NEW ORLEANS — Music blared from speakers set up under an ornate cast-iron gallery overlooking the heart of New Orleans’s tourist epicenter, Bourbon Street. The fact that it was 10 a.m. did not stop costumed spectators from bouncing in and out of bars with bloody marys and hurricanes.
But the crowd was not Bourbon Street’s usual tourist set. Most were locals, there to see a 50-year-old Mardi Gras tradition: the Greasing of the Poles. Once done as a precaution to keep drunken visitors from destroying the balconies that define the French Quarter, the Greasing of the Poles is now a party in itself.
While the cliche of the holiday still exists on Bourbon Street, it’s a tiny fraction of a much larger Mardi Gras ecosystem — one that’s rooted in tradition and is mostly family-friendly.
“It’s just a time when people come together and enjoy life,” says Arthur Hardy, the “Mardi Gras Guide” publisher whose family has been in New Orleans since 1830. “We like to say in New Orleans: If you die of old age, it’s your own fault, because we like to party. And Mardi Gras is our biggest party, and it’s our gift to the world.”
New Orleanians celebrate the holiday their entire lives, unlike outsiders, who may wait until adulthood because of the misconception that it’s an adult affair. A local’s Mardi Gras can still be hedonistic, but in a different way. Although there’s marathon drinking and the potential to attend fringe risque parties, the majority of people celebrate by watching parades with friends and family.
To compare a tourist’s experience with a local’s, I joined the visitors who flocked to the city and then spent time with New Orleans natives to see Mardi Gras through the lens of their neighborhoods, parades and parties.
For the uninitiated, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a marquee day of the Carnival holiday leading up to Ash Wednesday. The city is particularly festive for about two weeks before Lent, but parades start even earlier. This year, they kicked off Jan. 4.
After putting my luggage down at the hotel, I wandered around downtown, following crowds and the sounds of drums and trumpets until I found the parade route. I could have also taken a look at the WDSU Parade Tracker app on my phone, or looked online, to keep track of the city’s many parades whenever they were rolling, but it was easy enough to find the floats by winging it.
From an outsider’s perspective, that parade on my first day seemed like many I’d been to, with a sea of happy spectators waving and smiling on both sides of the street. But what it turned out I was missing was the nuance of parade culture.
Kevin Crandle, 45, was born and raised in New Orleans, but he had to leave his home for four years after Hurricane Katrina.
“Every year I came home, and I just missed Mardi Gras so much,” he told me as he flipped ribs over a barbecue. He was cooking for the some 75 friends and family members who had gathered to watch the day’s parades roll through the Garden District. His mom, Angela, also a New Orleans native, made sure I got a plate of ribs, red beans and rice, and a hot sausage po’ boy.
From behind a wall of barbecue smoke, Kevin told me that he’d rather be cooking during the parades than catching beads. He also rides in floats every year; he has been riding in the Krewe of Oshun since he was 9.
I learned that each krewe, a social club that puts on parades and balls, means something different; locals don’t just join a krewe to ride for a day, but choose one based on the krewe’s characteristics.
For example, Oshun is a co-ed group named for the goddess of love and intimacy in the religion of the Yoruba people, and, Kevin says, most of the participants ride for children.
“We throw a lot of children’s toys and not as many beads as the tourists might want, but we want to see the kids have a lot of fun,” he said.
In 2016, Kevin’s dream of becoming Shango, or king of his krewe, came true. It was an immense honor that he hadn’t expected to happen in his lifetime.
“When you see tens of thousands of people waving at you, just looking at your costume and wondering, ‘Who is this person?,’ it’s amazing,” he said. “I enjoyed the whole thing. It was wonderful.”
Kevin said his best advice for newcomers hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the culture would be to make friends, then come visit those friends every year. At his party this year, there was a family from New York that his uncle had spotted wandering at a parade a prior year.
“They looked lost, [so] we fed them,” Kevin said. “Every year, they bring us fruit salad. They’ve been coming for the last seven to eight years now.”
I saw more beads than I had in my entire lifetime at Mardi Gras. Beads strewn in the trees. Beads on the ground. Beads on the necks of everyone in sight. There is no shortage of beads, which is to say that visitors don’t need to go nuts to amass a collection.
“The joke about New Orleans is that we’re sinking below sea level because of the weight of all the beads,” said Ashley Graham, 51, a New Orleans resident for 14 years who had invited me to a house party uptown.
In her friend’s home that she’s lived in since before Katrina, Ashley introduced me to her friends. Initially, I was self-conscious showing up beadless to a party, but it turned out I was not alone. Some guests wore beads, while others opted for flashing light-up headbands or no festive touches at all.
Plot twist: Locals might not care about standard beads, but they do care about catching “throws.”
The tradition of tossing throws into crowds has been a part of Mardi Gras parades since they began. Today, each parade krewe is known for handing out different signature items, from hand-decorated shoes and coconuts to USB cords and can koozies.
While Ashley and I drank wine at the party, she explained that there’s a fledgling movement of people encouraging more environmentally sustainable throws. For example, the city passed a law this year banning beads from being thrown in plastic casings, and the Krewe du Kanaval she’s involved with throws handmade Haitian crafts instead, like glass beads and coffee.
At the party, conversation repeatedly turned to the death that happened the evening before, when a spectator was hit and killed by a tandem float. (Days later, another spectator would die from the same type of accident.) These horrors are not the norm for the holiday. Locals advised me to listen when someone says to back up and to never to grab floats or try to run between them.
I’d had a great lunch at Mother’s, a restaurant that a Lyft driver and a few friends had recommended I try while I was in town. But I didn’t expect to get roasted for the meal a few hours later.
New Orleans native Angelique Dyer, 30, invited me to drink rosé and watch the parades from her friend’s balcony along the parade route. Mid-hangout, I asked the group what they thought the most overrated restaurant in New Orleans was. Almost in unison, half the room said “Mother’s.” I felt duped.
Conversely, I thought I would be the laughingstock of the party when I admitted I visited Cafe du Monde, the famed beignet cafe. I had stopped by earlier in my visit and been amazed to find no wait at a place known for lines. I walked right in and shoveled down a plate of hot, delightful fried dough from a corner table on the patio.
I figured Angelique, her friends and the rest of New Orleans saw Cafe du Monde as the ultimate tourist trap. I was surprised that wasn’t the case: It really was the best spot in town for beignets, they said. They also informed me that I could visit one of its other locations to avoid waiting in line at the iconic one — a tip I filed away for my next visit.
Smoke rose from the grill where about a dozen oysters were cooking over coals. A priest manned the station, basting the oysters with an herbed oil.
Lauren de Mahy had invited me to her friend’s annual Endymion “Mardi Pardi” held on the “neutral ground,” or median, in the Mid-City neighborhood. Lauren and most of the party attendees had gone to school together a few years ago at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, about two hours away from New Orleans. The get-together was now a yearly tradition for the friend group.
“It’s really just, bring whoever you’d like and invite whoever,” de Mahy said, while smoke from the oyster-covered grill billowed in our faces. “Everyone brings their friends, and it grows and grows.”
Friends had coordinated securing their Mardi Pardi spot in advance. The night before, someone had slept on an air mattress to save space for their six tents.
Staking territory overnight is allowed only if someone stays on-site the entire time. Criticism in recent years has focused on people who spray-paint outlines of their chosen public space weeks ahead of parades, or leave property, like chairs or ladders, overnight alone.
In response to the conflict, the city council passed a law this year banning people from putting property out more than four hours before a parade, and all property must be removed after the day’s parades are finished.
After leaving the Mardi Pardi, I walked the length of the parade route from Mid-City to downtown. I saw crawfish boils, barbecue, jambalaya, hot dogs, and cooler after cooler after cooler of drinks. There were street-food carts and trucks selling food for those parade spectators without the luxury of a party’s home cooking.
My heart went out to the young women who shivered in tank tops as they walked around downtown New Orleans. I was bundled in layers and was still cold thanks to the wind. I assumed they were out-of-towners like me. A good way to stand out at Mardi Gras is to come unprepared for the climate.
Over weeks with unpredictable weather, Mardi Gras can be spent celebrating in the bright sunshine — or under heavy rain. Locals know to wear mud-friendly shoes like rain boots while tourists prance over puddles in flip-flops.
“We know not to wear our Jimmy Choos; these are from Amazon,” local Tatum Gardner told me at the Greasing of the Poles while pointing to her jeweled high heels. “And you have tennis shoes for backup.”
My own anime-mermaid look turned out to be a fantastic conversation-starter that week.
At the Greasing of the Poles, without a costume, I felt like a cop standing next to Tatum and her friend, Shannon, who was wearing an elaborate hat with a mini champagne bottle pinned to the front, in honor of the champagne-themed party they were attending afterward.
“Everyone in New Orleans has a costume closet,” Gardner said.
I immediately understood that my civilian clothes would not work for Mardi Gras. I started hunting for a costume after the poles had been greased, cobbling together a suitable look after I stopped by a handful of tourist shops and costume emporiums.
It sounds counterintuitive, but I found that to blend in, I needed to dress over-the-top. Attire-wise, hanging out with family and friends at parades looked low-key, but I still saw the bulk of spectators donning clothing and accents in the traditional colors. Once I put on a neon pink wig, a pink cowboy hat, sparkling-green fish-scale leggings and a glittering purple fanny pack, I no longer felt like such an obvious outsider.
Costumes worked as an icebreaker when I couldn’t think of anything to say to strangers at parties. When I asked, “What’s your costume?” or remarked, “I love your [insert glittery, feathery or bedazzled accessory here]!,” it worked wonders. And my own anime-mermaid look turned out to be a fantastic conversation-starter that week. Strangers complimented my flowing neon locks or called me “cowgirl” as I passed. It helped me find dance partners and make friends.
The floor was so sticky at a bar on Tchoupitoulas Street that I was worried my shoe might rip off dodging the spray of drunken college kids’ beer exploding behind me as they shotgunned cans.
It was past my Mardi Gras bedtime, but I’d been told to wait to go to the Saint, a local bar, until 1:30 a.m. to see it in all of its glory. So I killed time. The advice had me conflicted. On one hand, I wanted to see the beloved establishment at its finest hour. On the other hand, venturing out that late into the night didn’t feel like a smart Mardi Gras move.
The most common piece of advice locals give for doing these celebrations right is “pace yourself”; the holiday is a marathon, not a sprint. And overdrinking is a terrible tourist offense.
But of course, New Orleans is not a city that shies away from alcohol. It’s legal to drink alcohol in public, and places will ask you if you want your cocktail for here or to go in a plastic container as a result.
“If you’re standing at the end of the day, you’re a local,” said Candice Wright, 34, a New Orleans native with a house along the parade route. “If you’re throwing up or passed out, you’re a tourist.”
It was almost 2 a.m. by the time I got to the Saint, and I knew I was breaking the first rule of Mardi Gras by staying out too late. But the moment I walked through the door to find a sea of dancing, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I figured I’d wait until last call before calling it a night.
That was the night I discovered that New Orleans does not have a last call.
The holiday is a marathon, not a sprint. And overdrinking is a terrible tourist offense.
Most New Orleanians celebrating Mardi Gras have parties and traditions they’ve planned for well in advance. They’ve made and purchased gifts to throw from floats; they’ve sewn costumes to wear to parties; they’ve bought the groceries they need for their potlucks.
But the Thursday before Mardi Gras, the unexpected struck: weather. The evening’s parades were canceled because of rain and high winds. While I tried to figure out what to do instead, my phone lit up with a message from a local I’d connected with before my trip. Ashley, the 14-year resident, invited me to her friend’s house party. I immediately jumped into a Lyft and headed uptown.
Ashley’s itinerary for Mardi Gras was full of plans. There were house parties every day — if not ones thrown by her friends, then ones she was hosting herself.
“This is the most hospitable place I’ve ever been,” Ashley told me about her city at the party over wine and barbecue chicken. When she moved here, “I was immediately invited to a million dinner parties so that I could meet friends.”
I started to realize that Mardi Gras is about celebrating a sense of community. It’s an occasion for people to both spend time with those they care about and meet new people to care about. Perhaps the concept wouldn’t work in another major American city — but it works in New Orleans.
THE FRENCH QUARTER
To many outsiders, the French Quarter means Bourbon Street. Densely packed with bars and strip clubs, the tourist magnet is infamous for its reputation as a place where visitors seem to think they’re given a pass for poor behavior.
On any given night of the year, Bourbon Street is notoriously rowdy. On Mardi Gras, it’s a nightmare.
I thought I could handle Bourbon Street — the drunken antics; the flashing; the smell of alcohol, wet trash and human urine — until I was trapped in a mass of people too densely packed to move. People had poured into a particular stretch of Bourbon from both ends of the block. Suddenly, no one could walk.
The atmosphere became desperate in the struggling standstill. The more pressure the crowd put on itself, the more everyone lashed out at each other.
A woman in front of me yelled at the man behind her to stop grabbing her until a stranger forced his way between them to stop the assault. Another man claimed his phone was stolen. A woman sobbed as her boyfriend shielded her against the wall we were crushed against.
There were fistfights, shoving and drinks poured onto people accidentally and purposefully. A stranger’s hand found its way between my legs, and another one later across my butt. With the tightness of the throngs, all I could do was swat the hands away and try to stay upright while people pushed from all sides.
After what felt like an eternity, but was probably 15 minutes, I was spit out on the other end of the crush.
Every other Mardi Gras activity during this trip had felt fun and safe. Bourbon Street did not. It was clear that it was not a representation of Mardi Gras or New Orleans.
To some New Orleanians, the French Quarter is “the Quarters.” It’s a neighborhood with live music and boutique shops, beautiful architecture, and the city’s best gay bars. There’s Galatoire’s legendary Friday lunch, and the James Beard Award-winning bar at Arnaud’s.
The French Quarter is also where tourists flock for a good time. During Mardi Gras, depending on the day and time, it’s packed with visitors from all over the world.
“The Quarters is a projection of what you want it to be,” Candice told me at her house party.
It’s also a neighborhood in transition. At their house party, Candice and Angelique explained that the outskirts of the French Quarter are gentrifying. The problem is not unique to the neighborhood, but is happening throughout New Orleans, as outside investors buy property and raise rents dramatically.
“We have New Orleans money, not San Francisco or New York money,” said Candice.
As a visitor, I am so far removed from most Mardi Gras traditions — particularly those from the black community — that it’s impossible to fully understand their meaning and importance.
What did click during my first Mardi Gras was that the people of New Orleans have given the world a priceless treasure — one that at times has become overshadowed with unfortunate stereotypes while failing to champion the aspects that locals truly cherish.
My trip did not begin to scratch the surface of New Orleans culture, or of its beloved Mardi Gras. It did, however, inspire a longing in me that the world should learn from its holiday. With every shared meal, term of endearment or act of kindness, I realized that there is no hospitality like the hospitality of New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
Photo editing by Haley Hamblin. Copy editing by Julie Bone. Design and development by Christine Ashack.