Some of the better ones revolve around the corner of St. Charles and Julia street. It was just out of the heart of the Central Business district, and three blocks or so from Lee Circle, a moderately seedy part of town, but still mostly commercial, filled with small businesses and cheap hotels, just above flophouse quality, although later it would get somewhat gentrified. We picked that spot because Dad had used to work at the car dealership right around the block, and for about six years it was the main place we did Mardi Gras. We'd get there early, before seven thirty, and sort of stake a home base with lawn chairs and a cooler, but we were never the first. There was a little restaurant connected to one of the hotels we'd get coffee and eat breakfast at, which we never did any other time of the year. But Mardi Gras day, it was a tradition.
People would be walking up and down St. Charles Avenue, walking to see who was there, walking to show off their costumes, walking because the air was damp and cool and they didn't want to stay put. People would come by and set up ladders on the curbs so they could be over the heads of the crowd once the parade started. The whole street would eventually be lined in ladders, amongst the milling people -adults, restless kids, smarmy teenagers who didn't have permission to run off to the French Quarter, all antsy, cold and impatiently waiting. Even before 8 am, the beer was flowing freely.
Sometime in the morning, vendors would come by, pushing carts filled with various stuff...Mylar balloons, peanuts, cotton candy, trinkets. The crowds thickened. Everybody was looking towards Lee Circle, because that was the direction the action would come from. Somewhere, by mid-morning, the marching clubs began to wend their way down the street. They would be proceeded by a truck playing recorded music, usually, and then the men would be parading in time to the music, carrying large staffs filled with cheap silk roses or gaudy umbrellas. Pretty girls would kiss marchers for one of those roses, and some of the marchers would throw out cheap beads, whetting the kids' appetites for more.
Sometime, about 10ish, the first real parade would roll down the street - the Krewe of Zulu, an African-American organization. Their timing and parade route was somewhat erratic by permission and tradition, but they were always the first down the street. Not a whole lot of people could tell you what the floats looked like; everybody was too busy yelling, trying to get close to the floats. "Hey Mister! Throw me something, Mister! and the wailing of that particularly melodic cry, "Dabloooon!"
Doubloons are aluminum coins, about the size of a half dollar, marked with the parade group's insignia and theme of the year. I can still tell if metal falls on the ground and it's aluminum. It has a clearly unique tone. People would sometimes get in fights over these trinkets.
After Zulu had past, there would be more marching bands, sometimes with girls, sometimes not, secondlining down the street. (That's the term, second-lining. A bouncy, jazzy twirling and marching, following behind a truck or float, or even a band.) Sometimes there would be a real band, like the Olympia Brass Band, a small group of black musicians with a base drum and various brass instruments. Pete Fountain, the New Orleans Jazz Clarinetist, had his "Half-Fast" marching band, too...Usually by the time I saw him, he was too blitzed to play.
The music was zydeco, dixieland jazz, sometimes pop recordings. There's a whole group of songs that are Mardi Gras songs, not played much outside of the season, like "Carnival Time" and "Handa Wanda." The Dixie Cups' recording of Iko, Iko is one that escaped:
My grandma and your grandma were sittin' by the fire
My grandma told your grandma:
"I'm gonna set your flag on fire"
Talkin' 'bout, Hey now! Hey now! I-KO I-KO un-day
Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-ne
Look at my king all dressed in red , I-KO I-KO un-day
I betcha five dollars he'll kill you dead
My flag boy and your flag boy were sittin' by the fire
My flagboy told your flagboy:
"I'm gonna set your flag on fire"
See that guy all dressed in green? I-KO I-KO un-day
He's not a man, he's a lovin' machine
That one is about a tradition in the black community of Mardi Gras Indians, who make the most elaborate costumes and go out and parade on Mardi Gras. We'd occasionally see someone like that, but not so often.
Somewhere around noon, things changed. Rex hit St. Charles. The Krewe of Rex is sort of the high point of much of the social life and parade business of Mardi Gras. It was filled with high class ladies and gentlemen in beautiful robes and some on horse. Shriners would be their in little cars that made a lot of noise, and there would be many marching bands, but most important, it was the start of the parade float orgy. For hours, there would be floats throwing beads and trinkets - Rex, the Krewe of Elks and the Krew of Orleanians. Float after float.
Soetime about 3 o'clock, we'd usually had enough, and headed back to the car, another Mardi Gras successfully done. But the crowds in the street and the beer and cheap wine, women teasing crowds off of balconies, wouldn't wind down until midnight, when the city sweepers would run, and the police would announce Mardi Gras is over.
The next day, Ash Wednesday was a day off for many people. It was probably a good thing. Lots of folks felt penitent. And everybody was tired.