Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana Mardi Gras Flashers!
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New Orleans Mardi Gras 2002
Photos and Essay © CSWB

"Bead Me Up, Scotty"

The Cultural Anthropology of Mardi Gras
(actually, just some mindless musings)
Photos and Essay © CSWB
Page 1 of 3
Going to your first Mardi Gras and then returning to your real life, all in
the space of a few days, really does feel like being transported into a
strange alternate universe, then suddenly finding yourself beamed back
again. And trying to describe what you saw and how you enjoyed it, is a bit like trying to describe a dream that defies any rational, verbal retelling.

Man with camera and assorted beads around his neck Maybe it's the beads. Those DAMN beads. They're everywhere. On the women. On the men. On kids. On dogs. Beads hurled from parade floats. Beads tossed from balconies. Beads debated and bartered in the street. Beads on the tourists and beads on the locals (...though I'm told there's a faction of native New Orleaners who make a point of leaving town every year long before 'Fat-Tuesday' rolls around).

During my brief forays to the Big Easy, there seemed to be two different parties happening at the same time: the countless parades staged over two weeks through the city's main streets (of which many of the daytime ones are family affairs); and the growing throng of people-watching-people-watching-each-other in the city's French Quarter, especially along its famous main thoroughfare of Bourbon Street (where my friends and I happened to spot actor John Goodman introducing a roving jazz band). This second party is the more adult venue, where things become progressively more freewheeling - and more crowded - the closer you get to the final day.

One of the many Mardi Gras floats in the parade

Now the main thing being celebrated at each of these separate soirees is celebration itself. But what celebratory symbol unites them? What is the one party favor that seems to tie all the festivities together? You guessed it - beads. Strand after strand of green, gold, and purple - and many non-official colors besides. Some are plain; others can be quite ornate. But the remarkable thing, the truly amazing and intriguing thing, is they're all essentially worthless - except in this dreamlike parallel dimension, where those strings of shiny plastic become the most valuable, most coveted form of status and currency imaginable.

mardi gras flashers mardi gras flashers

Beads as status; beads as currency - that pretty much defines the two kinds of bead collectors: Type 1, those for whom the beads are an end in themselves, who seek to amass the most impressive display around their necks; and Type 2, those for whom the beads are just a means to an end, a way to purchase a glimpse of the impressive natural display hiding somewhere below a woman's neckline.

A beaded couple poses for the camera Massive crowd of beaded onlookers in the street and on balconies

I learned there are two main ways to acquire your beads (aside from simply buying them in a store, which I was told by a friend of my Louisiana host was a tacky option to be shunned at all costs). The first acceptable way is yelling "Throw me something, mister!" to every float in every parade that winds its way through New Orleans both day and night, or imploring someone on a balcony in the French Quarter to toss a strand your way. In either situation you'll have lots of competition, but fortunately the bead supply is almost as unending as the demand. And although female mardi gras flashers tend to get preferential treatment in this arena, any guy with a good arm can also amass an impressive array of beads after just one or two parades.

Continue to Mardi Gras Flashers Page 2
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