Tuesday was Fat Tuesday, the culmination of the Mardi Gras celebrations, and I was in Louisiana to witness it. This is flyover country. The town that I am in could best be described as a small big town. It’s obviously a town of importance for the surrounding area but it’s still at heart a small community with a small town vibe. As regards to the architecture and the general condition of the dwellings and businesses, I do not think that I have seen a poorer town of this size outside of Africa. The large businesses and hotels are as spick and span as you would expect them to be, but the houses look as if they were put up only so far as to provide a roof until the next hurricane blows it down.
However, if you judge a town’s wealth by its automobiles then this is possibly one of the wealthiest towns per capita that I have ever seen. Outside the same dilapidated houses are parked pristine and expensive examples of the fruits of American pickup and muscle car production. To drive a crappy car in this town you really have to be at the bottom of the pile. The lowest point is reserved for people who walk because they have no choice in the matter. In this town at least, it appears that you are defined by what you drive. There are a lot of car dealerships.
My arrival in the USA coincided with a final blast of winter air that enveloped almost the entire country. In Louisiana it has been colder than the Netherlands. I hadn’t really prepared for this seeing as I assumed I was heading for a sub-tropical climate, but I managed to scrape together enough layers so as to not freeze to the sidewalk.
The main parade took place just behind my hotel, and my colleague and I walked over to see the sights. I have been to many places and I have seen a great many strange and wondrous things and been a party to equally strange events, but this parade was like nothing that I had experienced before. The road was lined with people sitting on chairs and the tailgates of pickup trucks which had been reversed against the side of the road. It appeared that the road and sidewalk width had been specifically designed for this purpose. We needed some food and a beer to wash it down but after walking for over half an hour we realised that this combination was not going to eventuate. We settled on a burger at a greasy hole in the wall run by characters that would have been tired clichés in a movie set on a bayou.
Back on the street we spotted a takeaway liquor store and my Dutch colleague’s eyes lit up.
“We can grab some beers there and then drink them on the street,” he said.
I laughed at him and then when I saw his confusion I pointed to the crowds that surrounded us, all primed with anticipation at the sound of the arriving parade.
“Do you see anyone here drinking alcohol?” I said, and sure enough after a really looking at what was happening around him my colleague was faced with the awful truth.
In the Netherlands this type of public event would include alcohol as a matter of course, which is due to the fact that the Dutch can handle their drink. And even if they do get drunk it’s a happy and celebratory drunk. I told him that Anglo-Saxons don’t do happy and celebratory drunk. They’re more inclined to partake in angry and punch your face in for looking at me drunk.
So no beer.
We witnessed the first hour of the parade. There were lots of police vehicles filled with what I assume were officers of the law. There was a district attorney vehicle as well with a man whom I presume to be the DA sitting alone at the wheel. Based on the number of advertisements for legal help in the town I presume that he is a very busy man. The rest of a parade consisted of a school band and then a large float. The school bands were of a similar nature, but some were much better or much worse than the others, depending on your point of view. We were at the beginning of the parade but most of the band members already looked rather exhausted. I felt some degree of pity for the tuba players in particular. A man in late middle age standing beside us informed me that the kids had another seven miles to go.
The floats had various themes. A batman float had a large batman figure at the front, a spiderman the same. As far as the theme went that was about it. The rest of the float which consisted of at least two levels, was filled with mostly men dressed in garish costumes who threw various trinkets into the crowd with furious energy. The floats paralysed their immediate surroundings with very loud rock music. The crowd which had been silent and subdued at the passing of the school band then came to life with great enthusiasm. It was a contest to see who could receive the most trinkets. My colleague and I stood in the middle of the tempest in a state of some bemusement. He remarked to me that the people on the float threw large bags onto the street after they had been emptied of their trinket contents. The small children in the crowd then retrieved the bags and filled them back up with the same trinkets thrown from the floats.
After the passing of the float there would be another school band and the crowd would fall silent once more.
We lasted an hour and then wandered back to the hotel. I later discovered that this was one of several parades that day. We walked back through the dilapidated streets as the sounds of mayhem receded behind us. A man was mowing his lawn. His house was in better condition than most. I had a sudden feeling of dislocation that I had not experienced for a long time. Back at the hotel we finally got that much needed beer.