1993 was my first Mardi Gras as a genuine resident of New Orleans, and the first time I found out that there were parades on top of parades on top of parades, for two weeks leading up to the big day. Weeknight parades. Weekend parades. One that went by a block from my apartment!!
This was the first time I learned that each parade had its own personality, although it took me years and years to pick up on the nuances and I still learn something new every year. Some were famous for political satire, some for great throws, some for giant floats carrying a hundred riders, and some for beautiful old-fashioned floats full of painted flowers.
My friend Christie lived on Felicity Street, less than a block from St. Charles Avenue, where the parades rolled. And she had off street parking! So her place became a parade home base. We could hang out in her apartment, grading papers or chatting until we heard the first bands, then run out and not miss anything!
I learned from Christie that you needed to get the riders’ attention to get beads. At first I thought it would be enough to just smile and that my pure and deserving soul would attract beads. Then I realized that the riders are going by a sea of people and if you want to stand out, you need to stand out. Christie was great at cheering, jumping up and down, laughing and yelling, “Yay!” and she would be showered with beads. Plus she’s adorable and also has a pure and deserving soul. I should make it perfectly clear at this point for those of you not from New Orleans that parades are a family affair and nothing inappropriate needs to be done by anyone to receive beads. And we never did anything inappropriate! Everyone gets beads – children, old folks, toddlers- everyone! It does help to maybe wear a tiara (I learned that a few years later) and jump up and down a lot and say, “Yay!”
But this story is not about beads. It is about the coveted Zulu coconut. I don’t think I even knew about the Zulu coconut until perhaps a few days before the Zulu parade. It’s possible that I didn’t know until the parade itself when I saw people jockeying for them. But I think I must have heard about them beforehand. Parade riders make them ahead of time. They shave coconuts, paint them gold, and then decorate them with glitter. And then they hand them off the floats during parades. Receiving a coconut is very special. Yes, it’s just a coconut painted gold, but it’s still very special.
On Mardi Gras morning I tossed on my best jeans and white t-shirt (this was before I learned to costume on Mardi Gras Day) and drove to Christie’s house. We sat on the curb and ate donuts for breakfast. We marveled at the folks walking down the street in crazy costumes, headed to the quarter. And sometime around 9:00 in the morning, probably, the Zulu parade started to roll by.
Everyone in the Zulu parade is in giant black afro wigs and blackface. With a lot of animal prints. It’s all a big satire. Louis Armstrong was the king of the Zulu parade in 1949. If you want to see some great Zulu parade pics, and other Mardi Gras day pics, you can go to this page from George Long’s photography website. His work does a great job of capturing the essence of the day.
So there I was, jumping up and down and dancing in the streets and catching beads, and a float comes by and stops for a while. There are always little delays and back ups during a parade – if you’re lucky, a float stops right in front of you and you have a better chance to make eye contact. The song “They all asked for you” was playing on the float. I think this was the first time I ever heard the song, so I didn’t know what a quintessential New Orleans party song it was. And I was dancing around and happened to catch this one rider’s eye, and he leaned over just like that and handed me a coconut! My first Zulu coconut!
It is the only Zulu coconut I’ve ever received from a stranger. I’ve gotten a couple of others from people I knew on floats, one time running alongside a float, on my husband’s shoulders, in a light rain – that’s a story for another time! Now it’s time to head out to catch the first parade of the season – Krewe du Vieux in the French Quarter! Yay!