It’s been decades since I was a carnival queen, attending balls and watching the parades with my family down on the street. I’ve written a Southern memoir about leaving home, but still I’m not sure I’m really prepared for being back. It’s the beginning of the carnival parade season two weeks before Mardi Gras, and I’m standing on the second floor of my many-windowed new condo in Uptown New Orleans. It’s here, Mardi Gras on St Charles Avenue! And I’m in the middle of it, jaw dropping, feet moving to the sounds of street band music, eyes fed by the shiny gem colors worn by masked float riders, ears full of the joyful shouts of adults and children clamoring for maskers to throw them beads.
The throngs move slowly down the avenue, many with cups in their hands, sloshing beer wine, gin. I can also smell the alcohol, taste it. The revelers on the street below can’t see me. The glass on my windows reflects their colorful images back to them. It’s strange to be looking out on the carnival scene below. Through live oak branches laced with strayed beads, I see tractors pulling huge floats carrying maskers who are throwing everything from beads to hula hoops to tiny toy kitty cats to the people lining the street. I run from one window to another, scoping out the scene below, eager to drink it all in, the exuberance, the laughter, the energy. Mardi Gras! Two weeks of boisterous and jubilant parades will pass by my windows.
Will I be able to tolerate the sound and crowd activity every night? What memories will these passing scenes prompt in me? What new reflections will arise on the family traditions and Southern culture I’ve come to question? I’m curious enough to feel like leaving the safety of my window view and go downstairs and engage with the crowd. But not yet. Not tonight.
I’m not ready to delve into the streets, certainly not by myself. Better to get a sense of things from my new place, find out where I stand now that I’ve returned after so many years trying to leave it behind. From up here I can see the Red Cross Emergency truck, its tents and tables and chairs, stationed where the streetcars usually run. Along the streetcar tracks, tents are lined up for the spectators, as well as ladders with seats attached for kids to sit with a parent standing behind them, and dozens of folding chairs, row after row, and coolers.
No, I can’t join these spectators on the street tonight, not by myself—not yet. Tonight I’ll stay up here, hidden behind my windows—a safe distance for re-entry. But I know that by staying up here I’m missing the real thing, and part of me can’t wait to go down my steps and outdoors into the crowds and mix and dance with all these people of many different backgrounds, all of us celebrating Mardi Gras together.