I assured my wife that, COVID-19 or no, our two-year-old son would see some semblance of Carnival on Fat Tuesday.
The most obvious evidence that I was right came from the Krewe of House Floats.
“The Krewe has been decorating their House Floats for weeks, thousands have sent in their addresses and House Float photos to be included on the Official Krewe of House Floats Map, and even more have been asking ‘where are all these fabulous House Floats located’”
the group posted on its website.
Sure enough, along certain blocks of Prytania Street, St. Charles Avenue and Carrollton Avenue, traffic slowed as drivers paused to see the splendid decorations. Bell Street in Esplanade Ridge became a “must see” destination, perhaps for the first time in its history.
News reports from Haiti and Brazil made plain that, despite government edicts to the contrary, the people in those places would not be denied their festival.
Often, it seems we have a lot more in common with those “foreigners” to the south of New Orleans than we do with our fellow Americans to the north. The very existence of Carnival as an official holiday on the Crescent City calendar helps to prove my point.
On the Saturday before Carnival Day, at least one house float on Prytania Street was throwing beads, much as a moving float would do during a parade. There were scattered people in costume walking with open containers and, while they weren’t numerous, neither were they scarce. On the Napoleon Avenue neutral ground, near Magazine Street, a small gathering of folks, some in costume, all with beverages that I surmised were intoxicating, were having what looked like a Mardi Gras party.
Though this pre-Tuesday activity was a muted preamble compared to our usual, it did seem to portend at least a small celebration to come.
Alas, it did not.
Driving uptown and down, Mid City to Central City, I saw a few people in costume but little else to suggest that a holy day was upon us. The programmers on WWOZ provided a great sound-track for the day, but little else indicated it was Carnival.
Friends of mine who knew where to go and when to be there, saw a few Mardi Gras Indians come out. Other people hosted small house parties similar to what they might have had in a more normal year. The appearance of a Mardi Gras Indian suit in the place where previously stood a monument to the Confederacy was just about as good as any Carnival could get.
But for the most part, the city didn’t feel like Mardi Gras, and, to me, that’s a problem.
The problem is not that Mayor LaToya Cantrell cancelled the official Carnival. That was wise. The ravages and potential ravages of COVID-19 were more than ample justification for her decision. The problem is that the city leadership did not devise COVID-friendly alternatives that would allow New Orleanians to share our special day safely and express our joy in some of the many cultural languages native to this place.
With relative ease, the city could have convened a small council of Carnival organizations — Indians, parading krewes, marching clubs, musicians — and brainstormed ways to celebrate. A few obvious possibilities come readily to mind.
Like many New Orleanians, my mother turned on her television Mardi Gras morning, looking for television coverage of the city’s big day. The city could have done a lot this year to air such programming on public access television.
Some performance venues have already been streaming live concerts during the pandemic. It would have been fun to watch a day of Carnival-themed performances by New Orleans musicians.
Mardi Gras Indians prepare all year for the debut of their annual suits. It’s a shame that much of that work went unseen this year. Instead of parading through the city’s streets, as they usually do, this year Mardi Indians also could have been invited to display their work on a television program created for that purpose.
For those of us who lack the skill or dedication of the sewing Indians, we could still have broadcast images of the best of the best Carnival costumes, perhaps highlighting those with a COVID theme.
For a couple of years when my sister and I were kids, we joined several families on a one-truck float parade route, winding through the city playing Carnival music and throwing beads. Each and every time I hear “Carnival Time,” or “Mardi Gras Mambo,” I’m transported to those early mornings of waking up before the sun to get positioned on that float. Why couldn’t we have a half dozen or so vans driving slowly through the city just playing Carnival music? Even homebound folks could enjoy a few minutes of that aural celebration.
Unlike other cities, New Orleans has several official dishes. Fat Tuesday would have been a great day to hire local chefs or catering companies to prepare red beans and rice to be delivered to the homeless and the elderly.
Given the fact that Regional Transit Authority buses traverse the city day and night, why couldn’t we hire artists to decorate them for the Carnival season, much in the way artists were engaged to decorate the celebrated house floats?
For me, the most important thing about the house floats was the extent to which they brought Carnival back to the neighborhoods that have been neglected in the years since parade routes have been standardized and smaller krewes have become less and less prominent. If the house float movement was expanded, the sense that Carnival is a city-wide celebration would be even further strengthened.
I don’t make these points to highlight our missed opportunity. City officials, civic organization and private citizens have so much pandemic-related work to do that it’s not surprising they didn’t rally in time to create a more robust approach to a Covid-safe Carnival.
I make these points now because I think these ideas would have value in future years, even those not ravaged by the twin disasters of frigid temperatures and Covid precautions. There is much we can do to broaden and deepen our Carnival celebration in ways that would enhance the experience for New Orleanians.
With roughly a year to plan, there’s no reason we can’t implement some fresh ideas for Carnival 2022.
Lolis Eric Elie is a New Orleans born, Los Angeles-based writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, and food historian best known for his work as story editor of the HBO drama Treme and story editor of AMC’s Hell on Wheels. He is a former columnist for The Times-Picayune and a contributing writer to The Oxford American. His work has appeared in Gourmet, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bon Appetit, Downbeat and The San Francisco Chronicle. Lolis is the author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country and co-producer and writer of Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue, a documentary based on his book. He is editor of Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing. He is a member of The Lens’ Board of Directors.
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