Some irresistible need must make members of our species attempt to escape from the prison of their skins. I was standing at the corner of Frenchman and Royal streets in New Orleans, and towards me flowed a stream of human beings magically transformed: A penguin, baboon, zebra, sea horse, alligator, gorilla, bear — the entire animal kingdom usurped by intoxicated women and men.
There were mythical creatures and chimeras — a Mad Hatter, a Poseidon, a Zeus with a cardboard lightning bolt, numerous zombies, a hog-nosed girl, a pigeon-headed man, mermaids and merguys in gold lame tights, a carrot-man, a baby human-octopus. Now, a pharaoh, a Prophet of Doom, a skeleton risen from the grave, a pirate wearing a purple wig, bipeds adorned with various horns and antlers. Every harlequin deviation from standardized form.
It was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a cold Fat Tuesday, rain falling in gray sheets. But nothing could stop the revelers. The next day, there would be hangovers, repentance, vows of abstinence, foreheads marked with ashes to commemorate the beginning of Lent. But that would be then, not now. Tomorrow they would resume their ordinary selves. But today they masqueraded as kings, queens, monsters and gods. The Lord of Misrule reigned.
A man towing a wagon occupied by his child covered with a blanket stopped to warm the little guy’s frozen thumbs so he could keep playing his video game. A shirtless man wearing red pajama bottoms stood shivered, his back covered with goose bumps. Pilgrims hauled coolers filled with beer. Everyone had a plastic cup in his hands. Some were ingesting disks of gelatin infused with booze. A store front on Elysian Fields offered take-out daiquiris. Alcohol served as a bracer against the cold.
Bands marched by booming and wailing. Snare drums rapped out machine-gun paradiddles backed by the thunder of bass drums. Trumpets, trombones, tubas passed by. An apparition 8 feet tall loomed up, bobbing and leaping on stilts fashioned from the shanks of a deer, his costume covered with pheasant and peacock feathers, turtle shells, skulls of large rodents, his belt studded with chicken bones. Like a witch doctor he gestured with a long feather-covered pole, casting out demons.
For days, it had been going on without a break — nightly parades, observers perched on ladders, lounging in U-Hauls furnished with couches. A joyous madness infected both crowd and performers. Everyone was drunk, but in a friendly way. A storm of beads rained down from floats, thrown by men wearing protective masks. A man dressed as a teddy bear pedaled past on a bicycle and it seemed perfectly normal in this abnormal town.
A fairy-godmother, concerned that I was not in a costume, sprinkled gold glitter on top of my hairless head. Prancing drum majors, frenzied dancers, strutting, leaping, pirouetting. It was wonderful, this riot of excess. For we take to the straight-jacket too meekly, cower within boundaries, cling too much to schedules, fearful of giving imagination a little rein. But it’s not a crime to live in the exalted present, the only unit of time that really exists.