It’s the season many circle on their calendars, the time of revelry and excess. In Mobile, life seems to come to a screeching halt, revolving around Mardi Gras for a few weeks.
Growing up in a New York City suburb, I heard about the event, but really never knew anything about it. I never went to a parade; on Thanksgiving, I preferred staying home, eating turkey and watching football instead of freezing on a Manhattan sidewalk watching a giant Bullwinkle deflate after hitting a light pole during the famous Macy’s parade.
But when I got a job in Mobile, I was assigned to cover my first parade. I had no idea what to expect. I was briefed about secret societies, elaborate floats, and things called “throws” … and also warned that doing a television live shot in the middle of a crowd that was already halfway to the legal limit by six o’clock would prove interesting.
It was not only interesting, it was also confusing.
After my live shot—during which I got hit in the head with incredibly hard candy (float riders aim for the media)—I went back to the station, which was on the parade route. I found my new boss, who had just arrived from Baltimore, watching the parade near the front door. Throws hit the ground as the floats rode by, with people diving for them like football players after a fumble. My boss shook his head and turned to me saying, “I don’t get it.”
I shrugged as I watched people fight over candy and plastic beads, along with a bloodthirsty battle involving a rubber rat. “I don’t either.”
Then my boss made things worse: “This goes on for a couple weeks. A parade every night.”
“Yep. And then a bunch of parades on the last day.”
But people seemed to be having a great time, so maybe it was an acquired taste.
For the next two weeks I was assigned “Mardi Gras sidebars” along with my nightly parade live shot and I learned a lot about this tradition. The story on the float builder was very interesting—people spent fortunes on building them. The most popular throw was something called a “Moon Pie,” and one bite made me wonder why people chanted for these things that might still be edible after a nuclear attack. A visit to the throw supply store taught me that if I gave out candy like this on Halloween my house would be turned into an omelet.
Then one day a photographer and I were assigned to ride a float in order to give the viewers a different angle. Sounded okay, until we were told we had to wear costumes which made us look like we’d stepped off the Sgt. Pepper album cover. Again, the float riders and people on the street were having a great time. I, however, had still not acquired the taste.
And then there were the Mardi Gras balls.
I had no desire to attend one of these things, but a good friend insisted I come. Then I discovered men had to wear white tie and tails. I had a tux but didn’t have the other stuff, so I hit a rental place, knowing this would be a one-time deal.
The ball turned out to be more confusing than the parades.
Someone read stories for an hour, interspersed with people dancing on the floor of the Mobile Civic Center, followed by ear-splitting music which didn’t allow for conversation. Apparently many of the guys didn’t know the white tie and tails costume de rigueur (“dress code” to you and me) included black patent leather shoes, as I saw men wearing loafers and sneakers. Again, everyone was having a great time, so I resigned myself to the fact that I would never acquire the taste.
Over the next days the live shots got worse, with drunks in my face or making weird gestures behind me. One tried to grab my wallet. At one point I decided to bring an umbrella with me, raining or not, and simply dip it behind me so you couldn’t see anyone else.
You might be surprised to learn that there are plenty of reporters who do not enjoy covering these festivities, even though they put on a happy face and act like they’re having fun. That would be me. (TV reporters are masters at pretending.) By the time Mardi Gras day arrived, many in the newsroom were ready to celebrate … the end.
Years later, I still don’t understand the appeal even though many obviously do. But hey, if you enjoy this stuff, knock yourself out. And considering all the survivalist supplies being sold these days, stick a bunch of Moon Pies in the basement. They’ll probably be good for 20 years.
And if you’re thinking, “Eh, he’s just a Yankee who doesn’t understand Southern tradition,” let me state that I also do not understand why anyone would go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve to watch a ball slide down a pole.
Randy Tatano is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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