A Venial Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras 1998 was a beautiful day in New Orleans. The weather couldn't have been better. The sky was a clear blue, and the temperature warmed to the low 70s by mid-morning. I got up about 7:30 and readied myself for the day by putting on my rugby shirt with broad horizontal stripes of green, gold and purple, the Mardi Gras colors. That's about as far as I go in costuming myself. I've said over the years that I'm masking as a middle-aged college professor. This year I figured it was time to change that to "aging" college professor.

As I dressed I could hear the diesels that pull the so-called truck floats on flat beds lining up on Claiborne Avenue, the music blasting. just a door away from us. That's where the truck floats mass for their parade. They follow the big parade of Mardi Gras, Rex, down St. Charles Avenue. When I was making coffee, I looked out on a float with a great green, gold and purple rainbow arcing from front to back with the words "Over the Rainbow" on it. On the side of the float was a green foil countryside and a putty-colored brick road. The riders, in tin man, straw man and cowardly lion costumes, were busying themselves with preparations for their journey to the Oz that is New Orleans on this day, opening bags of plastic beads and other throw-away novelties they'd toss to the crowds.

Shortly after 10, I put a leash on my dog, Bunkie, and we walked nearly a mile. I looked over the floats and Bunkie studied whatever dogs find to examine on the ground. In fact, he seemed to be a better attraction than the floats to some people. One fellow stopped to pet him, inquired of his age, and did some multiplication in his head.

"We're both 77," he said to the dog. "Did you know that boy? Huh? Huh?"

A Japanese girl asked to have her picture taken with the dog. She draped the long plastic necklace she was wearing over their two heads and her boyfriend took their picture. With all that unaccustomed attention, the elderly mutt began to drag, so we doubled back at Nashville and hiked home along the median strip, what the locals call the "neutral ground." That's what the median between the French Quarter and the American Sector was in the 19th century, and the name stuck. The neutral ground was peopled with riders who were picnicking, taking pictures of friends still aboard, tossing footballs and frisbees with children, or just standing around talking, waiting for the "all aboard" that should have already sounded. Obviously, there was a delay somewhere ahead.

Back at the house, I settled down on the couch in front of the TV set to try to get an idea when the trucks would be moving. Something had happened to the lead float of Zulu, the first parade of the day, which precedes Rex. By flipping channels I was able to learn that a tire had blown out and needed to be replaced. While I was clicking, I came across Joe Trahan, sports reporter for the local Fox affiliate and a Loyola communications graduate, who was doing man-on-the-street interviews on Bourbon Street.In one of those little twists of fate life presents us every now and then, he was beginning to interview friends of mine, Mark and Barbara Kaplinsky and their son, David. Mark and David were masking as Prohibition-era Chicago gangsters in chalk-stripe suits (and Mark in a snap-brim fedora) and Barbara was done up as a flapper. Mardi Gras is special for them, they told Joe, as they've told others, for they had met 13 years ago at the Bacchus parade, and it was love at first sight. "And this is the product," Joe said, patting the embarrassed David on the head, and sending them on their way so he could do another interview.

I turned off the TV set, took a can of beer from the refrigerator, and went outside. Minutes later, at 11:10, the diesels began blowing their horns and off they chugged with their cargoes of costumed revelers tossing beads to onlookers with outstretched arms.

Trucks rolled by for nearly an hour. Those that had been massed along Claiborne were followed by another group that rolled south on Carrollton, just a few blocks west, and made the turn onto Claiborne. I was standing alone, alongside the house on the corner, just looking, enjoying the scene, not even trying to catch anything. But the riders had been waiting for nearly three hours, and they got right into the spirit of the day and tossed favors to everyone they saw. I caught dozens of necklaces of beads of various shapes and sizes and colors; two giant toothbrushes; two back scratchers; two miniature footballs; four plastic cups with decorations stamped on the side; three bean bags in Mardi Gras colors; one toy spyglass, purple, about six inches long; and one real treasure--a Moon Pie. When the last float had passed, I gathered everything up and brought it home. Why? I don't know. We sure don't need another grocery sack full of plastic beads in the attic.

Ah, well, at least I'd have one Mardi Gras sin to repent on Ash Wednesday. It's mighty venial, to be sure but, then, that's the fate of an aging college professor.

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