NEW ORLEANS, LA Carnival 2006...As a mild sociopath with a fear of crowds and parades, I had been awaiting this event with a mixture of childlike anticipation and abject terror. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, marks the end of the revelry that is the month of February, and the last day before the Catholic holiday of Lent. While Carnival is celebrated all over the world, no city does it with quite the same degree of lewd abandon as does New Orleans. This yearly celebration of all things sensual and insane normally attracts tens of thousands of visitors from all over the country as well as bringing out the entire local community; indeed, nearly everyone in the city spends all year planning and anticipating the Month of February, preparing costumes, planning drinking routes, collecting and ordering beads and other “throws”...however, this Mardi Gras also marked the six month anniversary of the devastation visited upon the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Anticipation was tempered by the ongoing stress of recovery, with most of the city still finding refuge in other cities and much of the area completely destroyed; indeed, both city officials and citizens were divided in whether or not to even attempt to have Mardi Gras this year. Mayor Ray Nagin, avid proponent of going ahead with the festivities, cited a need to communicate New Orleans’ continued ability to support tourism, as well as to give parishioners a much-needed break from the dreary recovery effort. Nagin stood strong against substantial opposition from many fronts, including circumstance: the week before parades were scheduled to start rolling, the city discovered that there were insufficient funds from sponsors to pay for the cost of clean up and additional policing; nevertheless, the go-ahead was given. “We’ll find a way to pay for it,” declared Nagin, his voice seeming to tremble slightly, or was that just the radio?

As this was my first Mardi Gras, and well might be my only, I decided to participate in as authentic a fashion as possible, in as much as I remained piss drunk for days on end. The festival normally lasts the entire month, but for this year’s somewhat abbreviated state the last two weekends were the most ferocious, with several parades rolling each day.

Attempting to catch Thor, one of the largest parades rolling that first weekend, I ventured out into vicious traffic (New Orleans is home to the most hopelessly incompetent drivers I have ever encountered; headlines run almost daily reporting traffic fatalities of evacuated Louisianans in other cities, a situation utterly confusing to the natives but absolutely unsurprising to me). Maps are of absolutely no use when soaked in margarita, and in a town where roads follow some imaginary “crescent” you are forced to navigate by the Mississippi. Needless to say, my fears soon overcame me and I ended up passed out on the porch of my mobile home in St. Rose, a suburb far from the city and miles from any parade, my cigarette singeing the feathers of my green mask. Determined to make the parades of the next weekend, promised to be the grandest and most exciting, I enlisted the aid of my photographer cum logistics specialist, the mysterious Chupa Cabra. Although a denizen of Santa Fe and not a knowledgeable local, her violent disposition alone fosters a confidence in her ability to convey my soggy-drunk ass to a parade, seemingly a simple task, a lay-up, if you will...little did I know that violence does not actually equal directional savvy, and once again I found myself roaring around the trailer park in the middle of the night, screaming at the children and dogs also unlucky enough to have missed the parade.

I was down to the wire, and in my inebriated, emotional state, feeling like a miserable failure as a journalist: I had nearly an entire month to cover the easiest story of my life: all I had to do was show up and drink. With two days left, Lundi Gras (Monday) and Fat Tuesday itself, I knew I had better get serious, or find a day job.

Monday is more or less a day of rest; one is encouraged by the red-cheeked Mardi Gras veterans to drink only enough to maintain that hard-earned buzz. Ideally, this is your chance to regroup before the final onslaught that is Fat Tuesday. I tried to stay at a friend’s house in Uptown, where I figured I would have a better chance at making the parades on Tuesday, but I am a rambling drunkard and, patently discarding any “day of rest” mentality, somehow wound up with Chupa back at the trailer, throwing kitchen knives into the thin plywood walls and kicking the toilet nearly to death (it runs constantly now, seat broken the whole thing at an uncomfortable lean) and succumbing to my cup around 4:30 a.m. I awoke with a start at 7:00, shouted at my logistics team until, snarling and frothing at the mouth, she came to with a malevolent gleam in her eye that demanded coffee and twelve-inch voices. We decided to breeze by the historic Café du Monde, located on Decatur Street in the Quarter. Deterred (and discouraged) by one of the early-bird parades blocking our route, we made the necessary detours and found in innocuous place to park. Hopping the tall wrought iron fence and catching the crotch of my pants on the razor-sharp fleur de lis that made up the top of the fence, we stumbled to the café.

Café du Monde is a landmark New Orleans establishment known for its French doughnuts, or “beignets”, and its café au lait. Beignets are, for the uninitiated, squarish hunks of deep fried doughnut that serve as conveyances for absurd quantities of powdered sugar; indeed, at peak hours it’s wisest to enter the café in respirator and ASE-approved safety goggles, or, better yet, full scuba gear. In addition to its status as a popular tourist attraction and sobering up point for savvy locals, the Café is a unique and independent ecosystem, the only documented habitat of the Sugar Pigeon. Sugar Pigeons resemble regular, park-statue type pigeons at first glance, but upon closer scrutiny several behavioral and visual differences becoming obvious: Sugar Pigeons are adorned with a unique crest or mane comprised of powdered sugar. Some research indicates that the crest has evolved into a symbol of hierarchy, with the oldest pigeons sporting veritable afros of what looks vaguely like dirty cotton candy. Unarmed, however, they are no match for the drunken Chupa, who growled at them and kicked at the bolder ones if they came too close.

The café was packed, most of the customers in various degrees of costume: a few Beatles, the odd tarpaulin-caped superhero, middle-aged women in wedding gowns carrying signs that boldly proclaimed them to be “New Virgins”, a British Colonial that may well have also been a Beatle...the constant clamor of the noisy crowd drowned out all but shouted conversation, which was fortunate, because I was in no shape to deal with Chupa’s constant stream of slurred, tequila-scented abuse. Out on the sidewalk two withered old black gents piped generic jazz on battered horns while passerby mostly ignored them, hurrying instead to the garish chain-owned tourist bars, from which emanated terrible hip-hop at thunderous volumes and hokey statues of jesters and lions protruded lifelessly from the walls. This town is perfect for tourists: a confusing labyrinth of streets lined with an endless number of junk crap tourist garbage, all of them playing the Muzak version of zydeco and selling the exact same shit, the same T-shirts, the same hats, the same figurines and masks and gimmicks, worthless plastic garbage never intended to make the ride home, designed to be purchased while drunk and flung into the gutters when drunker...the amount of trash in the streets was startling, especially since last summer’s storms set a powerful high standard for startlingly trashed streets.

We left the café and wandered around the French quarter for a while, taking in the sights and sounds of Mardi Gras. The enormous rats scurried through the gutters with unnerving abandon, over the inert bodies of college students and tourists...occasionally they would miss their timing and become entangled in the clothes of the slumbering out-of-towner, occasionally coming up wearing collegiate ball caps and rhinestone-adorned gradiated sunglasses. The rats were drinking heavily, along with everyone else, and at times it was difficult to tell them from the tourists, that is, until they would lift up their shirts, exposing their hideous little rat breasts. At that point, if the rat was out of stomping range, it was best to just throw the damn things some beads. Diabolical little creatures...although tame in comparison to the Fundamentalist Christians, five or six of whom made their own rather spectacular appearance, wearing signs quoting obscure Biblical passages and long beards, wild eyed and screaming through megaphones into the crowds: “Filthy Queers! Alcoholics! Lascivicious Women! God hates your Mardi Gras! He sent a Mighty Wind to destroy this Den of Iniquity! Repent, welcome the Love of Jesus into your life, or you will Burn in His Hell!”

Most people chose to simply ignore these weird bearded men and their negative vibes; some drunk girls flashed them from balconies. I stopped near them to listen, and began writing in my notepad when all of a sudden one of them loomed up in front of me.

“Sinner! Repent, or you will spend Eternity in Hell!” He howled at me through his megaphone, as though he weren’t two fucking feet away.

“How do you know I’m a sinner?” I asked.

“Look at you, standing there, smoking your cigarette! Don’t you know your Body is a Temple? You are going to burn in-” I cut him off by flicking my cigarette butt onto his chest and threatening to seriously fuck up his temple.

I followed the Munsters around the corner and persuaded a cute middle-aged lady in a paper-mache duck outfit to go hug one of them. The guy flinched like he was being branded and shrieked, “Harlot! Don’t touch me!” As though Christ didn’t kick it with hookers, for fuck’s sake. I shook my head and found my logistics team lolling against a light post. Collecting her as best I could, we reeled off in search of a Parade. Rex was scheduled to roll around 9:30 a.m.; by God, we weren’t going to miss this one.

After an hour of searching, and another hour of finding a place to park, we walked another hour to get to the parade route, where I saw hundreds of wooden painter’s ladders with tiny little Soapbox derby cars screwed to the tops. Puzzled, I asked around; the tiny cars are used to elevate the children above the level of the crowd, wheeled apparently for easy transportation. Something about strapping toddlers eight feet off the ground in a drunken crowd seemed risky to me, but despite some serious teetering and terrified young wails, I didn’t see any dead babies, so I assume the parents knew what they were doing. Damned strange to a newcomer, though...all of it, damned strange. The preoccupation with beads, for example: the bright strands of plastic beads are unattainably priceless while on the float, supremely desirable during their parabolic descent to the clutching, grabbing hands of the crowd, and utterly worthless when dropped into the gutters, where they lie glittering in the sun, discarded, adorning nothing but the dead leaves and empty cups. An intriguing metaphor for the mentality of the revelers...

The parade route was jammed with people, mostly families, it seemed. Mardi Gras 2006 has been optimistically (opportunistically?) billed as the most family-friendly Carnival in years, due to the seemingly permanent diaspora of most of the city’s criminal element to Houston and other cities. Mostly Houston. (According to a press release from the Mayor’s office last Thursday, the NOPD announced that crime statistics were considerably low for this year’s Carnival season, with the boys in blue making just 632 arrests, down from last year’s 1,574.) Gentrification can be a funny thing; the city is unquestionably safer now that it is mostly destroyed and empty. Maybe every major city should abandon rigorous crime-fighting programs and simply dance for know, like... lots of it. Hmm. Certainly no one seems in a hurry to bring them back. These morbid thoughts occupied my mind while a nice old lady in an elaborate pink hat poured me a Bloody Mary and thanked me for my hard press work. I felt a twinge of guilt as I quaffed it like Chianti with pasta, and waited for the parade. The sun was blazing high overhead and the humidity was murderous; I was soaked in spicy V-8 scented perspiration, and I had to keep reminding myself that I had a journalistic responsibility to experience at least one parade. I tripped over two toddlers dressed as crawfish and when I finished disentangling myself from their irate parents, I looked up and saw that the parade was bearing down on me. At the front of the parade rode four or five cops on motorcycles, followed by some sort of Marine marching band...I scrambled out of the way and was passed by a few more marching bands, I assume high school affairs. Next in the procession were the floats, great fiberglass monsters drawn by farm tractors, each of them thematic: Poseidon breeching a wave of some sort, mermaids, clown floats, all of them swarming with brightly dressed character wearing terrifying matter what the costume theme for the float, everyone wore the same mask, a latex-rubber ordeal resembling some sort of alien species of sentient condom. Except that sounds kind of funny, and these weren’t. I wouldn’t say I have lots of “flashbacks”, but I might say that I have a rather liberal interpretation of reality, and those masks freaked me the hell out for a few seconds...unnatural.

So the parade continued to roll, long after I had completely lost interest in it. The only thing that really held my attention was a marching band entirely comprised of bagpipers in full kilted regalia; I love that shit. Fucking bagpipes. Huh.

Well, that was that...Mardi Gras 2006. At least the parts I saw. The festival was reckoned successful by the populace. By what criteria, you may ask...well, I for one am not quite clear on that; the press release Thursday included the New Orleans Department of Sanitation’s statement that the “estimated amount of debris collected from the parade routes and the French Quarter offered a good indication of the degree of success”. Mayor Nagin declared, “This year’s Mardi Gras celebration gave New Orleanians time to reflect on the past, present and future. It was a time for us to enjoy a much needed family reunion with citizens that are still displaced, along with those that continue to show love and support for our great city.”

Unfortunately, not everyone shared Nagin’s optimistic view of the festivities. Many displaced citizens who were unable to return to their destroyed homes in the city were forced to mount Mardi Gras celebrations of their own in their adoptive cities. One such celebration/protest, Wild on Wednesdays, took place in Atlanta. Each Wednesday during the Carnival season was celebrated at Club Frequency; these nights came complete with Indian parades, jazz music, dancers and beads thrown from the clubs balcony. quotes Wild on Wednesdays protest organizer ChiQuita Simms as saying, “We have never been against Mardi Gras, the event; our boycott was about our leaders prioritizing tradition rather than its people. Mardi Gras 2006 simply should not be a “to-do” item for New Orleans. Still today, there is no affordable and safe housing for half of us to return to and the ones who are in hotels are being forced out today whether or not they have secured more permanent housing. Many parts of the city are still without electricity and working traffic lights. When you drive through the Ninth Ward and along the breached 17th street levee, you won’t find any work being done. But when you drive along St Charles you can see men hard at work erecting viewing stands.” Many residents expressed similar reluctance before the festival. As one local business owner put it as he surveyed the $2,000 worth of beads he had just purchased to throw from the parade Endymion, “I know I am not in the mood for it this year. I don’t think hardly anyone is really in the mood for it.”

Thankfully, sentiment seemed to shift during Carnival...excepting the Fundamentalists, all seemed to have a great time...even the air was different. The city smelled like Mardi Gras; there was an palpable excitement permeating every facet of life, manifesting itself in the form of badly hungover co-workers showing up late, smeared King Cake all over their faces, babbling about parades and costumes and booze and breasts. Times Picayune columnist Chris Rose declared, “For the first time in at least fifteen years, I wasn’t ready for Mardi Gras to end.”

Certainly, Mardi Gras enabled at least a temporary return to the city’s normal insanity, and a break from the task of rebuilding. When it was all said and done, I personally was exhausted. I spent the day after Mardi Gras on a sandy island beach off the coast of Alabama, smoking cigarettes and guzzling pre-mixed margaritas with my logistics team, sitting cross-legged among the pilings protruding from the sand where houses had stood before the storm. The Gulf Coast took a terrible blow last summer, and while the rest of the country transitioned easily into other news, the Deep South wakes up every morning painfully aware of the tremendous changes effected by Katrina and Rita, 2005. Perhaps Mardi Gras was a good idea.