Beads dangle from trees and fences around our block, colorful reminders of the whirlwind of Carnival season that just was. Each time we stroll past them, Elle, my 2-year-old, lets out a chirpy “icollares!” (‘Necklace’ in Spanish, which is what we called Mardi Gras beads all season long.) She then asks to go see another parade. Sadly, I have to tell her the floats have all gone until next year.
Carnival is firmly behind us. But the good memories linger. This was Elle’s third Mardi Gras but the first in which she was cognizant and participatory. She had a blast. We live just a few blocks from St. Charles Avenue and together we watched a total of nine parades. We had a great time when McGehee opened their play yard for students during parades by the Krewes of Carrollton and King Arthur. And she really enjoyed the family outings with my wife and 8-month-old daughter, Isla, to watch Krewe du Vieux, Tucks and Orpheus.
But the truly special moments came when it was just her and I, trudging down the street together to catch another parade (“¡Desfile!” she would pronounce proudly; I’m trying to raise her in Spanish). The first ones we went to were Oshun and Cleopatra, both Friday night parades. She was initially intimidated by all the lights, people and blaring band music and clung to me like a starfish. But as the first floats of the second parade passed, she loosened up, ran around our little neutral ground spot and made friends with an older girl next to her. The older girl gave her a set of bright pink beads. Elle reciprocated with a blinky plastic wand. Friends for life (or at least that night). When a marcher gave her a lighted necklace, she squealed with delight. Later, she danced with her new friend.
She slept soundly in the stroller all the way home – a recurring trend, as she never made it home awake from any parade.
The next day, we hit Pontchartrain and Choctaw together. I had assembled a Mardi Gras ladder for the season, which never left our house. Instead, we would just stroll down together to our spot on St. Charles and Phillip, and I would carry her up to the street as each float passed. She got stuffed clocks, all varieties of stuffed animals, lighted necklaces, spears, footballs, baby dolls, bracelets and, of course, beads. Lots and lots of beads. The best was watching her interact with the other kids between floats: giggling, running around, showing off their throws and occasionally swapping prized gets. At one point, as a float approached, I was stunned to see her with both hands up yelling, “Throw me something mister!” – something I never specifically taught her.
On the return ride home, she passed out in the wagon again.
I’m not a New Orleans native; my wife and I moved here from Chicago five years ago. I’ve always embraced Carnival celebrations but wondered what it would be like to be born here and go through the arduous exercise of bead-catching and float-chasing, year in and year out. I’ve quietly questioned the cultural payoff of yelling at men with masks and scrambling after cheap plastic trinkets. But now I think I know. It’s more than the throws. It’s about taking part in daily celebrations unique to this city. It’s about engaging with neighbors and making new friends. It’s about creating a lifelong affinity for street parties and a fearlessness of loud music.
And, of course, it’s learning not to be afraid to nap in public.