My neighbors educated me about Carnival season yesterday. There’s Krewe du Vieux, Krewe of Muses, Krewe of Hermes, the Bacchus parade, Krewe of Rex, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and then I lost track. My neighbors rattled off these names like a koan, listing krewes and traditions and marches and floats, each carrying its own mythology, pedigree, and protocol. It seems like everybody in New Orleans has an advanced degree in parades except for me. This information is encoded in the city’s residents somehow and I wonder if I will ever become fluent.
Here’s a definition: a krewe is an organization that puts on a parade for the Carnival season. The term was coined in 1856 by a secret society called Ye Mistick Krewe of Comus, named for the Lord of Misrule in John Milton’s 1634 pageant, Comus. Inspired by an 1830s parade group in Alabama called the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, the Mystik Krewe of Comus began observing Mardis Gras in New Orleans with processions of floats based on obscure themes such as “Serpent Deities of the Ancient Near East.” Today, there are hundreds of krewes. Members pay anywhere between $20 and $2000 to support their parade, and each member is usually responsible for buying his own “throws,” the trinkets thrown to parade spectators.
Last night was Krewe du Vieux, which is the first proper parade of the Carnival season. A loose confederation of krewes pool their resources to cover expenses and build elaborate floats on wagons and trailers. The floats and costumes are a mixture of sex, politics, and groaner puns (e.g., Do Ass Do Tail, Dripileaks, Crude Lubes New Oilands, and Sarah Palin mushing Gov. Bobby Jindal in the Idiot-A-Rod). The parade rolled through my neighborhood towards the Quarter, and the marching bands blew and stomped like crazy and everybody was rocking, arms outstretched for flying beads and plastic cups and trinkets. It was gorgeous chaos.
I saw a horse go pee for the first time and it was very loud. Somebody threw a tea bag at me. A lady frisked me with a glo-stick and handed me a condom with a joke about airport screenings printed on the wrapper. Another woman in a pink wig shoved a plastic whistle in my mouth and told me to pucker up and blow. I did. Krewe du Vieux taught me about the strange heat of crowds and the barriers that crumble when everybody crams together in the streets to play dress-up with a backbeat. Krewe du Vieux also reminded me that I’m a square. I’m self-conscious. I can’t imagine dropping my guard and jumping into the fray, let alone wearing a costume and whooping and dancing. But maybe this city will teach me how.