The tenor for the trip was set when the two mild, innocent-looking Midwestern girls got up from their seats on the Greyhound, a few hours before it was set to arrive in New Orleans, and went into the tiny bathroom at the back of the bus together. They emerged an hour later looking hot: tube tops and frilly skirts, full make-up, glitter, and curled hair, ready for New Orleans.
This was Mardi Gras, folks.
I was, at the time, young and broke, and stupid. So when my college buddy said, “Hey, you wanna go to Mardi Gras,” I said, “Sure!” It sounded like fun. He had a friend of a friend who lived there, in the suburbs. She said the two of us could stay there a few nights, and even though she was very religious and left New Orleans proper because “there was too much sin,” we thought it sounded like the perfect plan. I had heard tales (this was before the internet) of being able to sleep in parks at night if you didn’t have a room. Lord knows neither of us could afford a room in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. We had faith we’d figure something out.
I took the bus from Minneapolis to New Orleans by myself, and it was endless. If memory serves it took around 50 hours (I just looked up the time of that bus ride now and it cites the trip nowadays as 39 hours). I mostly laid my head against the glass window and let the vibrations lull me into semi-sleep. I read. I leapt off the bus to smoke a cigarette every chance I got—I was at the time a pack-a-day smoker—because there were very few chances. I remember some guy telling me you could sneak a smoke in the bathroom (the same one those two girls got all dolled up in), but I also remember the bus driver standing in the aisle of the bus lecturing the entire bus, saying he could smell cigarette smoke, and if it happened again he’d start kicking people off. I have a hazy memory of sneaking cigarette hits in the bathroom at the beginning, but I imagine I was too scared of authority to smoke very long, or openly (more on my complex relationship with authority later). The bus driver wasn’t yelling at me.
Most of my memories are in no consecutive order: it was a long time ago, and I was pretty addled. Think of the following as a series of jump cuts, like in a movie, with no clear connection between events.
We arrived, I think, about a week and a half before Fat Tuesday, and Ash Wednesday. My first reaction was that everyone was trying really hard to have fun. It felt a bit pushed and fake, like a beery, bro-filled frat party. That feeling stayed for a few days, though I remember the music being excellent from the very beginning, and often freely available to the young broke idiots on the street like me.
What I didn’t count on was the creeping, progressive weirdness as the days went on, with a significant portion of us partying in the French Quarter under the influence of lack of sleep, alcohol/weed, a culture of disinhibition, and lots of cute and horny young people.
It may have started like a dull frat party, but by the time it was over it felt closer to anarchy.
Those rumors about being able to sleep in the parks at night? Totally untrue. We saw no tent cities of young people, no temporary hippie communities of the like-minded.
You know what we did see? Police buses, working as temporary jails, every two to three blocks. They all held cops and groups of the recently arrested. Every once in a while you’d see a full one drive off, and an empty one return.
These portable jails loomed at all major intersections, and they were kept pretty busy. If this were fiction, I’d call that detail foreshadowing.
I bought a monkey mask at some point. I wore it often as we wandered the streets, which were slowly turning into one big outdoor party. I remember going up to several girls and asking them if they wanted to kiss a monkey. Most said yes. Who doesn’t want to kiss a monkey?
I didn’t get laid in New Orleans, or even close, but I got a lot of kisses.
I saw my first public blowjob, in an alley just off a crowded street.
Lots of girls were taking their tops off, mostly from above in the ritzy second-story rooms and balconies, mostly in response to the adoring mobs below, who did a lot of yelling of “show your t*ts!” It was tradition, and yes, I did some yelling too. It was all part of the game, and it was fun. I recall several attractive young women, stepping out onto the balconies, reacting with faux surprise at the crowds below screaming at them to show off their bodies (“who, me?”), then providing us with our reward.
I don’t know how Mardi Gras operates any more, but I’m guessing the topless thing doesn’t fly now, and that’s probably a good thing. Another one of my memories (you can also call this foreshadowing if you like) is of a topless woman joyfully riding the shoulders of her boyfriend, out on the street, until a group of cops surrounds her and forcibly pulls her down off her boyfriend’s shoulders. She was sobbing and clearly frightened by them.
Many in the crowd in the streets threw beads up to the balconies, partly in mock payment to the generous young women above, partly because it was just plain fun. The folks on the balconies threw beads back down. Beads were everywhere. Lots of beads, and lots of bead-throwing.
Remember the beads.
The weeks prior to Mardi Gras, there are tons of parades. The schedule was posted in most of the bars. The parades are all built around Krewes, and the motorized floats they spend all year building. The floats were incredibly inventive and creative and fun, and during Mardi Gras they got their chance to shine, crawling down the narrow streets of the French Quarter, surrounded by adoring crowds. Performers would often throw candy and little trinkets from their platforms on the floats. But what they threw the most of was beads. Little plastic strands of beads. Worthless, but fun and colorful, and they were EVERYWHERE. Multiple strands of plastic beads were hanging from the necks of many, if not most, of the folks on the street. It was the currency of Mardi Gras.
I should note at this point that technically, throwing beads is against the law. It’s a misdemeanor. Yes, it is happening twenty-four hours a day during Mardi Gras, everyone is doing it, and nowhere is it posted that bead-throwing is illegal. But it is.
They can arrest you for it.
We slept in parks during the day a few times, just naps to keep ourselves going. We stayed at my friend’s friend’s friend’s house two or three times. Once was at the beginning, as we introduced ourselves, and set up a base camp of sorts. The only other memory I have of this is of arriving at her house pretty late at night, and me being very, very high as I told her about our day and took off what seemed like hundreds of strands of beads I had hanging from my neck, my wrists, my belt loops, pretty much everywhere.
She was unfailingly polite and good-natured, the entire time.
Our first brush with the law ended up being a lucky one. We had ducked into an alley to smoke some weed. It wasn’t very public (though probably less public than the in-the-alley blowjob I mentioned earlier). As we were smoking a group of four men approached us from across the street. We got worried, fearful they’d rob us. They turned out to be undercover cops, in plain clothes.
I hesitate to add in the next part, but I just talked to my friend who I was with, and he swears it happened, so I will include it. The plainclothes police ask us to put our hands against the wall.
“Do you have any pot on you?”
I said no. At that point, they check my pockets and find it immediately (they saw us smoking it, of course, they knew we had it; my friend was thinking, “Idiot! Why is he lying? They’re going to find out!”).
The policeman says, “I thought you said you didn’t have any.”
“It was worth a shot,” I replied.
They took our weed, dumped it in the gutter, told us if they saw us doing it again they’d arrest us, but that they weren’t going to blow their cover for something so minor. They let us go. They were pretty nice about the whole thing.
In retrospect, this ended up being a very lucky bust for us.
Our second brush with the law was not so lucky.
I was in a crowd, in my monkey mask, throwing beads up at a balcony like everyone else, having fun. I swear I was doing nothing else, and certainly nothing wrong. My buddy was not with me, but nearby. Two policemen walked straight into the crowd and started grabbing hold of shoulders, vice-grip tight. One of those shoulders belonged to me.
My policeman led me back to one of those police buses, the portable jails I’d described before. I had no idea of why I was being arrested. I didn’t know that bead-throwing, my eventual charge, was illegal. The policeman had me lean against the bus, hands outstretched, palms against the surface of the bus. I kept asking, over and over, what I was being arrested for. He never gave me an answer.
Then, I made my mistake. I asked for his badge number.
Pro traveling tip: never ask a New Orleans cop for his badge number.
I had no good reason to ask. There was no way I would have remembered it. But I was frustrated and angry, because, again, I had no idea why I was being arrested. So I asked.
He took his nightstick and knocked my knees apart, hard.
Then he took the back of my head and slammed it against the hard metal mesh protecting the windows on the side of the bus.
Blood erupted from my forehead and began streaming down my face. I know now that head wounds, even superficial ones, bleed a lot. I didn’t know that then. All I knew was, blood was streaming down my face in a sheet, and I was getting arrested for reasons unknown. It was scary.
My friend saw all this happen. He too had no idea why I was arrested. Understandably, he rushed over to one of the cops manning the bus, worried about his friend, profusely bleeding a few yards away. He asked where the police station was, so he could bail me out. The cop’s response (and I am quoting my friend’s recollection directly here): “You want to know where the police station is? I’ll show you where the police station is!”
And they promptly arrested my friend.
At least I’d have company in jail.
We sat together in the bus, waiting for it to drive us to the main jail. It slowly filled up with people. And while I’m sure there were actual criminals among them, most of the criminals looked like scared middle-class college boys, frightened for their lives. Like me. One guy got arrested for sitting on the sidewalk (also illegal). One guy got arrested for stomping on his hamburger at a McDonald’s (also illegal). Lots of people on that bus—me included—genuinely had no idea they were being arrested.
One guy got very upset and was vocal about it. As the bus was driving us to the main jail, it stopped, and three police officers led him off the bus, in handcuffs.
We listened to them beat him for several long minutes. We heard the sound of their blows landing on him. He screamed, begging them to stop. It was clear they were wailing on him very hard. After a while, his screaming stopped.
I started crying at this point. My friend comforted me. I recovered.
Eventually, they led him back on the bus, bleeding and injured and unwilling to protest his arrest anymore. He curled up into a ball on the hard bus bench seat silently.
That was the low point of the trip for me. I still had no idea why I was being arrested, but after witnessing that I wasn’t going to ask.
I had actually forgotten about that beating incident on the bus, until my friend pointed it out, just now, in real-time, decades later, on Facebook.
It’s like I blocked it or something.
Another thing my friend mentioned that I don’t remember, and may have blocked out as well: one cell was filled entirely with prisoners who were beaten up by the cops and required serious medical attention.
They bandaged my head in another temporary holding cell we were taken to. My wound poured blood, but it was pretty superficial (it did leave a small scar). We were given bologna and cheese sandwiches that I remember tasting delicious. We were all allowed to talk to a civil defense lawyer (since I’m attempting to be honest, I’ll add that I cried when I talked to her too).
They put wristbands on us. Yellow for misdemeanors, red for felonies. The yellows armbands huddled at one end of the cell. They eventually paraded the red wristbands to another holding cell, out of sight. After that, we were just a cell of scared middle-class college boys (I’m sure they arrested women too, but they were kept in different cells). We’d only been there a few hours before cigarettes became the coin of the realm. We may have been scared, but many of us were addicted to nicotine. I don’t recall entire cigarettes being available, but I do remember someone having papers and being able to roll up the tobacco from old cigarette butts. I smoked more than one.
At one point, in an actual jail at this point (our third cell), I realize I still have my monkey mask on me and put it on when no cops are looking. I raise my head above window level to freak people out for a laugh and fight boredom.
It’s a wonder I wasn’t beaten up for that too.
Did I mention I was young and stupid?
I also realized that if those undercover cops hadn’t thrown away my weed a few days earlier, I might have been in for a much worse experience.
We were bussed to court on Monday morning. It was only then that I found out what I was being arrested for (literally, throwing beads; my friend was arrested for “interfering with an officer”). Fifty-dollar fines each, which we could pay, or stay in jail until after Mardi Gras was over and then clean up the streets.
We paid the fine, with some help from free legal aid services. Several people in court complained about their treatment by policemen. They let us out of jail on Monday, twenty-two hours after they’d arrested us, just in time for Fat Tuesday. I had by that point not only recovered, but I was spinning the tale in my head (and to anyone who’d listen) as a hard-living adventure, learning about real life the hard way, like George Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. My friend and I both had a great Fat Tuesday, the traditional last day (and literal translation) of Mardi Gras.
Actually, full disclosure, I have no memories of actual Fat Tuesday that year. But that implies the good time I’m pretty sure I had.
My final memory of that trip is of Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. The streets are clean and nearly empty, and still wet and shining from the street cleaner’s passing. My friend and I are in the Cafe du Monde, devouring beignets and spilling powdered sugar all over ourselves, drinking cup after cup of chicory coffee.
All is quiet.
I’m tired, thankful for the silence, and looking forward to the airplane that will take me back home later that day.
The taste of those beignets has stayed with me. Every trip to New Orleans since, as a responsible adult with an actual hotel room, I’ve stopped at the Café du Monde and had a beignet and a coffee, and thought about that Mardi Gras long ago.
The beignets never taste as good as they did that very first time. But they still taste pretty good.
In retrospect, I am dumbfounded by our recklessness and disregard for safety. It’s a wonder one of us didn’t get hurt much worse, or left in jail for much longer. Others were not so lucky. That said, I’m a little impressed at our fearlessness, even if it was borne from stupidity. I rarely travel without reservations anymore.
Controversy surrounded the New Orleans Police Force in the next few years, concerning corruption and use of excessive force, and tons of other accusations. I look on the internet now and see it still is, so I don’t know if anything has actually changed for the better. Looking at recent headlines, I am skeptical.
I still have the scar from that cop’s beating, right on my forehead, like Harry Potter’s scar, but straighter and less theatrical.
I still tell the story of how I got that scar, to anyone who will listen.
And I just looked it up: it’s still illegal to throw beads during Mardi Gras.