The forecast for the weekend calls for a hail of potatoes and cabbages. St. Patrick’s Day parades are about to roll, this weekend and next.
In New Orleans, where parades are part of the local lexicon for all-season revelry, the upcoming pageantry prompts a few thoughts spurred by recent Carnival cavalcades. At the risk of sounding like a GOP* (an acronym I ever more frequently apply to my husband, Stewart), I will offer these parade observations.
Public celebration in New Orleans unspools in a very interactive way. Unlike the parades in, say, Rio or Nice, ours involve crossover behaviors that require participation on both sides of the spectacle: as actor and as audience. Former Tulane University professor Diane Grams once explained Mardi Gras to me as public ritual. Everyone has her or her part to play, and only when all parties participate appropriately do we get the satisfying and cleansing effect of any important ritual.
So, parades. Those of us on the ground chant and call; those of us on board floats or in marching groups tease and toss. They throw; we catch. We throw; they catch. This dance between those who do and those who go has been a Carnival constant in all the 40-plus years I’ve lived in New Orleans. It gives our parades and revelry exclusiveness, a special quality that others lack. And one that thousands come to New Orleans to seek.
But it seems to me that parties on both sides of the action are increasingly failing to hold up their sides of the bargain. This Mardi Gras season I saw the usual irritating behaviors at ground level: demanding territorialists protecting “their” square of concrete at a public intersection (this year, 7th and St. Charles); drunks who think hurling beads back at riders is hilarious (it’s not); throw-snatchers who would put an NBA point guard to shame.
This is not new – back in the ’70s, I stepped on a doubloon preparatory to bending down to retrieve it, and the girl next to me beat me to the ground and bit my ankle. But the lack of respect – the lack of niceness – seems to be escalating.
More puzzling, perhaps, is the burgeoning misbehavior above ground, where riders reign.
I’ve ridden in Iris for decades, and every year we get the usual exhortation to stay masked at all times, never remove our gloves, and remember, no alcohol. Yeah, yeah. Everyone knows the subtext: Have fun, but keep a little regal in the pretend royalty.
So it is with a somewhat jaundiced eye that I watch Thoth riders hurl packs of beads so hard they can split a scalp, and have indeed broken my daughter’s window (twice). For the first time this year I spotted hard purple bead helmets on small children, evidently an entrepreneur’s answer to over-enthusiastic throwing.
Every year some rider fails to hitch him or herself to the wagon and goes off it – literally, falling drunken to the pavement. But now the intoxication level seems to be more ubiquitous. I asked a friend who rode in Tucks this year if she’d had enough beads – the perennial rider query. Oh yes, she replied; everyone on her float was pretty much passed out on the floor, so she had her pick of choice throws.
A fellow potential GOP commented to me that she is no prude (and she’s really not), but she did do a doubletake or two or three when she spotted multiple Rex riders – Rex – hoisting their Budweisers high above the float walls. Couldn’t they, she wondered, be a little more discreet?
St. Pat’s Day parades are known less for throws and more for tipsy marchers handing out paper flowers and sloppy kisses. Innocuous, silly, rarely offensive. I’ve never been beamed with a hurtling cabbage thrown with too much excess, and I doubt I’ll see emerald bead helmets on Magazine Street or Metairie Road.
Still, any ritual carries with it responsibility. Participants are, to some extent, performers. And that rings true even if the religion in question is our public revelry.
*Not a reference to Grand Old Party, although the elephant set certainly could be accused of crabby rants these days. But I use GOP in this instance for Grumpy Old Person, an acronym I heartily do not ascribe to be. Or to be married to.
St. Patrick’s Day parades at a glance: