In Mobile, Ala., The Other Mardi Gras
Sunday, February 16, 2003
"What can I get you, honey?"
The woman inside the food stand was large and confident enough to pull off the look of Tammy Faye Bakker-style false eyelashes and a gleaming helmet of bleached yellow hair.
I ordered fried-chicken-on-a-stick. The woman plopped a steel basket into the fryer. Hot grease sizzled and spat.
"Anything else, sweetie?"
"Can you tell me a good spot to watch the parade?" I asked. "I've just arrived in Mobile and I've never been to Mardi Gras before."
"This is a great spot," she said, waving a pair of steel tongs at the nearby corner of Government Street and Washington Avenue. "The parade will come up Government, turn right, make a loop and come back down Government. You'll get to see it twice."
I leaned against a barricade to hold my parade-watching spot. A trickle of juice ran down my arm as I bit through the spicy crust of my chicken-on-a-stick. The aroma of corn dogs and frying dough filled the air.
I had always wanted to experience Mardi Gras and had planned a trip to New Orleans. But a friend suggested I go instead to his home town of Mobile, Ala. He pointed out that Mardi Gras was celebrated in Mobile before New Orleans even existed.
Mobile and New Orleans have many similarities. They are both ports founded by French Catholics on the edge of swampy deltas. Their rich histories are reflected in their elegant architecture and love of pageantry. But the cities also have distinct differences. Mobile is smaller, tamer and less expensive than New Orleans -- all qualities that appealed to me, since I was traveling alone. While Mardi Gras in New Orleans is known for its bawdiness, Mobile's celebration is suffused with folksy, family-oriented charms.
Mobile and the surrounding region have dozens of "mystic societies" -- organizations whose masked members pack the two-week celebration with afternoon and evening parades, fairs, balls and other revelry. The city also revitalized its historic downtown district in time for its tricentennial in 2002 and has several new cultural attractions, including the renovated Mobile Museum of Art. I was sold.
Make Way for the ParadeI arrived on the Friday before Fat Tuesday, checked into a 1950s hotel and drove three miles to the edge of downtown, arriving two hours before that evening's parade was scheduled to begin. I was surprised at how easily I found a free parking space.
I pulled a jacket out of my backpack as the chill intensified in the February dusk. Vendor carts rolled past, loaded down with shining strings of beads, inflatable Spider-Man dolls, American flags and Dr. Seuss-style hats printed with a picture of Osama bin Laden framed in a gun sight. People began taking positions along the barricades. Families unfolded lawn chairs and opened coolers of food and drinks. Souped-up sound systems blared hip-hop music.