Saturday, March 04, 2006

Mardi Gras And A Pair Of Beads On The Ground

As I watched CNN's all day coverage of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, I wondered where the reporters got their info about why parade watchers didn't pick up beads or other Carnival throws that missed their hands and fell to the ground. They kept referring to it as if it was some philosophical tradition of New Orleaneans; that the thrill or challenge was in the “catch”, not in the item itself. Wrong!!! I can only think they spoke with people from "uptown", like lawyers, or other "high society" types, who grew up in the Garden District, or 30 something and younger individuals who didn't experience Mardi Gras back in the 50's and 60's. During those years, people would scramble for beads that landed on the ground, like fans at the World Series diving for a baseball that lands in the crowd.

There were a couple of reasons why this "diving for trinkets" died over the years. Older and taller parade goers would often attempt to step on beads they missed catching in their hands, called the “stomp and retrieve” maneuver, with the result being that a lot of kids, lacking the height for catching in the air, but the advantage of being closer to the ground, had their fingers crushed. I think New Orleans lost a lot of potential piano and guitar players during that era.

The second reason we no longer “fought” for grounded beads, is parade krewes started to throw a lot more stuff than they use too. As a kid, if I went home with a handful of beads and a few "crappy" plastic trinkets, I considered it a decent haul. Now you can often fill a large kitchen garbage bag full of beads, doubloons, stuffed animals,plastic cups, etc. from one average size parade. In other words, as the rich got richer, besides being able to buy a bigger home in the Garden District, they could also purchase more junk to throw to the masses during Mardi Gras; known as the trickle or “trinket” down effect by those who support huge tax breaks for the super affluent. Also, as the years progressed, a lot of Carnival parade krewe members, now came from the working class, and they remembered what it was like down on the streets. So, they too, increased the amount of "throws" to the crowd. With bead sacks now filled to the bursting point there is no need to scrounge for anything that hits the ground.

I was also surprised none of the CNN reporters, or any of the local news or celebrity personalities that appeared on the all day broadcast used or mentioned the term “a pair of beads”. True New Orleaneans don't refer to Mardi Gras beads as “strands of beads”. Even one strand of beads is called a “pair of beads” I don't know how or why we came to use that term. In fact, up until about a month ago, I never realized there was anything peculiar or wrong, mathematically speaking, in the expression. It wasn't till I read a novel by Julie Smith “New Orleans Mourning” that she brought up this particular quirk in the New Orleans vocabulary. Because this expression, was such a subtle deviation from the norm, unlike “banquette” which is what we still called a “sidewalk” back in the 50's (Rarely heard nowadays) that I never realized this was another one of those typical New Orleans lexicons that unfortunately, may be passing out of the city's culture. Thank God we still have our neutral grounds!

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