After the last Mardi Gras float has passed, those left on the route can witness one of the most important parts of Mardi Gras: cleanup.
After the parades end, an army of men and women dressed in safety-orange reflective vests and clutching plastic rakes takes to the streets, neutral grounds and sidewalks to pick up the vestiges of the party. Within three hours, nearly all of the refuse is cleared away. Except for the beads hanging from tree branches, power lines and traffic poles, the surfeit of garbage disappears — abandoned chairs, couches, food scraps, foam cups, cigarette butts, beer cans, bottles and all the odds and ends synonymous with the city's Carnival celebration.
This cleanup effort isn't limited to the parade route. Come Fat Tuesday, revelers wreak havoc on their livers as well as the streets. Before noon, the city's historic core is filled with costumed carousers and an enormous quantity of garbage. Hand Grenades, Hurricanes, and Huge Ass Beers fuel the chaos. The melee carries on until midnight.
Then, abruptly, the party ends. Sirens blare and lights flash as a cavalcade of mounted police and cop cars disperse the crowd. For the partygoers, it's time to go home.
For the cleanup crew, it's time to go to work.
This year's 10-day Carnival season cleanup force is made up of 600 men and women and 114 pieces of equipment, including seven front-end loaders and 30 garbage and dump trucks. On any given night, these often overlooked and underappreciated laborers can expect to pick up anywhere between 50 to 100 tons of trash, working late into the evening to erase nearly all signs that a parade had ever passed anywhere along the miles-long route.
Trailing behind the last Uptown parade of the evening is a fleet of sanitation vehicles and a large crew of workers. A mighty vehicle called a flusher leads the way, carrying around 3,000 gallons of water and spraying the streets at high pressure from jets attached to the truck's front bumper (the water helps weigh down the garbage). Behind it is a band of rakers, dozens of men and women on foot using plastic rakes to push trash into the center of the street. Then comes a front-end loader, a tractor more commonly seen on large construction sites, that plows down the line of garbage, consolidates it, scoops it up and drops it into a dump truck that drives behind.
Mechanical street sweepers follow, three-wheeled compact vehicles with powerful brooms on their undersides. Past the sweepers is another set of laborers on foot, a precision crew carrying rakes, shovels and wheeled garbage cans, picking up anything that was missed by the workers in front of them. Penultimate is a line of garbage trucks, edging along the route and absorbing stray bags of trash and the contents of garbage cans. Finally, several flatbed stake trucks fortify the rear, collecting rakes, shovels and garbage cans.
Jarmal Coates is in his first year on the crew and enjoys the work. "It ain't like it affects your Mardi Gras spirit," he said. "I still get to see the parades. And when you're cleaning up, you still see everybody partying. You still get that vibe, you know?"
Coates, 22, came to work as a temporary laborer for the Department of Sanitation through JOB1, a partnership of public and private workforce development agencies and organizations facilitated by the city's Office of Workforce Development.
"Since 2013, the City of New Orleans has partnered with JOB1 and NOLA For Life to make Mardi Gras cleanup jobs available to their target populations, chronically hard to employ and ex-offenders," Hayne Rainey, Mayor Mitch Landrieu's press secretary, wrote in an email.
People hired by the city as temp workers are paid $10.10 an hour. In previous years the city of New Orleans partnered with the Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office, using inmate labor to aid in the cleanup effort. Today, a mixture of volunteer city, JOB1 and contract labor is used to staff cleanup following parades.
Ronald Jackson is a veteran of Mardi Gras cleanup crews. He's worked for the Department of Sanitation for 24 years and has cleaned the parade routes just as long. "You get to see a lot of different things when you come out to the parade," Jackson said. "Meet a lot of different people, because people come from all over the world for Mardi Gras."
Jackson clocks in to his regular shift at 6 a.m., although parade cleanup can keep him out well past midnight.
"When you be working those long hours, you be tired," he said. "But the people of St. Charles [Avenue], they want the street clean. It don't matter how much trash is out there," he said. "If we got to stay longer hours to clean St. Charles, we stay out there until St. Charles is cleaned up."
Chris Lorenzen is a New Orleans resident and a repeat rider in the Krewe of King Arthur parade. "I like watching the crowds cheer, seeing the kids light up when they get cool stuff," he said with a smile. Lorenzen buys recycled beads from ARC of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that creates jobs for people with intellectual disabilities. Last year, more than 140,000 pounds of beads were collected for sorting and repackaging by ARC employees.
Nevertheless, it's estimated that 25 million pounds of beads are imported into the city each year. While many are reincorporated into kitschy local craft projects or hauled home by tourists, much cheap Carnival memorabilia is relegated to the garbage.
New Orleans used to measure the success of Carnival season based on the tonnage of trash collected, a practice nixed under former Mayor Ray Nagin's administration in 2003. "We're just not going to continue to reinforce that trashing the city is a good thing," Nagin said at the time.
In 2015, the city's Mardi Gras festivities produced more than 907 tons of trash. This enormous amount of debris produced by "the biggest free party on earth" costs $1.5 million to pick up.
Flotsam, an experimental documentary released last summer, captured the Mardi Gras trash cleanup phenomenon. Director Olivia Motley describes the short film as an "ode to the sober, militaristic effort made by the unsung heroes of Carnival." With a focus on the cleanup crews raking, sweeping and hauling away Carnival detritus, Flotsam renders in beautiful detail the less celebrated spectacle of cleanup crews restoring order after pandemonium.
"It felt like another parade all together," Motley said when asked what drew her to documenting Mardi Gras cleanup. "I wholeheartedly believe the city would never be able to function properly without them."
All treasure eventually becomes trash; Mardi Gras simply expedites this process. As Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for New York City's Department of Sanitation, wrote in her book Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, "If we ignore the dump, we can more easily ignore the simple and chilling fact that nothing lasts."
After the weeks of spirited partying leading up to Fat Tuesday, the city is almost entirely back to normal by Ash Wednesday morning. The gleam of Mardi Gras magic fades, a less permissive reality sets in and the trash will be gone, hauled off to a landfill in Avondale, Louisiana.
Ronald Jackson says he plans to retire in seven years, when he turns 65 and hits his 30-year anniversary working for the Department of Sanitation. He takes soft-spoken pride in what he does.
"People, they come out the next day and they say, 'Oh, it don't look the same as when Mardi Gras was out here,'" Jackson said. "Thanks to us. We cleaned it up."