By Guy D. Johnson
I like to say that Mardi Gras is about love. What else could it be about? It’s history, yes. It’s tradition. It’s pageantry, nonsense, blasphemy and religion. It’s food, drink, art, music, dance, color and, in spite of the barricades, it’s freedom. It’s stuff I don’t even know about, and encircling all are beads that open our hands and our hearts to the reveling fellowship. Beads seem to be a way to pass to another person, especially to a stranger, something for which there need be no words.
Beads connect us to people we never would have met; to smiles we never would have received. During Carnival, they are the medium of love. We mask our faces yet unveil our hearts. We receive all that we give.
On one particular Fat Tuesday, someone on Royal Street held a giant thank-you card for beloved Saints running back Deuce McAllister, who had played his last game for us. We stopped to sign the card. As we wrote, a young beauty dressed as Marie Antoinette asked if she also could sign. She was a Saints cheerleader, a Saintsation, and as nice and polite as could be. I had with me, as ever on a Mardi Gras day, a bag of my most beautiful beads. I fished out an especially nice set of large white pearls. They were, despite their size, lightweight; she allowed me to slip them over her foot-tall, blonde Marie wig. They were just right for her costume. This whole scene – the card man showing love to Deuce, we the fans, the French-for-a-day cheerleading queen with our beads around her neck – was a perfect Mardi Gras moment. What was that all about?
Elsewhere, on Orleans Street, I pulled from my bag a strand of what I was calling, because of their colors, my African beads – swirls of gold, dark oranges and chocolate browns. I had only a few of these and I wasn’t going to give them to just anyone. Then we recognized a woman, who looked to be about 40 years old, high above us on the balcony of a small apartment – a modest third-floor walk-up. She had cleaned our room at the Bourbon Orleans but now was enjoying the view of a bright Mardi Gras morning. We got her attention and showed her our beads. She smiled broadly and stretched out her arms. Somehow, I lofted them into her grasp on the first try. She appeared to be thrilled. They were the only beads on her tiny balcony. As we were leaving that area, we looked back and watched as she held them up and showed them to a handsome young man on the street, whom she seemed to know. He held up a hand, so she tossed them down with as much pleasure as she had received them. They looked great on him.
Later that afternoon, as we were thinking of heading out of the Quarter, we made a final pass through Jackson Square and happened upon a scene I had very much hoped to see that day. Coleen Salley, regal in her crown and enthroned upon the shopping cart which served as her carriage each year, held court and waved her beer can to her admirers. Family and friends surrounded her, pushing the cart and leading the crowds in rounds of “Hail, Queen Coleen.” I had another strand of my African beads left, so I offered them to her as a token of my affection and she seemed genuinely surprised that I had offered her something so pretty. After all, she was draped in the finest falderal a queen could desire. Her shopping cart then jostled down Chartres, past Muriel’s and on through the dusky canyon of brick, iron lace and fern and into our memories. That was the last time we were to see Queen Coleen.
Some months passed, and I read that Coleen Salley, scholar, writer, storyteller and queen of the Krewe of Coleen, had died. For her, of course, there would be a jazz funeral after Mass. We went, and fell in toward the rear of the second line. Leading the hundreds of mourners was her shopping cart. The procession ended at Coleen’s French Quarter home, where a big party was just getting started. Out on the barricaded street, in front of her door, they parked her cart, still decorated for Mardi Gras and carrying her crown. There, among the purple, green and gold garland and collected Mardi Gras treasures, hung the African beads I had given her.
We didn’t know Coleen well when she appeared each year, but we grew to love her just the same. The love had come from her; we had just put it around our necks and carried it home.