Living in the Marigny, February 2023

One of the floats in the Krewe of Iris parade.

If you’ve ever wanted more parades in your life, New Orleans is the place to be, especially during Carnival season. I personally love parades and consider myself somewhat a parade expert. I’ve been a spectator at parades, driven International Student Organization homecoming candidates at Fairmont State in a parade, watched my kids and grandkids march in parades, and even marched myself while dressed as a woodchuck passing out candy canes at Christmas, 1990, in Greenville, Texas. I was representing for Woody’s Convenience Stores, a local chain that’s since gone out of business.

In New Orleans, it doesn’t matter where I’m walking or wasting time, the drums and horns that announce a parade always make me look up. It’s almost always a second line parade, which has a long history in New Orleans like gumbo and brick sidewalks. Today, second line parades mostly celebrate weddings, special birthdays, new business openings, or for philanthropic or political causes. I’ve seen a second line parade in the Central Business District that I’m pretty sure was a corporate team-building exercise.   

One afternoon a couple of weeks ago, a second line parade passed us on Chartres Street in the Marigny, announcing itself with marching band fanfare. The walkers’ costumes were nature themed, hats trailing vines or sprouting tall mushrooms, tree people waving branches, green-skinned wood nymphs with brown bark boots, giant flowers bearing banners like stamen. A walker handed us a flyer, and I learned it was a protest parade to “Defend the Atlanta Forest,” which I had to look up. “Defend the Atlanta Forest” is a group of activists that oppose the police training center being built on the outskirts of Atlanta for a few reasons: its cost, its ecological impact, and the ongoing militarization of the police force. Activists are camped and occupying the forest, and one activist was killed, and one police officer wounded during a confrontation in January of this year.

On the other side, leaders like former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms believe that the new facility will “not only help boost morale, retention and recruitment of our public safety personnel, but will give us physical space to ensure that our officers and firefighters are receiving 21st century training, rooted in respect and regard for the communities they serve.” Mock-ups of the training facility include jogging trails for the public and stables for mounted-patrol horses, and also staged buildings where firefighters and police officers can practice “rescue skills” and “rehearse drug raids, riot control, and hostage situations.” The arguments on both sides have some merit. A second line parade brought the ishew to my attention.

When it comes to Carnival and parades, people are of two minds: those who think we should leave politics out of parades and those who celebrate the potential to draw attention to ishews close and far. Early this month, three walking parades took place in the Marigny, including that of Krewe de Vieux. They’re a bawdy krewe of more than a thousand members, famous for sexual allusions and outrageous political satire, which this year focused on New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

A lot of residents don’t like the Mayor, including the organizers of the “recall Cantrell campaign” who claim to have collected enough signatures to initiate her recall, though the count is not yet official. Giant paper mâché effigies of Mayor Cantrell rode on float after float in various humiliating scenarios that referenced accusations of financial corruption, sexual misconduct, and generally shitty management of New Orleans, the beloved city. Here is one of the floats.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell being satirized for wasteful spending.

I could talk more about politics and krewes, like the walking traffic cones against potholes called the Mystic Krewe of Conus, or the snip-snip krewe in black scrubs whose tops read, “Vasectomy stops abortion,” but there are so many other parades. A central attraction of Carnival season is the big rolling parades with double-decker floats and marching bands from middle and high schools across Louisiana. Krewe members ride the floats and throw beads and other swag, including coveted “throws,” decorated objects unique to each krewe, like the glittery toilet plungers thrown by Krewe of Tucks or the bedazzled, befeathered coconuts thrown by Krewe of Zulu, the most coveted throw in all of Mardi Gras. I’ve never caught a coconut, but I’ve snatched beads out of the air, a satisfying feeling like I have the hands of a hawk.

My favorite parade this year was the one that started Carnival season on January sixth, Epiphany or Three Kings Day, the walking parade put on by the Krewe of Joan of Arc, patron saint of New Orleans. Late at night under a starry sky, waves of walkers paraded in medieval costumes, including troops of monks and nuns, angels and devils, jugglers, knights on horses, stilt walkers, a confetti cannon, lords and ladies, peasants, a giant paper mâché effigy of the villain Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who ordered Joan to be burned alive, and St. Joan herself, the Maid of Orleans, with a raised sword riding a white horse. The parade traditionally ends in front of Jackson Square where a golden statue of Joan of Arc lit by spotlights rises on a pedestal ten feet tall.    

Carnival starts with a parade and ends with a parade. It’s a party that the city of New Orleans throws for itself, often called “the greatest free show on earth.” By tradition and law, no corporate sponsors are allowed. While the City of New Orleans collects registration, security, and sanitation fees, it in no way funds the party. The parades are paid for by krewe and subkrewe members and attended by thousands of spectators. On Mardi Gras itself, I would venture to say the whole city becomes a parade, or the parade spills over into the streets, with every costume imaginable and beyond what I could have imagined. Then midnight comes, and Ash Wednesday arrives. Carnival season is over, and so is our winter in the Marigny. Au revoir, New Orleans! Until we meet next year.

Ready to parade on Mardi Gras.

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