"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 Parade
I 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.
Two men dragging giant crosses with wheels on their bases and inscribed with the message "Jesus loves sinners" trudged somberly up the parade route.
"Jesus didn't have no wheel," a woman near me commented.
Police officers on foot worked the crowd, smiling, shaking hands and occasionally greeting someone by name. I asked one of the officers if Mobile had more crime during Mardi Gras.
"We had a shooting five or six years ago over on Broad Street," he said. "But we haven't had any major trouble since then."
Finally, a distant cacophony of drums, trumpets and trombones sent a ripple of excitement up the barricades. I leaned over with the rest of the crowd to take in the glittering advance of a high school band. Sequined majorettes strutted and high-kicked their way up the street, batons flashing, backed by musicians who managed to dance and wave their instruments in unison while also playing them.
"Watch out for your glasses," an old woman standing next to me warned. "Last year, mine got knocked right off my head."
The boom of bass drums rattled windows and lifted spirits until the eyes of the adults in the crowd shined as brightly as those of the children. We whooped and cheered as masked revelers, astride plumed horses moving at a brisk clip-clop, tossed cascades of purple, yellow and green "doubloons" over our outstretched hands.
The lead float featured Christopher Columbus surrounded by seven Indian chiefs. Columbus was followed by the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, all overflowing with masked sailors tossing trinkets to the crowd. A smoke-breathing sea serpent chased the ships.
Nineteen floats in all rolled by as the sky rained beads, bubble gum, miniature plastic toys and Moon Pies, the sugary marshmallow treats that are a distinctive feature of Mobile Mardi Gras. After the last float rounded the corner, there was a brief pause in the action. A man near me used a garden rake to reach under the barricade and pull fallen bubblegum and beads within reach of the eager hands of his children. And then the entire parade rolled by again, on its way back to the center of town.
As mechanical street sweepers roared up the roads in the litter-strewn wake of the parade, I strolled toward Bienville Square, the heart of downtown Mobile. Beads crunched under my boots as I walked along the broad sidewalk beneath the canopy of live oaks, their branches dripping beads along with Spanish moss. Debutantes swathed in silk and satin, escorted by naval officers in dress whites, glided past the square's fountain.
An odd mix of melancholy and tranquillity swept over me, as usually happens when I find myself alone in a beautiful setting.
But I did not often feel alone during my four-day visit to Mobile. It was easy to mingle with the locals, most of whom loved to talk. Many went out of their way to make me feel welcome at their Mardi Gras celebrations, which are held in towns and neighborhoods along the horseshoe-shaped coast of Mobile Bay.
Mardi Gras Hopping
In the upscale suburb of Fairhope, on Mobile Bay's chic Eastern Shore, I wandered into a newsstand on Main Street while waiting for another parade to start. Grant Davis, a retired economics professor, and his wife, Susan, invited me to join them for hot chocolate. Their son owned the newsstand and they were managing it while he was on holiday.
Davis told me he belongs to a mystic society that has been around so long its members grew bored with parading and gave up that tradition. "Mardi Gras is the Greek fraternity system carried into senility," he said.
Mobile celebrates Mardi Gras in an entirely different style from New Orleans, Davis said. "Number one, it's a little more tame here. You don't have to show your bosom to get beads. And in New Orleans they throw some pretty elaborate trinkets. Here, we like to throw Moon Pies and every piece of junk known to man. Mobile is about 20 years behind the times, which is a good thing."
I claimed a spot on the curb in front of the newsstand and struck up a conversation with a woman standing next to me, who was accompanied by her daughter and granddaughter.
"I'm from a small town, Grove Hill, about 85 miles north of Mobile," Ruth Williamson told me. "I always wanted to go to Mardi Gras as a child but Daddy said no. Mardi Gras is associated with a lot of drinking and rowdiness, so l never got to go. Now I'm 67 and making up for lost time."
"We Mardi Gras all day long," Williamson said. "A lot of times we'll have Yankees all around us. We call them snowbirds because they flock to our beaches in the winter. You can tell the ones from Wisconsin because they all have their cheese heads on. Look -- there's a group of them over yonder, see them clustered?"
Sure enough, there was a group of people wearing giant plastic wedges of cheese on their heads.
"We're all little kids during Mardi Gras," Williamson said. "It's just a little time of madness -- and human greed. Isn't it pathetic to see people grasping for a strand of one-cent beads made in China? I got some right pretty ones this year."
King for a Day
The next evening I was sitting at the bar of the Exotic Drink Emporium, a cozy rhythm-and-blues club on Old Shell Road, getting an earful about the black community's Mardi Gras traditions.
The dozens of mystic societies that hold parades throughout the celebration are divided into two racially segregated organizations. The Mobile Carnival Association selects a king and queen each year from the town's white elite to rule over its festivities, while the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association anoints a king and queen from the black elite.
The kings and queens of both organizations are accompanied by retinues of "knights," "ladies" and assorted "courtiers." Being nominated for such an honor requires a considerable investment. Individual participants must cover the cost of their elaborate French court costumes and buy the "throws" that they will toss during the parades.
"They came to me once and asked if I wanted to be a grand marshal," said Mickey Taylor, owner of the Exotic Drink Emporium, as he mixed a mysterious cocktail for me in the blender. "I said, 'Ain't no way I'm gonna spend my money like that. I got a kid that loves money.' "
Taylor poured a bright blue liquid from the blender into a tall glass and set it in front of me.
"Now Victor here, he was king in 1994," he said, gesturing toward another customer at the bar.
"My mama always told me that doing something like that was too expensive," said Victor Lovett. "But she was out of town and they called me. . . . I couldn't tell my mama until my acceptance was way in motion."
He said he eventually placated his mother by making his kingship a tribute to the family business, Lovett's Funeral Home. The honor cost him $8,000 from his own pocket, plus thousands more collected through fundraising events.
The investment is worth it, he said. "You get to be a celebrity. You can have anything you want -- a limousine at your door, a police escort. It's unbelievable, the people that you meet."
Spirit of Spontaneity
On the afternoon of Fat Tuesday, the culmination of Mardi Gras, I returned to the intersection of Government Street and Washington Avenue to watch the parade for the black king and queen.
A large, extended family gathered around me along the barricade. It was not long before I was chatting with Hilton Dembo -- a Mobile native -- and his Korean wife, Son. Their daughter, Angela, was a goblet bearer in the parade's royal court.
As the parade started, Hilton glued his eye to his video camera, recording the passing of the Buffalo Soldiers, former slaves who served in the Western frontier, and the streams of purple, green and gold beads, Moon Pies, Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls, stuffed animals, bags of peanuts and toy whistles flying through the late-afternoon sunlight.
The family's excitement culminated with the float bearing the king and queen's courtiers, little girls in pink satin dresses, tossing beads and waving to the cheering crowd.
"There she is!" shouted Earline Dembo, Angela's grandmother, as she whipped out a camera for a snapshot.
By the time the parade was over I had met most of the Dembo clan.
"You're coming to our house for dinner," said Ed Dembo, Hilton's brother. "My mama makes the best red beans and rice in Alabama."
We walked the few blocks to the home of Earline Dembo, through a neighborhood of aging but well-tended homes with large, inviting porches. Her small, tidy house was soon filled with laughter, family and friends as we all settled in for a feast of homemade fried chicken, red beans and rice.
"You're always welcome here," Earline Dembo said as she prepared a plate for me.
I had come to Mobile as an outsider with no hope of attending a masked ball or any of the private affairs organized by the local hierarchy. It didn't matter. Sitting at the Dembos' kitchen table, I realized that the best part about Mardi Gras is the spirit of spontaneity that allows people to take off their masks and become children again, open to the moment.
Carol Clark is a freelance writer in Atlanta.