Monday, February 4, 2008

America Repents a Life of Puritanism - Mardi Gras 2008

If you've never been to Mardi Gras before, you might wonder what all the fuss is over the beads. They're just plastic baubles made by naive Chinese farm girls, after all. The streets become littered with them, the tourist trap stores and even the Walmarts are clogged with them. Why jump up and down like an enraged howler monkey so Hulk Hogan or some other celebrity might throw them to you?

Well, you had to be there. Even without liquid assistance from the ubiquitous Daiquiri and Hurricane stands, there is something infectious about being lined up with thousands of other celebrants, waiting patiently for gaudily decorated floats to be tractored by, so their gaily costumed denizens, who paid handsomely for the privilege, can throw you cheaply made treasures like necklaces, frisbees, plastic doubloons, cups, vinyl footballs, plush animals (reserved for children) and feather boas (usually reserved for the unreserved ladies, who you've all heard about).

Well, to explain it best, here's some video of us at the Endymion parade.

Kevin Costner was the Grand Marshall, but we missed him. Getting a good spot in the parade can mean camping out many hours beforehand with your cooler full of drinks and your captain's chair, but you can see it and catch the beads even if you show up late. We parked ourselves at Canal and University Place, conveniently near a liquor store and a corn dog stand. The next day, at the Bacchus Parade, we did see Hulk Hogan throwing beads as only the Hulkster can, underhand and with enough power to knock people over.

The Corn Dog is a purely American invention and much maligned, wrongly I might add. Beginning with Mr. Nathan's frankfurter from Coney Island, the middle parts of the country threw away the gummy bun and decided to coat it with batter made from the one thing we make so much of that we even run cars on it and drink it in our sodas. Corn. Now, cook it in that manner so beloved by the deep South, deep frying. They don't call it "deep" frying, just frying. What us Yankees call frying is sauteeing, a French word, even though French Frying is deep frying. You see, it's all rather complicated, unlike the corn dog, which is a simple pleasure of salty meat of questionable origins, and deep fried crispy corn batter enrobing it seductively, to be slathered with ketchup or mustard or both, if you are so inclined.
Conveniently impaled on a stick, which can serve as a tiny spear if you need to defend yourself or your corn dog from rapacious Yankee invaders, this quintessentially American meal may be served all along your Mardi Gras parades, but it is not the King of hot dogs here. That is reserved for the Lucky Dogs, immortalized in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, and pictured here:

You get a gummy bun in which is hidden a spongy Hebrew National Frank slathered with chili, onions and yellow mustard. At $4.75 they are double New York prices but are much bigger. I couldn't manage more than two in one evening, and that was after a few drinks and looking like this:

That's Sarah next to me, my girlfriend and all-around good sport, who'll kill me slowly for posting her photo before she could edit out her rosy cheeks. They were made rosy by a drink known as a Hand Grenade, made only at the Tropical Isle bars. Our friend Katie, wearing the tutu, was our pink fairy guide through the throngs of Bourbon Street to the locales that serve this potent concoction. Her behind twittering like a honeybee telegraphing directions to the fine nectar, we buzzed along behind.

Joking aside, the crowd is similar to Times Square during New Year's except with less order. There is plenty of police presence, especially as Fat Tuesday nears, and things get rowdier. This was the Saturday prior, so things weren't quite as wild. The day we left, police had shot someone and panicked their own horses, which thankfully didn't trample anyone. We didn't witness any other violence and to me the crowd and cops both seemed well-behaved, but it's a big party and there's bound to be some trouble.

In this photo you can see the first inklings of the religious rebellion going on during our hedonistic revelry. Before the night was over, we'd see Promise Keepers do a conga line through the crowd of enthusiastic sybarites, and several men lugging huge plastic crosses on their backs to remind us of the holiday's origin. For the most part the two camps got along peacefully, which is what I like best about Bourbon Street. I've yet to run into any trouble and people are allowed to walk the streets with open containers of liquor, as long as they are not glass. It's a rather civilized notion, expecting you to comport yourself respectfully even though you may be under the spell of the demon bottle.

Speaking of demon bottles, here is the Tropical Isle, purveyor of the delicious and mind-numbing libation known as the Hand Grenade.

I much prefer them to the oversweet Kool-Aid and rum cocktail of the Pat O'Brien's Hurricane, though I prefer his bar with its huge courtyard full of fountains and fire. This place is more unassuming, with a band playing 80's covers and a rest-room line so long that one of the girls we were with barged in, with two guardians, while I was at the trough. I do not normally have a shy bladder, but when someone I just met stumbles in, the main vein will not drain. I had to admit shameful defeat and return later when I could blissfully relieve myself with eyes forward and thankfully surrounded by also silent strangers.

Under the watchful eye of the octopus we bellied up to the bar to try their famous drink with its unique glass. It is green as radiator coolant and tastes sweet and melony. Its potency is immediately apparent and after two of these in rapid succession, the world was a much happier place.

Unfortunately the ladies thought the place was too crowded, so we wandered out, and they lost their IDs in the process. Now, when drinking I clutch my wallet like I would protect my jewels if I were in a cage full of hungry Jack Russell terriers. The modern gal can't bear to have a bulge in her pocket lest she add millimeters to the circumference of her booty, so they tend to carry cash wrapped around their ID, which to a thief is like shrimp wrapped in bacon, two delicacies in one delightful package. Thankfully they were able to go to the police and get the equivalent of a Hall Pass so they could drink the next day, and hopefully get on planes home.

The loss of the IDs cast a pallor on their evening, but we still managed to revel late into the night. Shortly afterward I had my second Lucky Dog, as the gelatinous bun serves as a fine stopper to the esophagus, keeping the roiling geyser of liquor from gushing forth. This time while I waited, the lady in front of me (ok she wasn't a lady) stopped in mid-transaction to bare her breasts skyward and collect a bounty of beads. This display, coupled with a Hand Grenade and a hot dog, is the perfect Mardi Gras experience for a male. While I didn't go out of my way to see the infamous bead and boob exchange that the holiday is known for, I was glad that if I were, I would not have been disappointed. Don't I look sated?

We shuffled into a dance club so the girls could forget their troubles. I managed to lure Sarah into dancing while I flailed and wobbled like the white boy that I am, then I decided to hold up the bar because it was in grave danger of toppling over. In the interest of honesty and so as not to besmirch the upstanding reputations of the ladies I was with, the following photos are not of them, but will give you an idea of the goings-on. For one, if I knew the gal with the grotty armpits I'd have airbrushed it out or extorted money out of them to not make me post it.

There are times when you wish that your camera had fewer megapixels, or the flash could not penetrate the gloom of the bar-room. This was one of those times.

To further defend the honor of our little pink butterfly, as soon as the sauced gent jumped on stage trying to act all Patrick Swayze with her, she leaped to safety.

When we left, we ventured into Dante's Inferno. Outside, dozens of men with placards and pickets bearing premonitions of hellfire and damnations for our eternal souls had gathered. The licensed debauchery of New Orleans has been a mainstay for over 200 years, and the Puritan roots of our country have been here longer. Just as the hangover is punishment for straying from moderation, they insist that there is further discipline beyond the grave for one's transgressions. For it is not how we treat each other that matters, but how we enjoy ourselves. It was buckle-shoed funny hat horse shit when England kicked the Puritans out in 1620 and it is now, but if these men need to justify their faith by forgetting to judge not lest ye be judged, I won't judge them in return. Except for a man train conga line crossing the street, apparently to protect themselves from us earth-walking demons, they were peaceful and entertaining. I'll take them over a Scientologist any day; like the corn dog, they are part of America, and as long as they let me live as I see fit I will accord them the same such respect. But I will still take photographs of them to chuckle at:

We managed to get back to the hotel without being struck down, and even flew home through that tornado storm that smote Tennessee, so I guess the Good Lord doth not judge us as wicked. Now that Fat Tuesday has passed, I need to decide what to give up for Lent. Of late I have been particularly fond of the Deadly Sin of Sloth (not the guy from The Goonies, either) so I think I will vow to exercise in some fashion every day. I should probably give up beer, but having a fridge full appeals to my Greed and Gluttony as well. I contemplated this as we drove home past a row of Mardi Gras floats headed out of town on the highway, a lovely sight, not unlike passing a circus train must have been in the old days.

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