Mardi Gras, Horse Racing, and Love
For our first real, unsupervised date, Lisa and I went to Mardi Gras. We started out in a long distance relationship, having met in a wedding, and meeting again a year or so later at the home of the newlywed friends in Jackson, Mississippi. She worked in Memphis and I was in graduate school in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I was in my early-thirties, she in her late twenties. The normal dating process just didn’t seem to apply, given the six hour drive that separated us. My school celebrated the holiday of Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, so I suggested she come down and I would take her to New Orleans.
I had been to Mardi Gras the year before. A friend of mine from grad school, Andy, had mentioned going down for the Sunday parade, but first he wanted to stop off in Slidell, Louisiana, where there was an OTB (Off Track Betting) site, where he could place some bets on horse races around the country. Horse racing was a part of the culture I had no experience with, except as a kid, when the local Big Star grocery story used to run a contest each week. At the checkout counter the clerk would give out sealed race result coupons, rather than trading stamps, and on Saturdays we could tune into a local television station and watch broadcast races that were keyed somehow to the racing tickets we got. I suppose there were a limited number of winning tickets given out each week, but I don’t remember ever winning anything with the Big Star coupons. It wasn’t really gambling, since we hadn’t actually wagered money on the races, but it was great fun and quite an adrenaline rush, pulling for the horse that matched our tickets.
Andy, having grown up in a family that owned and trained Kentucky thoroughbreds, liked to gamble, and he knew something about it. A year or so before our trip to Slidell, he and a friend had won a trifecta, an odds defying feat where you pick the first, second, and third place finishers in a race. The payoff, a couple of thousand dollars, was like hitting the lotto for somebody working for a graduate student stipend. I went to the OTB, bought a racing form, which described each race by horse, jockey, and performance history, as well as mysterious factors like weight handicaps (where jockeys had to wear weights to equalize the burden each horse carried) and track conditions. It was interesting to try to analyze all the data and pick a winner, and I lost all my two dollar bets. But, reflecting back, I don’t see a lot of difference between handicapping a horse race and the work that goes into setting up a fantasy football lineup every week. There are just as many intangibles, and it still more or less boils down to luck, although you don’t have to put up money to play.
After the races, Andy and I found our way down to Canal Street, which ran tangential to the French Quarter, and set up for the parade.
“The thing about Mardi Gras,” Andy told me, is you want to catch as many beads as you can.” He demonstrated his technique, standing wide legged and arms outspread like a basketball player defending a three-point shot.
The parades consisted of floats personed by members of private societies, or social clubs, dressed in costumes, masked, to protect their identities. We went to the Zulu parade, I think. Zulu members wear black face (even though its members are mostly African American), grass skirts, and throw favors, including hand painted coconuts, strings of beads, candy, medallions. The beads were usually cheap generic beads of plastic, running in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, gold, and purple, or other colors depending on the krewe. Zulu threw black plastic beads with a plastic medallion that looked like an African tribal mask. The krewe members, mostly men reserved special, elaborate strands of beads, for women in the crowd who would show their breasts.
Andy and I used our height to catch beads not meant for us, stepping in front of children and flashers, intercepting throws like we were playing touch football. I came home that day with hundreds of strings of beads, some that still decorate my home come Fat Tuesday.
So, with one Mardi Gras under my belt and a vague notion of how to find another parade (they had just come up with this thing called the internet back then, but I didn’t have a computer), Lisa came down to New Orleans for the weekend, and on Saturday, we drove the two hours to New Orleans. I knew to follow the interstate downtown, take the “Vieux Carre” exit and try to find a relatively safe, legal, and free parking spot as close to the French Quarter as possible. In New Orleans, safe and legal were relative terms. Once we parked, we just followed the crowds.
Lisa and I spent the day walking Bourbon Street, people watching, and lining up on Canal Street for the Endymion Krewe parade. Endymion is one of the super-krewes, known for lavish floats, generosity with its throws, and celebrity grand marshalls. We scored our share of beads, ate some interesting food, and made it back to Hattiesburg in one piece.
Over the next couple of years, after Lisa moved to Hattiesburg and we got engaged, we made several trips to New Orleans, attended at least one more Mardi Gras parade, and learned the French Quarter well enough to make it part of our shared experience. Our favorite haunts were Jackson Square, where we would watch street performers busk for tips, artists drawing caricatures and oil paintings, and chess masters playing multiple opponents at the same time. I loved the Rastaman contortionist, perhaps the most flexible man alive, who could step inside a square foot plexiglass square, bend over so his hands were at his feet, and slide it up his bent over body. There was a guy who juggled everything from chain saws to flaming sticks, Tarot fortune card readers, and Marie Laveau’s Voodoo store, not to mention Mike Anderson’s seafood restaurant and Café Du Monde, where you can drink coffee with chicory or café au lait and watch the cooks make beignets through a window frosted thick with powdered sugar. New Orleans, the food and music, and the streets and architecture, became part of our story.
The Krewe of Broncus
In 1995, Lisa and I moved to Denver and started a life from scratch—new jobs, new friends, new church, new traditions. We adopted the West as our new home, explored the mountains, shopped at the Tattered Cover (a four story independent bookseller), watched the Colorado Rockies win the Wild Card at Coors Field, and slowly, I dropped my devotion to the New Orleans Saints and accepted the Broncos into my heart.
We began an annual tradition of throwing a Mardi Gras party, usually on the Saturday night preceding Fat Tuesday. We named our krewe Broncus, and spent the day of the party preparing Creole food. As a graduate student, I had made Red Beans and Rice a staple, since I could more or less eat for almost a week on a little over four dollars’ worth of beans, rice, and sausage. We added other staples, like Shrimp Po-boy sandwiches, Crabmeat etouffee (it’s hard to get crawfish in Denver), Jambalaya, Seafood Gumbo, and Beignets from a French Market Café mix. We ordered our King cake from Paul’s Pastry Shop in Picayune, Mississippi, blueberry over cream cheese, shipped direct to our house via UPS, complete with baby Jesus. In Denver, Southern Culture sold well. The food was good, exotic even to Western tastes, and having hunted and trapped swamps in Mississippi, built power lines through snake-infested swamps in Tennessee, and crabbed and shrimped with a Cajun friend in the Louisiana saltwater marshes, I had snake, beaver, and alligator stories that made the food even better. As King of the Krewe of Broncus, I wore a crown, beads, and my doctoral hood, but I never, despite rumors to the contrary, ever forced anyone to bow in my presence.
January 27, 1998
Lisa and I watched the Super Bowl with our friends Adam and Stacey, who lived in the Suburbs of Denver. It was a tense, back and forth game, with Green Bay heavily favored. Denver converted a couple of turnovers into scores and led at half time, but the third and fourth quarters were so intense that I could barely stand to watch. The defining play of the game came with Denver on the twelve yard line and facing a long third down. John Elway scrambled for an 8-yard run and dove for the first down, a play in which he was hit so hard by two Packers defenders that he spun sideways through the air like the rotor on a helicopter setting up a touchdown run by Terrell Davis.
When Elway finally kneeled to run out the clock, Stacey, a quiet, non-demonstrative woman, opened the double doors to her front porch and walked outside to scream. I followed her outside to honk the car horn. I could hear the city. A din rose for miles around, sounding like a strong wind, with horns honking, firecrackers, and people roaring. On the drive home people were standing on suburban street corners, cheering and dancing, yelling at the drivers passing by to honk their horns. We watched the news for a couple of hours once we got home. Interviews, recaps, scenes from Lower Downtown where the police used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
An estimated 650,000 people turned out for the victory parade. Lisa and I were so far down the route that it took two hours for the parade to reach us. The players, coaches, staff, cheerleaders, and their families rode on city fire trucks or in city buses with the windows removed so they could lean out and high five the crowds. We pushed right up to the vehicles, ignoring barricades, so it was a wonder no one got run over. Pat Bolen, the owner, rode on a fire truck carrying the Lombardi Trophy. I took a picture of Bill Romanowski, a mean as a snake linebacker, leering at me from five feet away, and I slapped hands with Brian Habib, an offensive lineman. Unfortunately, when I got home I discovered that in recording the parade, I had taped over the first three quarters of the football game.