USA :: December '96 -- May '97

Subject: Beads
Date: Mon, 14 Apr, 1997

Well, this needs more work but it's been mouldering in my folder for too long. I'm pretty busy with moving to a new webserver. Details when its finalised. In the meantime, here're some rather old events retold--though not in full. More to come when time allows.

19:43 Monte Vista; Mesa, Arizona -- USA :: 27 FEB 97

The image is already half a month old in my mind, but remains as vivid as if the event just happened. Mardi Gras is like that--otherness is like that--and Mardi Gras in New Orleans is like nothing else you'll encounter on this continent.

It is an image of something as familiar as a parade with one wrinkle: beads. The scene in my mind was formed during the parade put on by Krewe of Endymion. Imagine night has settled in and gobs of people line both sides of urban Boulevards for several miles. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, intermingling black and white. Between the narrow walls of human artery, the parade stalls. Well, the forward progress halts, but the high-school marching band is rockin'! We groove and bop to the ecstatic rhythms, while for a moment the peristaltic crowd-wave fails to urge the parade onward.

We are rockin' but 200 metres down the parade route is mayhem. It is a float, momentarily beached, summarily mobbed. A rainbow shroud of lights and paint--I know it is a float, but from here it looks more like a fountain. Multi-coloured strings of beads, plastic cups and aluminum doubloons spray in arcs from its multi-tiers and fall into a pool of upstretched arms. To stand in that shower amongst those grasping hands is why we came tonight. Already several floats and several bands have passed. Krewe royalty in gaudy finery waved their glittery greetings. Mounted police and Harley Davidsons. Interspersed between them all, Flambeau dancers carry the torches that historically provided the parade's only illumination. All but the dancers toss a few beads to the masses. To the dancers the parade route spectators throw small change.

But here the marching band's percussive flares emanate from bass drum and snares. We groove to intoxicating beats. Cymbals flash and trumpets blare above the sousaphone's throttling baroom froom-foom. Underlying it all, the fundamental note rolls up from down the line where the howling mass coaxes strings of plastic beads from the Krewe. Soon the band marches on. The fountain floats near.

22:41 Monte Vista; Mesa, Arizona -- USA :: 09 MAR 97

A friend of mine confessed to not understanding the Marxist concept of Commodity Fetishism. The prospect of catching strings of plastic beads during Mardi Gras provides as good an example as any.

It's not that beads are worthless even if cosmetically--their implicit purpose--they're cheaper than costume jewelry, and tackier. It's not like we are lined up here to catch souvenirs. As a memento of Mardi Gras a few strings in the official colours of gold, green and purple will suffice and I have more than that around my neck already tonight and more collected from previous parades back where I'm staying; the weight of yesterday's catch alone caused knots in the muscles of my neck and shoulders. And yet, even before the shower of beads closes to envelope me, I am raising an already hoarsened voice, hollering along with the crowd in a categorically vain attempt to convince the riders to throw something my way. The traditional cry is "Throw me sumthin' Mistah!" but most people simply howl `til they're hoarse.

You begin to understand the value of beads when you learn that after paying $600 or more for the privilege of throwing plastic off a parade float, a Krewe member spends a matching amount on the beads and other trinkets they will throw. Tonight the Krewe of Endymion is said to have collectively spent 2.5 million dollars on their `throws'. That represents the flow of a single parade on a day that featured six or eight parades all over the city. New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras for 12 days and stages from two to eight parades every day of that run. You do the math.

Now some of those beads begin to fall nearby. I worry about placement in the crowd. You try to be aware of where the most throws seem to fall. Five to fifteen feet from the float seems to net the most catches. Nearer and the throwers can make out faces easily which lets them decide whether they care to honour you individually. I am neither cute child nor pretty girl so the more intimate contact does me no favours. In the crowd it is also important to stand among relatively short people. I'm here with a friend, John, a six-plus footer with an albatross' wingspan and tonight I recall the great scooping grasp of his right arm that yesterday and the day before intercepted so many throws. So tonight I keep my distance from John, feeling no remorse for the unlucky sot standing at his right shoulder, and the other unlucky sot standing next to the first. Eventually, they'll learn the futility of their position and make room for someone else.

18:45 The Bread Garden; Vancouver, BC -- Canada :: 03 APR 97

Further out the deluge of plastic thins to a finer spray. The exceptions are the step ladders lined up parallel to the parade. Along this portion of the parade route they are 40 or 50 feet from the action, but when the bands and horses and floats turn down St. Charles scarcely 10 feet will separate the sources of beads from the overflowing collection bags hanging from laddertops in which the ravenous ladder-dwellers shovel in yet more catches. But even here across a seemingly vast distance the smattering of ladders seems the preferred target particularly from the hands of the upper tiers. Perhaps it is the challenge of hitting the target, or a preference for giving to a recognizable individual rather than a screaming, anonymous mass.

Three ladders in particular are practically fire-hosed with beads. And not just the "shit beads" either, not tiny bubbles of cloudy plastic moulded directly to a short string. Three blonde women in seemingly demure thick-cottoned, strategically white sweatshirts, wave their raised arms, shake their bodies, all but leap from the ladders, anything to create the desired conditions beneath the flood-lit white fabric. Krewe of Iris, one of yesterday's parades, consist of all women. Krewe of Endymion is all male.

In the animal kingdom no known pheromone could be a more powerful attractant.

From my place in the faceless--breastless--morass, I watch the Krewe in the upper tiers point out the display to one another. They launch whatever's in their hands at the three ladders then reach down to hidden hooks where beads of consequence reside. The reach down for Mardi Gras Shangri-La. Long strings, with big, fat, coloured beads, or oddly-shaped beads, some with clown-faced pendants, some braided strings. Beads to die for. In the French Quarter, on Bourbon St., a few such strings are more valuable than bragging rights, more than a badge of prestige. I'll take you to the French Quarter later and you'll see why.

Here, miles from the Quarter, the parade inchworms along, carrying the float with it and soon the plastic precipitation dwindles. A clear-wrapped packet flies out of the darkness, destined for the open hands of the young girl ahead of me. I snatch it out of the air. And I feel only a small pang of guilt. Too small to consider giving up a packet containing an Endymion pendant attached to a string of fake anodized-aluminum beads. It is the first example I've seen in the parade, and insignia pendants are usually a prize catch. Little do I know the Krewe has spent a substantial fraction of its 2.5 million dollar bead purchase on insignia pendants. The girl catches one herself a little later and I will amass the better part of a dozen more before the street-cleaner tail of the parade passes.

A group of Flambeau follows the float, and a young black boy complains to no one in particular, "Man, those guys are dumb! Why do they even bother?" The woman next to him, who can only be his mother, admonishes him. "They are a very old tradition." I pipe in, "Old, and important" with a knowing wink to the mother who smiles broadly back. "Yes, old and important," she repeats to her son. Hopefully, she'll explain why later at home.

The members of the Flambeau troops are invariably black men. For years the only people of colour allowed to participate in the parades were the Flambeau. Even this year, 1997, two of the oldest Mardi Gras Krewes withdrew from the parades, protesting a new city bylaw specifically outlawing discrimination of any kind in selecting Krewe members. One of the withdrawing Krewes had always required its Krewe boast French ancestry, or at least a French-sounding last name.

The troupe of admittedly lackluster Flambeau are replaced by a marching band not so delightfully raucous as the last; the marching band replaced by some mounted police who dribble a few shit beads to the crowd. During this trough in the wave I amble down line, to the ladders where breasts already jiggle under white cotton, signaling the approach of another float. I am again amazed at the quality of beads the Krewe fires at them. More disappointing is the accuracy and after a couple floats and there are few worthy misses for the small band of scavengers circling the ladders. I turn back to my friends and the press of the crowd.

~~~ Verify Everything Yourself ~~~
It is too soon to tell.
  graphical element Mao Zedong
in response to the question,
"What do you think of the French Revolution?"

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