When I was a kid, our Mardi Gras started at Grandma Lit’s house. She lived on South Rocheblave Street and MLK Boulevard, right across from the Calliope public-housing project.
That’s my childhood. While there is a common thread, a festive air, that connects the entire city on Mardi Gras Day, it isn’t a monolithic day, where the same thing happens all over the city. St. Charles Avenue has more families with kids; the French Quarter and Marigny are more adult-oriented. Two intersections, Second & Dryades and Orleans & Claiborne are the soulful sectors, that’s where you go to see Mardi Gras Indians.
For us, Mardi Gras meant walking. My mother learned to drive when I was about 5 years old, but her two sisters, Aunt Carolyn and Aunt Brenda, never learned. One car couldn’t hold all of us. So every year, the three sisters and their 10 children would trek from my grandma’s corner to the parade route, at St. Charles and Jackson Avenues.
It was a mile-and-a-half journey. But if anyone would have told us that it was anything short of 10 miles, we would have thought they were crazy. We were proud to walk such a long distance. The excitement of getting to the parades made our legs forget how hard they were working.
We all took pride in knowing that the city had an all-Black Carnival krewe, the Zulus.
But on Mardi Gras, the Zulus rolled at about 8 o’clock in the morning. The rest of the year, my siblings and I barely made it to our elementary school by that time, and it was only four blocks away. It was expecting too much to believe our family could make it to St. Charles Ave. that early in the morning.
Plus, when the Zulus began to roll on Jackson Avenue on Mardi Gras Day, Aunt Carolyn and Aunt Brenda were busy, boiling hot dogs and frying hamburgers on a small white stove, the same one where grandma’s aluminum coffee pot was always standing at attention and ready for service.
After my family arrived, my mom would help with the ham and tuna-fish sandwiches. This preparation required a certain skill. The edges had to be neatly cut off the bread, and the sandwiches had to be cut in four perfect triangles. If you host Black people in New Orleans at any kind of party, this is how your sandwiches need to be.
But food preparation took time. As kids, it was painful to wait. We felt like we were missing all the fun.
We weren’t worried about seeing Rex, the krewe that parades after Zulu. In the eyes of a 10-year-old, that was boring. A couple of times, when we made it to St. Charles Ave and caught the tail-end of Rex, we wanted them to hurry and get out of the way.
As soon as Rex ended, the truck parade started. For us, it was the most important parade in Mardi Gras. It had more floats than any of the other parades. To make things even better for a kid, there were few marching bands, and you didn’t have to waste time watching faux kings and queens and the rest of their court, who didn’t have anything to throw except a bead or two.
The truck parade was one float after another with a seemingly unlimited bounty of throws. That was the Mardi Gras fun we didn’t want to miss.
When I was young, I wondered why Rex and other krewes didn’t wise up and run their operation like the trucks. As an adult, the truck parade is the part of Mardi Gras I’m least interested in.
Grandma’s house was back-a-town, the proverbial place where Louie Armstrong claimed to have some women. The designation is a double entendre with a literal meaning and a figurative one.
New Orleans was built in relation to the river. So the first meaning is logical: the neighborhoods within blocks of the river are designated as front-a-town, and neighborhoods away from the river are back-a-town.
The figurative meaning is obvious. Back-a-town is the home of the marginalized. Every town has one. High school dropouts struggling with unemployment and food stamps. There, churches and barrooms are opposite sides of the same coin, aiding and abetting people in search of solutions for their lives.
Back-a-town is where all the ill niggas live, the gun slingers and the dope dealers. They are the ones paraded across the TV screens with braids tucked beneath nylon stockings, and shiny gold teeth belying the anger that rage in their eyes.
Back-a-town is always alive. It’s ugly, and it’s beautiful too. There are committed alchemists who relentlessly work to make a dollar out of 15 cents, a ghetto science that is also able to combine scraps to make beauty. You see it in the magnificent suits of the Mardi Gras Indians, you feel it in a jazz funeral, and you hear it in a gospel song. The genesis of jazz, blues, rock’n’roll and rap is back-a-town.
Unfortunately – but understandably – scarcity fuels anger in back-a-town. But in New Orleans, on Mardi Gras Day, even back-a-town niggas ain’t mad. It’s a day of forgetting one’s problems, and relishing in the beauty of being alive.
From the other side of Martin Luther King, we knew there was constant activity in the Calliope project, which ran from Broad all the way to South Claiborne.
On Mardi Gras Day, it was always a little extra. It was quintessential back-a-town, at its best. Some families would have barbeque grills and big speakers on the porches, with music so loud, you could probably hear it from a mile away. We loved it. Everywhere you looked, people were dancing and someone was greeting you with a “Happy Mardi Gras.”
The downriver side of Canal Street was downtown, and the upriver side was uptown. In addition to being located back-a-town, Grandma’s house was uptown too.
Her block had more than its share of churches. Pure Light Baptist, where Grandma went, was a block away, down Martin Luther King Boulevard. But as soon as we stepped out of Grandma’s house, we had to walk past two other churches located at the corner, across the street from each other. They seem to stand there like Christian sentries, demanding that anyone traveling down South Rocheblave be washed in the blood of Jesus.
Making Our Way to St. Charles
After a few hours, the adults would be ready to pack the wagons and backpacks with all the sandwiches and snacks including candy apples and pralines. Grandma would tell us goodbye as we took off, with what seemed like enough food to feed the entire project.
We would walk fast. But stops were inevitable. We couldn’t go anywhere without my mom and aunts running into old friends. On our walk to St. Charles, we would all have to stop, so they could explain who belonged to who. Deedy, Charles, Chucky, James and Tyrone were my mother Gail’s children. Paula, Paul, Brandy and Brandon, were Aunty Brenda’s. Shoney was Aunt Carolyn’s only child.
Mom and Aunt Brenda both had twins. Charles and I shared the same birthday and so did Brandy and Brandon.
As we walked, Charles and I were always ready, sometimes willingly and other times not, to do the heavy lifting. Mom and my two aunts would herd us to our annual parade destination. I can still hear the commands they told us along the way. “Don’t run. Hold your cousin’s hand,” they’d say. “Help me get the baby’s stroller over the curb. When we get to the next block, you can pee behind the tree. We don’t have much further; we can eat once we get to St. Charles.”
When we got to St. Charles Ave., we would find an open space and stake out a spot for our base camp. Once a couple folding chairs were open and the food came out, it was on. We could spread our wings and roam a little. We’d return to the home base whenever we were hungry or needed to stash all the stuff we caught.
The main street would be closed to traffic and packed with people. The smell of hot dogs, cotton candy and horse manure permeated the air. Always within earshot was a constant stream of Mardi Gras music, the same songs we heard every year. Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” and Professor Longhair’s “Go to The Mardi Gras” were always in heavy rotation.
We would figure out how to squeeze our way to the front of the parade and scream our heads off, while the big trucks honked their horns. It’s a beautiful cacophony of Carnival. We yelled the same thing my mom and aunts probably yelled when they were kids, “Hey Mister, throw me something.”
There were beads, balls, arrows, hatchets, hats, stuffed animals, and all kinds of other trinkets thrown in every direction. Sometimes floats would pass and we wouldn’t get anything; other times we made out like bandits.
On occasion, I would find a group of white kids posted up on ladders who were getting a lot of action. I would stand right next to them. If someone on a float was throwing in their direction, I would do my best imitation of Pittsburgh wide-receiver Lynn Swann and snatch it out of the air. This is the sort of thing that could cause drama. I have seen it escalate into arguments and fights. Luckily for me, I only got ugly looks.
Most parade-goers seemed happy and expressed that. But the days weren’t perfect. The ugliness of race and class hung out on Mardi Gras with the rest of us.
There were times when we all felt as if the white people on some of the floats were intentionally trying to snub us. To make matters worse, some of them look like the Klan in their krewe regalia, especially the ones on horseback.
Though I never witnessed the Zulu parade as a child, I must confess that they had expanded to mythical proportions in my young mind. If I ever felt slighted by white krewes, if I felt as if some of them threw their wares to white kids and deliberately tried to exclude me, I knew without a doubt that would never happen at a Zulu parade.
Now, I wonder whether some of the occasional bad energy came from the people venerated near that intersection.
I didn’t know about those people at the time. When my family set up on the corner St. Charles and Jackson Avenues, I didn’t know who Andrew Jackson was. I didn’t know that he had perpetrated both the “Trail of Tears”, a crime inflicted on indigenous Americans, and the bombing of Fort Freedom in Florida, a crime inflicted on an enclave of escaped slaves.
To make matters worse, a half a mile from our base camp on St. Charles, there was a statue of Robert E. Lee, on the highest pedestal in New Orleans. It was called Lee Circle. As a 10-year-old I didn’t know who Robert E. Lee was, but in time I learned he was a general who fought to keep slavery.
I’m happy to report that Robert E. Lee ain’t there no more.
But even when General Lee still stood atop his pedestal, he couldn’t put a dent in the best parts of Mardi Gras Day on St. Charles Avenue, which had to be born in the glorious dream of an insatiable 10-year-old boy.
By the time the parades were over, the food was gone. Our backpacks and wagons were now full of beads and other trinkets. The adrenaline that helped to get us to St. Charles had dissipated and we were taxed.
The walk back to Grandma’s house was grueling. Sometimes it felt as if we would never make it home; I was sure that, when we did, we would lie down and rest. This thinking lasted until we hit the front door. Once we opened the bags and looked at all the stuff we’d caught, the excitement was back.
While we were on the parade route screaming our heads off, I imagined Grandma sitting at the kitchen table smoking a Pall Mall and drinking a cup of CDM coffee in perfect peace and quiet.
Then, her little army of popcorn-munchers would appear at the door, a little dirtier, but a lot louder than when we left. Just like that, her peace was gone.
For the next week or two, my four siblings and I would recreate the parades in the one bedroom we shared.
One of us would get on the top bunk and act as if we were the King of Mardi Gras. Charles had a lot to say about who played that role because the top bunk belonged to him.
Most days our cousins and friends were there. We lived across the street from Harrell Park and our door was always open. We would all be on the floor yelling, “Hey, Mister, throw me something.”
Whoever was on the top bunk would start throwing shit all over the house. Those of us on the floor would push and shove to get better positioning. We played even rougher when it was just me and my four siblings. Deedy was a girl but she could hold her own.
After our parade reenactments were over, Mom always came through and told us it was time to clean up. In the real-life parades, we didn’t have to clean up. The city did that for us.
What Changes, What Stays the Same
The Calliope project is no longer there, it has been replaced with nice-looking apartments.
But there is still great excitement on MLK Blvd, with a procession of people walking to and from the parades. The smell of hotdogs, cotton candy and horse manure still permeate the air. The big trucks still honk their horns. Jackson Ave still runs through one of the blackest neighborhoods in the city. And “Hey Mister, throw me something” is still screamed from snaggled tooth faces.
Looking back, I recognize that the culture is malleable. Some things have changed while others have remained the same.
A few songs have been added to the Mardi Gras playlist, including Knock with Me by the Lil Rascals featuring Glen David Andrews, but Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and Professor Longhair are still heard everywhere.
In my 58 years, I have never worn a costume on Mardi Gras Day. But many of my white friends and some black ones too, spend months working on their costumes. I have been to people’s houses that have one room dedicated to what they have worn and will wear on Mardi Gras Day.
These days, there are all-women parades and several walking parades in the Faubourg Marigny and French Quarter. The walking parades are currently my favorites. They would have been a dumb waste of time to 10-year-old Chuck Perkins.
Chuck Perkins is a New Orleans poet and writer.