An unforgettable Mardi Gras

| March 23, 2011

By Carolyn Gaeta McLean
Special to The Voice-Tribune

Mardi Gras has long combined wild street activities open to everyone with events organized by private clubs known as krewes. For a Mardi Gras virgin like me, I had to familiarize myself pronto because I was just about to cross this adventure off my bucket list.

The owners of LDG Development, a Louisville-based company building upscale, mixed-income housing in Louisiana were Mardi Gras bound and invited me as their guest. I have always wanted to go, but I had a  bit of trepidation every time the news showed pictures of the drunken mob on Bourbon Street. And then my host said a few magical words: “You will join my Louisville staffers on a luxurious float and it will be the opportunity of a lifetime.” Of course, he had me at “float.”

The Krewe of Orpheus Parade happens on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday). It was founded by Harry Connick Jr. in 1993 and has become a local favorite. This year there were two dozen floats, more than 1,000 riders and several celebrities riding along with me.

Carolyn Gaeta McLean with actor Jonathan Silverman.

Carolyn Gaeta McLean with actor Jonathan Silverman.

I met actor Jonathan Silverman right after a press conference. He was doing a live radio interview, and I sneaked in a quick picture.

The day before that, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pitched me a pair of beads as he and Kelly Ripa were the grand marshals of a different parade called, Krewe of Endymion.

My favorite celebrity encounter was brunch the next morning at Arnaud’s, a famous restaurant in the heart of the French Quarter. Actor Andy Garcia sat right next to my table. My Italian blood was oozing with excitement only to find out Garcia is Cuban not Italian. Oh well, I still adore him in The Godfather Part III.

Aside from the celebrity drop-ins at Derby time, New Orleans is reminiscent of Louisville. The city is charming and permeates fun and friendly people proud of their heritage. They reach out to visitors who want to experience their culture. Some of them even refuse tips explaining they are thankful to you for spending money in their city. I find it refreshing to hear that more than a million people attended Mardi Gras making 2011 the largest crowd since Hurricane Katrina.

Dressed and ready to board the float.

Dressed and ready to board the float.

With a Bloody Mary and a shot of stamina, it was time to board our float named “The Land of Dreams.” Dressers helped get us in our funky costumes, and our float Lieutenant Mark Fouchi told us, “Once the parade begins please do not remove your mask. It’s code around here.”

“The Land of Dreams” float.

“The Land of Dreams” float.

The float was enormous, brightly decorated and a work of visual artistry. Designers even build mini-bathrooms, which I’m told is an upgrade from year’s past of going in buckets. I should mention the parade route is five hours long and most riders are drinking heavily.

The beads. I know what you’re thinking. I am here to tell you that I only saw two women bare their breasts. Necklaces are plentiful, and there’s no incentive to lift your shirt for anything.

As local David Miller put it, “That’s media hype. That’s a small fraction of tourists who want to say they did it. Locals rarely flash.”

One of the many floats in the parade.

One of the many floats in the parade.

What I did learn from the locals is that if they don’t like what you throw, they will throw it right back. I got pelted a few times. Perhaps the absolute best part of bead throwing is picking an enthusiastic child, pointing to him and throwing something extra special like a tambourine with glowing lights.

The happiness is contagious, and you find yourself feeling like a kid again. This feeling is my favorite memory of Mardi Gras, and I hoped to recreate it as I handed my own children their beads when I returned. After all, there’s no place like home.

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