying. So they piss all over the streets, and they drink up all of the liquor, and they can’t be bothered to interpret the class lines, and work put into maintaining the parish’s institutionalized racism. But the city, as ever, prompts glimmers of love. Whole blocks hit a standstill over a trumpet in the streets. The city marches for its weddings, and it marches for its deaths, and on the eve of codified national inequities it pulls people onto the streets — because the town is a tough one. But it still has its limits, and it’s when those limits are breached that the city becomes truly unmanageable.
So the parade churned through the Quarter, shedding bodies along the route. When we’d reached the Mississippi, my original group reconvened, until they instantly dissolved again, even if only a few arms-lengths away. Only you couldn’t tell for the people that had taken their spaces, and it was enough to prompt a thought about impermanence and change. The city had been through a rough year, 66 million voters had been through a rough year, and yet Carnival had descended on all of us nonetheless.
For as briefly as we’re here, as bleak as it can be, the holiday still illuminates the grief and dread it happens to fall onto. You had no way of knowing what the rest of the revelers had been through, that month, that week, slogging through the bulk of the days, counting the hours before they descended back to the life that was waiting on them. But by the time I started wondering, the convoy was churning again, stumbling back downtown, over the chain tracks and down Canal, before it wheeled into the square, where I ran into my friends, and strangers who weren’t so strange, with all of us different and suffering and fighting, but not decimated, or forgotten, at least for a few hours longer.