A boa served as a weathervane on Lundi Gras evening (Feb. 16), its feathers flying sideways as local and visiting New Orleanians gathered to kick off Mardi Gras with the traditional Spanish Plaza ritual: the mayor handing over the key to the city to Rex, King of Carnival, for a day of revelry.
After a cloudy, warm day, the forecast called for cold rain any minute. Everyone just prayed it wouldn't turn as cold and wet as last Mardi Gras, when people's lips turned as blue as their wigs. As the Soul Rebels Brass Band played, "I Can't Go for That."
A flock of brown paper napkins skirled across the pavement but the daiquiris still flowed even though the fountains didn't -- management had to turn off the water jets after the wind started blowing them into people's faces, attendees said.
Still, "rain or shine, people want their daiquiris," said Fat Tuesday staffer Amber Arceneaux.
Also, many had come from places up north where a forecast of 45 degrees sounded downright balmy. "To know my friends are at home getting 12 inches of snow ..." gloated Amy Graf, from Louisville, Ky.
"For them, this is springtime," said Vernon Coy, her father's old friend. He said he'd attended every single Spanish Plaza Lundi Gras celebration and pooh-poohed the forecast -- then admitted bad weather might curtail his Mardi Gras plans. Usually he and his friends from Kentucky stand at St. Charles and Napoleon but if it rains, "we stay in my house and play cards."
Perhaps the river was choppy, but no one knew and it didn't matter: For the first time in more than a century, Rex was to arrive by rail. The Ya-Ya Sisters stood on a bench overlooking the train tracks, wands held aloft.
The three friends, all in their 60s and born within 13 months of each other, had to shelve their three-foot-tall headdresses due to the wind. But you'd never know anything was missing, bedecked as they were in sequins, animal prints, feathers, bling and dangles.
"Since the hurricane, we all moved away so this is how we get together," said Wanda Punch, her blue curls blowing around her face. "Each parade is a new suit," she said -- all, she clarified, made from recycled materials. She beckoned a man over for a photo, saying, "We need some beef for our sandwich."
After a few false alarms -- including a streetcar holding barely more than a lone woman, who waved gamely at the crowds -- an ear-splitting whistle sounded and the train chugged into view. Two heralds squeezed themselves onto the back platform to play a fanfare for Rex, Christian :Christy" Brown.
Brown threw his arms open wide like a victorious quarterback, beaming and saying, "What a wonderful way to arrive."
He was hustled up to the stage for the reading of his Mardi Gras proclamation and the exchange of gifts with King Zulu, Andrew "Pete" Sanchez. The plumes on his attendants' helmets blew half-horizontal as Brown proposed a cessation from work, school, governance and ordinary selves.
Despite the gold robes, he was a Rex more jovial than regal: Sanchez greeted him by his real name.
Brown also gave a weather forecast.
"Tomorrow will be clear skies. And wonderful temperatures and big crowds! I hope you will come out," he declared.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu praised Brown and Sanchez' contributions to the city, saying, "Can you think of another place you would rather live in the world than New Orleans?" Cheers drowned out his answer.
"We've asked the mayor to consider Rex' proclamation," emcee Errol Laborde said, as the wind whipped off his ball cap. Would he give over the streets?
"Because Rex asked me to suspend belief," Landrieu said, "I'll do it on the condition that you return the streets to me with all of the potholes filled." He handed over the key and shouted, hoarsely, "All hail Rex!"
As fireworks reflected off the windows of the high-rises and a plane shot off gold sparks overhead, Brown waved again and again. All the dignitaries left as swiftly as they had come, leaving the plaza to the partiers.
Even after decades on the Spanish Plaza, "It never gets old, never grows old," said Coy, the local with Kentucky friends. "Nothing but the best and no rain." He shook his beer and his hips, singing, "Mardi Gras mambo, mambo, mambo."
And people danced around the stilled fountain for just a few minutes, until those green-purple-and-gold umbrellas were needed for real.
Here are some Mardi Gras headlines:
- Fifty Shades of Pink
- Flessie found a day after the one-time Spanish Town Parade mascot reported missing
- Did Krewe of Druids parade floats cross the line between satire and bigotry?
- Bacchus band battle swells in numbers, gets shut down by police
- Benson, Williams, Jindal, the Landrieus... Mardi Gras floats 'gave everyone an awful lot to laugh at'
HAPPY MARDI GRAS!!!