My Mardi Gras memories are fuzzy

by Brian Clarey

I’m writing this on Monday morning, pushing hard against a solid deadline. This is the way it’s got to be. Because while in most of the world today is simply ‘Monday,’ down in New Orleans it’s Lundi Gras, the chill-out period before the final blowout tomorrow, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day.

It’s been five long years since I took part in New Orleans’ annual late winter Bacchanal, five years of procreating, working, fixing my credit and trying to lessen my tolerance for alcohol, for which I once had an astounding capacity, down to a more respectable level.

Of course, Mardi Gras is not what it used to be’… nothing down there is these days’… but it gladdens my heart to see that they’re still getting it on, still cavorting in the streets and nursing hangovers with bloody Marys. It’s nice to know you can still get a Zulu coconut or a long string of beads simply by exposing what the good lord gave you. And it gladdens my heart that you can still see tourists vomiting, peeing or having sex in the street.

Peeing in the street, by the way, is still one of the most dangerous things one can do during Mardi Gras. Of everything I’ve mentioned it’s the only one that can land you in jail.

I know a little something about Mardi Gras ‘— I’ve participated in no less than 13 of them, my first in 1989 when, as an 18-year-old college freshman, my mind was completely blown by the scenes of abandon I witnessed.

If you do Mardi Gras right, they say, you’ll never be the same afterwards. I know I never was’….

By 1992 I was tending bar out on Tchoupitoulas Street, and by 1995 I was slinging drinks on St. Charles Avenue, the grande dame of Southern boulevards where at Carnival time the parades roll by in barely interrupted threads. I made a good piece of money back then and I held my own with drinkers from around the world. I have a store of memories that stand out in gauzy relief against the way my life is now. And it’s true that I’ve certainly forgotten more than I recall.

But here are a few snippets that have survived the absolution of my life:

1989: I saw a detail cop in full NOPD regalia in Fat Harry’s with a beer in one hand and a college girl in the other. He paid equal attention to both.

1989: I saw my friend, the future salutatorian of LSU Law School, engaged in an act of coitus with an anonymous woman. On the hood of a car. At 4:30 in the afternoon.

1990: Again in Fat Harry’s, on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, the crowd got so thick that I was lifted off the beer-soaked floor by the pressure of the bodies around me. I was scared for my life and laughing at the same time.

1990: I shared my bottle of bourbon with a homeless guy on the street.

1991: My roommate found a bag of pills on the floor of a bar (probably Fat Harry’s) and by experimentation and simple deduction we were able to discern what kind of pills they were.

1992: After the parades, in a basement apartment off St. Charles, 11 guys in a room danced with reckless abandon for like half an hour. ‘“That was weird,’” one of us said when we were done.

1995: I worked a 19-hour shift at Qué Sera on St. Charles because nobody showed up to relieve me. By the time I was done at 4 a.m. my hands were shaking and I had about $600 in my pocket. It was barely worth it.

1996: Krazy Karl, a slightly overweight, tattooed and pimpled metalhead cooked cheeseburgers naked behind my bar for the first time. It would become a Fat Tuesday tradition.

1997: I worked the door at Igor’s, a 24-hour institution on St. Charles, on Fat Tuesday and slapped them all in the ass before I let them in.

1999: Jill and I found a stranger in our bed playing with our cat.

There’s more: the woman who called herself ‘“Earth Mama’” who tried to sleep with every bartender on St. Charles before they cleaned the streets on Ash Wednesday; the passed-out cop who got handcuffed to the sink in the bathroom; the barely clothed crowds of hipsters at the Mom’s Ball; the costumed krewe of Jew-lu and their party Tuesday morning at my boy Deuce’s house before they stepped in behind the Zulu parade; the Mardi Gras Indians cruising Central City; the drum circle in the Bywater; the Widespread Panic fan who traveled with all his supplies in a tackle box. The rest of what I remember is certainly unprintable, and most of you probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.

It’s just as well’….

On Lundi Gras in Greensboro I’m drinking coffee and reminiscing to myself, more or less clearheaded. A call to my friend Brandon Carriveau down New Orleans assures me that they’re still doing it, still partying even in the face of disaster, perhaps partying harder because of Katrina. Brandon says he’s having one of his best Carnivals ever.

‘“It’s been f**king awesome, man,’” he says. ‘“I had to park seven blocks away.’”

Tomorrow morning at Igor’s the bloodys will flow and the beads will fly just like they’ve always done. And when I drive by Interstate 40 today I’ll say to myself, ‘“What the hell’… I can be there in 14 hours if I push it.’”

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