To ride in a Mardi Gras float is to know power. It is to know power dressed as a clown, half drunk, soaked in beer, and rolling along in what one hopes is a reasonably stable trailer, with some kind of lecherous papier-mâché donkey tacked on to the front. It is to take a swig of from your tequila bottle, reach into your bag of tricks to pull out a string of beads and hold them out to a crowd of children, teenagers, and rational, sane adults, and then watch them evolve into crazed, single-minded bead-hungry spirits, ready to do about anything for just one more shiny set. It is, in the traditional sense, awesome.
Mardi Gras is many things—it is a costume party, a sea of drunken indulgence, a pleasant family picnic on the neutral ground, a roving high school band concert, a Christian holiday—but when you find yourself up on the float, you feel like you’ve arrived at the center of it. The parade is the beating heart of Mardi Gras, and beads are the shiny cheap blood that it pumps throughout the city. When you ride on a float, bead throwing is a sort of sacred duty, one reinforced by the screaming masses below you. The party flows from heavy sacks at your feet, through you and into the city.
I remember the first time I rode in the Orpheus parade in 2011. I was tired from a long day of anticipation and overtures toward reporting. You’re explicitly forbidden from throwing any beads off the float during the long wait as you line up on Tchoupitoulas Street, so when my float started rolling, I had a whole armful of beads just waiting to throw.
The float made the turn, and I was free to throw beads. I saw an old elderly man just on the corner, neck already heavy with dozens of beads. He had glasses and a brown sweater, and he was holding his hands straight out, eyes beaming, fingers stretched out tight to get him just a few centimeters closer to the beads. I made eye contact, he nodded, I made the toss, and he snatched it out of the air. He put it around his neck and smiled. This, I thought, is Mardi Gras.