I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

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Alison Aucoin is descended from people who spent their weekends dressing up in costumes and taking silly photos of one another to send to relatives who were serving in the Pacific during WWII. She makes her living as a freelance grant writer but is much happier squeezing playdough with her two year-old Ethiopian daughter, creating photography/audio projects, crafting manifestos on her blog (http://endebetehyemhoneyelem.blogspot.com) and making costumes with her trusty glue gun. She is one of only about a half dozen Cajun Jews in existence.

28 responses to “Mardi Gras, meh…”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Alison,
    Having a child changes everything, but that is how it is supposed to be.
    It’s a good thing.
    I promise.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      I’m not worried Irene. My evolution into motherhood has felt more natural and without regret than anything I’ve ever experienced.

  2. Matt says:

    This is the first year since I left NOLA that I’ve actually found myself wanting to be back there for Mardi Gras. Not sure why, but it just came out of nowhere.

  3. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, now I feel sad that I’m not on Frenchman Street. Even though it’s a place I’ve never been.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Oh Simon, I hope you will make it Frenchman St for Mardi Gras one year & I would so love to be there to see your reaction!

  4. Zara Potts says:

    You might not be on Frenchman Street.. but we’ll keep you company.
    If I had any beads, I’d give them to you, Alison.

  5. Matt says:

    You know….I think I have something like 20 lbs. of beads and old throws in a couple of bags in the back of my storage closet. I’ll have to dig around back in there and see if I can find them.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Everyone who has ever lived in NOLA has a stash of beads somewhere. See my reply to Zara above.

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        Hey, we have some vintage ones from the manly man’s family. I think some are glass. Very cool. They are DYING to be transformed into something else. Beaded costume for Wee One? Or maybe I could figure out what to do with them.

  6. Jim Simpson says:

    I don’t know how anyone could actually live there. Great place to visit, and I always preferred Jazz Fest over Mardi Gras.

  7. Alison Aucoin says:

    In my opinion Jazz Fest was wonderful but has become too big and commercial while Mardi Gras continues to sprout new and creative interpretations of itself. Damn, now I’m making myself homesick…

    • Jim says:

      I haven’t been to Jazz Fest in ten years — like everything, I guess it’s changed. Maybe the spirit of the city draws us, the idealized vision so far removed from the everyday reality of any city with a theme or handful of catchphrases.

      The image that sticks in my mind is of an off-duty clown in full makeup I saw in a bar smoking a cigarette by himself staring off into space. My wife and I refer to him (to this day) as the Sad Clown of Life.

      • Alison Aucoin says:

        Sad the Clown is EXACTLY the kind of stuff I love about NOLA & I don’t think it happens anywhere else.

        I once saw the guy who paints himself silver and stands still for tourists to take his picture in the Quarter riding a bike and almost get hit by a car. Weird to see him on bike, weird to see him in motion, weirder still to see him go ape-shit on driver. I chalked it up to pent up rage at stupid tourists messing with him all day.

  8. Richard Cox says:

    I remember going to Mardi Gras once or twice, vying for beads and doubloons, the latter of which I was vastly disappointed were not accepted as currency. I think I might remember seeing boobs, but I’m not totally sure. At the age of five I was more interested in doubloons anyway. Haha.

  9. Alison Aucoin says:

    Ugh, Richard I’m so sorry. You were definitely in the tourist area. It’s awful. Many too many of the boobs flying about are not fit for public consumption. I’m surprised you weren’t scarred for life. Go back one day & get off Canal & Bourbon Streets! Uptown and the Marigny are a whole different world.

  10. Ducky Wilson says:

    I love NO. Haven’t been in years but in my 20’s, I used to go pretty regularly for a dose of Dixieland. I’m cuckoo for it. Only once did I try going for Mardi Gras. Never again – I do not enjoy crowds at all.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Yep, Mardi Gras is not the place for the crowd-phobic. I’m definitely not but I am a bit nervous about being in crowds like that with my daughter. Motherhood changes everything.

  11. Angela Tung says:

    i’ve been to new orleans once many years ago, when that ferry ran into the boardwalk. i remember loving the food – beignets and delicious coffee! and the seafood, yum!

    now i’m hungry.

    i know what you mean by experiencing some big to-do differently when you live there. when i think of new year’s eve in nyc, i don’t think of times square but of wandering the freezing cold streets and hopping into some cute bistro for a late dinner.

    lovely piece.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Thanks Angela. I remember the ferry wreck. I had the flu and woke from a feverish nap to hear the news. It was weird.

  12. D.R. Haney says:

    This provided me with a glimpse into Mardi Gras that I would never have had otherwise, not even if I’d been. In fact, I’ve never been to New Orleans.

    Do I know what it means to miss New Orleans? In fact, more all the time, I think I somewhat do.

    Write on in NC!

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Thanks DR! More Mardi Gras stories in the ‘essay purgatory’ folder on my desktop. Perhaps I’ll dust one off for next time. What’s your fancy? Romance, predictions of the future, childhood pathology? I got ’em all.

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