In theory, anything’s a good idea. Disco, for example, or communism.Take a look at the Tower of Babel. Mankind’s greatest folly. People actually thought they could build a structure high enough to reach God. Of course, these are the same people who spoke to burning bushes and actively advocated worshipping swans and jackal-headed men.
In theory, a wild, month-long orgy of drinking, debauchery, vandalism, wanton carnality and collecting trinkets all in the name of religion seems like someone finally thought up something interesting.
No, I’m not talking about a Beanie Baby convention. I’m talking about Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And, whereas everything sounds good in theory, it’s the execution that makes the difference.
I don’t think people would have minded an execution, as long as they could still get into Pat O’Brien’s.
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Traveling to Louisiana, for me, is a budget-buster. But the belief that Mardi Gras was a necessary experience brewed in the heads of me and my friends for months. It was this weird phase where half the people I knew were heading off at a moment’s notice to Vegas, Tijuana and Area 51. I myself, under the hallucinagenic effects of pot and Mars Attacks! struck off with four other friends to visit the Grand Canyon. We never found it.
So the task of visiting Mardi Gras was undertaken. We could find accommodations when we got there, we figured. Driving would take all four people driving in shifts of seven hours. For what we intended to be an impromptu trip, we sure put a great deal of thought into it.
Things were coming to a head when NBC aired that Dateline special about all of the crooked cops in Louisiana. Apparently, cops will trail you and invent some reason to pull you over. The investigative reporter got pulled over for going the speed limit and the sheriff gave some bullshit reason for the citation. They could plant drugs on you, confiscate your car and sell it without the state’s permission and keep the money. If there is a devil, he’s some shady sheriff in Louisiana handing out tickets for doing absolutely nothing wrong.
This story put the fear of God in us, and gradually the desire to drive 4000 miles in a weekend fell apart. Until the fall of 1998, I’d abandoned the pipe dream.
1999, however, was a different story. Now, I may be poor, by my folks aren’t, and they arranged for myself and two of my friends to fly to New Orleans. They made all the flight reservations and hotel accomodations. All we had to do was show up.
We flew Southwest. With a name like Southwest Airlines, you’d think they’d only fly, well, the southwest, but recent expansion has brought their brand of friendly service, perky if-not homely stewardesses and third-hand 737s to the southeast as well. And I think Guam, too. Who knows? It wouldn’t surprise me.
The flight lasted four hours and consisted of two stops before our arrival. During that time we were served the Banquet. I call this meal the Black Hole, because that’s what my stomach became. It’s also where I wished I was, since being crushed into neutrons is probably more pleasant than revisiting the honey ham log.
Honey ham log, you say? Here, let me break down what came in the Banquet:
- The aforementioned honey ham log reminiscent of a Slim Jim, but with less flavor and less nutritional content.
- Three crackers.
- A cube of cheese to spread on the crackers.
- A Nutri-Grain bar.
I think the intent was to take the honey ham log, bite it into pieces and smear it into the cheese n’ crackers, making a sandwich only MacGyver could love. It didn’t matter. I was starving and I inhaled my box. I even asked for another one and inhaled that.
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There’s this eerily creepy mystique surrounding New Orleans and Mardi Gras. The Big Easy began its life as a French outpost for criminals, and I think it’s the only city in the world where the criminal element increased substantially after people stopped dropping their convicts off. At least Georgia and Australia made a name forthemselves after their dubious distinction of being a penal colony. Well, Australia, anyway.
Most of the architecture in the old sections of New Orleans are Spanish in design, as most of the original French buildings burned in two fires in the 1790s. Much of the design is actually quite ornate and beautiful to look at. Walking down Bourbon Street one can see just how much culture and excitement existed in this town before Mardi Gras became the de facto celebration.
And by walking, I don’t mean walking as we know it. I mean somehow moving from point A to point B without really knowing how it happens and just forgetting about it by pounding a Hurricane. There’s too many people in the streets to actually chalk your motion up to footwork. It just happens. You can’t fight it.
Bourbon Street lives up to the legends you hear, although for different reasons. Clearly the Tourism Board knows where most of the foot traffic is and allots money to the owners of buildings in those areas, because they’re well-maintained. The trash on Bourbon Street is cleaned up almost as quickly as the sun peeks over the horizon and drunken frat guys run from the light. It’s really impressive. I’d hate to be a member of the custodial staff of the French Quarter, though. No one could pay me that much money.
However, walk two streets to the west and you’re in an environment reminiscent of the seediest Mexican barrio. Trash from the 1997 Mardi Gras sat, forgotten and fused with the pavement (this is two years later – use your imagination). That’s what my friends and I encountered when we deviated from the path.
There are a few unwritten laws about Mardi Gras, suggestions that you should take if you want to have the “experience.” Unfortunately, every fucking person wants to have the same experience as you and it adds up to long lines and a lot of disappointment.
The first disappointment concerns chicks getting naked. Unless you’re in one of the strip clubs on Bourbon, it doesn’t happen. And conduct an inspection to make sure that that’s really a woman.
Here’s what happens: occasionally, as you swim through the sea of people, you’ll see an uptight bitch on one of the patios overlooking Bourbon. Dozens of men are right below yelling “Show us your tits!” The idea is that guys will either whip out their dick and show it off for beads, or the guys will hurl beads up at the women for a brief glimpse of their all-too-often heinous breasts.
If that’s not enough for you, you can corner a chick on the street and try and woo her with beads to take off her shirt. Beware: as soon as another male catches wind of this kind of transaction taking place, crowds form. The girl is engulfed in testosterone. No one sees anything. Expect nothing less.
Pat O’Brien’s is the second and third thing you’re expected to take in. For some reason, this bar is a hip hangout even though it’s the exact same thing as hanging out in the middle of Bourbon except the drinks are more expensive. In fact, there’s even less room to maneuver there because people are too busy taking in the ambience of being packed like sardines in a brick garden of death to move. People are guzzling Hurricanes and buying Pat O’Brien souvenirs because, hey, it’s Pat O’Brien’s, pouring Hurricanes on each other, smoking pot and trying to make sure they don’t suffocate from the lack of oxygen to think that this is boring. Actually, I’m sure the lack of oxygen made it better, since your brain hallucinates when it’s dying.
Pat O’Brien’s is famous for its Hurricanes. They’re an alcoholic concoction that gets you plenty hammered because they’re sweet n’ tangy despite being loaded with alcohol. For some reason, a Hurricane isn’t a Hurricane unless you’re drinking one from this particular establishment. I don’t know why, because I had a Hurricane that tasted a helluva lot better elsewhere. It must be the mythos of it all.
One of the weirdest things about Mardi Gras is the plethora the religious zealots. The French Quarter is a manic, bizarre place where it’s expected that everyone break all Ten Commandments as long as they keep the beer line moving, and yet in the midst of all the chaos there are people carrying massive crosses down the street, calling everyone a sinner and handing out pamphlets asking people to be saved.
Now, I feel for these people. They’re doing the Lord’s work. But even Jesus hung out with his friends and sipped some wine. Believe it or not, most people are just there to have fun, not be condemned to hell.
The ultimate irony in all this is that Mardi Gras is supposed to be an observation of a Catholic ceremony. There’s forty days of fasting under Lent, which leads into Easter, the resurrection of Jesus. Mardi Gras originated from celebrations right before Lent, where people would eat, drink and be merry before church dogma required them to be miserable for a month. Now the celebration is longer than the ritual, with Fat Tuesday ending moments before Ash Wednesday, when you’re supposed to confess your sins to the priest and anoint yourself with ash so as to reflect humility.
The religious nuts have fake nails attached to their hands, which is incorrect since Christ was nailed through his wrists to the cross. I pointed that out to one of them and they scoffed. I dug into the physics of how a heavy object like a Risen Lord would put a strain on a nail, but they were more concerned with saving my soul than listening to the truth. When I casually told them that my soul was saved years ago they moved on to another target.
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Walking through the French Quarter, you realize just how commercial the festival is. Every other store sells valuable antiques, in case the older crowd want to pick up a genuine hardwood jester’s hat. Those stores that don’t cater in Lost Arks or Holy Grails are Cajun restaurants. It is at one of these hole in the wall dumps that I encountered the worst gastric pain I have ever felt.
We only ate authentic Cajun ‘cuisine’ once, and with good reason. It was right after checking into our hotel. Honey ham still lingered in my stomach and I needed something a little more appetizing in me. A lot of people think that drinking without a little something in your belly is a good thing, but a swarming mass of people and a claustrophobic environment don’t work well for me when I’m completely smashed. I settled for a small Cajun place with a cover band trying to hawk their CD between sets.
I ordered fried alligator as an appetizer. Apparently the damn things grow like cows down in the swamps because every place in Louisiana sells portions of alligators. Especially the heads.
The alligator head fascinates me. It’s like a stuffed animal in that you’re expected to place on your desk or bed or somewhere. It’s ugly as sin; they take out the eyes and force these sinister-looking red marbles into the sockets and then dry them out so the skin is still attached to the skull. The jaws are widened just a bit so that it has a comedic look to it. The best part about these macabre souvenirs is that they’re available everywhere. A small one might run you seven to ten bucks, while a baby-eater we saw was a ‘bargain-basement’ price of $250. I never thought someone would try to convince me that I was economically raping them by buying their oversized alligator head.
I was eating alligator. I wonder if the head Chris ended up buying the next day was related to the one I was currently ingesting. How cosmic. Alligator tastes like chicken. Honest to God. Speaking of God, I think He ran out of flavors right after chicken and just assigned that same, generic taste to everything He created after that. In any case, it wasn’tenough. I decided to submit myself to gumbo, a word whose etymology I’d rather not know, since it might shed an eye on what the ingredients are.
It was at precisely the moment where I realized I had alcohol, shitty airline food and alligator in my stomach that I felt the pain. Contrary to popular belief, being drunk doesn’t dull the pain. What it does is makes you more likely to trip while you walk around, clutching your stomach. I’ve had a headache or two where I’ve wished I could impale my temples with a railroad spike, but this gnawing evil was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It hurt to move, it hurt to breathe. Water alleviated nothing. Alcohol was too expensive as a test liquid. It felt like the Honey Ham log and the alligator were fusing into a new element.
Gastric suicide. I like the sound of it. I hope people don’t laugh when they read it on my death certificate.
Fortunately, an hour later I was pouring alcohol down my gullet. And, quite honestly, that’s really all that matters.
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I discovered the easy way to get beads one night while winding down in the hotel bar. It was four in the morning, Chris was asleep upstairs and Leland was nursing a rum and Coke next to me.
Leland is an interesting character. Before leaving on the trip, he drained all color from his hair to a ghastly silver white, which contrasts interestingly with his Coppertone skin. Earlier in the day he’d managed to convince a riverboat casino that, despite being several inches taller and possessing a different eye color than the man on his fake ID, they were the same individual. Leland’s skydived, bungee-jumped and deep-sea fished with little regard for personal safety.
Sitting at the bar wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to party. And he had the energy to do it. It was like his blood had been replaced with Red Bull Energy Drink laced with crack. The boy never slows down. I could keep up alcohol-wise but Chris had wisely chosen the comfort of sleep over the bar stool.
Leland also had this idiotic plastic cigar he insisted on chomping throughout the trip. He would walk up to groups of women and have them simulate oral sex on it. Not bad. Then he’d slip it back in his mouth, grin like a moron and take two steps before dropping it in the filthy gutter. Undaunted by plague and filth, he’d pick it up and stick it back in his mouth and continue puffing.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked. “Get that thing out of your mouth! It fell on the fucking street!”
“So?” he responded. He then pointed out that since the cigar has an equatorial bulge, the part he’d been sucking on hasn’t touched the ground. Then he looks at us like we’re the biggest idiots of all time, marches over to another group of girls, and gets them to simulate oral sex on the cigar.
This is the guy I was sitting next to.
It’s late, I’m tired, and I’m drinking. Suddenly, this chick with huge tits sashays her way into the bar with her friends and plops down next to me. She’s got the most beads I’ve seen in the three days I’d been there. The polyurethane in them must be choking her to death, but a large quantity of quality beads is like a status symbol. People can get hundreds of strings of beads, but it depends on the size of the beads and other weird shit attached to the necklace that makes them hot items.
A man with nothing but fifty short-stringed, small-beaded necklaces is like a eunuch; there’s no chance he’s going to get laid or see a pair of naked breasts without something to barter.
Clearly a lot of guys had bartered with this girl. Many of them must have been bartenders, since she was also loaded. She could barely sit on the stool before she stood up and brokered a round of shots of Southern Comfort for the bar if she’d show the barkeep her breasts. A minute later I had a shot of SoCo in front of me in addition to the rum and Coke.
I got to talking to this girl and she tells me that the secret is to have a nice rack. That does me a lot of good, I tell her. Finally, either the weight of the beads or the noxious polyurethene fumes coming from them gets to her and she places them on a table next to us. She pounds her drink and passes out on my shoulder. Keep in mind that a bar stool is not the most stable thing to sit on, let alone sleep.
These two shady characters that Leland and I have been talking to stand up, grab the beads and leave. Five minutes later they return, telling us they’ve put them in their hotel room. I couldn’t believe it, particularly because it was my idea and I got none of the cut. Bastards.
I didn’t even have time to soak this in before the chick drooling on my shoulder lost the battle with gravity and fell to the ground. Leland and I carried this half-conscious girl to the elevator, threw her on her bed and retired for the evening.
We flew back on Valentine’s Day. It was a shitty flight but at least we got off the tarmac. The way the party continued to build day after day I had just assumed it’d spill out of the airport and onto the runway. A baby puked a couple rows behind us. Maybe my stomach was projecting evil vibes to the kid.
Leland left the only tangible evidence of our visit: a urine stain on the wall of a 18th century Spanish slave house. That’s probably for the best. It’s just about what everyone else left.