Sunday, February 20, 2011

25 Years Wasted with the Krewe de Vieux



It is nighttime, and the shops on Royal Street are closed, their antique wares reflecting like glitter the flickering flames of the gas lanterns hanging out front along the whole length of the street. The crowd thickens the farther we walk into the French Quarter towards the Marigny. Costumed couples, triplets and strings of people, are swaying in revelry and drunkenness, bunches of sparkling plastic beads dangling off their necks. There are beer bottles and plastic cups glued to hands which spill liquid contents into mouths or onto the street. It is barely seven o'clock, and everything seems blurry. If I didn't know better, I'd think I accidentally stepped onto the Pirates of the Caribbean roller-coaster at Disneyland.

But I didn't. In actuality, I, along with a caravan of seven friends and acquaintances, am hoofing it through the French Quarter to catch a glimpse of one of the unofficial first parades of the Mardi Gras season. It is hosted by the Krewe de Vieux, and, though I generally dislike large crowds and parades, as it is my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, attending at least a handful of these things seems like the culturally respectful thing to do.

Dating back to only 1987, the Krewe de Vieux is ironically probably one of the most traditional of all the Mardi Gras parades. (Approximately 100 parades are hosted by different krewes in the New Orleans area over this two week period.) Floats in the Krewe de Vieux are towed exclusively by horse or mules, and live marching brass bands provide music in lieu of boom boxes and electronic sound systems. The floats are typically satirical in nature, commenting on local and national politics. Short for Krewe de Vieux Carre (the traditional name for the French Quarter), it is the only large parade allowed to meander through the French Quarter. For the most part, the streets of this first neighborhood of New Orleans--crowded with old little shops and traditional shotgun houses made out of barge wood--are far too narrow for most of the modern Mardi Gras floats.

This year, Krewe de Vieux celebrates its silver anniversary with the theme 25 Years Wasted. The floats poke fun at BP and the oil spill, the Tea Party, the Republican Party, the local Mayor Landrieu, and sex. I was pleased to see my former Governor Palin prominent on at least two floats in a variety of undignified poses.


A minute later, I turn my head, and catch a float emitting smoke as its denizens throw out plastic drinking cups (the New Orleans "Go Cup", which enable one to drink alcohol in public legally) into the crowd.


Soon after, my eyes are drawn unavoidably to a giant shaft of a paper mache penis with sperm flying to and fro, some of them walking alongside the float throwing plastic beads at spectators. I think the float has something to do with sex.

At one point, I see my co-worker Will in one of the floats, a recent preppy college graduate and New Orleans transplant from Rhode Island. At another point, another co-worker appears in double in a makeshift fairy costume involving a tutu and a hooded sweater.


Afterwards, we linger around the house of a close acquaintance who lives on the parade route. And maybe we also linger around the house of someone none of us knew, also on the parade route, who had bottles of imported beer sitting in her claw foot bathtub.

We wandered around, keeping our shirts on but still exchanging plastic beads, for no reason at all. We lost members of the party only to find them a few minutes later up the street in another part of the Quarter, all of which was closed off to car traffic. And if we didn't find them right away, we adopted look alikes until the real ones were found.

Sometimes, in an annoying sort of way, the Bourbon Street culture of New Orleans can make the city feel like a giant college fraternity. And other times, in a totally amusing way, the city can feel like a party thrown by a bunch of theatre geeks. Krewe de Vieux is the latter, and the merriment feels timeless, as if someone is saying in a lazy Southern accent Why of course this town has always thrown a party like this, doll. Like a snapshot from a time far past, tonight on the unofficial first parade of the Mardi Gras season, it seems as if these people, these crazy, intoxicated people, have passed the last 25 years wasted.


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