Many native New Orleanians, and even transplanted veterans of more than three carnival seasons, have become jaded by the fortnight of festivities culminating on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the 40 boring days of Lent. Though it had been explained to me as a child that carnival had been invented because of Lent, so that everyone could indulge those vices he has to forego for 40 days, I sometimes wondered if the ash smeared by local clergymen across the foreheads of recent libertines didn't merely verify that they were "burnt out" from the excesses of the past two weeks and needed a month and a half to recuperate.
The cars abandoned in the middle of any street within several square blocks of a six-mile parade route; the ladders erected by overzealous parents, not at the back of the crowds but in front of them, to secure adequate vantage points for babies too young to appreciate the pageantry, and to assure the obstruction of anyone else's view; the mounds of garbage left behind by that slovenly class of people who can't enjoy any sort of entertainment unless accompanied by food, drawing the miniature Conestoga wagons which are their ice chests into a circle encompassing vast areas of the neutral ground; the militant pickaninnies prepared to murder for the worthless slices of aluminum bearing the names and themes of the parades, smashing with their feet, as though it were a roach, the hand of anyone foolhardy enough to attempt to recover a doubloon that has escaped aerial capture; the ballrooms packed with droves of homely debutantes who, even if their fathers owned the Superdome or One Shell Square, would still lack sufficient appeal to snare themselves husbands, and who could learn a thing or two about beauty and fashion from the drag queens strutting their frighteningly convincing feminized stuff about the French Quarter; that same stupid couple year after year, with their two stupid kids, all dressed up in the same stupid polka dot jumpsuits, managing to be almost as repulsive as professional clowns; and, last but not least, the loveable tourists determined to urinate in the street with other loveable tourists so that they can relate with disgust to the neighbors back home this particularly barbaric practice of New Orleanians caught up in the frenzy of Mardi Gras. These are the aspects of carnival which not surprisingly cause many a native to wait out the storm in the safety of his shuttered home, or to flee town even.
But in the company of the young or uninitiated, the unjaded, a remarkable change comes over the Mardi Gras Scrooge. However determined to resist their infectious enthusiasm, he nevertheless finds those polar eyeballs of his beginning to defrost under the glare of the flaming crucifixes brandished by the flambeaux, those soulful altar boys gyrating and writhing as though each had chug-a-lugged a pint of DDT; his wax-filled ears abused and finally punctured by the unrelenting sirens of Harley-Davidsons. The sights -- hawkers wheeling cotton candy shopping carts, sleek convertibles carrying tuxedos and evening gowns, fezzes steering motorcycles, sequined torsos wielding banners and rubber-tipped silver rods, instruments mounted on strutting uniforms, tractors with horses' heads, leotards holding scepters, papier maché giants and costumed Lilliputians -- seep through his eyes. And the sounds -- sirens, screams, tubas, drums, boots, hooves, doubloons --trickle through his ears. Then all at once they gush forth and flood his consciousness, sweeping it away. Bubbling and sizzling, the tide of tunes and tones chews away the rust encrusting the sockets of his arms, dissolves the corrosion welding the hinges of his jaw. His hands spring up in entreaty, and from his mouth the swell bursts forth in that timeless exhortation, that carnival mantra adopted by citizens of welfare states the world over: "Throw me something, Mister."