It's Carnival Time!!!! 5:57 p.m. 2003-02-24

From my Husband:

This is an article published in the New York Times about New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions. Since you're familiar with those traditions, you might wonder, "what's the big deal"? but I want to remind you that to an outsider(such as I was a mere four years ago)these rituals and behaviors are quite strange. So you might learn something about your own situation if you read about it from the perspective of someone who's explaining it to folks ignorant of the whole Mardi Gras thing.

Plus it's an entertaining read.

(I am way too whooped to write anything witty or coherent right now, so I will let this article speak for me tonight!)

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The New York Times

February 24, 2003

At Mardi Gras, a Catch and Fleeting Ecstasy

By RICK BRAGG

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 23 Few things go so quickly from trinkets to treasure to trash.

The beads, made from cheap plastic and cotton thread in Chinese factories, begin to appreciate as the first of the Carnival parades lumbers through New Orleans, as the crowds begin to swell along St. Charles Avenue in the area known as Uptown. Anticipation grows as the big ornate floats creep closer, until the cheap plastic is no longer cheap plastic, but an exotic thing that cannot be bought at any price, only bestowed, granted, won.

Then, after the marching band has high-stepped past, playing good music from dented tubas, the masked riders on the floats are finally right there, looking down on the begging crowds, treasures dangling from their hands. They lift them up, take aim not very good aim, because liquor is often involved and let them fly.

"Like catching a $20 bill," said Buddy Robichaux, who is 70 years old and has seen this phenomenon unfold all his life.

Grown men go goofy with bead lust and outleap grandmothers and small children. Stockbrokers scale wobbling ladders with beers and butterfly nets and flail at the plastic downpour. The inattentive, or most drunk, get socked in the head with imitation pearls.

As the parades leave the more residential Uptown route and ease into the more raunchy atmosphere closer to the French Quarter, tourists in ridiculous hats and high-intensity hangovers press against police barricades, and young women barter views of their naked breasts for a trinket that has all the lasting value of a campaign promise or a day-old doughnut.

"What's more exciting than shiny round objects when you're trashed?" said Greg Smith, a college student who has divined one of the many secrets of the bead.

Yet as soon as the grasping fingers close around the beads, they begin to depreciate. Some people give them away as soon as they get them, while others pile on strand after strand till they look like a dime store potentate. But the magic, the glow, has already begun to blink and fade.

A few people will hang them from rear-view mirrors, like the tassel from a graduation cap. Other beads, snagged by the lower branches of live oak trees, will dangle well into the stultifying heat of summer, purple, green and gold fading almost white. But most will simply vanish, stuffed into attics and garages, relics from an old party in a city always looking ahead to the new one.

The bead, say historians and sociologists, is just a tiny part of Carnival, but for as long as most people here can recall, the catching of beads has been tangible proof of the party, not only for tourists and young people but also for the grown-up residents who are not at all bashful about shouting, "Throw me something, mister."

Some people say it is simple competition, others say validation that being recognized and thrown a strand of beads from the floats is a fleetingly warm kind of personal connection while others just want to show off by adorning themselves with so many ridiculous beads that they almost asphyxiate themselves.

"There's this animal urge to compete for them," said Analisa Cisneros, who works in advertising and accounting and has lived here for nine years. "Then of course you stick them in your car trunk, and they just sit there."

Colin Poweska, who teaches defense tactics to law enforcement officers here, once watched a woman leap over a police barricade to scoop up a strand of beads, tearing a $3,000 party dress and sprawling into the path of a parade. "I helped her back so she didn't get hit by a float," he said. "I told her, `Your dress is torn,' and she looked at me like I was crazy. `Of course my dress is torn,' she told me. `I had to get those beads.' "

The beads are not, at least here in New Orleans, synonymous with nudity. On the Uptown routes a parade is a family outing where flashing is usually uncommon. But in the French Quarter, where many tourists believe it is Mardi Gras (March 4 this year) all the time, flashing is a undeniable part of the celebration and has been for decades, just another manifestation of beadmania.

The beads took hold of Natasha Fernandez on a balcony on Bourbon Street.There were so many people and it was my very first Mardi Gras and it was absolutely crazy," said Ms. Fernandez, a college student here. "Everyone was throwing beads and there were just so many of them and they're so pretty. You want them all, they're so sparkly and fun. I decided after a long time of thinking about it that I would just do it. I flashed. And all of a sudden I was just bombarded with beads and it was so amazing because there is nothing like the thrill of flashing and having people enjoy it so much that they reward you with these little plastic things."

Older residents recall what a joy it was to snare a lovely strand of glass beads in the 1920's, when such things now called "throws" were more elegant, but much less a part of the celebration. Now, riders on a parade float might spend as much as $1,000 per person on beads, and millions of beads will be thrown in a single day of parades.

The average float rider will spend around $500 for throws, said Dom Carlone, who owns Accent Annex, which supplies beads to parading organizations across Texas, Louisiana and the Southeast. But the float riders, too, can be sucked in. "I've had people spend $4,500 on beads," he said.

The Krewe of Bacchus, which includes many doctors, lawyers and businessmen, has more than 1,000 members and will spend more than $1 million on throws, said Mr. Robichaux, who has been in Bacchus for 30 years.

"There's no sanity to it," Mr. Robichaux said. "The mystique of catching a bead? It cannot be described." It can only be felt. Then, he said, it all becomes clear.

James S. Eiseman, vice president for student affairs at Loyola University here, and a former professor who specialized in popular culture, said: "I do it. I do. I go to 15 parades. I have been called parade trash, a parade slut. I don't want the beads. I give them all away. I just love to catch them."

He thinks it may have something to do with that fleeting contact. She threw me a bead," he said of one parade past, and a woman who singled him out for a throw. "So I must be somebody."

Tony Ladd, a sociologist at Loyola, said the beadmania is a modern-day version of Marie Antoinette's infamous words "Let them eat cake."

"Traditional Mardi Gras, old-line Mardi Gras, is, for me, very much a set of class rituals, that reinforce the status and prominence of the city's social register over and above the common folk and the working class. When people of different social classes exchange gifts it confers more status on the giver than the receiver.

"That's my jaded and cynical take on observing the rituals of the bead toss," he said, laughing.

Ron Ragki, who has ridden in parades of the Endymion Krewe for 14 years, says it is the connection with the people on the ground, more than the beads he throws, that matters. The time he most wanted to throw something, to an old woman in a wheelchair, he was out of beads. So he blew her a kiss, and she blew one back.

"I personally get a little depressed when it's over," he said of the parades, of the exchange of beads, and more. "All that joy and high goes away. I try to go to different parades but it's hard to go from emotional power to emotional dependency. You're king for the night when you're a rider, but once you're on the street, you're just the ordinary guy again who wants stuff."

The most prestigious throw at Carnival is not a bead at all, but a coconut, a real coconut, brightly painted and decorated, handed down from the floats by riders in the predominantly black krewe Zulu. The coconuts used to be thrown, like beads, but people were prone to miss. The outcome was, at times, unfortunate.

For many people, the cheap plastic bead is synonymous not only with Carnival, but New Orleans itself. The T-shirt shops sell fancy beads with alligators and shrimp and even little breasts on them, but locals sneer at that.

Only a sucker buys beads, they say. To wear them, to deserve to wear them, you have to catch them.

"I give them to my wife," said Gerald Landry, 57. "It makes me feel nice."

Like cut flowers, they will last only a little while but long enough.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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