The Greatest Place On Earth
New Orleans Carnival is besting all your bucket lists, especially now that NOPD is rethinking it’s no-chill attitude towards weed
It becomes abundantly clear you are heading for New Orleans when the direct flight from Seattle is interrupted about halfway through by the flight attendant declaring they have sold out of Vodka, Crown Royal and Jack Daniels. February is Carnival season and while Mardi Gras is the headline grabber, the entire month is filled with all the reasons why New Orleans in the best place on Earth.
It starts with the Krewes.
Parades are put on by local collectives, social clubs that traverse more miles than FitBit, and they route across the city on different vectors at different times with themes and outfits that make the late Craig Sager look drab. The Red Beans and Rice Parade, Baker High Symphony of Soul by the Krewe of Cork and the infamous Cleopatra Krewe running the St. Charles Street Uptown Route from Mid-City — these “Walking Krewes” hand-make floats out of discarded remnants and feature high school marching bands that turn down for nobody.
While the star athlete may be the popular kid in a primary school near you, the teenaged drummers in the Krewes have more groupies than the 5-star recruit. Lil Wayne’s alma mater McMain always shows out, entrepreneurial citizens make mobile convenience stores out of shopping carts to follow the procession and locals recommend finding a spot under the freeway overpasses for better acoustics.
New Orleans allows public consumption of adult beverages as long as they are in plastic containers, you can even order a cocktail at the bar, drink half of it, than ask for a “go cup” and take the rest with you into the maze of sultry sidewalks. Just make sure to be polite and extend the customary greeting “thanks much” on your way out the door.
“Indulge my inner grandmother as I suggest a few things to keep your Carnival season safe and stress free,” Dan Fox of Antigravity, New Orleans Alternative to Culture Magazine (similar to The Stranger in Seattle) wrote. “One: Don’t make plans. Mardi Gras is best enjoyed as a freewheeling activity, and any plans you do make will be summarily destroyed by the Mardi Gras spirits, who will laugh in your face and put you smack dab in the middle of an epic traffic jam — one not just relegated to cars either. Two: Take it easy. Mardi Gras is a time of great negative energy. The crowds, drugs and lights will test your every last nerve. Some will fail that test. Three: When marching band chaperones tell you to step back, STEP BACK.”
Second lines are shorter routes of mobile musicians without floats and the same degree of pageantry. They run through the French Quarter without much warning for everything from a funeral wake, to wedding celebration to protesting for a $15 minimum wage law. Walk lively and as you “sin, repent, repeat” in the grand tradition of Crescent City find a shady spot on Exchange Place when your feet swell and the dogs start barking. They may be literally barking if you happen to be there during the Mystic Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras Dog Parade, a scene that makes your local off-leash area on a Saturday look deserted.
Arthur Hardy prints a Mardi Gras Guide that is the definitive text on all the hoopla, and during its 40th anniversary last year he interviewed himself in true oddball NOLA fashion. The Voodoo shops like Marie Laveau’s are a great place to cast a spell for the savior of your liver, take some Gris Gris and Candles by BB back to the domicile and tap in to the essence on your own time.
“All the French Quarter is a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” New Orleans writer Robin McDowell states. “By 8 p.m. only young children and those on anti-seizure medication are sober.”
Strolling down to the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, past a fraudulent Santa with a collection plate claiming he needs money for “HOs,” you’ll step through A.E. Barnes paintings block after block. Haters will say it’s photoshopped, but New Orleans will tell you otherwise. Café Du Monde and their beignets since 1862 will make amusement park lines look manageable, so do as you please, but if you really want the pastry to give your sweet tooth type-2 diabetes — while also enjoying every minute of it — be about the Dong Phuong’s King Cake instead.
For 30 years in NOLA East, a deeply rooted Vietnamese community bakery, has made these treasures. They come in one-size, with or without cream cheese, and cost around $20. They sell out during Carnival but you can call ahead to reserve them. An Uber up Chef Menteur Highway and back will still take less time than standing on that Café Du Monde line.
Getting out of the Quarter is key to any visit to NOLA. Make the move to the Garden District up Magazine St. and stop in the Defend NOLA boutique along the way. Take a gander at Jay-Z and Beyonce’s house on a quaint residential side street, or tip-toe through the crypts in Lafayette Cemetery, where no tour guide mafia is shaking your down for $30 to view the gothic headstones.
Don’t fall for the new tech charlatans touting buzzed about hot-spots with fire Yelp reviews like Booty’s Blogstaurant (now accepting BitCoin) once located on Dauphine Street and now self- proclaimed pioneers of the Bywater neighborhood.
“Fawned over by the New York Times travel section as an authentic local place to enjoy #EmpenadasWithSolange serving tiny thumbnail images of actual entrees,” local critic Jules Bentley mentions about Booty’s. “Booty’s upset people because it reinforced a dark and terrible truth: that any random jackass with enough money to burn can literally redefine reality in post-flood New Orleans.”
From the frayed-edges of Frenchmen St. out through Marigny and Bywater, gentrification has done it’s damnedest to usurp the counter culture but if you want to see what was, and what still is, and what you can’t find anywhere else — look no further. There is Chewbaccus.
A sci-fi Carnival parade that last hours, described as “Burning Man driving by your house,” by a local resident with a plastic 40-oz, the God of the Parade is welded from a vintage popcorn cart. Floats feature clever edicts like: “Chewluminati,” “Darth Vegas,” and the “Death Star Was An Inside Job.” Most who walk make their own “throws.” These are the gifts thrown to people watching as the Krewes pass by, and cheap Mardi Gras beads are basic AF for this crowd. Another rule to consider is if you really are down with the local custom, you have to catch what you wear. No picking up beads or other throws off the ground, catch it or keep it movin’. And you don’t need to bare a bosom or butt cheek as the Hollywood depictions would have you believe.
Also, you are legally allowed to wear masks during Carnival, a right the people of NOLA have fought for at every turn.
“Thanks to the ancient traditions, we are still free to cover our faces from the cameras,” Bentley explains. “More than ever, if we don’t want our biometrics populating some petty despot’s databases, we must have recourse to the mask. Where there is concealment, the digital spies are blind. Masking has long been a controversial component of Mardi Gras. We must build a resistance rooted in the old ways, the wild ways, if we are to enjoy ourselves.”
Louisiana incarcerates twenty times more people than Germany. For profit private prisons that subsidize police in far flung Parishes are the cause, and in many cases the Sheriffs own the prisons. The Koch Brothers have dumped tons of money into reducing mandatory minimums, through the Charles Koch “Advancing Justice” Institute on reform of mass incarceration. Keep in mind, this came on the heels of scathing reports about Koch oil pipeline’s destruction of wetlands that mitigate storm surges. Then profiting on the recovery effort post-Katrina through “Americans For Prosperity” by lobbying against caps to flood insurance rate increases.
The waters get really murking down that way.
“Assume you are being filmed wherever you are, whatever you are doing,” Jeff Sallet, Head of NOLA FBI Field Office, is quoted as saying.
So don’t be fooled by the Weed World vans parked on Governor Nicholls St. in the Treme, minor marijuana possession can still carry a 15-day jail sentence for the first offense. That has been tempered in recent months, and was almost never enforced in the French Quarter since tourism reigned supreme.
The deal now is a court summons for minor possession, and if you appear there is a $40 fine issued for 14 grams of marijuana or less on your person. Medical marijuana has happened after overwhelming support from voters but only refined oils have been made available and authorizations are strict in their qualifying conditions. There’s no storefront dispensary retail like there was in Washington State.
As of 2011 the walking tour guides that give historical briefings to out-of-towners need a license, and in order to get a license you must submit to a drug test. It is in these ways that weed is still stiff-armed by a bureaucracy that reflects Louisiana’s values, not those of Orleans Parish. Many can remember the HBO series “Treme” where a jazz musician goes to jail for a roach he stamped out when the cops accosted him, and while law enforcement is serious, locals have universally clowned this scene in the HBO series that is generally regarded as inauthentic and cliche — one possible reason it was cancelled in 2013.
“If during Katrina a cop actually arrested a jazz performer for smoking weed, he’d be shot on the spot by the multiple guns pointing out the Frenchmen Street windows,” New Orleans writer Steve Barbarino wrote in an editorial for Purple Magazine.
There is a historical context to the hatred of marijuana dating back to Louis Armstrong’s birth in 1901. Storyville was a rambunctious part of town, where Mayor Tom Anderson lorded over the “Empire of Sin” as the reformers called it. From the opium dens on Basin St. to the “Blue Books” which advertised the harem’s and their ladies working for certain Madams, which the Mayor actually paid to print (you can find originals online for $850 if you’re interested) there was total freedom in this part of town at the turn of the 20th Century.
Stop by Crescent City Books and pick up one of the David Fullmer titles, or Bellocq’s photo portraits of Storyville sex workers if this era strikes a chord with you. The boarding houses that once sheltered nuns and missionaries were left in disrepair and leased to a young, black audience of Jazz musicians that were cooking up a new sound. These musicians played the downstairs bordellos and worked for the Madams, but all the money flowed back to the archdioceses and the Catholic Church.
In 1909, the generally accepted first use of marijuana in the USA, happened in Storyville.
“It was in these bordellos, where music provided the background and not the primary focus of attention, that marijuana became an integral part of the jazz era,” Historian Ernest L. Abel wrote. “Unlike booze, which dulled and incapacitated, marijuana enabled musicians whose job required them to play long into the night to forget their exhaustion. Moreover, the drug seemed to make their music sound more imaginative and unique, at least to those who played and listened while under its sensorial influence.’
“In the early Twenties, marihuana, muggles, muta, gage, tea, reefer, grifa, Mary Warner, Mary Jane or Rosa Maria was known almost exclusively to musicians,” Historian Harry Shapiro added.
Since this new drug was associated with vice, godlessness and black folks — law enforcement immediately went on the offensive starting in 1910. For the next twenty years Government officials used negative propaganda and press strategies that would become the boilerplate for the “Reefer Madness” disinformation campaigns by Harry Anslinger and our Federal Government after prohibition of alcohol ended.
By 1923 marijuana was officially banned in New Orleans, by 1927 it was banned statewide. This was the first place in America to make weed illegal. By 1933 seventeen other states had followed suit. The pounds of dried flower that reached New Orleans from Mexico would make their way up the Mississippi River to the Midwest, and from there it spread across the map — from sea to shining sea.
Words by Chernsicle Photos by Chernsicle, Yas Feiler, & Courtesy of Creative Commons