By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 26, 2003
Steve Smith is bracing for a storm.
"We're shutting down," says Smith, business manager of the Hermann-Grima House, a restored Federal mansion in the center of New Orleans's French Quarter. As the tourists file by on St. Louis Street, Smith details his plans for a complete four-day evacuation of the museum. "Not only are we closing, we'll shut our iron gates and then put plywood over the gates. Basically, it's the same preparations we take for a hurricane."
All over this city, hatches are being battened, inhibitions stashed safely away and livers put on high alert. It's Mardi Gras time in New Orleans.
The day itself, Fat Tuesday, isn't until next week, March 4. But the purple, green and gold clouds of Carnival have been gathering here for weeks. The air is already warm and sultry. And by last Friday, with the first major Mardi Gras parades scheduled to roll in the evening, the Bourbon Street balconies were packed with revelers tossing taunts and baubles to the unsteady masses below. The portable daiquiri stands were up along Canal Street. The line for the Acme Oyster House was a block long on Iberville (don't worry, you can have your cocktail in line). And even the most buttoned-down conference tourist -- he of the neat blue blazer and the oversized name tag -- walked about with at least one string of plastic beads around his neck.
Of course, every Friday is a party in the Crescent City. But not every Friday sees such towering feathered headdresses and quite so many outrageous masks. By nightfall, the sudden whoops echoing along the old brick facades are clearly the unmistakable thunder of New Orleans's biggest blowout. And those sudden lightning flashes of bare breasts -- to relentless wheedling chants from the balconies -- can mean only one thing.
"Oh, this is Mardi Gras, Bra," shouts Ryan, a beaming doorman fighting against the tidal surge of partiers to keep his station outside Pat O'Brien's bar. "It's always hopping on Bourbon Street, but there ain't nothing like Mardi Gras. And next week will be twice as crowded."
At the Hermann-Grima House, an enclave of 19th-century antiques and architecture just blocks from the go-cup mayhem of the strip, Smith is fighting a rising tempest. The day before, in the museum courtyard, he had shooed away a couple of after-hours partiers who were taking a cigarette break under an ancient magnolia tree. "It turns out they weren't cigarettes," Smith says with a grin. (Here, even the management shows affection for Carnival misbehavior.)
And after they protectively shutter the museum, will Smith cower in the storm cellar? "Oh no," he says. "From Friday to Tuesday night it will be solid Mardi Gras for me, as much as I can stand."
A lot of tourist businesses close for Mardi Gras, including the mule carriage tours out of Jackson Square and -- outside the French Quarter at least -- a good number of bars and restaurants. "It's the year's major holiday for us," says native Claudette Breve, a concierge at the Ritz-Carlton. "My favorite is Lundi Gras [the Monday before Mardi Gras]. I take the day off and dress up in a costume and spend the day on Bourbon Street." Last year she was a Naughty Catholic Schoolgirl.
Breve has some tips for neophytes: First, decide whether you want to spend your day among the costumed bead-chuckers on Bourbon Street or the spectacular grand parades that occur each day along St. Charles Avenue and other Uptown streets. Trying to alternate too much between both, Breve advises, can be hernia-inducing. She also recommends taking a taxi up St. Charles ("Get out at one of the numbered streets, 1, 2, 3 or 4") and walking with the parades back toward the Quarter, about two miles.
Finally, check in with your hotel concierge or a knowledgeable local for the latest intelligence on such mundane necessities as where to find bathrooms. (Most bars won't let you into their facilities unless you pay the cover or buy a drink, and the streets become pretty ripe).
"Mardi Gras is absolutely the best time to visit New Orleans," she says. "But for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. The sheer volume of people can be frightening if you're not ready for it."
This year, there are signs the crowds may be down a bit. Although the city expects a bounce back from 2002 (in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks), the bookings so far are soft and some hotels have begun to relax their minimum-stay requirements. "I think this year might be a good one for last-minute plans," says Breve.
A few hundred yards across the Mississippi River, Blaine Kern is clearly no less busy than usual for the eve of the big show. "Everybody's working overtime, everybody's rushing," he says, standing in front of a fiberglass alligator the size of a boxcar. A few yards away, a forklift beeps slowly along, cradling a huge orange griffin.
Kern is New Orleans's most celebrated float designer, the one largely responsible for the unique outsize splendor of the Mardi Gras parade. His sprawling compound of warehouses -- a tourist attraction on its own -- is a bedlam of the fantastic: Dragons and dudes, soldiers and sax players, matadors, hound dogs and gators, gators, gators.
Behind Kern is a string of colossal riverboat floats, about to be towed across the river for the enormous Endymion parade. Each boat is lined with iron stands to help brace the costumed riders -- dues-paying members of the Endymion Krewe (or Mardi Gras social club). Each rider will also bring along a self-paid supply of "throws," up to $500 worth of plastic beads, cups and doubloons to toss to the cheering crowds.
The yearning for these trinkets is fanatical (note the exhibitionist extremes to which otherwise well-behaved women will go to get them). But Mardi Gras partisans contend all the bead-throwing and flashing and drinking and whooping remains remarkably non-threatening.
"It's loud and boisterous, but it's not aggressive," says Miss Stacey, a beautiful 60-year-old tarot card reader in Jackson Square. She sits behind a purple satin tablecloth, all scarves and flowing raven hair beneath the wrought-iron rails. In a cloud of smoldering sage and frankincense, she is the embodiment of New Orleans's rich spooky side. She once saw a fatal fight at Rio's Carnival. This one, she says, is genuinely laid-back. "It's all about positive energy here. It's about political satire and expressing, loudly, who you are or who you want to be. There's a lot of drunkenness and a good bit of explicit sexual stuff, but very few fisticuffs.
"This town lives for Mardi Gras," Miss Stacey says. "You can feel it coming to life right now, can't you?"