Sunday Night Journal — February 22, 2004
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is said to be scandalous, but I’ve never been, so I don’t know for sure. Almost everyone I’ve known who has witnessed it has simply said “It’s crazy.” As a student of human nature I have sometimes asked for more details, but have been met with a shaking of the head and a rolling of the eyes. They all agree, whether they applaud or lament the fact, that Mardi Gras in Mobile is a far more tame affair. And I agree with those who applaud; Mobile’s Mardi Gras is something that whole families can and do enjoy.
In spite of its relative mildness, though, Mobile’s Mardi Gras does have its detractors and opponents. To begin with, there are those who believe the drinking of alcohol to be a serious sin. For them, Mardi Gras itself must then be a fairly bad thing, for to attempt to have Mardi Gras without alcohol would be like expecting a gelding to reproduce. As far as I know the attempt has not been made, and no one would expect it to succeed if it were. There was, this year, a movement to set aside certain areas of the parade routes as alcohol-free. I’m not sure how those have worked out, as I didn’t visit them, but I think the more common practice of serious teetotalers is to have nothing to do with the festival. I’m told that a local Baptist college does not even officially acknowledge its existence.
The other attack on Mardi Gras comes from social reformers of a more secular and (doctrinally speaking) liberal stripe. These are offended in (it seems to me as an outsider) two ways: first, because Mobile is a city with continual financial problems, they are offended by the sheer wastefulness and frivolity of the thing; and second, they are offended by the exhibition of social inequality which Mardi Gras presents. I remember being struck by the latter at my first parade. You have a few people riding majestically down the street on large expensive conveyances tossing cheap baubles to the masses, who conform to stereotype by begging and scrambling frantically for the trivial favors.
But this is not quite as bad as it appears. It is true that the whole Mardi Gras phenomenon is sustained by the city’s upper class, but it is certainly not their exclusive province. In fact, in the American way, the classes flow back and forth across the line separating the spectators from the participants fairly freely. My parents-in-law used to go to Mardi Gras balls regularly and they were people who had grown up poor and advanced to middle-class comfort, but certainly not to wealth. I know several participants in this year’s parades, and they are ordinary suburbanites like me.
As for the squandering of wealth when—the typical complaint—“that money could be going to improve our schools”—well, as a moral judgment this is reasonable, but as an expectation of what would happen if Mardi Gras were abolished it is pretty clearly a fallacy. Few of those who now spend their money for Mardi Gras would, if the festival were no more, say to themselves, “I think I’ll take the money I would have spent on Mardi Gras this year and sign it over to the local government.” Nor could they be forced to do so, except by the clumsy and inconvenient means of a tax increase, which would be difficult to achieve and not readily be accepted by any of the people, rich or poor.
I wonder if these reformers are offended not so much by the possibility that the money might be put to nobler use as by the knowledge that it is in fact going for something which is by utilitarian measures quite stupid. I have just spent three evenings watching parades from the corner of Government and Franklin streets and as far as I am able to testify a good time was had by all, but nothing whatsoever was accomplished. Mardi Gras is pure festival, except in the eyes of some Christians who maintain its connection with the liturgical year, and in order to enjoy it one really needs to relax in some fundamental way.
Perhaps the need for this relaxation and resultant tolerance performs a sort of natural selection: those who are not capable of it do not attend, or soon leave. At any rate my experience over the years has been that the people who make up the hundred thousand or so attendees at a typical parade are almost entirely amiable, except for the occasional brief struggle over a Moon Pie™ or a string of beads and the very rare burst of real violence, although many of them are drunk and among people who are not their natural cohort. The crowd at Government and Franklin was, on all three nights, a very mixed bunch—a diverse bunch, it is accurate to say, although the word “diverse” has now a sort of taint about it due to its prevalent use as a political euphemism. Black people outnumbered whites by two to one or more, and one of the nice things about Mardi Gras is that there doesn't seem to be much open racial tension; I suppose there is a certain discomfort at times, but I have not witnessed or heard of real conflict.
Ball-goers in formal wear wander among people still wearing the uniforms of their jobs as janitors and cooks. Teenagers of all colors and conditions fend their way somewhat restlessly but as a rule with reasonable courtesy among those of us who tend to stand around in one place. Families with small children set up little encampments of folding chairs and coolers. College kids and young single adults bring coolers only. Elderly people from the retirement apartments at Cathedral Place seem to enjoy the parades as much as anyone else, and sometimes get surprisingly deep into the trinket-grabbing scrimmage. The drinkers are cheerful and generally not so boisterous as to be unpleasant.
Here is the Archbishop of Mobile, whose hundred-and-fifty-year-old house is on the northwest corner of the intersection. He is an old Mobilian and runs into a lot of people he knows. Here is a young (or so I still think of him, although I notice his hair is going) priest with a complement of sturdy nephews; they have just emerged from a fairly strenuous struggle over a package which, he tells us, was constructed for and thrown to them specifically by a friend—the priest is from another old Mobile family—and they were not about to let an interloper get away with it. Here is the somewhat more reserved chancellor of the archdiocese (of Anglo, vs. the other priest’s Lebanese, heritage) who nevertheless does his share of grabbing for beads and candy. Here is a couple who look a little familiar to me and who introduce themselves as the real estate agents who sold a house for us in 1992; my wife and I are pleased to hear that they remember our children as being remarkably well-behaved and personable. Last year I ran into someone with whom I worked in another city almost fifteen years ago and hadn’t seen since. There are very small children in their parents’ arms or on their shoulders; there are bigger children everywhere, whose tactic is not to try to catch things as they fall but to snatch them up from the pavement where most of them land. They are always underfoot when a float is passing. I come up with a split lip when one of them dashes under my arm as I reach down for a string of beads, then, having snagged it, jumps up and smacks me in the face with the top of his head.
The floats are, I hear, much smaller than those in New Orleans, but they’re plenty of spectacle for us, brightly colored and brightly lit and full of (mostly) drunken men in costumes and masks that make them look mysterious. One is rarely out of earshot of a brass band, or at least the drum line of a brass band, and my wife and I marvel at the complexity of the rhythms maintained by some of them—Vigor High gets especially high marks from us—and at the fact that they will keep it going almost continually while walking three or four miles. Most people are at least nodding their heads or bouncing up and down most of the time, and some are dancing. With the bands are the girls with flags and batons, and some of these introduce an unwelcome note of vulgarity, dancing in ways that make them look cheap, and we wonder why the adults involved let them get away with it. (Later we hear from our daughter, who marches much more decorously with the band of the local Catholic high school, that grown women are yelling at them to “shake it, Catholic girls.”)
Viewed coldly, the whole thing would seem shabby. It’s well that most of the parades take place at night, for the broad daylight would make the shabbiness harder to ignore. It is easier to participate in the illusion of the floats’ magical splendor if floodlights draw attention to the spectacular portions and leave the works—tires, axles, exhausts—in dimness. The streets are soon strewn with garbage, and in fact I know people who won’t come downtown for a parade because “it’s so dirty.” One of the things that make them say so is, no doubt, the smell: there is a smell in the air which is, clinically speaking, a bad smell, compounded of garbage, grease, onions, sausage, spilled beer, and humanity, with subtle overtones of urine and manure (some of the drunks duck between or behind buildings rather than seek out the portable toilets, and some of the police ride horses) but which I somehow enjoy because of its association. A general air of gaiety and benevolence prevails. I make it my enjoyment to hand over most of what I catch to children who are too small, timid, or slow to get as much as some of the others. When someone is aggressively greedy the general response of others seems to be less an inclination to punish than to ostracize, even perhaps a little to pity, the one who has manifested such a deplorable character.
Brief acquaintances flower and are broken as the crowd shifts. When the last float has passed for the last time (certain places, and Government Street is one of them, are visited twice as the parade makes its way back to its point of origin at the Civic Center), followed closely by the police and street-sweepers, strangers exchange goodnights and wishes for a happy Mardi Gras. The traffic jam that follows is a pretty relaxed affair, certainly far more so than the ones I encounter on a working day.
Surely festivals are one of the human needs that soon present themselves when our basic physical requirements are satisfied. It would certainly be no service to the poor who comprise a large portion of the Mardi Gras crowd to do away with this one. Has anyone committed this night an act of immorality for which he might not otherwise have had the occasion? Quite likely, I suppose. Have money and time been expended to no material or even lasting purpose? Without a doubt. But frivolity has its uses. For my part I am a happier, and I think at least briefly a better, man for having been a harmless and careless fool for a few hours. And soon enough it will be Wednesday, and time for silence and ashes.