It’s Mardi Gras time in Louisiana, and not just in New Orleans.
Several years ago I was in Lake Charles, Louisiana, during Mardi Gras, and while the carnival festival there is more low-key than in New Orleans, it’s said to be the second largest in the state.
Along with a few other visiting travel writers, I was invited to ride on the local Convention and Visitors Bureau’s float, which led the midday parade. Best of all, we were also invited to throw out beads and candies to the folks lining the parade route.
People had camped out all morning to get a prime spot, bringing their folding chairs and coolers stocked with cold drinks, many wearing Mardi Gras colors: purple, green and gold. They also wore beads, funny hats, sequined outfits, and various Krewe T-shirts, indicating allegiance to the various social clubs that build and run the parade floats. (There’s a krewe — or two or three or four — for every social stratum or personality type in Lake Charles.)
On board the float, which was shaped like a ‘gator, we were busy digging into the costume sacks ourselves. We pulled out masks, cloaks and — in a fit of personality disorder brought on by Fat Tuesday fever, I suppose — I donned a purple, green and gold feather boa that I dangled around my neck. Definitely a first for me, and no doubt the last, but I admit I kind of liked it in this context.
The CV&B had sunk something like $3,000-$4,000 into buying Chinese-made beaded necklaces and various small candies to toss out, so we were well supplied for the hour-and-a-half-long parade.
Unseemly Thirst for Power
As soon as the float began to move and we grabbed our beads and candies to toss to the waiting throngs, I realized I had undergone another personality disorder: I had acquired a godlike thirst for power that wasn’t entirely becoming.
The folks lining the streets were literally begging for beads, some holding up signs, “Mister, throw me something,” others carrying open, upside-down umbrellas to try to catch as many beads as they could. Since we were in the lead float, the supplicants were particularly eager.
I quickly realized I had the power to single out who would get the beads and who wouldn’t — at least to the extent that my aim was good. Bead-throwing, I discovered, was both a science and an art — and a fascinating exercise in human interaction.
I found myself playing favorites. Those who begged and waved the most — and who made lingering eye contact (even though I was wearing a mask) — were definitely favored. I also liked to throw them toward the back rows so the folks in front wouldn’t snag them all.
But among those, I had further favorites: kids (below teenage) came first; next came the elderly; and I was not averse to the entreaties of shamelessly flirting women, either. (Lake Charles’ Mardi Gras is family-oriented, though, so shirt-raising didn’t figure into it).
I was blatantly discriminatory against tall middle-aged men who already had lots of beads, unless they were holding a baby. And despite my best efforts to ignore the teenagers in the crowd, some long-armed young teen would all too often reach out and snatch the beads I had intended for a plaintive-looking five-year-old or 85-year-old.
I even teased a few teens by starting to throw to them, then holding back at the last moment and tossing to someone else. Behind my ridiculous mask and feather boa, I was the mysterious and totally arbitrary dispenser of treasures.
Racking Up Points
I also discovered that my godlike power was short-lived and fickle: even many who had made great eye contact, begged the hardest and were the recipients of my beads quickly turned their heads to the next thrower as soon as they had mine safely in hand. But there was always a new set of subjects waiting at the next corner.
Since most of our press group was from the north, we started calling ourselves the “Blue State Throwers,” and we developed a point system for hitting bulls-eyes:
Roping a neck — tossing the beads so that they “roped” someone like a calf in a rodeo and landed around the person’s neck — warranted 150 points. I don’t think any of us actually achieved that.
The cleavage toss — which should be self-explanatory — was worth 50 points. A few of us racked up those.
The head hit — hitting someone in the head who wasn’t paying attention– was worth 25 points. This was pretty common, though not always intentional.
Head hitting a young child or elderly person or a man holding a baby, though, got 25 points deducted.
Naturally, we all lost track of our points after an hour or so.
Around the same time, I developed an anomaly that turns out to be epidemic among bead tossers, called “thrower’s elbow.” (“Mask itch” was another problem.) It seems there’s no cure for thrower’s elbow except rest, and the crowds, desperate for beads, wouldn’t stand for that.
As an outsider not versed in Mardi Gras tradition, I did make some wrong assumptions. For example, I felt betrayed by people who wouldn’t bend over to pick up the beads I had thrown their way if they landed instead on the nearby sidewalk or lawns. Were they that lazy?
Later I learned that it’s considered extremely bad form to pick up any beads that had landed uncaught. Unfortunately I didn’t discover this until I was one of the spectators at a later parade, begging for beads myself and picking some up off the street if someone else just left them there. Some others in the crowd set me straight with icy glares.
As I stood and begged for beads at the evening parade, and all too many people riding on the floats made eye contact with me and then threw their beads to someone else, I realized that I was now the hapless supplicant, while they were the gods.
And that if our positions were suddenly reversed, I probably wouldn’t have thrown beads to me, either, being one of those tall, middle-aged men with no babe-in-arms that I had discriminated against.
I was now just another face in the crowd, hoping for a moment’s connection with the costumed royalty passing by. But I have to admit, it did feel good reaching out to snag some beads out of the waiting arms of some five-year-old boy.
Just kidding, of course…or am I?
At least now, nearly all of us can relate to “mask itch.” I wonder what happens to all the unretrieved beads on the ground? — John Robbins Robbins.John1@yahoo.com
Reply: Excellent question, John. I’ll look into it. OK, here’s what I found via google:
“After the goodies are collected in the receptacles, Arc picks up, sorts, repackages, and resells them to the krewes. In 2019, about 170 tons of plastic trinkets were recycled and put back into the parades.”