A child of the city contemplates the other side of Mardi Gras
By Christina Peck
“Your family speaks French, right?”
Well, yes, my mother is fluent, but it has nothing to do with New Orleans.
“How close do you live to Bourbon Street”
Close enough, I guess.
“Why don’t you have a New Orleans accent? You know, like Tommy Lee Jones in The Client?”
I do not even know how to respond.
And so went the questions I received when I first left the Disney World-like confines of New Orleans and headed for Vanderbilt at age 18. What was clear from my peers’ questions was that, for them, New Orleans was either a John Grisham cliché or some type of Girls Gone Wild video. I hoped for the former. I usually got the impression they thought of New Orleans as the latter.
In particular, it was Mardi Gras that piqued their interest. And with this enthusiasm came an incessant array of questions on whether Carnival really involved the drunken, naked debauchery that they clearly envisioned.
“Have you ever been to the Mardi Gras? Is it crazy?" they would ask.
Well, for starters, it is not a place. No, you do not need to buy a ticket. And no, I have never flashed for beads.
These questions only reinforced my assumption that their impressions were likely reiterations of televised events—mental visions of something like “MTV Spring Break: Destination Mardi Gras.”
Having grown up in New Orleans, my version of Mardi Gras was nothing of the sort. Sure, I have witnessed this R-rated kind of Carnival by now, and I know that it exists. But what I learned from my own first encounters is that Mardi Gras can (and was for me) a time for family — that it can be just as much a family-oriented holiday as any other, no more scandalous than backyard Easter egg hunts or neighborhood trick-or-treating on Halloween.
I began going to parades from as early as I can remember, and no Bourbon Street, nor booze nor boobs, for that matter, are part of those early mental snapshots. Perhaps I was unaware of that other, inebriated Mardi Gras because we always set up shop around St. Charles and Napoleon avenues, amid other carefree families, our custom-made ladders lined up one after another. Maybe the fact that I was so focused on watching the queen and her court ride by (irritated that she would wave more than throw, but admiring her attire nonetheless) distracted me from the “obscene” scene. Or perhaps it was the chill air, the shrieks of the crowd and the energetic chords of the marching bands that kept me from noticing the kind of depravity of which my peers spoke.
My dad would pack the car, attach our ladder with its platform seat on top, fill an ice chest with drinks and sandwiches, and off we would go for a night of family fun. I would sit atop the ladder, snuggled next to my sisters, and take in the bright floats rolling by, the flag girls marching perfectly in tune to the beats of the band behind them, the crowds of people all seeming so … happy. My dad would stand behind us on the ladder, encouraging parade riders to “Throw us something, Mister.”
Sure, as I got older, my Mardi Gras changed. Around Middle School, it became a time of independence, as my friends and I would strut up and down the St. Charles neutral ground, looking for boys from our class, largely uninterested in the parades going by. In high school, we would set up shop at 7th Street and St. Charles, where Mardi Gras was just an extension of the typical teenage revelry.
It was not until college that I got my first real glimpse of the popular version of Mardi Gras. I would fly in town for the weekend with half my sorority in tow (how many people are coming to stay with us?” my parents would nervously ask each year—although they loved it), all wanting to see Bourbon Street, the Mardi Gras. As so to Bourbon we went, where we would spend the afternoons gleefully sipping Hurricanes at Pat O’s.
Now, at 25, I have outgrown any youthful defiance, tired of partying ways. I find myself watching the parades not with the half-naked tourists on Bourbon, not with the frat boys lounging on couches in the beds of pick-up trucks, but with … my family.
There are reasons. With my parents now living along the parade route, it is oh, so easy for my sisters and me to catch the parades while beating the traffic and trash collectors. As a law student, the thought of a low-key day of float watching with my family seems to soothe the stress that comes with the rigors of studying.
Now, whether I’m riding in Iris with my mom or sisters, or dancing with my dad to the beat of the marching bands, Mardi Gras has come full circle.
No matter its reputation, to me, Carnival will always be a family affair.
Christina Peck is a third-year student at Tulane Law School.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]