Carnival time when you grow up in New Orleans is such a special time of year. It was not until I left for my first Congressional internship in January of 1990 that I realized this fully. That was when I attended the annual Krewe of Louisiana Mardi Gras in DC. The three day event is a wonderful tradition and I sensed right away how much this piece of New Orleans culture meant to people in our nation's capitol from all over the country. For me, it was a nice little slice of home but it was not the real thing. Talking to people that weekend made me think about all of my memories of Carnival up to that point in my life.
The experience for New Orleanians differs depending on your age and your family and mine was no exception. Unlike many others, my immediate family (with a few exceptions) did not belong to any Carnival Krewe and did not ride in any of the parades. In the 1970s, we lived in the suburb of Metairie in Jefferson Parish whose own series of parades was quite robust in comparison to those in New Orleans. My father would take us to the end of the traditional parade route that began at Clearview Mall on Veterans Boulevard and rode all the way past Bonnabel because there was less traffic and easier to attend. Kale and Josh, my two younger brothers and I would bring Schewgmann Supermarket paper grocery bags to catch beads and doubloons. We would always come home each evening, lay out our catches, much like kids would after Halloween, and compare our haul of stuff. At a certain time, the local New Orleans Times Picayune would have a section that laid out all the various doubloons for each parade so we could plan, in advance to catch all the different colors. I would follow certain floats for several blocks just to make sure I would get every color.
One year, about the time I was 10 years old, the New Orleans Police officers went on strike during Carnival and all the parades were in Jefferson Parish meaning our formerly less crowded routine was upset. We stayed at my cousins place several evenings and cars were parked all over there neighborhood for parades two miles away! That was when I first really sensed how big this celebration was called Mardi Gras. A few years later my father accepted a transfer to Baton Rouge but we still made it a point to be in New Orleans during parade season, especially since my grandmother had moved into a place on Carondelet, just off Saint Charles where many of the New Orleans Krewes paraded.
Most of the stories from high school and LSU are best left to memory with one major exception. While at LSU, my fraternity rented a flat bed for a rig and had it parked on third and Saint Charles Avenue each year for Mardi Gras day. Just before Mardi Gras day 1989 I had met Dina with some friends at LSU one evening out at Murphy's Bar. Shortly thereafter we met up again Mardi Gras and spent the whole morning and afternoon together, laughing, joking, drinking, and talking about how much we loved New Orleans. There was a little magic, just sitting on the curb talking about things, almost oblivious to the floats and bands going by. We did not seriously date until the Fall of that year but it was Mardi Gras day when we really began to know one another. So when I put some of the kids on a Mardi Gras ladder, watch them check out all of their throws back at home after a parade, and relax on the sofa after a long day of parading, I am reminded of that lovely day back in 1989 when I first came to know Dina. I will always revere Mardi Gras and treasure this amazing tradition that makes New Orleans one of the truly authentic cultures in America.