Mardi Gras – it’s one of those unqualified celebrations whose essence seems to completely inundate the New Orleans experience. Whatever the occasion, New Orleanians consistently regale one another with their “Carnival Tales” in part to reconnect with this most sacred of Crescent City traditions, and to define their relationships with the city itself. In the spirit of the holiday, read on for a few of these personal Mardi Gras moments — as told by some of the people whose stories are most deeply woven into the city’s fabric.
*** “I love the holiday; I’ve only missed one since the first one. My Tee Boo-Boo Bear and I were stuck in Vail that year. We tried so hard to come home, every plan fell through…we were stuck. After a long strange trip through the jagged cold mountains we landed back to our house in Eagle, Colo. I ran to my bed, jumped in and cried out while kicking my feet like a child screaming “I wanna go out and play!” I truly felt like I was 6 years old. That was my Mardi Gras that year, I never felt so far, yet so connected to my home.
The year before that, Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias, a man I love dearly, married me and my Tee Boo-Boo Bear…twice! On Lasalle Street in front of the Friendly Super Market. Ashley and I fell in Love on Mardi Gras a few years earlier when I took her to the H&R Bar off Second and Dryades, I have been on that corner every year since I was 17. Dave who owned it called me “Every Year” the second time I went….”Where Y’at Every Year!?” I used to talk to Bumble Bee and Lil Crip, Low Down, and Rabbit, Geechie Johnson was my tour guide. I drank gin with Gator and sweet wine with Monk at Kemps, gave my cane to Lil Michael, ate pickles and nachos and beat a 40 oz. High Life with a stick for hours. The world changed for me. I absolutely love the holiday; Mardi Gras is the second greatest love of my life.”
-Chris Jones, leader of the 101 Runners
*** “When I moved to New Orleans, some 30 years ago, I was enamored and chased Indians all over town. I would go to Benny’s Bar to catch the Wild Magnolias, I would go to underneath the Claiborne overpass/ underpass on the edge of Mid-City downtown, always looking for Indians and never finding them – going to Monk Boudreaux’s house and waiting on him to come out and him not coming out, or coming out and saying that he wasn’t exactly ready and waving off the crowds so they could go continue their celebration, and for years it seemed like I was chasing the elusive butterfly. Never getting close enough and always having to see Mardi Gras Indians either at Jazz Fest or at a local venue like Tipitina’s. Never seeing them in person on Carnival Day. It just seemed like I was never gonna find an Indian.
Then I moved to Algiers and my search ended because it was too much trouble to go Uptown. I would take the ferry over and participate on Mardi Gras Day in the French Quarter. Low and behold, when I moved back over to the East Bank I moved right on the edge of downtown Mid-City – Broad and Esplanade – and moved right across the street from a Big Chief [Big Chief David Montana]. I have been involved in the Mardi Gras culture ever since. Now, every Mardi Gras day I have a special show at the Hi-Ho with a Mardi Gras Indian orchestra. I went searching for culture, and somehow became a part of it.”
-John Driver, reigning King of MOMS
*** “I’m going out on a limb here but I think maybe in our society there is this impression that if there is that much joy and revelry (in something) then something must be wrong. I always march with my brass band, for the past 10 or 12 years, we [the Panorama Jazz Band] have accompanied a group called the Saint Anthony Ramblers that gather in the Marigny and go around there and the Quarter. We always go to Jackson Square and the routine the last several years has been to play a hymn, a funeral hymn, in the Square because there’s always someone who has died that year, somebody close to somebody in the band. And we always see these people, these very sad and angry Christians. And now a lot of Christians are not like that, but these Christians, they are really unhappy about people having such a good time. And there are people that go out there and do battle with them and ridicule them or tease them ‘cause they get upset easily, even though they try to hide it. What we have taken to doing is to play a really beautiful hymn and bring them some beauty, at least that’s the way I think about it. Just to play a really sweet, beautiful Protestant hymn.
So in the midst of all this revelry, we have kind of fallen into an annual ritual of this moment of reverence, like Nearer My God to Thee (which also appears on the band’s latest CD). I play the clarinet, and there comes a point in that hymn where I play the melody along with the trumpets and the saxophone and after that the mid-horns (the trombone and alto horn and tenor horn) take the melody. So there we are in Jackson Square and we’re playing this gorgeous beautiful hymn and I get a moment to stop playing and just stand at attention and enjoy the music. And a few times, at least two or three years in a row, I’ve just dissolved into tears at that moment, just at the beauty and the majesty and at the same time the fragility of the tenor horns taking the melody line. Luckily, I’ve happened to be standing next to one of my trumpet players who is about my height so I’ve had eight bars to just grab onto him and hug him and cry my eyes out before I have to get back to work and play the melody again.”
-Ben Schenck, leader of Panorama Jazz Band
*** “It’s probably my third year here and I’d never been to MOMS ball. And so a friend of mine got tickets and I’d heard the various stories – people get naked, it’s an all-night party, all this stuff. And I had sort of a crappy costume. Now, to get in, they don’t let you in if your costume isn’t good enough so I sort of pieced together this costume, this hat and some funny stuff, and I got in. It was completely electric and nuts, you know, everyone is completely off their rocker. I’m not doing any hallucinogenics, y’a know, I’m just making my way through it, and there is a woman up on the front of the stage where the Radiators are in a dominatrix costume. And she’s cracking the whip and everything. And so I thought it would be a good idea if she would start whipping me. I had shorts on, and she’s whipping me with the belt. And I had thought it would be kind of cool and that maybe people would think it was funny, but no one was even looking at me. And this went on for about a minute and a half, and I had to tell her to stop because it was extremely uncomfortable and I was quite sore at the time. It was just a little more than I expected.
For Fat Tuesday, the ritual is my girlfriend walks in Krewe of Julu and that krewe is completely hilarious, always the best costumes. We always meet and have drinks and then I ride my bike to my favorite meal of the year – chicken a la Hunter at my friend Chris Hunter’s house – and then I ride down to the Quarter and hang out with my parents who have a place on Burgundy and check it all out and then try to find a cab home. We all end up at the Kingpin, have some cocktails, and then we go home and call it a night. We used to go to Snake and Jakes but now we’ve gotten too old for that so we just stay at the Kingpin.”
-Steve Watson, co-owner of the Kingpin Bar