I haven’t been to any of the bacchanalian events leading up to Ash Wednesday that go on in New Orleans from 12th Night until the start of Lent.
So, being on a budget – and wanting a taste of that fun and some cajun and creole food – last weekend best fest buddy Tom and I headed to St. Louis for its version of the feast before the abstinence.
While St. Louis has its Louisiana Purchase history, its Mardi Gras-related celebrations date back to five friends who gathered in a space that would eventually become a bar in Soulard – the French Quarter of St. Louis – in 1980. The story goes the quintet meandered over to McGurk’s – the area’s Irish bar – and wound up getting kicked out. Somehow this merriment led to a full-blown parade and street party.
According to Mack Bradley, president of St. Louis’ Mardis Gras Foundation, a series of warm Fat Tuesdays in the mid-1990s kicked the festivities up a notch or two, turning the Saturday-before-Fat-Tuesday Grand Parade and the party in Soulard into a regional event which now offers six weeks worth of revelry and 14 sanctioned events.
In 1999, the organization behind the St. Louis Mardi Gras incorporated, and these days the parade draws in the six figures. For one day, Soulard turns into a version of what Wrigleyville might look like if hell freezes over and the Cubs finally win the World Series.
And last Saturday, it was Polar Vortex-like cold down in St. Louis, too.
Despite this, when given a chance to ride on one of the 100 or so floats (a surprise we learned about Saturday morning by phone from Bradley), we jumped at the opportunity. Actually, I sort of ambled over to the parade route, having had about four too many hurricanes the night before at Molly’s in Soulard.
I do remember the pleasant waitress making the drinks strong and a bargain at $5. There was an amiable, very pale, well-dressed, elderly man working as an attendant in the men’s bathroom, too. That seemed voodoo-like to me. I tipped him $5, just to be on the good side of the spirits – even though I don’t use cologne.
Anyway, the Valentine-themed Mardi Gras parade started by Busch Stadium, where we met up with Bradley, who had been up and working the event since 5 or so. Resplendent in his top hat, he directed us to a float made up to look like a travelling version of the St. Louis skyline.
The vessel came equipped with its own port-o-john, beverages, and beads placed on hooks, ready for the throwing.
Tom was born in New Orleans, so he almost instinctively wants to lift his shirt anytime he sees beads. So this was a big test for him. Helping keep him focused was that he was taking photos, throwing beads, and scoping the crowd for woman who actually would be showing off what God gave them, for who knows why.
It was those things, the cold, or being scarred by seeing a man and woman on another float, each apparently dressed as a singular, clothed-in-red breast, that kept Tom topped.
Bradley had told us a good portion of the mile-and-a-half parade route was family-friendly, which was, indeed, the case: lots of smiling people of all sorts having silly fun trying to catch plastic beads.
You had to get the hang of throwing the trinkets, and a Frisbee-like motion seemed to work best for my limited talents for getting the necklaces to parade-goers and not stuck in trees or flailing to the street instead of reaching the crowds along the sidewalk.
With a task to pass the time, the route went by in a blur. By the time we got off the float to head to the big street party in Soulard, the temperature had dipped and the wind grew stronger.
Luckily, there was a tent party to which we were invited. We wandered from there to see if we could get into other tents. We thought our passes were good at other gatherings – or maybe our Jedi mind tricks would work.
On the parade route, our amateur eyes spotted only a couple women who were showing off their exposed bosoms. In Soulard, our first sightings were in front of an establishment where a DJ was playing the incessant thump-thump dance music heard just about everywhere that afternoon, while a stand filled with young women bumped and grinded, with the most brazen among them pretty much willing to catch hypothermia.
We got the feeling that for these ladies, every day is Mardi Gras. And I was inspired to write my own dance-rap ditty – Cold Boobies. What stopped me is the only word I could think of to rhyme with boobies was rubies.
Either way, inside another tented gathering, we wound up talking with two young women, one of whom took a liking to a purple hat I had. Come to think of it, the hat more than likely was what she was after. It matched her outfit and her feathery boa, if not her brand of cigarettes.
She used the boa as a prop in a vulgar bit of comedy, then wrapped it around my neck at one point, then Tom’s neck. Next, she wanted to dance with Tom, who told her his name was Mike. She told me I had an Irish accent as she pressed against my leg.
No further comedy ensued, as the two of them wandered off to do who knows what with whom.
I forgot to mention that Tom was wearing a set of beads that included two breasts among them. Oddly, it seemed to draw women who wanted to fondle them – or worse, considering they were made of some sort of spongy, foam material and this is flu season.
Tom’s brother, Mark, was along, too, and he was getting tired a little faster than Tom and I were – not that our asses weren’t dragging a little, too. But I was on a mission to make our way to McGurk’s.
Fate led us to the most interesting display of chest-flashing for the afternoon: What appeared to be college-aged women were sitting on window ledges three stories up and out of harm’s way as men threw beads up to them. Occasionally, and very briefly, they would flash their exposed mammaries.
For some reason, it reminded me of TV shows I’ve seen about Amsterdam.
Anyway, we made our way through a surprisingly large crowd – given the weather – to find that McGurk’s had a $20 cover charge.
Our trek was for the best, though, as it led us to where cabs were. We wound up in one driven by a West African immigrant who chatted a bit about preferring old school dance music to today’s version.
That reminded me – I didn’t hear too much New Orleans-style music that afternoon – or anything I recognized as having ties to St. Louis’ own storied musical past.
Being old, we went back to the hotel and took naps.
That night, though, we went to a place in Webster Groves, the Highway 61 Roadhouse where they had barbecue, New Orleans-style food, and a band playing New Orleans-style music. In his Mardi Gras garb, the host seemed like a zombie Tom Waits.
Come to think of it, St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago is a lot like all this. (And in fact there were a lot of Wrigleyville types down for the STL event, a good many of them wearing Blackhawks jerseys).
That’s to say, for a good many of the celebrants, Mardis Gras and St. Patrick’s Day are just two on a list of festivities that offer excuses to get wasted and that have become interchangeable and generic. The marketing and the spring break mentality have made them booze company promotions.
For those of us whose brains function, the parties certainly are part of it. But there’s food to be enjoyed, culture and history to be had. There’s also a sense of community, however giddy, that can come from being part of a parade and gathering.
I marched in the Chicago St. Patrick’s parade downtown a few years ago when it was 80 degrees. In 2006, I walked in the South Side parade, not too far from White Sox legend Minnie Minoso who was dressed in a fur coat and escorting a version of the Sox 2005 World Series trophy that had been magnetized to the hood of an SUV.
If you drink too much, you don’t have stories to remember. Without stories, we’re all boobs.