Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Here in the New Orleans area, it’s Fat Tuesday: Mardi Gras. When I was growing up, the news director of WWL television, an imposing gentleman by the name of Phil Johnson, gave editorials on the air. His editorial on Mardi Gras was always the same. He simply stated that the station reserved the right to be serious tomorrow, but that was just not possible on Mardi Gras. Of course, that was before Katrina changed so much.

Today, my wife was one of the unlucky people who actually have to work on Mardi Gras. So my son and I took in the parade in Covington, with its decorated trucks and worn-out floats that were handed down from a third-rate parade of years gone by. The small-town festivities are a far cry from the parades on St. Charles Avenue I have known my whole life. But low key can be good sometimes.

This afternoon, we took Captain Percival (that most noble of Cairn Terriers) to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where people gathered in the informal Mardi Gras celebrations that are as much a part of the day as the parades or the craziness in the French Quarter. Yes, low-key can be good sometimes.

Last night ⎯ Lundi Gras as it’s called around here ⎯ was our real carnival. We drove into New Orleans to catch a couple of the better parades of the season: the old-line Proteus with its beautiful wooden-wheeled floats and the newer “superkrewe” of Orpheus, a star-studded extravaganza with giant floats and the best bands.

Driving into town, we passed through neighborhoods that were hit hard by the storm and the subsequent flood. The water line was still visible on many buildings that were no longer usable or habitable. Spray-painted on the outside of nearly every structure were the signs left behind by the search-and-rescue squads from the National Guard. The symbol they painted on each building consists of a large “X” with information painted into each quadrant, including the date the building was checked out and the unit that was there. On one quadrant of the “X” is entered a digit: the number of dead found inside. Most of the buildings we passed were marked with zeroes, but we saw the occasional “1” and one house with a “5.”

Passing through the devastation, I had to ask myself the same question that so many people have asked: why is New Orleans actually staging Mardi Gras at all this year? Then we got to The Avenue (as we know it locally), and only then did it make sense. The combination of the floats, the bands, the flambeaux, the beads, and the crowds made it impossible not to get lost in another world for just a brief time. It’s a world where hurricanes don’t exist and where autism truly is just a difference and not a daily struggle.

Yes, that world faded somewhat as we drove home through the rubble. But I was comforted by the knowledge that New Orleans is still New Orleans. Mardi Gras is not something we do; it’s who we are.

The fleur-de-lis has been the symbol of New Orleans ever since there was a New Orleans. It now graces various logos and flags noting our region’s determination to rebuild. More than one outlander has noted the similarities in outlines between the fleur-de-lis and a hand with one finger raised in “salute.” Those wags say it symbolizes our telling the world to go to Hell while we go our own unique way. That’s not quite right.

The fleur-de-lis is the representation of a flower. It’s our way of giving you a gift as we invite you to spend some time with us as we shout out in unison: “Laissez les bon temps roulez. Enjoy the way we are different from you.”

Contrary to what some seem to think about me, I am not frightened by differences in people. I celebrate diversity. But different is not always better.

Life in New Orleans is not all crawfish and beads. We had problems with crime and poverty before Katrina. Traditionally, our governments have been as corrupt as any in the United States, and we’ve been too lazy or ignorant to do anything about it all. And now, we wonder if a lack of vision on the part of our leaders will prevent this area from rebuilding. Sometimes being different is good, and sometimes it’s just plain dysfunctional.

Today the difference is good.

Sometime in the next week, I’m going to pick up the conversation where we left off. But not today: today is Mardi Gras.


Blogger Brett said...

Wade, it is good to hear from you today. I was thinking of you (and everyone else) affected by Katrina as I listened to news stories on the radio driving home from work. I think there is something inspiring about people who can celebrate life and good times, even in the worst of times, and it sounds to me like New Orleans has that figured out.

Obviously, there is still a lot that needs to be done down there and my , and my family's, thoughts are with you all.

(On the subject of getting things done, I hear the Mayoral election is coming up in April. Mayor Rankin, maybe? *-)


2/28/06, 6:34 PM  
Blogger mommyguilt said...

Woo Hoo and HAPPY MARDI GRAS! I've heard plenty of stories and people complaining about how can N.O. afford to stage a Mardi Gras celebration when they have not yet redeveloped and they are not letting people come "home" unless they have employment lined up.

Well tough. Today is Mardi Gras. It is a day to forget, it is a day to remember. It is a day for New Orleans to celebrate that it IS still standing, that the people ARE coming back and that life WILL go on.

Celebrate today! Tomorrow will still be there when you wake up.

2/28/06, 7:57 PM  
Blogger kristina said...

I was waiting for you to post on Mardi Gras: Your evocation of joy and celebration amid devastation and ruin, and the signs with the fleur-de-lis everywhere, make this not just any Tuesday for all of us, wherever we are.

Vive la différence!

2/28/06, 9:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo! Well said, and a truly noble thesis. You never wrote so movingly, or so cogently, in those long-ago days at LSU, Slim. :-) I do wish you had provided a bit more info about Cap'n Percy's Mardi Gras experiences. He's a lad of keen insight and great depth, and it could only have been instructive. --kazlo

2/28/06, 11:32 PM  
Blogger María Luján said...

Hi Wade
I am glad that you maintain a healthy spirit of enjoyment of life with your family.

Even long long away I think in New Orleans people and I hope they ( and you) can find the strength and all the resources to do what is needed to be done, that I know is a lot.

I wish you have had very good moments with your family last week.

María Luján

3/4/06, 6:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Wade,
During college I marched in the band. I didn't play an instrument; I was one of those girls twirling a flag. Some of my favorite college memories are of Mardi Gras. Our university marched in many of the parades down there. I fell in love with New Orleans during those days. I still have a Hurricane glass full of Mardi Gras beads to remind me of that time. I haven't been back since. I felt a funny mix of excitement and relief when I heard Mardi Gras was happening. Your post truly warmed my heart. Thanks.

3/9/06, 4:47 PM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

Thanks for the smile, Linda. My wife in her younger days, twirled a flag (and later a saber) in a New Orleans-based drum corps. So I have definitely learned to consider those folks a "real" part of the band.

By all accounts, the bands, as well as the float riders, had the best time ever this year because the crowds were even more appreciative than ever.

3/9/06, 8:04 PM  

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