Live to Ride…Ride to Live

Everyone has a favorite holiday. Whether it is Christmas, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July we all have a time of year we look forward to and count down the days. For me, being a son of New Orleans, it was Mardi Gras. It always has been my favorite time of year and always will be.

For those not familiar with Mardi Gras, or Carnival, it is a time period of revelry leading up to the Lenten season, which is sacred to Christians. Catholics make up a large portion of the population of New Orleans, so having a last hurrah before we make penance awaiting the coming of Easter is a big deal. No place throws a party like New Orleans, and while Mardi Gras is now celebrated in other cities, the New Orleans experience is like no other. Parades, masked balls, and other events make it a non-stop party for about a month.

As a child my parents took me to numerous parades but Mardi Gras Day, also known as Fat Tuesday, was the culmination. Schools and offices were closed and everyone wore costumes. During the 1960’s I was a comic book collector. My favorite was Batman. There was also a Batman television series. As such , every year for about five years I dressed up as the Caped Crusader in a costume sewn lovingly by my grandmother. It wasn’t of the standard of today’s modern costumes, but when I donned my cape and cowl as a five year old there was no doubt that for at least one day the city of New Orleans was safer under my watch. Hearing the cries of “Hey Batman” just reaffirmed what I already knew.

We would wake up early that morning and drive to my grandmothers house in an area now called the Lower Garden District. Once we arrived I would berate my mother until we left the house and made the four block walk to St. Charles Avenue to await Zulu, Rex, and the truck parades Crescent City and Elks. We would stand and yell “Throw me something mister!” until my voice gave out. Rain or shine we were there and afterwards we would trek back to my grandmother’s home, exhausted, to go over our haul for the day and visit with other family members. As evening approached we would head home and I always fell asleep in the back of the car. Getting up for school the next day was a challenge at best.

After my father suddenly passed away my life was in turmoil. My mother was now a widow with an eleven year old to raise. She ended up purchasing an apartment house in Uptown New Orleans a block and half off of St. Charles Avenue. The rent from the apartments, combined with social security, gave us income along with place to live. More importantly I was at center stage for all the parades. For years our home was a gathering place for Carnival. After college I moved back to New Orleans and lived in one of my mothers’s apartments. During the Mardi Gras season my friends would  move in with me for days at a time and it lead to some funny circumstances.

One afternoon I went to my apartment and found a stranger laying on my couch. I came up to him and asked who he was. He responded by saying ” Don’t mess with me man. I know the dude who knows the dude who owns this place!” I then said “I’m the dude.”

On another occasion I came into my apartment to use the bathroom and saw a very attractive girl standing by the bathroom door. I walked up to her and before I could say a word she uttered “There’s a line.” I just looked at her and said “It’s my bathroom.”

I was now old enough to actually know people who rode in parades and I was always envious. At that point in my life I didn’t have the resources to justify the cost of joining a Mardi Gras Krewe, so I just became content to spectate. When someone on a float recognized you that was always special, as you usually got pelted with beads, doubloons, cups and other items. When I was still in college My uncle and two cousins rode in Babylon. The year my uncle was King my cousins rode together on the same float. Upon seeing me one of them hit me square in the chest with a bag of doubloons. Upon impact, ( as an aside getting hit with a bag of doubloons hurts..a lot), the bag exploded and my feet and ankles were promptly engulfed by kids and other people. You learn at an early age never to pick doubloon off of the ground, unless you want to risk getting your hand stomped on, so I just backed away. My other cousin summoned me to the float, holding a big bag full of throws.

As I ran towards him he tossed the bag to me, which I caught. At the same time a guy literally jumped onto my back and reached over my shoulders and tried to wrest my bag from me. Locals know that it is courtesy to let someone being summoned to a float catch their prize. However Mardi Gras attracts tourists, and alcohol flows freely. This guy apparently was not local and was, shall we say, imbibed.

At first I just said something like, “Hey man that’s my cousin and he threw this bag to me.”, but it became apparent that this person was not going to be reasoned with. At that point I leaned forward and then thrust the bag back as hard as I could, hitting my antagonist squarely in the face. He fell off my back and landed on the street.

New Orleans police are among the best in the world at crowd control, primarily due to Mardi Gras. Skirmishes of any kind are dealt with swiftly, usually with cops on horseback wading those two thousand pound animals into the crowd. In this case before I could turn around two of New Orleans finest had me by each arm.

As they lead me to the sidewalk I calmly related what had happened. They both had seen it and were sympathetic. Our police always use force as a last resort. One of the policeman just said, “We were coming to get the guy off you. It would have better if you hadn’t knocked him out.” With  bit of a grin he then said ” Do you have any other relatives riding tonight?” When I said no they told me to go on my way and have a good time, but not to put any more tourists in the street.

One of the most treasured Mardi Gras throws was a spear. I related to a a friend of a friend who was in my apartment during Mardi Gras, ( remember I had a bathroom), that you had to know somebody on a float to have any chance of getting a spear. The next day I was watching a parade when I heard my name called. A rider was holding a spear and beckoning me to the float. As he handed it to me I realized it was the guy who had been in my apartment the day before. As the float rolled away he called out ” You know somebody!!”

As the years passed I did get to ride in two suburban based parades, and it was fun, but it was not the same as a New Orleans parade. After my mother passed I kept her apartment open and had many memorable Mardi Gras events there. Then I relocated to Shreveport, over three hundred miles away, so my wife and I could be closer to our two special needs sons that were in a care facility. While Shreveport celebrates Mardi Gras, for me it was not the same. I feared I would never be a part of it again. In addition I had been a basketball coach while living in Shreveport during college, and was now doing that again on a volunteer basis when I moved back. The basketball season ran right through Mardi Gras, so even attending a parade in New Orleans was impossible. As the years passed I became very homesick during Mardi Gras. I decided I wanted to join a Krewe, and I knew exactly which one.

Le Krewe d’Etat was formed in 1996 by a group of young New Orleans professionals. It has evolved into one of the finest, if not the finest parade in Mardi Gras. Known for it’s satirical themes and adherence to old line Carnival traditions, it is a must see for any Mardi Gras attendee. The Krewe parades in prime time on the Friday evening before Mardi Gras. It has a long route. staging uptown on Jefferson and Magazine streets, working it’s way down to Napoleon Avenue before turning onto St. Charles Avenue and heading downtown. It was my first and only choice, but wanting to join is not enough.

Admission to Le Krewe d’Etat is by invitation only and your name must be submitted by two existing members. The vetting process is stringent and prolonged. as many as four hundred names may be submitted with as few as twenty selected. I had to resign myself to the fact that even if I was sponsored it might be years before I got in.

I went to my closest friend, who was a member, and told him what I wanted to do. Without hesitation he said he would do his best for me, but to not get my hopes up. I really didn’t have a Plan B. If I was going to ride I wanted to be with the best. I just crossed my fingers.

After months I learned I had made it through the first round. Nothing was assured but I felt more hopeful. Then a few weeks later I got a phone call. I had been accepted for membership! I hung up the phone with a broad smile on my face. I was now a member of the best Krewe in Carnival. I was going to come home for Mardi Gras and ride right past the corner I had stood on for so many years waving to riders in other parades. The difference now was that those people would be waving and yelling at me!

I sent my dues in promptly and ordered my throws. My buddy began to instruct me on the protocol of the Krewe and the rules. The rules were vital for secrecy, tradition, and most importantly safety. While riding you had to be harnessed with your safety strap at all times, you could never remove your mask once the parade started, and no one but members were allowed on the float.

Our floats were fashioned in the old style of traditional Mardi Gras. Our theme was secret and not revealed until the day of the parade. As part of our swagger we did not have a king, but rather a Dictator, whose identity was a guarded secret. We also had a High Priest whose identity was also unknown. We used authentic flambeaux, which is oil ignited flames that lit the way for the floats and dates back to the 19th century. We had bands, and of course, the most clever, satirical, and irreverently themed floats in all of Mardi Gras.

I learned I would be riding on the same float as my friend. Also on my float were friends from my grammar, high school, and college days. At our luncheon the day of the parade I was initiated into the Krewe and saw many more old friends, including past work colleagues and clients. We ate like kings and were entertained with music and ceremony.

After lunch we left our downtown New Orleans hotel and ventured en masse into the French Quarter to gather in front of the Old Absinthe bar. I felt splendid in my suit and Krewe tie. I was also wearing a Krewe favor on my lapel and our Tri-Color specialty doubloon that had the theme of that years parade inscribed on it. It was held with a lanyard in the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.

Around three o’clock I went back to Krewe headquarters to get dressed for the ride. All the floats had racks with costumes on them labeled with the riders names. There were men in starched white coats there to help you dress while a band played in the background. Of course a bar was also set up to help riders get into the proper spirit of the occasion.

After I was dressed I exited the hotel and boarded a charter bus that was outside. The busses stretched all the way down the street. Once all the members were accounted for we headed for the staging area with a police escort.

Upon arriving we got off the bus and headed to our various floats. I found mine and entered through the rear, scaling a steep set of wooden stairs. Once on board I moved to my assigned position. My throws were already loaded and ready to be disbursed to the crowds that waited for us.

As we began to roll staying steady become a priority. The tractor pulling your float moves in a start and stop kind of rhythm that jerks you around. In addition the float space is intimate so you are standing on your bags of throws until well into the halfway point of the parade. It is not unusual to lose your balance, at which point you grab onto anything to keep from falling.

The crowds on Magazine are enthusiastic but not very deep. Once you make the turn onto Napoleon Avenue you can hear the noise level rise as the crowds get larger and more animated. The real rush happens at the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon. Now all you hear is a deafening roar as people scream and point at you.

You feel like a rock star on a stage performing. People are yelling, holding signs, pointing. You see families with children on Mardi Gras ladders, a New Orleans invention that is essentially a box seat that small children can sit in to see the parade while a parent stands on the ladder behind them protecting them from getting hit with beads and other trinkets. When my son was born a Mardi Gras ladder was one of the first purchases I made. One fond memory was me bringing him to visit my mother a week after Mardi Gras had ended. He is profoundly autistic and wanted me to go get the ladder out. He is also non-verbal and try as I may I could not get him to understand that Mardi Gras was over. So I finally got the ladder and we went out to St. Charles Avenue and watched cars go by. I got a lot of strange looks and few reminders that Carnival was over, but he was having a good time and that was all that counted.

I’d like to be able to tell all my male readers that we throw to everybody but the fact is if you have a float full of men, girls, children, and the elderly tend to get the most attention. One of the defining moments for my wife came at a Mardi Gras after we had been married about a decade. She was not catching as many beads as she had in previous years. With a slight nod of my head I pointed to a ladder next to her, on which a friend of ours two college age daughters were standing. They were draped in beads. My wife just shook her head and went back to our apartment.

As you ride you begin to interact with the crowd, gesturing, pointing back, even talking to them. It is an amazing and exhilarating experience. You feel even more joy as you realize you are part of a celebration that is one of the most unique in the world. I was on the sidewalk side of the float but on the other side, which faced the neutral ground, ( median for the rest of you not from New Orleans), the crowds were as far as the eye could see, stretching all the way across the other side of St. Charles Avenue.

Eventually you wind your way into downtown and finally to the end. You come off the float tired and sore but still on a natural high. You make your way back to Krewe headquarters, turn in your costume, and venture back to your hotel room. Some hardy souls venture back into the night for more revelry but for me it’s a hot shower and the bed. Even after my second ride the ritual was the same. The late hours are now the domain of younger men.

Our Krewe motto is Vivite Ut Vehatis, Vehite Ut Vivatas. Translated it means Live to Ride, Ride to Live. For a New Orleans boy nothing sums it up better!
















About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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