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Chapter Twenty-four: Mardi Gras in New Orleans


The Mardi Gras celebrations still had two days to run when the weekend was over. “Fat Tuesday” (which is the English translation of “Mardi Gras”) is a legal holiday in Louisiana. Monday, February 23rd, also fell within the period of festivities although not to the same degree as Tuesday.

As most people know, Mardi Gras is a time forty days before Easter, immediately preceding Lent. Devout Christians celebrate Lent by practicing personal sacrifice. Some who may be less religious presumably want to get wild revelry out of their system before crossing this desert of self-deprivation. So they engage in every kind of sensual excess in the Mardi Gras orgies preceding Lent. It says something about our culture that tourists flock to New Orleans for the exhibitions of debauchery and leave as soon as religion is more strictly practiced.

When I mentioned to people that I would be attending my first Mardi Gras event in New Orleans, they would often respond: You’ll see things you never saw before. With a knowing wink, they would refer to the wild women who roam the streets on those days. Specifically, I think they meant that the women would pull up their blouses and expose their breasts. Some wanted to be rewarded for this exciting act by being given beads. The woman with the most beads around her neck would be the wildest, baddest girl in town. I was rather looking forward to that, especially if the right person came along.

To tell the truth, no woman exposed her breasts to me. Light rains this year kept the crowds down and might also have dampened people’s spirits. The closest that I got to nudity in New Orleans was when, while waiting for the Orpheus Krewe parade in the company of several people, a woman changed her baby’s diapers. She chided me when I recorded this event, among others, with my video camera.

I might not have experienced any Mardi Gras flashing because I did not participate in the late-night partying. I was in town for business, needing to be sober and rested on the following day. For an entire week, beginning February 22nd, I spent the night at the Motel 6 in Port Allen. That meant that I would have to drive 85 miles to New Orleans before I could do anything in that city, and then drive back another 85 miles before spending the night. I became quite familiar with the section of I-10 between those two cities.

During the previous week, the editor of the Slidell News-Sentry had asked me to return Monday morning for an interview. I had an appointment at 10:30 a.m. A young reporter named Chad Hebert interviewed me in an upstairs conference room. He let me talk for several minutes and then started asking questions. Our conversation focused on my trade proposals and the idea that cutting work time in response to productivity improvements might increase employment. I stressed that tariffs could be used “harmoniously” with other nations as a development tool.

The main theme, however, was that I, a “virtual unknown”, was stumping Slidell in pursuit of the Democratic nomination for President. “Bill McGaughey is a fern in a forest of redwoods,” Hebert wrote. I could continue my hopeless quest in a reasonably cheerful spirit, he said, because my candidacy would serve to highlight employment issues even if someone else was nominated. After the interview, I told Hebert that I planned to attend several parades later in the day. He said that the Orpheus Krewe parade, organized by singer Harry Connick, Jr., was New Orleans’ premier Mardi Gras event. I should try not to miss it.

Monday’s Mardi Gras parades were in the late afternoon. I thought that I should try to attend the Zeus Krewe parade in Metairie which began at 6:30 p.m. This parade would pass by the busy intersection of Causeway Boulevard and Veterans Memorial Boulevard which Ed Anderson had mentioned. Unfortunately, the Orpheus Krewe parade would take place at the same time. I had to make a choice. There would be an opportunity to attend four different parades in the “Uptown” area (St. Charles Street) on Tuesday morning. By attending the Metairie parade today, I could cover both parts of town.

Before the day’s event began, I had several hours to spend in New Orleans scouting locations. I was worried about parking. On such a busy holiday, street parking near the parade routes would probably be taken. The paid lots would be expensive. By chance, I found some empty spots in metered parking spaces on Perdido Street just north of Loyola. I drove around and found St. Charles street. The famed French Quarter was also nearby. I spent some time driving around Metairie as well. Now I had a plan of action.

I called several New Orleans radio and television stations as well as the Times-Picayune. A man at a television station told me that Mardi Gras was a family event; it was not for political campaigning. Rather foolishly, I asked him how to pronounce Metairie. “You’re a candidate and you don’t know that?,” he asked. He said he would help me out this time. It was pronounced MEH-ta-ree. Most of the other media people took the news of my New Orleans appearances more politely. There was light rain.

I had another idea. Editorial boards typically endorse candidates for election to public office. Certainly they would be interested in the race for President. Maybe, even, some would be willing to talk with me as an aspiring nominee. A woman in the editorial department of The Advocate said that the Baton Rouge newspaper does not endorse candidates. The Times-Picayune did endorsements for the general election but not the primary. I received a similar reaction from the Shreveport paper. Never mind, it was just an idea. Not everything works.

I had a snack at the Wendy’s on Causeway Boulevard and then parked in a residential area several blocks away from the intersection of Causeway and Veterans Memorial boulevards. Police barriers lined Veterans Memorial. In spite of this, few people were walking around the area. What had happened? I asked a store clerk about tonight’s parade. He had no information. Then I asked two Mexican guys. “Haven’t you heard?,” one of them said. “The parade has been postponed because of rain. Come back tomorrow.” However, the media had been informed that I would be at this parade on this day. It was another Baton Rouge-type fiasco in my presidential campaign.

The silver lining was that tonight’s cancellation of the Metairie parade freed me up to attend the one in Uptown. Harry Connick Jr. and his Krewe were probably finishing up to adoring cheers. Surprisingly, the crowds were light. The same parking spaces on Perdido Street were available; and, because it was after 6 p.m., the meters did not need to be fed. I walked the six blocks to St. Charles and Poydras streets, where I was scheduled to be tomorrow, and found that the Orpheus Krewe parade hadn’t even started. More accurately, it had not yet reached that spot. I stood behind the police barricade in front of a set of bleachers. People needed tickets to sit there. Eventually, the police asked ticketless persons like me to leave the area. We could stand on the corner of Poydras and St. Charles - the northwest corner - to watch the parade.

I spent the next three hours with a small group of people standing at that corner. To my left was a young black couple. Right in front of me was a heavy-set white woman with a baby. All stood by anonymously until an outgoing white man behind me asked about the Mexican hat. It was not that this hat blocked his view. It was a conversation piece that led to further personal disclosures.

The man said he worked for a large bank in Atlanta, Georgia. His job was to line up retail firms to issue credit cards to their customers through Wells Fargo. I knew about this type of arrangement as a customer of Home Depot. He was a Republican. Son of a general, he was strongly pro-military. He liked President Bush. There was a conflict here in that he was also gay. He was a gay Republican which, in today’s political world, may seem a contradiction in terms. For the time being, however, his separate identities were in tact.

He mentioned some ugly things that people had said about him. I responded that he had only one customer to please: himself. He was happy that I had said that. Of particular interest to me, this man said that his life was quite stressful. He was working 60-hour workweeks with 95% travel. When the bank gave him the job, they had promised less travel but “they lied.” He wanted something different but did not see any alternative to keeping his current job.

With such openness, some others nearby joined in the conversation including the woman I mentioned who had changed her son’s diapers. To this group, I disclosed my presidential aspirations. The time passed by more quickly than it otherwise might have done. After a good hour and a half of waiting, the parade reached our spot. These floats were larger and more elaborately decorated than Mardi Gras floats I had seen before. Harry Connick, Jr., noted singer and son of a former New Orleans district attorney, was on one of them. Otherwise, it was the same routine of tossing beads and other Mardi Gras trinkets from the floats while persons in the crowd scrambled to catch whatever was thrown their way. I added to my immense collection of loot. Then came another long drive back to Baton Rouge.

After a night’s rest in Port Allen, I turned around the next morning and drove right back to New Orleans. In fact, my destination was the same street corner, Poydras and St. Charles. Driving down I-10, I wished I had had a camera ready when I saw a man by an open truck door standing on the shoulder of the highway with a fishing rod in his hand - right in front of a sign that said: “Emergency Parking Only” That’s the spirit - emergency fishing! But it was a holiday, after all. Another man was also fishing several miles farther down the road. A public holiday after a good spring rain creates an irresistible opportunity to do this kind of thing.

A radio commercial also caught my attention. “Fire your landlord,” it began. This was sponsored by an outfit called Consumer Resource Network promising to get you into your own house with little or no money down. Bad credit was not a problem. You, too, can own your own home. “Fire your landlord today.” As a landlord, I was not bothered so much by the harsh rhetoric concerning my own occupation as by the fact the persons of weak financial capacity were being given the hard sell to buy houses that they could not realistically afford. What does this say about today’s housing market? I knew that I, too, was vulnerable should there be a jolting round of foreclosures and a drop in housing prices.

Before entering New Orleans, I stopped at a restaurant near the interstate to have a bowl of gumbo. It was cheaper here than in the city. Once downtown, I found my favorite parking space on Perdido Street. This time I did not have to feed the meter because it was a holiday - Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras day. A parade was already passing down the street when I arrived at the street corner where I had promised the media I would be standing for the day’s events.

Today, I had to stand behind the rails on Poydras street some distance from the parade route. An attractive older woman was standing next to me. She said she was from Paris, France. She was touring several cities in North America. A male companion, perhaps her husband, arrived more than an hour later. The two walked together up Poydras street and vanished in the crowd.

I stayed at this location for another half hour. A television reporter was working the crowd on the other side of St. Charles street. He never crossed over to my side. I confined myself to the covetous pursuit of beads. I caught a package of medallions that were highly prized. A woman suggested diplomatically that I give one to a small boy who was standing on top of a fire hydrant next to his mother. I walked east on St. Charles until I was on the opposite side of a viewing standing for Mardi Gras dignitaries. A middle-aged woman told me that a well-dressed young woman in the stands across the street from us had a major role to play in the pageantry surrounding this annual event. Rex, king of the carnival, would shortly arrive here and claim her as his queen. I missed that crowning event when I left the area for a time.

As parades followed each other, all the Mardi Gras loot made us punch drunk. People on opposite sides of the street began hurling strings of beads at each other over the floats. There was so much stuff, on the sidewalks, on the streets, in our bags, that we were losing interest. I tried to talk with people about politics. Few were receptive. Winning more approval was my large Mexican hat.

In the late afternoon, I drove back to Baton Rouge. Mardi Gras was over for me.

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