When people from outside New Orleans think of Mardi Gras, I think they mostly imagine people flashing their tits at drunken men leaning over balconies, throwing beads and trying to ring the most erect nipples in the crowd. Or at least that’s what I imagined before I moved there in 2007 for a job teaching at Tulane University. I got in four good carnival seasons before moving to Baltimore, and I quickly learned that Mardi Gras’s reputation as a giant collective orgy of desire and drink is both well-earned, and, well, totally false.
I’ve been back to New Orleans every year since I left, always timed to the Gras, until this year, due to a terrible rash judgment that, after an early winter filled with travel I didn’t particularly want to take, I’d like a calm February with nowhere to go. So here I am, paying the price for my terrible decision-making and writing a column about a field trip I wish I were taking.
I spent my first Mardi Gras in the midst of a torrid affair with a woman much younger and better looking than me. She had gone to college in New Orleans and was excited to show me how to “do” Mardi Gras, which it turned out was not unlike doing a lot of things in college. We drank case upon case of Miller Lite—the beer still smells like beads to me—and started early, ended late. I learned some really important things from her that I took into subsequent carnival seasons: know your closest bathroom, don’t break the seal, and if you’re going to be that drunk all the time, you might need something to keep you awake, but I’m too old for cocaine.
I also learned from her that Mardi Gras season can be grounds for all kinds of behavior that break our generally agreed-upon rules for living together. It’s a time when men whose iron grip on ideals of masculinity can loosen, and the same guys who spend most of the year flinging “fag” around in an attempt to get it to stick to anybody but themselves, are marching down the street all dolled up in a lady’s best, goosing each other, finally with an outlet for desires that, for all their negation, aren’t going anywhere.
So yeah, Mardi Gras might not be all about tit-flashing for beads, but it is a lot about desire, and about a rare social sanction to be out about it. For me, that first Mardi Gras was all about loosening a collar that had gotten so tight from years of graduate school that it had almost choked the life out of me. And that meant drinking—a lot—and staying out late and getting high and dancing all the time everywhere and pushing a girl’s hand up my skirt as we waited for the next parade to roll and eating Popeyes for breakfast at 1 p.m. By the end of the two-week season, I slept right through Mardi Gras day, that girl popping a Klonopin in my mouth to get me to shut up and go back to sleep. It was great.
The next Mardi Gras found me single and still pining for last year’s Mardi Gras girlfriend, or at least the sex part of it. Desire fills the air during this time of year, and I didn’t have anyone special to shove up against the wall as we waited in line for a bathroom at some random bar. Serious bummer, especially for me—I’m incredibly shy and bumbling when it comes to asking the ladies to have sex with me, figuring most everybody just wants to be my friend. Carnival gave me just enough gumption to put my hands on this Coast Guard pilot who was also in search of a Mardi Gras girlfriend, a most excellent development. I’m a pacifist with a strong distrust of anything that smells even a tiny bit like the military, so that whole girl-in-uniform thing doesn’t really do it for me, but she was seriously cute. I convinced myself the Coast Guard is mostly about helping people after natural disasters, not, say, policing the shores to keep immigrants from touching foot here. Besides, it was Mardi Gras, time to break all our own rules and start finding uniforms sexy. Or something like that.
That fling didn’t last long, cut short by her refusal to make out with me after I lost a front tooth to some beads that hit me in the face. (No, really. That’s what happened. A string of beads hit me right in the mouth, knocked a front tooth out like a Chiclet.) “Sorry, I’m shallow,” she said, as she walked away from me at Rubyfruit Jungle, the actual name of an actual lesbian bar that was briefly open in the 2000s. I proceeded to drown my sorrows in whiskey, and I woke up in an ER, no idea how I’d gotten there, another casualty of the carnival.
And that part wasn’t funny. That’s part of pushing all those boundaries, of heeding all desires without a care in the world. Sometimes a stranger pushes you against a car and you hit your head on the way down, knocked out and rescued only by the kind bartenders who have probably had it up to here with all your boundary-pushing but call you an ambulance anyway. I spent the next two Mardi Gras seasons pretty much sober, riding my bike around the city to see how other people spend those days. Sure, some are drunkenly groping and being groped, but others are putting on their own parades or setting up barbecues in the middle of the street or dancing to a band who knows this is the right time of year to rake in some extra coin or gathering with friends to choreograph a dance for another parade or tossing footballs on the neutral ground with whatever kids happen to be hanging around. There’s a joy in the air in New Orleans right now, and there are as many ways that joy manifests as there are people to do the manifesting. When we reduce the pleasure in transgression to sex and drugs, we miss out on a whole lot. Thanks for teaching me that, New Orleans, and yes, I sure do know what it means to miss you.