Suddenly, just as I was stretching my arms toward the middle-aged man and begging him to hand me the rubber chicken, I had a flash of doubt about what I was doing with my life. He was on a Mardi Gras float crawling down St. Charles; I was standing in an inch of beery effluvia in the gutter. He was wearing a vaguely threatening Illuminati-style robe and a grubby mask; I was sporting a breastplate of thrown beads and a pink wig. He was clutching a go-cup sloshing with booze; so was I. We both should have had better things to do.
But apparently hundreds upon thousands of carnival revelers annually decide that they do not, in fact, have anything better to do of an evening than to wade into the scrum of spectators alongside a major parade route in New Orleans, then jump up and down screaming at the floats as they lurch by, elbowing their fellow human beings in the face in order to clutch at trinkets sailing through the sticky air. The thing about Mardi Gras, or at least the “parades and throws” part of Mardi Gras, is that it’s fundamentally infantile and thus requires mood-altering substances in order to really get into it. (Unless, of course, you are actually infantine.) But even after the free champagne Jello shot that a group of strangers administered to you through a chute running from their second-floor porch to the sidewalk, and the second round of shots purchased for you and your friend in a seedy bar by a hopeful man-child young enough to be your very young pet sitter, and the margarita that you bought for yourself (carnival failure) at the upscale Mexican place on the corner, and the several more beers that came from ... somewhere1—even then you will occasionally catch the eye of the middle-aged woman standing near you in the effluvia who looks like she would become your best friend under other circumstances and you will both shake your heads wryly and laugh at what you are doing.
Do I sound like I don’t love Mardi Gras? That would be a misrepresentation on my part, because I freaking love Mardi Gras.
This year, 2022, the first post- (kinda) pandemic Mardi Gras—or at least the one in which we all agreed to pretend that coronavirus was not stalking the bars and floats and homemade Jello-shot chutes of the city of New Orleans—was also the year in which Russia invaded Ukraine. In fact, the weekend that the spouse and I were there with our friends W. and J., the last weekend before Fat Tuesday proper, was just a day or two after the invasion. We were all glued to our phones the whole trip, in between and during the brunches and parades and music and shopping, making sure that we didn’t miss a single utterance that Volodymyr or Vladimir (aren’t these essentially the same name? has anyone noted?) emitted over the internet. It’s nearly a full-time job, following global events on your phone around bites of almond pastry. Surely the intensity of our scrolling, the obsession with which we check and re-check and share and comment and meme-ify, is the main thing keeping the world from teetering off its axis and into the abyss. Thank god we’re here.
But I promised myself (and by extension you, dear reader) that this was not going to turn into another essay about white middle-class liberal guilt, another 2000-word hand-wringing over the gorgeous flowerings of privilege atop the steaming dung heap of our scarred and dying planet. We all deserve a fucking vacation. The people in Bucha who were tortured and killed by Russian soldiers deserved a weekend in an Air BnB in the Marigny, stuffing their faces with beignets and gumbo and Rockefellered oysters. They deserved some quality throws—not just crappy generic beads but the really good stuff, the plastic cups and beer coozies and heavy signature medallions that the drunken middle-aged men on the floats have to hand to you personally, gently, with lingering eye contact, because if they were to throw them through the air they could hit someone in the head and cause serious injury. The people of Bucha, Ukraine, definitely deserved to have someone hand them things gently. We all do.
Here’s the thing about the shit you collect at a Mardi Gras parade: its value has a very particular, and idiosyncratic, half-life. While you are at the parade itself, pushing your way through the crush of drunken pre-penitents to get as close to the floats as you possibly can, it seems of vital importance that you acquire the very best stuff that the drunken middle-aged men2 have to offer, what we and our friends W. and J. have taken to calling “quality throws.”
[Herein a brief interlude where I explain the precise meaning of this phrase, which owes its origin to a happy mistake. In March 2012, W. and J. and Scott and I went to the big St. Patrick’s Day parade in NOLa, where we captured on video one of the most delightful events I have ever witnessed in my entire life. Go watch the video below (it’s worth it), but I will also explain what you are looking at since it’s not immediately clear. The Orleans Parish school board President, Thomas A. Robichaux, was marching3 in the parade that St. Patrick’s Day, a go-cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other. (He is also a raging lefty and openly gay, which somehow makes this whole thing even more charming.) A child is yelling at Robichaux from off camera, begging him to throw something, so he hands the kid an emptied bag that his throwing beads had been packed in. Now, this child does not understand that an empty beads bag is at the apex of throw quality—people in the know clamor for these things. The kid complains about the empty bag, and the drunk-ass kilt-sporting President of the Orleans Parish school board moves his cigarette aside long enough to explain—ever the pedagogue—that you can “save your beads in there. That’s a very valuable throw.” We were all transported with delight over this exchange, but for some reason misremembered the phrase as “quality throw.” Thus a private joke is born.]
But to return to the question of technique: I have been known to size up a stretch of parade bystanders, decide that there are too many little kids in the mix, and disgustedly forge my way to a better spot. You definitely don’t want to be near cute children, hot young women on spring break, or spunky septuagenarians toting “FIRST MARDI GRAS!” signs. (Liars.) If you are a short woman of a certain age, you are going to have to really work on standing out and attracting the attention of the drunken middle-aged men holding the keys to all your happiness. Wigs, kooky hats, flashing-light headbands, and racy placards can all help: but of course every other short woman of a certain age will be essaying the same tactics. (I recently stood next to a lovely, zaftig 40-ish woman with tousled hair, wearing a bland track suit and not a whisper of makeup or costumery, who languidly stretched out her hand as the floats wafted by and collected dozens upon dozens of fancy gimcracks, while I caught nary a necklace. After I watched her for a while, bemused, I struck up a conversation and discovered that she was French. Of course. Of course.)
As I promised earlier, I’m going to try very hard not to apologize for my Mardi Gras weekend or rehearse my embarrassment over my silly frivolity. If my cancelling my trip to New Orleans and staying home glued to the Washington Post website for 48 hours could have turned the tide in Mariupol, or saved one child from being shot in the back as she made a dash across a bridge to freedom, of course I would have done so. But as we all know, the calculus doesn’t work that way. There is a calculus, we all feel this intuitively to be true, but it’s not one we can access or describe clearly, let alone affect with our individual behavior. We saddened foreigners can give money and volunteer time and write letters and get out the vote. In theory, we (some of us) can even sign up for the French Foreign Legion and volunteer to fight the Russian invaders on Ukrainian soil. But even that extreme sacrifice is still the sacrifice of an individual person, a miniscule cog in an overwhelming clockworks of horror, a gear whose tiny teeth may snap off during its first grinding revolution, some random accountant of Ukrainian descent from Berwick-upon-Tweed who ends up face-down in the mud of a country he is visiting for the first time with a bullet in the back of his head.
Here is the way the Mardi Gras Throw Value System works: an object is at peak value when it is being held aloft by a float inhabitant, especially if he (and I say “he” advisedly) is taunting the crowd with it, pretending to throw it and then feinting and double-crossing the bystanders. The nano-second that you touch the handed-over (best), thrown (second-best), or picked-off-the-ground (whatever) item, it loses one-half of its original value—but it’s still pretty precious. During the next gap between floats, you will turn it over in your hands and examine it, and you will feel pretty good about now owning this new thing. Then it goes into your goodie bag (a.k.a. your “very valuable throw”), where it will lose one-half again of its value as the parade wears on. That evening, you will dump all the stuff you acquired during the day on the coffee table of your rented apartment, and it will gradually leach away another half its value before morning. Over breakfast you will paw through your stash and wonder why you wanted all this crap to begin with; if you are flying home, you will feel positive dismay. Later, the exact moment you cross the municipal boundary of the city of New Orleans—whether it’s by car, train, bicycle, airplane, or dirigible—the trinkets you have acquired will instantly become completely worthless, like a mummy sealed in a tomb for thousands of years turning to dust at the first puff of outside air.4
According to a June 2020 post on ukrainetravelnews.com, the most popular summer vacation spots for Ukrainians were “Koblevo, Lazurne, Zatoka, Berdyans’k, Odesa, Prymors’k, Urzuf, Bilosarayska Kosa, Kyivs’ke Reservoir, Kyrylivka.” (The only word in that string of letters that means anything to me is “Odesa,” and even that seems impossibly exotic.) The most popular spots for travel abroad were Turkey, Albania, Egypt, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Georgia, Maldives, Bali, Croatia, and Greece. Google Ukraine also reports that “there is a growing trend of search queries related to agritourism by 44% and ecotourism by 46%, and interest in hot and sightseeing tours decreased by 83% and 56% respectively.” I don’t know what “hot tours” might mean, but it sounds like the people of Ukraine, before they were invaded by an unprovoked nuclear superpower, were becoming more concerned about the environmental impacts of travel and interested in using their vacation time in ecologically responsible ways. Perhaps they would not, after all, want to eat oysters from beds tainted by industrial oil spills. I just don’t know. I’m not really sure why I want to myself, except that it has something to do with joy.
Reader, I got the chicken. And now I don’t know what to do with it.
For all of my friends who are suddenly concerned about my binge drinking after reading this essay: I am exaggerating for effect. Plus also: the Jello shots were sealed in individual plastic cups and the people sending them down the chute to friendly passersby were women. Also, it was New Orleans.
And women! The bestest parade is of course Krewe of Muses, followed by Iris. That said, the women on the floats are equally drunk.
Actually, he was being transported in a little bicycle rickshaw with a shakily hand-lettered sign explaining who he was, doubtless pedaled by some intern from the Orleans Parish School Board office. The utterly delightful details of this incident—like the kilt! the cigarette!—multiply themselves to the point where a humble essayist simply reporting the truth is no longer credible.
Of course there are obvious exceptions. Hand-decorated shoes from Muses, Zulu coconuts, truly intricate signature medallions, and hand-made crafty items from some of the smaller walking parades all retain value even after you get them home. Indeed, they may even end up on your mantelpiece or in your guest bathroom. But these are the rare exceptions that prove the rule. That miniature Nerf football you shamelessly pleaded for will mean nothing to you on the morrow; I promise.