Although Mardi Gras 2013 is a mere memory, I’m still thinking about the hours I spent on a float, throwing beads and gifts to parade watchers in New Orleans.
I was surprised by how much interaction there was between me — the slightly drunk thrower of the beads — and the mostly apparently drunk individuals who caught them.
As a float-rider, you’re really not supposed to just toss those beads willy nilly, you’re supposed to make eye contact with a person in the crowd, and then throw them your gift.
This is really a safety issue. Although they’re plastic, those beads are actually pretty heavy. I saw quite a few black eyes and bloody lips that came from an errant bead toss, and actually I don’t quite understand how this tradition hasn’t been shut down by liability lawsuits in a litigious country such as our own.
Anyway, I knew that the people who attend these parades really, really want beads, but what I didn’t realize was how much pressure I’d feel to get rid of them.
It was considered important to not have any beads left by the end of the parade, and this was no a small task: when the parade started, I was standing on bags and bags and bags of beads. In fact, they were at such a depth that I had to kneel, because if I stood up straight astride the bags of beads, the side of the float would have been below my knees. A good lurch and I’d have tested the strength of the harness around my waist.
So when I made eye contact with someone, tossed them the beads, and they caught them, it was a great moment for us both. They were excited to have those beads, and I was excited to have made a good throw, and to have depleted my supply. After they caught they beads, they’d give me a “you’re the man” style finger point, or blow me a kiss, or just scream “thank you”, and I’d smile at them and wave and then go on to my next toss. I can still picture the faces of the people I threw to that night. It was not just a vast, anonymous crowd.
A pause for me to answer a set of questions frequently asked, especially by my male friends:
No, I did not see any boobs.
Yes, there were men on my float.
No, I don’t know why I did not see any boobs.
Yes, I was paying attention.
Yes, I would have noticed.
Of course not everyone that I tossed to acknowledged the gift they’d received. These people would catch the beads, casually drape them around their neck, their eyes already having moved on to the next float. That felt like an incomplete transaction to me.
Actually, it felt sort of rude.
Alison J. Stein
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