On a Saturday morning in New Orleans, a light breakfast at Cafe du Monde is required. The line is long at this hallowed coffee stand -- opened since the 1860s -- but it moves fast, and there are only two or three choices so ordering is simple: cafe au lait (coffee with steamed milk) and powdered sugar-dusted beignets (ben-YAYS), or French donuts.
Our group of six ordered two for each of us, but then out of nowhere, our friend Phil decided to keep going, as if the fried dough and sugar had somehow connected to a visceral section of his brain that previously didn't exist, like Neo discovering the Matrix for the first time: he wound up downing six all by himself.
Walking is again required after a doughy, sugary, caffeine-laced fuel-up. As we walked around the city, we noticed -- in addition to more "Bless You Boys" signs and "We Dat" placards, placed prominently in windows and storefronts -- that this football-crazy town was also completely immersed in some kind of crazy parade marathon.
As a kid from Minnesota, I always thought that Mardi Gras meant a parade or two, followed by a big party on Fat Tuesday. What I didn't realize was that the parades had started in early January, and this weekend was the culmination, which meant two or three major parades each day. The parades are led and organized by Krewes, or clubs, with names like Endymion and Bacchus, and they wind their way through downtown, Mid-City, Uptown and the Garden District -- preventing easy taxi access and seriously interrupting the streetcar service.
These aren't your run-of-the-mill Chicago floats with some bunting and a sign and a few people waving from plastic chairs, but rather, elaborate feats of construction with plaster and wood and paint; to get a spot on a Krewe's float is like scoring center ice tickets to a Blackhawks game. Not only do they stake out positions on these floats, but they are all decked out in full costume, usually wearing masks. The horseback riders accompanying the floats are also decked out, wearing masks and elaborate headgear, looking like guards in a Cirque du Soleil show heading to a private party being filmed by Stanley Kubrick. The attendants on the floats are charged with tossing hundreds (if not thousands) of multi-colored beads into the thronging masses that line the parade routes. People bring ladders, outfitted with what looks like makeshift chairs or enlarged toolboxes at the top, to allow for either sitting children or storing their bead stash. This height advantage also helps with actually grabbing the beads in mid-air. At one parade we caught coming down Canal Street, the float riders actually tossed out plastic spears, at least three-feet long; thankfully, Phil prevented me from being impaled like a satay skewer and nabbed the spear headed straight toward my head. Now I know why everyone in New Orleans is wearing dozens of beads around their necks: you can't walk more than a block or two during this weekend and not be hit over the head with someone tossing them out of a moving vehicle.