A few words from a Mardi Gras without Mardi Gras

Today is Mardi Gras, and I happen to be in New Orleans, so I wrote a few words about my favorite day of the year in any year but this one. A million worse things have happened in the past 11 months than a day of canceled parades; still, I can’t help but miss the magic of this day and all of Carnival season.

The weather on Mardi Gras never makes any sense. When it’s late, it’s cold. When it’s early, it’s hot. I’ve frozen under five layers of sweatshirt in March and gotten a sunburn in February. The Carnival gods have a sick sense of humor. They drench us when we least expect it and leave us sweat-stained and out of beer on days we thought it’d rain.

And they know we’ll come anyways. We came anyways, at least—until we didn’t. Until this year. Until the 12th month of this never-ending pandemic, when it feels like forever since the world shut down, since we were all innocent enough to imagine this would never cancel Mardi Gras.

But weather. I was talking about weather. And today, the day of the Mardi Gras that wasn’t, it was cold. Wrap-your-palm-trees-in-plastic, flowers-wilting-against-wrought-iron-so-frigid-it-stings, stuff-your-hands-in-your-pockets cold. I’m in New Orleans, passing through with my boyfriend on our long drive to spring training, and for the first time in my life, I almost wish I weren’t here.

I come to Mardi Gras every year. I have family here, shallow roots, I guess. Last winter, I was between jobs and lived here, camping out in a spare bedroom in my family’s house. I was lost, totally unmoored without the job that had been my identity for more than five years. And New Orleans brought me back. Mardi Gras made me forget I was supposed to worry.

I did it—the whole month-long, stumbling sprint—for the first time properly. I found glitter in my hair for weeks. Bits of streamers were permanently shellacked to the soles of my shoes.  My neck ached from too many beads over too many days.

I glued sequins and feathers to a denim jacket, jewels to heart-shaped sunglasses, and I let myself breathe. I danced in the street and smiled at strange men on floats in exchange for a plastic cup, a stuffed animal, a hat tossed my way. It’s trash, all of it. But it’s also a moment of being seen, of seeing, of making eye contact and acknowledging a world beyond each of our very narrow ones.

Today, I worked. I missed the sound of the truck parades, which line up on the street outside my window at the break of dawn every Mardi Gras and serve as my alarm. I hate truck parades. They’re the backbeat of my hangover headaches. But as I walked across the street for coffee this morning and shivered against the wind, I wished they were there. I told myself it wasn’t too cold for parades, that in an alternate universe I’d still be out there for Zulu and Rex in full costume.

This afternoon, I went for a walk, up Audubon Blvd. to St. Charles Ave. These street names don’t mean anything to you if you don’t know much about New Orleans, but think of them this way: They look like New Orleans. Prehistoric live oaks, mansions painted every shade of the rainbow, Spanish moss, jasmine buds a month from flowering. It’s improbably beautiful and a little bit haunted.

I spiked a hot chocolate and took it in, and it looked a lot like any other day. There were decorations, sure, and Carnival colors, but the streetcar was running down tracks that should’ve been clogged with college kids and toddlers, ladders and coolers, grandparents who’ve camped out on the same patch of mud for a generation.

I wonder how it’d have felt if it had been something other than Arctic, 60 or 70 and sunny. Would there have been front-porch parties, friends sitting around coolers in Audubon Park? Would that have felt better… or a whole lot worse? Would it have mattered at all?

If Mardi Gras had been anything but impossible, if it had been at all safe, I’d have been there. I’d have worn my winter coat and cracked a beer, watched the day work its magic. Because that’s what we do. We show up anyways, in mittens in hats—or rubber boots and ponchos, or slathered in ten tons of sunblock. If our glitter streams down our faces, so what? If it’s too hot for a wig, no worries. We fold ourselves together along St. Charles, jumping for beads we’ll recycle in a week. We shimmy through the tangled crowd, edging too close to a slow-moving tractor whose speakers are thumping bounce, all for a chance to trade a beer for a painted coconut.

I’m glad I was here today, to see floats stashed like shipwrecked boats in driveways and parking lots, to wish a marching band would drown out the silence and distract me from the cold. But as I walked, I didn’t want to go home. I looked around, and there were other people doing what I was: walking in pairs, in purple and green and gold. We were looking for something we knew wasn’t there: a world where junk is priceless, where strangers are old friends and accountants are court jesters, where nothing is what it seems, what it was, what it will be again soon. Parades are canceled, and tomorrow is Wednesday, but today is still Mardi Gras.