On Mardi Gras, my 10-year-old daughter, Sophie, crouched along a curb in the French Quarter, her “dark angel” cape pooling in the gutter, happily scooping up superballs like they were sapphires.
I looked at her and thought, “That’s my girl.”
As a boy, I nursed my own obsession with the bouncing rubber balls, chasing them down along parade routes.
Sophie inherited the same instinct, just as I inherited the Mardi Gras gene from my father. He’s missed the past few Carnivals, but drove in last week from his post-Hurricane Katrina home in Texas with Miss Martie, his constant companion of more than a decade.
Even before the storm, he’d wearied of New Orleans' many frustrations and dysfunctions. But at 79, he still loves Carnival.
When my brothers and I were young, his office was in the 800 block of St. Charles Avenue, right on the parade route. We’d be there bright and early with our cousins, munching soggy sandwiches and fishing doubloons out of storm drains with gum stuck on a stick.
In a full-circle coincidence, the New Orleans Advocate’s new office is directly across the street from where my dad worked for years.
So this year, I’d host him.
Or rather, the Cat in the Hat would. On Fat Tuesday, I resurrected my Cat costume from last year, just as Sam, nearly 8, and Celia, nearly 6, squeezed into their red Thing 1 and Thing 2 jumpsuits again. Sophie and my wife reprised their matching dark angel outfits.
We arrived in the stands outside the Advocate office ahead of Zulu and Rex. Instead of hoisting his sons as floats approached, my dad hoisted his grandson.
“Let’s go work, Sam!” he announced.
The ploy produced results. Pops even caught a pair of purple lace panties, his first panties in eight decades of parading. He beamed with pride.
Meanwhile, a Jefferson City Buzzard climbed up to plant a peck on Martie’s cheek and present her with a paper flower.
It was a glorious morning, even as Zulu seemed to last forever. The De La Salle High School marching band rocked Earth Wind & Fire’s “September.” The U.S. Marine Corps Band broke from its rigid ranks to cut loose on the Rebirth Brass Band’s “Do Whatcha Wanna,” then snapped back into position for “The Marines’ Hymn.”
“Is that the ‘Treme’ song?” Celia asked.
Caught up in the moment, the Cat in the Hat tossed “extra” stuffed animals to toddlers atop nearby ladders.
“Where’s my ladybug?” a panicked Celia asked several minutes later.
Uhhh….you wanted to keep that one?
She did. Her sobs made that clear.
And so the chastened Cat, white-and-red-striped hat in hand, asked a stranger to give back the ladybug in exchange for a turtle.
Rex, the king of Carnival, finally rounded the former Lee Circle. By then, my kids, if not my father, had had enough of parades.
“Hur-ry up! Hur-ry up!” Celia chanted.
You can’t rush Rex, I explained.
“I’m going to call an Uber,” she declared.
Sophie did not think Rex would be worth her time. “They won’t throw anything good,” she pouted.
She was soon proved wrong, especially now that she's transforming from a cute kid that riders throw to into a pretty girl that riders throw to.
And Rex has stepped up its game. Riders are far more enthusiastic than the old-line krewes of my youth, who might dispense a single, sad strand of cheap beads every block or so.
By contrast, when this year's “Jean Lafitte” float parked in front of us for several minutes, the sidewalk-side riders made sure all three kids -- and my dad and Martie -- caught something cool.
By then, the long, sunny morning had taken a toll. My white greasepaint congealed into an ill-looking spot below my lip, as if the Cat in the Hat had a cold sore.
Bags laden, we bailed after the Rex Calliope. Dad wanted Martie to experience the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday. He wanted her to see it all.
She saw it all.
We plunged in at Royal Street mid-afternoon, at which point the morning’s giddy, glittering costumes were frayed but not yet falling apart.
The full spectrum of characters was out and about. A fabulous trio of bearded men in medieval dresses. A contingent of street preachers, God bless ‘em, with their megaphones. A young gutter punk squatting to relieve herself in Pirate’s Alley.
Navigating the crowd, I kept one eye on the kids, and one eye on Dad and Martie. I shooed away the “tourist police” solicitor who offered them a “free” hat, and monitored the merry man who asked permission to fist-bump Thing 1 and Thing 2 in their wagon.
“I tend to over-fist bump,” he admitted.
Hey, it’s Mardi Gras. Overindulgence is the order of the day.
In the 1950s, parades, with much smaller floats, still wound through the French Quarter. My dad and his high school pals congregated on the Louisiana Supreme Court steps along Royal Street to admire the Warren Easton High School cheerleaders as they’d strut by.
More than 60 years later, his eldest granddaughter found her superball bonanza on the same block.
Before sunset, we crossed Canal Street's river of trash, headed back to the car before sunset like vampires in reverse. My dad and Martie would take their bags of beads back to Texas, to decorate an annual Carnival-themed dance for seniors.
“They won’t believe some of these pictures,” he grinned, happy as a kid at Carnival.
It’s never too late to make more Mardi Gras memories.