I told myself it would be an important formative experience, a secret fast track to becoming an authentic New Orleanian. I had moved here a week before Mardi Gras from my hometown of Houston.
The city itself wasn’t exactly new to me. My grandparents have lived in Kenner my entire life, and I spent two weeks every summer with them, getting ice cream, going shopping and occasionally venturing into the French Quarter for lunch. My grandfather had been a member of Bacchus for a long time, and when I was a little girl, they would bring me giant armfuls of beads to play with. I somewhat understood it, so I was completely prepared, right? Not exactly. I have a tendency to trip over my own feet when I’m sober.
It had poured down rain the night before Fat Tuesday, and temperatures were in the ’30s as my fiance, his best friend from high school and her husband headed down to the meeting spot for the St. Anne parade in the Marigny. We were armed with Shy Guy masks (a bad guy from Super Mario Bros.), and the goal was to get there early for drinks and to join pre-parade revelry. It was 7:30 a.m. when we found a parking spot and made it to a small restaurant near Mimi’s, where I started downing mimosas as quickly as possible. I mean, that was the point, right? Get drunk, have a good time, walk in a parade, head home. Simple!
But here’s a thing about me: I’m afraid of crowds, and I don’t like strangers touching or bumping into me. I thought the mimosas would provide a healthy cushion for my discomfort. After about 45 minutes, I was cruising. Totally relaxed, watching large groups of people in outlandish costumes walk by. Someone had a homemade wrestling ring. The details start to get fuzzy in my brain, but I remember we made a group decision to go check out the main meeting place. The masks ended up serving as more than a costume by keeping our faces warm.
As we made our way toward Mimi’s, the crowd got thicker and thicker. It was probably the 20th person who bumped into me while simultaneously having a stranger grab my ass that sent me into a full-on anxiety attack. I mean hyperventilating, sweating, things spinning, the works. My ears were ringing. I quickly pulled my mask down over my face and decided to ride it out as silently as I could. I was not going to be that person who had to be taken home during Mardi Gras. I was too cool for that! I lived in New Orleans now! One of its fundamental and most well-known aspects would not be ruining the experience.
My fiance, who was also a few sheets to the wind, barely noticed that I was freaking out until he felt how hard I was breathing. When he tried to ask me if I was okay, I gave him a thumbs up, since I couldn’t speak. It didn’t matter anyway, because it was so loud that he wouldn’t have been able to understand what I was trying to convey. And I wasn’t about to let my uptight self ruin the experience.
After about 15 minutes I started to calm down and, soon after, the parade began to move. It must have been a pleasant experience, because I don’t remember any of it. We somehow ended up at Dat Dog, then went on an excursion to find the car, which I was convinced had been stolen because I only remembered the first place we had tried to park. There was a bathroom stop at a McDonald’s at some point, followed by crashing into bed to both warm up and sober up.
I had survived! I was actually proud of myself. I was tired, a little nauseated and smelled like cheeseburgers and spilled beer, but intact. I could officially call myself a New Orleans resident.
Turns out it it isn’t that easy. A full year later, I still admit that, for the most part, I’m completely clueless about how to adjust to living in a city so rich in history and culture. Nobody gives you a guide on how to survive AND properly adapt to NOLA life, which I’m now just beginning to grasp.
While that freezing cold first Fat Tuesday didn’t wave a beaded magic wand over my head and transform me, I knew I was in for a fun ride.
Erin Oppenheim writes about living in New Orleans as a newcomer without a rule book. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.