Before the last crushed beer can and clump of discarded Mardi Gras beads are whisked off St. Charles Avenue and trucked to the dump, Suzy Kinkella has visions of miles and miles of red and green and white satin.
Known as Suzy the Cane Lady, she’s looking forward to parade season No. 2: this weekend’s annual Irish-Italian parade and Italian-American parade, the Irish Channel Parade, the French Quarter Parade, and every other post-Mardi Gras parade that forms when three or more guys in every bar around New Orleans decide, “Hey, let’s march!”
“We got parades all over after Mardi Gras,” Kinkella says. “I’m right there in my workroom in my house, busy as I can be. I work about three hours during the day making the flowers and attaching them to the canes. But my most productive time is between 8 and 1 at night. My parents, who live with us, are sleeping. My husband is sleeping. I close my door, turn my TV on and I go to work.
“I guess I’m making about 50 canes per year right now and that all comes within about a two-month period. But this marching group forms here and another there … people are always coming to me for canes. It seems the orders never stop coming. This business is growing like crazy.”
Kinkella works with the deftness of a surgeon, guiding and coaxing the colorful silk into flowers that will adorn canes in parades all around the Greater New Orleans area.
Without looking up, she is quick to point out: “Nobody wants paper flowers any more.”
After all, women on the parade route traditionally swap a kiss for a flower. “It’s got to be silk,” Kinkella says firmly. “And it’s got to be a rose or carnation … something classy.”
To be sure. Suzy the Cane Maker has diversified her business for the “complete marcher.”
“A couple of my customers with the Italian Marching club wanted to upgrade a bit. They asked me to decorate dolls. Things like these little stuffed bears. These are for wives and special girlfriends.
“Then, they wanted shoulder bags to carry their throws and dolls in so I started making bags. Then it branched out to garters for the guys to wear on their arms.
“It’s amazing how this business spreads. It’s all word of mouth. I had a strip club call me! They wanted special garters for their strippers. A Saints player called me and ordered garters for his Christmas party. I made 4,000 garters for River City Casino to hand out at the door to customers. It’s amazing how this business keeps branching out.”
Suzy shows off headbands and tu-tus for toddler ballerinas: “Who knows what somebody will call for in the future?”
She sits back and takes a deep breath. She waves her hand around in a semi-circle to focus in on the perfectly formed rows of green and white canes hanging from herceiling, the boxes of supplies — threads, glue, sequins, silk, ad infinitum that are neatly stacked in bins an arms length away.
“All of this began 20 years ago,” she says. “My first order was for paper canes from a guy in Houma. Down there they ride horses at their Mardi Gras. He wanted 18 canes and it took me six months to do those 18 canes. ... Well, he loved it and asked if I could make more for next year.”
From there, Suzy the Cane Maker’s business grew until her husband built a workspace in the backyard and she brought in two nieces, her mother, father and daughter to help out.
Sam Barbara, who just may hold the Guiness Book of Records mark for belonging to the most social and parading clubs in the city and who once reigned as the Irish Channel’s Man of the Year, has been a steady customer of Suzy’s, calling early on for some 200 silk canes.
Others followed Barbara’s path and had her business humming. Then Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and sent the Kinkellas packing to a community near Houston where they spent 2½ years. Now they live in Kenner.
“When I got back, I decorated some little tissue boxes and sold them at a school fair. I sold out very quickly,” she says. “I also did the Strawberry Festival. That’s how I got started again after the hurricane. It’s been all word of mouth, but before I knew it I was up and running again … back into making canes and blossoming out.”
“I won’t make a fortune doing this,” Kinkella says. “Buying all the material I need, making the canes and the other things I now make, selling them. It’s become year ‘round.
“I sell a cane for maybe $65.80 and on that one cane I’ll make maybe a $25 profit. That’s not the point. Never is. I just love doing it.
“It’s a fun business. People come here and they’re always in a good mood, and they come here knowing the things I’m making for them will put them in an even better mood. They love it. I love it! I always give it my best.”
Says Sam Barbara: “People don’t realize what those canes mean. It represents a New Orleans tradition, a great time. It’s a big, big part of New Orleans. You can’t put a price tag on that.”